Despite my own attempts, sometimes facetiously, often more sincerely, to celebrate the colourful language of the business world, jargon and buzzwords generally receive a very bad press. Of course there are good reasons for this – most profoundly the way the language of ‘marketisation’ has penetrated professional and everyday communication, thereby implicitly reinforcing free-market values,  a tendency which disturbs academic discourse specialists if not the public at large. More superficially, but no less worryingly, the spread of jargon empowers some workers and disempowers others, as well as inflicting its irritating clichés on them.

I’m interested, though, to see how some agencies, brands and providers have raised awareness of jargon – more effectively so far than linguists have managed to do – at the same time exploiting a critique of jargon to market their services.

One recent example comes from telecommunications provider Powownow:

What Do People Think of Business Jargon?

As long ago as 2005 the Irish recruitment agency Irishjobs.ie carried out a survey of officeworkers to discover how they felt about jargon in the workplace. Their findings were that…

  • 50% of respondents regularly hear such phrases as raising the bar, hitting the ground running and singing from the same hymn sheet in their workplace
  • such language is most likely to be used by those in the 30-40 age group. The younger (18-25) and older (50-plus) age groups are the least likely to use this language.
  • 68% find this style of language annoying or very annoying.
  • 68% think that this type of language is primarily used to impress rather than to communicate information.
  • 63% think that business-speak is primarily used to hide a lack of knowledge.
  • 26% think it is used to intimidate.
  • 64% think it is actually detrimental to communication.
  • 41% admit to having used such language to impress someone in the context of work.
  • 77% report having been told to think outside the box at least once by their manager.

In April 2016 the Amba Hotel chain polled 2000 business travellers to determine the most annoying examples of ‘management-speak’. The top ten came out as:

  • Touch base offline: 30% (meaning: let’s meet and talk)
  • Blue sky thinking: 26% (meaning: empty thinking without influence)
  • Punch a puppy*: 25% (meaning: do something detestable but good for the business)
  • Thought shower: 25% (meaning: brainstorm)
  • Thinking outside the box: 24% (meaning: thinking creatively)
  • It’s on my radar: 17% (meaning: I’m considering it)
  • Close of play: 16% (meaning: end of the day)
  • Singing from the same hymn sheet: 15% (meaning: all on the same page)
  • Peel the onion: 13% (meaning: examine the problem)
  • To wash its own face: 9% (meaning: to justify or pay for itself

The hotel brand then offered a top ten of more fashionable and up-to-date buzz-terms:

  1. Bacon wrap: when you take something good and elevate it to excellence by changing it or adding value to it
  2. Buffling: speaking at length and off the point in a business context
  3. Derp: a simple, undefined reply when an ignorant comment or action is made
  4. Dumbwalking: walking slowly, without paying attention to the world around you because you are on a smartphone
  5. Humblebrag: the practice of saying something apparently modest which is really intended to boast – “Just stepped in gum.  Who spits gum on a red carpet”
  6. Nomophobia: fear of being without your mobile phone
  7. Power paunch: a large stomach worn proudly as a badge of status
  8. Qwerty nosedive: falling asleep at the keyboard
  9. Sunlighting: doing a very different job on one day of the working week
  10. Underbrag: a boast which consists of openly admitting to failings to prove you are confident enough not to care what others think of you

I’m still not convinced that we should only condemn the several varieties of language grouped together under the ‘jargon’ umbrella. Elsewhere on this site I’ve posted examples of brands who have celebrated slang in the form of dictionaries, lexicons and glossaries. Next I will be looking at how designers have combined the visual with the linguistic in new and original explorations of nonstandard language.

*Punch a puppy, which I hadn’t come across before, is a version of the phrase shoot the puppy, (the title of my 2006 jargon dictionary) an Americanism meaning ‘dare to do the unthinkable’, inspired by a proposal for a game show (mercifully never commissioned) in which participants would be dared to shoot a dog.

…and finally, here is an article by Dr Erika Darics of Aston University which also pleads for tolerance of nonstandard language in the corporate sphere:


Hierarchy Misalignment Syndrome



HMS, meaning a glaring mismatch in terms of status, is the latest mock-malady to afflict the business world. It was recently highlighted by, among others, PR and communication specialists Shine.com. It describes the awful sensation experienced when you sit down for an important face-to-face with a client or partner and find that your contact is an intern and/or someone 20 years younger than you. As Shine puts it, “It tends to mean that their organisation is taking neither you nor the project seriously – or, even more annoying, that your opposite number is a child prodigy.”

