A history of office-speak and what it teaches us about English

Anyone who’s worked in an office will have heard office-speak. Buzzwords, business jargon, corporate lingo – whatever you call it, it amounts to the same thing: words and phrases used in the corporate world that aren’t used or understood well outside of the business environment. Why do we use office-speak? And where did it start?

Different types of office-speak

Managers in every field of work seem to love office-speak. Believing that it helps to engage their employees and motivate them, they’ve come up with a huge vocabulary of seemingly meaningless words where the emphasis is in trying to convey a feeling to workers rather than a meaning.

Heads up!

Let’s think outside the box!

Let’s go forward together!

All of these phrases are meant to make workers feel positive and energized – and more productive as a result.

No matter what kind of business sphere you work in, there now exist words and phrases that have this same purpose, although the words may vary from sector to sector. For example:

Marketing business jargon

This was one of the first business areas to adopt office-speak. Marketing is all about being creative – the most creative minds come up with the most eye-catching advertising campaigns and these help to sell products. Big money is involved and so marketing executives began to place an emphasis on language that tried to encourage creativity. At the same time they introduced office-speak that reminded employees that, despite the creativity involved, their real job was to sell products to customers.

Blue-sky thinking – thinking in a way that is unrestricted by practicalities, free-thinking

The hard sell – aggressive marketing strategies designed to get consumers to buy products immediately

Ideation – the ability to come up with effective new ideas

Thought shower – believe it or not this term is genuinely used in the business world. The word brainstorm used to be used in its place but this is the new favoured term for a group of employees getting together for a collective outpouring of ideas.

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Financial business jargon

The world of finance is fast-paced and thrives on machismo and the office-speak that has developed in this sector reflects this. Traditional financial terms have also been adopted across the business world generally as new office-speak terms.

Leverage – a financial term that means to speculate with borrowed money, leverage is now used across all business sectors in a way that means to use or to exploit. For example, ‘we need to leverage the data’ (we need to make use of this data) or ‘let’s leverage our expertise.’

The bottom line – another financial term, this refers to the net earnings or net income of a company – a piece of information usually found on the bottom line of company reports. In today’s business-speak the bottom line is used to describe the most important part of something. For example, ‘the bottom line is we need to sell more product.’

The latest office-speak

Office-speak is ever-evolving, changing as the office environment does. With our reliance on computers and the internet this has strongly shaped the office-speak of today. So much of today’s business language, especially in creative sectors, stems from computer language and words we associate with the online world.

Take this offline – if someone asks you ‘can we take this offline?’ they’re asking you if you could talk about it with them later or in private.

Unplug – means to take a break from the constant communications of Twitter, Facebook, emails and your smartphone.

Zero cycles – computers run on instruction cycles. If someone says ‘sorry, I have zero cycles for this,’ they mean that they don’t have any time for it. It’s another example of language that makes people talk as if they are computers!

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