RALL: Corporate Ebonics: Is Office Jargon a Distinct Language?
Taking a cue from the Oakland Unified School District in California, several Fortune 500 companies have filed a request for federal funds to help teach workers in American corporations proper English. "We need more than just the usual corporate welfare for this project," declared Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, the consortium's spokesperson. "How will our employees compete in the global village if they can't speak the same proper English used in Japan and Taiwan?"Business leaders (many of whom dabble as freelance linguists) say they've become increasingly concerned by the prevalence of such office slang as "touching base" and "the distribution channel" -- terms that refer to, respectively, talking and the market. While many office workers describe their dialect as lingo that they only use among their upper-middle-class peers and in their office parks -- while reverting back to normal English in public -- some linguists consider it to be a completely separate language from standard American English."White male executives from the suburbs have developed a completely separate language system from other Americans," said Gates at a hastily-called news conference in suburban Seattle. "We haven't figured out a memorable name for it yet, but the guys who came up with Windows 95 are working on it now."According to those who support corporate drones speaking their own tongue, these are key characteristics of that dialect:Frequent Use of Sports Metaphors: White-collar types pepper their speech with obscure references to various spectator sports, particularly football and baseball. Example: "Let's touch base on this next week; if sales drops the ball, we can always huddle on that later." (As an interim step towards reestablishing the preeminence of standard English, some experts suggest introducing references to other sports, like soccer and cricket, that are better known overseas.)Obscure Acronyms: Using an acronym that even someone familiar with a particular business probably wouldn't know. Example: "The RFPs for the IRBs still haven't come back from the OSPs. I'll call the CBOE."Creation of New Verbs: Converting nouns into transitive verbs, sometimes by silencing the last syllable and using the suffix "-ize." Speakers of Corporate-American English Vernacular use nouns as verbs which can only be understood through context. Example: "We've got to strategize our response."Overzealous Application of Euphemisms: Particularly in discussions of mass firings, business workers invent new words such as "rightsizing." Example: " Henry got destaffed. Betty was externalized."Some academics theorize that corporate, or "straight," English first developed as a defensive strategy. By discussing such potentially distasteful topics as toxic-waste dumping and effective use of child labor in terms that were understandable only within a specific field, executives hoped to avoid uncomfortable questions about the true nature of their jobs from family members and fellow commuters.Over time, the thinking goes, the jargon became increasingly specific, resulting in terminology comprehensible only within a certain division of a particular company. Eventually, lower-level wannabes in the word-processing pool adapted the dialect in an effort to communicate more effectively with their superiors, completing the vernacular structure of the white-collar ghetto.Unsurprisingly, the corporate bid for lingual recognition has stirred controversy. "I find the whole idea of a separate language demeaning and insulting," said Wes Sherwood, a second-vice-president at the Bank of Manhattan's M&A division. "Sure, I've been outsourced due to downsizing, but I speak English, not corporate English."Nonetheless, many Anglophones outside the corporate world agree that office argot is a separate language -- and, in fact, indicative of a different subculture. "I find them completely incomprehensible," said the Rev. Chet Sharpton, a distant cousin of the fiery New York figure. "Nobody knows what the hell they're talking about, much less what they're thinking. It's not just the idioms, either -- it's the walk, the clothes, the whole attitude. It's distasteful."And that's the problem, says Gates. "A few months ago, a few executives from the Monsanto chemical company met with school officials from a major Midwestern city. They tried to get permission to dump mercury under playgrounds in exchange for paying for links to the Internet, but the deal never closed because the educators couldn't understand a word they were saying. This lack of communication is killing us!"