As a babyboomer I’m resigned to seniority or generational mismatches by now, though I try and check attendee status in advance of meetings. In wider contexts — company mergers, for instance — seniority integration is a priority for HR specialists. This coinage has been inspired, I suspect, not just by analogy with PMS (aka PMT) but by two genuine technical expressions: ‘hierarchy malalignment’ when mapping across databases, and ‘miserable malalignment syndrome’ — a painful result of sports injury.


Banker’s dozen

This is why a baker's dozen is 13 - EverybodyCraves

A baker’s dozen traditionally includes one extra bun

A ‘baker’s dozen’ is where a baker slips a gratis 13th bun into a customer’s order. (Also known as a long dozen, the phrase dates from 1599, but may refer to a much older practice of adding something to a batch to seem generous.) The banker’s dozen, by contrast, is much more recent. It can mean literally one less than the full dozen, ie 11 items instead of the expected 12: sometimes it just means a short measure of any kind.

More technically, the phrase may refer to a method of lending where interest or penalties are deducted before the loan is transferred, so the debtor borrows ten pounds but receives only nine. This topical reference to financiers’ avarice is probably the inspiration for a trader’s dozen which, in City of London slang, means a dozen drinks in quick succession on a Friday lunchtime (per person, that is), typically charged covertly to a client or employer.

Send buzzwords, jargon and new and exotic usages to  tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk.


I’m now collecting examples of exotic, disturbing or infuriating post-Brexit language (and welcome contributions from readers, which will be gratefully acknowledged). Back in 2010 I reviewed the new terms generated by the recession that then afflicted us.




We’re all familiar by now with quantitative easing, and bemused by all those recessionistas practising chiconomics…but the bizwords kept on coming…

Tony Thorne looks back at the terminology born of the downturn/meltdown


While things were going well it was commonplace to refer complacently to the hidden hand that Adam Smith claimed was quietly regulating the mechanisms of capitalism. Nowadays that concept seems as inappropriate as combining the two words ‘city’ and ‘gent’: the current sense of crisis requires a new set of metaphors and some picturesque contenders are duly emerging. Foremost among them is creative destruction, a phrase first popularised by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942. A much more radical version of the familiar shakeout, this has come to refer to the demolition of monopolies and economic structures by revolutionary innovation – including ‘revolutionary’ financial instruments and their resultant collateral/fallout.

Another term that has come into its own is boiling frog syndrome, apparently coined by one Leopold Stomm (described as a ‘political and economic theorist, amateur naturalist, and sadist’ but possibly fictional). This can be illustrated by the image of ‘frog’ X (insert the name of any major car manufacturer) ‘sitting in shallow water and denying that the temperature is rising’ – right up to the moment when it boils to death.

And what of the victims of economic turmoil, those senior professionals who have been Pluto’d (demoted, like the planet), lateralled (i.e kicked sideways; they are said to be suffering from adjacency), checked out (serving notice) or simply exited (which has replaced all those euphemisms formerly used in HR circles); what of the recently retired who have become the returned – in other words have been forced back into work? One humbling-but-uplifting option may be to take one of the thousands of green-collar jobs that the US and UK governments have promised to create. Successor to the white, blue and pink-collar (the last denoting supposedly ‘feminine’ jobs like beautician –sorry, cosmetologist – care assistant or florist), green-collar describes manual jobs in the ecological economy, usually involving cleaning up pollution or installing energy-saving devices. A quite different sort of comfort might be provided by going on a Ponzi crawl. Highlighted recently by the Madoff débâcle, the latest Ponzi scheme (named after an early 20th-century pyramid scamster of Italian origin) is a serial bar crawl in which the last to join has to treat all his/her fellow drinkers – and gets exactly nothing in return.

In trying to keep track of this year’s blizzard of buzzwords I’ve been helped out by readers of my previous offerings. From the US Nick Harrison writes to signal a new usage: the noun shutter has suddenly become a verb, signifying both closing down and boarding up, as in ‘Madam K’s is soon to shutter’, or ‘Granco has shuttered its operations’. He spotted four examples within four days from the Seattle Times, ‘…sole remaining daily paper in this town since the 150 year-old Post Intelligencer itself shuttered a month or so ago.’ Another novel Americanism yet to cross the oceans is shovel-ready, referring to a major project that is all set to go but awaiting public funding which may not now materialize.

In times of turmoil an upsurge in acronyms and abbreviations is only to be expected, and examples noted by correspondents include GFC (the Australian government’s own shorthand for global financial crisis) and CC which can stand for credit-crunch or current climate. Irish informant Ros Waverley has picked up on the fact that R.I.F, the euphemistic reduction in force(s) (aka downsizing) from a year or so ago, has first become an acronym pronounced ‘riff’, and more recently a verb, as in ‘we’re riffing’/’we’ve been riffed.’

