Language is a virus

by Stubborn Mule on 22 March 2011 · 8 comments

Language is a virus and we are its host. Some strains of language are virulent and spread rapidly. Others are weaker, struggling to infect their hosts and easily supplanted by stronger challengers.

The natural habitat of the language virus is the social group. Some of the more obvious forms are schoolyard slang (what was unreal in my day was sick in later years, but could now be random) or the jargon of specialists. Sometimes the ponds the virus infects can be large ones. By 2008, everyone in Australia knew that “GFC” stood for “Global Financial Crisis”, but I repeatedly saw visitors from the US or UK mystified by this initialisation.

The corporate world is a rich source of (often meaningless) jargon, as decried by Paul Keating’s speech writer Don Watson in Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language. But what has fascinated me of late in the corporate world is not the language of mission statements, paradigms, closure or value-add, but simpler more innocuous words or phrases that flourish within organisations. After a number of years away, I have been back less than two months at a firm I worked for before and I was immediately struck by the near universal use of a few expressions that I am sure were not being used there four years earlier, and were certainly not used at the company where I worked during the intervening years.

I have now realised that it is impossible to attend an internal meeting without someone suggesting an alternative lens with which to view a problem rather than, say, an alternative perspective. Even more prevalent is “calling out”, as in “I’ll just call out one or two points on this slide” or “Last time we met I called that out as the primary challenge”.

The point is not to criticise these terms themselves, which are quite reasonable means of expression, unlike so much of the corporate-speak that Don Watson ridicules. You could even make the case that “lens” is a better term as it suggests a point of view which can be quickly and simply changed, whereas “perspective” often has connotations of being more permanent. What fascinates me is the way these words have established such a firm hold on the organisation. It makes the social dimension of shared language very clear: if I start using the same terms as you, it makes me seem more a part of the group, which in turn reinforces your use of the terms. All of this can happen subconsciously, so that the hosts can be quite unaware of the infection. Some may notice, but to a newcomer like myself, the infestation is startlingly clear.

It probably will not be long until I find myself calling out the merits of putting on a different lens, but for now I am trying to be strong.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 MC March 27, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Corporate existence can sometimes mean living as part of a cargo cult.

2 Lynette Jensen March 28, 2011 at 12:21 pm

It always seems like a much nicer and more elegant idea to speak English. This kind of jargon is very irritating, but it’s also a grooming mechanism. Apart from being irritated by the inelegance of ‘corporate speak’, very often I find people are so eager to use whatever the current jargon is, that they seem to have lost sight of the fact that they are trying to communicate, and I have no idea sometimes of what they are trying to say. It’s very random. Stay strong as long as you can!

3 Zebra March 29, 2011 at 8:59 pm

We all inhabit “spaces” these days rather than “areas” or “fields”. But my least favorite is the Americanism to “reach out” to someone rather than contact them or “get in touch” which is no longer the personal version. But even now I find myself using it if only to stay ahead of the curve.

4 Magpie April 1, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Gee, I guess I’m really old and hopelessly out of touch.

The last neologism I remember (which, at the time, really angered me beyond measure, btw) is the use of the word “product” to refer to things like banking accounts, insurance policies, and such.

Nowadays, even derivatives became “products”.

Before that, it was the use of “human capital” and “entrepreneurship” as productive factor.

Go on, Jimbo and Stubborn, make fun.

5 Brendan April 2, 2011 at 6:19 pm

“Random” is not the same as “sick” or “unreal”… Get with the program, yo!
(or don’t the kids say that anymore?)

6 Zebra April 8, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I saw a reference in a memo today to “non-organic growth opportunites” which I think means take-over targets.

7 Stubborn Mule April 8, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Zebra I think you have translated correctly.

Brendan I think you’ll have to translate “random” for me!

8 Magpie April 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm

A different angle to this “Language is a virus” post:

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