‘Business-ese’ may be worse than legalese

I don’t fully agree with plain language campaigns as regards legal documents – I guess I go along with those who say that the law has to be precise enough and should be interpreted by experts – i.e. lawyers and the judiciary rather than non-specialists – but I certainly think that a lot can be (and is being) done to make legal language more accessible where possible.

The other day I came across a wonderful little tool called the Gobbledygook Generator. It made me start thinking about the fact that these days business-speak may just be getting more unintelligible than legalese. Have a look at this BBC article from 2008 – just a couple of tasters for you:

“I work in one of those humble call centres for a bank. Apparently, what we’re doing at the moment is sprinkling our magic along the way. It’s a call centre, not Hogwarts.”

“At a large media company where I once worked, the head of human resources – itself a weaselly neologism for personnel – told us that she would be cascading down new information to staff. What she meant was she was going to send them a memo. It was one of the reasons I resigned – that, and the fact that the chief exec persisted on referring to the company as a really cool train set.”

You may also enjoy this extensive glossary – The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary. A few gems include: “wallpapering the fog”, “across the piece”, “keep your powder dry” and the verb “to peanut butter out”.

What are your views on plain language? Have you ever been confronted with business-speak? Worse still, have you had to translate it?

20 thoughts on “‘Business-ese’ may be worse than legalese

  1. I just finished a company’s powerpoint translation, and I totally agree. Certain types of contracts make my eyes cross, but for the majority of legal texts I can figure things out using good resources, glossaries, etc. Plus, the odd word choices are generally based in the desire to be precise– they’re logical and reasonable. (And can only be translated by one equivalent phrase!)

    Business-speak, on the other hand, evolves daily, and not for the better. “Core competencies” has to be the worst. What are these people thinking? Maybe it just makes the job more interesting for them…

  2. Very good point Carolyn. You’re quite right – at least with legalese we can generally track down what is meant. I also really love (read ‘hate’) acronyms that are specific to one company, and then they treat you like a moron when you don’t know what is meant…

  3. What did we do before “work streams” were invented?

    My boss loves jargon but it can make meetings a bit more interesting. Jargon Bingo anyone?

    • Business-ese probably began back in the 19th Century when businessmen hired economists to prove that Marx’s Das Capital was all a load of baloney. What I really object to is the need in modern society’s to hire a lawyer basically to tell you whether you are a criminal or not, because only a skilled technical expert can decipher it. This is complete rubbish, in my humble opinion. For centuries lawyers were paid by the word, so you get these absolutely ridiculous lists of including but not limited to followed by up to a dozen examples. Like English spelling (for typographers paid by the letter, with night instead of Chaucer’s nite, and throught instead of thru) it was driven by the market, and greed and continues due to idiotic inertia. Once upon a time the law was written so that everybody could understand it with things like “fit and proper” and “breaking and entering” with law makers going out of their way to make sure that all members of society, both French and Saxon, understood the plain emerging English language. Legal language needs to be updated regularly. If an average fifteen year old can’t understand it, then it needs re-writing. That is what legal experts should be doing, putting it into plain English at the source.
      Now I have got that off my chest I feel a lot better.
      PS Here is an example of what I mean. It is clearly written by an Italian lawyer, where the business-ese meets the legalese and comprehension goes out of the window into outer space where I catch it, bring it down to earth, chop it up into digestable chunks and translate into plain English (or at least try to):
      In data odierna l’Assemblea ha deliberato favorevolmente in merito al Piano di incentivazione basato su strumenti finanziari 2012, con la valorizzazione di una quota della componente variabile della retribuzione del perimetro “Top Management” e “Responsabili di livello più elevato delle Funzioni di Controllo”mediante assegnazione di azioni ordinarie di xxx Banca, autorizzando il Consiglio di Gestione, e per esso il Presidente, il Vice Presidente ed il Consigliere Delegato, in via tra loro disgiunta, a procedere con una o più operazioni, da porre in essere entro la data dell’assemblea chiamata a deliberare ai sensi dell’art. 2364-bis n. 4 Codice Civile in materia di distribuzione degli utili dell’esercizio chiuso al 31 dicembre 2012 – previa approvazione del bilancio di esercizio per la sola ipotesi in cui detto bilancio di esercizio non fosse già stato approvato dal Consiglio di Sorveglianza -, all’acquisto sui mercati regolamentati secondo modalità operative che assicurino la parità di trattamento tra gli azionisti e non consentano l’abbinamento diretto delle proposte di negoziazione in acquisto con predeterminate proposte di negoziazione in vendita, all’acquisto di ulteriori massime n. 500.000 azioni proprie, aventi valore nominale di Euro 2,50, per un controvalore complessivo massimo di Euro 1.750.000, ad un prezzo unitario non inferiore al valore nominale dell’azione (Euro 2,50) e non superiore del 5% rispetto al prezzo ufficiale rilevato nella seduta di mercato precedente ogni singola operazione di acquisto.

  4. Wow. Doesn’t even stop for breath, does it? I think you do have it particularly bad in Italian, Jim. Fantastic example.
    Do any other readers have examples of languages where it’s even worse? 🙂

    • This is what it means:
      A shareholders’ meeting appproved a share-based payment scheme for senior management today, with payment to be made in ordinary shares of the bank. It authorised the Managment Board and the Chairman, Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive on its behalf to purchase additional ordinary shares of the bank up to a maximum of half a million with a par value of 2.5 euro for a maximum total price of one and three quarter million euro at price per share that is not lower than the par value and not greater than 5% higher than the official price quoted in the market session held before each purchase. The purchase must be made before the next annual general meeting of the bank. The purchases must also made on regulated markets and the procedures used must make sure shareholders are treated equally and do not allow bids to be made on specific prearranged offers.

  5. What is amazing about it is they (try to) mix in ancient Baroque language with modern English buzz words like “top management”. The new Latin, which of course is incomprehensible to the average Italian, including some board members!

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  10. I believe that the more savvy and capable the businessman/woman, the more plain language they will use. That is, content will be king, every time.

  11. Hello, everyone.

    I’m all for plain language – both as as translation as a common citizen. True, many areas and situations cannot avoid a certain degree of complexity in the way language is used. Yet I don’t think it is ‘all’ absolutely necessary and believe it is often intentionally ‘obscure’, to say the least.

    This hinders communication, which is not only undesirable but can be truly dangerous.

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