Several readers were amused when Lord Mandelson testily insisted that his £2.5bn rescue package for the UK car industry was not a bailout (Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2008), but a greening initiative. Others were tickled by the portentous language governments have come up with to boost their anti-recessionary credentials: a little too late perhaps Australia has embraced countercyclicality, which simply means anticipating periodic economic downturns, while Britain has been promoting flexibilism; adapting your working practices to cope with unexpected crises.

I can’t help chuckling cynically at the latest catchphrases circulating among the cheerfully desperate – or desperately cheerful – flat is the new up is one such, while I heard someone the other day assert in all seriousness that we’ve got to take the HAV (high-altitude view) and look beyond the beyond. Thankfully professional trendspotters also remain resolutely upbeat, promoting something they call innovation jubilation, celebrating nimbleness (marketing’s successor to agility) and announcing the imminent appearance of the unlikely Generation G (for generous).




A word that is bandied about – recently by Boris Johnson among many others – yet rarely examined closely. I have tried to unravel its connotations in two different contexts, once fairly flippantly, once a little more seriously…

Image result for the balkans

Once used to describe the weakness of tiny, mutually hostile nations with changing borders, this invocation of the troubled Balkan region is now fashionably applied to the banking sector. Balkanisation refers to, in the words of the FT‘s Patrick Jenkins, “the breakdown of cross-border banking as nervous lenders retreat… from the more troubled parts of the Eurozone.”

It is part of the trend towards deglobalisation, financial fragmentation, renationalisation and domestication of debt caused primarily by economic turbulence, prompting banks to introduce more effective safeguards against cyclical changes, aka buffering (another buzzword du jour), but increasingly also due to tighter official regulation. National regulators may now stop banks using deposits in one area to fund debts in another (the ability to shift capital or asset-swap from country to country is known as fungibility), and regulatory intervention can result in the breaking up, or Balkanisation, of the big, diversified financial entities themselves.


Here is a more detailed consideration…(long read) 

Click to access Thorne.pdf


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I think this is an example of a (buzz)word whose time has come. I wrote about it in 2009, but it has since emerged into the national – and global – conversation…


Image result for anthropocene


I discovered the other day that we are living through the anthropocene age, a phrase coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen in 2005 to describe human impact on, human management of and hopefully human rescue of the planet, in particular from anthropogenic (ie ‘man’-made) emissions and overconsumption of energy. But if you are thinking of greenshifting or going off-grid/totally unplugged — whether as corporate strategy or on a personal basis (leveraging a synergy of one as they say), you’re going to need to learn greenspeak, a whole new lexicon generated by the green wave and sustainability lobby.

Just cleaning up your act to acceptable standards (technically known as remediation) is not enough. With the help, if necessary, of an eco-concierge, an intermediary consultant, you should move beyond compliance and embed an eco-advantage culture, catering simultaneously for eco-chic and eco-cheap consumers (the former 
are trend-followers, the latter energy-aware scrimpers who couldn’t care less about the environment but are worried by fuel bills, rather as economic vegetarians eschew meat 
on cost grounds).

You can do this by way of promoting eco-iconic products and services, but product designers and process engineers must ‘unpack’ the ecological rucksack — the history of the manufacturing processes undergone by a product or object. Manufacturers need to protect the airshed (by analogy with watershed) by curbing off-gassing pollutants from buildings and installations, measure the embodied energy used in construction and maintenance, and observe waste management imperatives — the so-called waste hierarchy of avoid, reduce, reuse, recycle, reprocess, dispose.

Preconsumer recovery refers to a product recycled before it reaches the consumer, for example factory-floor packaging; postconsumer to a product recycled after use, and 
closing the loop to using a remanufactured product. Reduced energy consumption, measured in so-called negawatts, brings positive PR or earned media, as do carbon offset — buying tradeable eco-credits — and carbon capture and sequestration, turning CO2 into substances like the soil nutrient biochar.

Be aware, though, that environmental awareness can also earn you mockery. Twenty years ago they were ‘tree-huggers’ and ‘duck-squeezers’, but now the label for go-too-far eco-warriors, promoted by US psychiatrist Dr Jack Hirschowitz, is carborexic, a cruel synonym for the extreme green, ecofanatic or dark greenie. Carborexia has also been called eco-anxiety, ecoholism, eco-guilt and ecopathy.

Send your favourite buzzwords, jargon and new and exotic usages to tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk


I wrote this in 2006 but it still seems apposite (- this is not a pro-Brexit post!)…


Image result for anglosphere



When writing about language, there’s a word I constantly invoke – it’s a useful shorthand version of the cumbersome “areas where English is the dominant language”. But this expression (apparently first used in writing by science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson in 1995) may yet turn out to be the defining term of the 21st century’s global order. The word is Anglosphere, denoting not just a group of English-speaking nations, but a sphere – or set of interconnected spheres – of influence.

According to US businessman and technologist James C Bennett, it “implies far more than merely the sum of all persons who employ English as a first or second language. To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures.”

Primary among these are individualism, openness and the honouring of contracts. Just doing business in English doesn’t qualify you. You have to have internalised the hidden system of behaviours and assumptions that Anglos implicitly embrace, thereby gaining membership in what Bennett calls a network civilisation or network commonwealth. Other fashionable buzzwords associated with the phenomenon are collectivity, commonality and commensurability.

At the rarefied level of international politics, Anglosphere can mean a geopolitical conversation for insiders only. In terms of innovation in technology, law and commerce, it encourages pathfinder cultures to cooperate seamlessly. To some anti-globalisers and multiculturalists this smacks of ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism and linguicism (language-based racism), or at the very least a shared superiority complex on the part of largely rightwing commentators. Part of the potency of the idea is certainly that it offers Brits, and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, too, the prospect of world domination, alongside the US, and despite the looming presence of China and India. Others protest that this is all simply stating the obvious – that English speakers communicate easily with one another. But perhaps they are missing the essential point: the real potential of the Anglosphere lies not just in instantaneous information-sharing but in the millions of informal, often unnoticed relationships and collaborations that amount to a much more unified power-bloc than any artificially created entity – the EU springs to mind.

Send your favourite buzzwords, jargon or new and exotic usages 
to tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk

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The business world is responsible for – or guilty of – generating a constant stream of new terminology, buzzwords and jargon. I have been tracking such exoticisms for more than a decade in my Bizword column in British Airways Business Life magazine…


Image result for people following leaders


After decades of analysing the qualities associated with the various styles of leadership, management theory has given us a new buzzword-by-analogy. Originating in 1988 and trending in business schools 20 years later, the term is entering everyday corporate jargon. The concept of followership, we are told, is not just looking at hierarchy relationships from a new angle but reinterpreting group dynamics so that subordinates can learn how best to follow while leaders learn exactly how to cultivate them. There is, of course, a danger in focusing on following rather than leading: the role sounds less heroic or proactive. But newly identified types of empowered follower not only practise the key skills of taking or ignoring instruction, identifying expectations and goals, ego-management and performing as team players, but can exert coercive push, manipulating their bosses and enabling the wider organisation to excel.



Image result for marketing funnel lead-magnet


Digital marketing is a nonstop – and seemingly unstoppable – generator of new terminology, so agencies must help novices to keep up by posting glossaries of the latest buzzwords. Turning prospects into leads into actual customers involves, in the jargon, directing traffic to your landing page (ideally frictionless) or welcome gate, which is likely to feature a lead-magnet, aka opt-in bribe, a benefit such as a free consultation, free trial, discount offer, or a content-upgrade such as a toolkit or guide to induce the visitor to give you their contact details. That is a conversion, the start of a relationship with the site visitor who should then go on to register with you, follow you on social media and/or purchase something. (Measure success by your conversion rate, failure by your bounce-rate). The series of steps you use to draw in the customer, from ads via webpages through interactions all the way to payment is known as the funnel.


You can find many more more Bizwords at




Send your buzzwords, jargon and new and exotic usages to




Most Millennials Resist the 'Millennial' Label | Pew Research Center

Only four years ago I was introducing a new demographic to readers of British Airways’ BUSINESS LIFE magazine…

“We’ve seen the rise of babyboomers and yuppies, then of the former slackers known as Generation X. This newest generational label (aka Generation Y or the Echo Boomers) refers to youngsters born between 1981 and 1999. Their coming of age has spawned a slew of articles in both specialist journals and popular media. Commentators detail how they differ from predecessors in their collective attitudes, and describe how to manage them in the workplace. What’s provable is that millennials are the most ethnically diverse, digitally aware and empowered group yet to emerge. On their other characteristics, though, opinions differ sharply. In the UK some employers have castigated them as workshy, semiliterate, needy and narcissistic while US behavioural ‘experts’ laud their ability to multitask, their skill in balancing work and leisure, their respect for elders and leaders and their trust in institutions and allegiance to teams.”

Here, in the Independent, Mollie Goodfellow and I continue this year’s exploration of millennials’ language


While (by kind permission of Marketing Week magazine) Mark Ritson offers a business perspective



Here’s an article, written for British and American professionals, that discusses the question of jargon…

Learning a new language can mean something different in today’s world of work.


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 ‘We’ve got to monetise our visibility and maximise brand awareness’ says the boss. ‘I’ll get across it ASAP and keep an eye on collateral,’ responds the loyal subordinate with one eye on promotion and the other, if this is physically possible, on their back. Meanwhile the CEO announces that the organisation is ‘increasing its leveraging of intangibles and disruptive technologies to cope with sector turbulence’ and the shareholders nod sagely, whether they have understood what he’s talking about or not. English may be the international language but there’s another, more powerful and all-pervasive language at work here – a pressing reason for us to become bilingual or risk being left behind as the corporate and professional worlds evolve. One name for this code is BS. No – not that – it stands for Business-Speak, known also as office jargon, management-speak, buzzwords and biz-words, even sometimes in progressive circles as ‘digital discourse.’

Whatever you call it, biz-speak gets a bad press. Lucy Kellaway’s columns in the Financial Times have been parodying it for a decade, the UK’s Plain English Campaign regularly denounces it and not long ago MPs waded into the debate, chastising their civil servants for using phrases like ‘challenging growth trajectories’ and ‘driving up quality’. The Local Government Association even tried to ban a long list of terms including the awful ‘coterminous engagement’ and ‘predictors of beaconicity’, but also the – to my mind – quite innocent ‘synergy’, ‘benchmark’ and ‘initiative’. At the same time a raft of surveys by pollsters, HR agencies and academics have canvassed workers’ grievances and identified the use of jargon by bosses as the number one irritant. These studies revealed that junior executives and office workers in particular felt intimidated and excluded by managers’ obscure and pretentious language, suspecting, too, that this is often employed to conceal incompetence, or disguise unpalatable truths.

But despite all the surveys I’m not at all sure that we should automatically disapprove of jargon. When speakers strive to find new ways of describing genuinely new ideas, and when they play creatively with the possibilities of the language, they enrich our vocabulary, expand our capacity to express ourselves; to use a controversial word they empower us. As for technical terms – learn them! If your colleagues are referencing ‘portals’, ‘silos’, ‘inflows’, you ought to know what they are. New processes and new ways of consuming require new terminology and always have done. Key finance concepts like ‘sub-prime’ and ‘QE’ sound offputting, but try explaining them in different words in less than ten minutes; ‘onshoring’ is the neatest way of explaining that you have had to reverse your ‘outsourcing’ and ‘offshoring.’ BS can also inject a little drama and humour into the working day, so the slight recovery after a crash is better described as a ‘dead cat bounce’, taking a brave and unpopular decision is ‘shooting the puppy’, a pleasing upward curve is a ‘J-Lo’, the consultant you had to engage is a ‘hired gun’ or a ‘killer bee’.

Image result for corporate life

If you do decide to embrace this new lingo there are some crucial points to remember. Where BS is concerned the cardinal sins are:

  • Using too much of it in one conversation: unfamiliar terms are processed more slowly by the listener’s brain, so don’t overload them with ‘let’s move from a hub-and-spoke to a many-to-many peered distribution model.’
  • Using it to avoid straight-speaking: you won’t be popular if you substitute ‘transitioned’ for kicked out, ‘lateralled’ for moved sideways, ‘backfilled’ for replaced or, if you’re a government, ‘deficit levy’ for tax. And she’s a receptionist, by the way, not a ‘data hub facilitator.’
  • Not understanding what you are saying: a new way of saying all-inclusive is the skiing term ‘across the piste’, but some hapless professionals trying to impress are coming out with with ‘across the piece,’ one or two, excruciatingly, with ‘across the beast.’
  • Relying on clichés: some expressions have simply been done to death, with ‘going forward’, ‘reaching out’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ among the worst offenders.
  • Using it in completely the wrong setting: Don’t say ‘we’re thinking of co-curating our downtime and sourcing a leisure solution’, say ‘we’re planning to book a holiday’, and don’t ‘recalibrate the work-life balance’, just ‘relax.’

Critics need to realise that specialist language isn’t just about naming and describing, it’s about credibility, about bonding and belonging, about brevity and freshness, as much as about bamboozling or bluster. Knowing how to deploy (I like that word) this vocabulary marks you out as a member of a team or a community sharing common professional aims. OK, if I see ‘deliverables’ or ‘ownership’ or hear ‘alignment’ one more time, I’ll probably scream – but come on, let’s get buy-in from all stakeholders, embed a culture of innovation and maximise linguistic functionality.  Or to put it more brutally, if you don’t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen.


Twitter: @tonythorne007

Here are some links to articles referring to business jargon: