Alex Casey presents some key learnings about our most loved and loathed corporate phrases.
If you have ever circled back to get on the same page, touched base before moving forward, or got on someone’s radar with something outside the box, you have fallen victim to the allure of corporate jargon. Even as someone who mostly receives emails from enthusiastic overseas businessmen looking to sell factory samples to any sir/madam who will listen, I too have been seduced by the drop dead drama of being “at capacity” or the feigned intimacy of “reaching out”.
Thankfully, we are all just as bad as each other. A survey conducted by OfficeMax of 500 office workers across the country has revealed our most loved and loathed corporate jargon. But before we get to the phrases, I just want to “check in” and “find our why”. Why is it that we have come to rely on these buzz phrases at all? Dr Andreea Calude is a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Waikato, and says that corporate jargon serves a multitude of purposes.
“On the one hand, it’s to form alliances and connect interests,” she explains. “If you and I use the same jargon, then we’re signalling to each other that we have a shared common background.” The other vital use for corporate jargon is to communicate uncomfortable information. Calude references the phrase “cut to grow” as an example of this. “That basically means ‘I’m gonna fire a whole bunch of you people so I can invest in areas that I actually want to progress’,” she laughs.
“But nobody is going to say that because it’s very uncomfortable.”
Another purpose of corporate jargon is to dress up a boring old recurring phrase with a little tie and briefcase and make it seem new. Calude points to “key learnings” as simply copying the homework of “lessons learned” and changing it a bit. “One of the tensions that jargon in the workplace faces is that overuse leads to what we call – linguistic jargon term coming up – semantic bleaching,” she explains. “This is where words lose their kind of semantic force, and there might be a need to make everyday ideas feel fresh, innovative and dynamic.”
So which popular phrases have succumbed to semantic bleaching? Which are containing uncomfortable truths? And which are simply trying to create a shared connection between two associates, hunched over laptops, begging someone to reply to them? With help from Calude, I decoded some of the most frequently-used corporate phrases to find out what they really mean. Sing out with any questions and I look forward to hearing from you.
The most commonly observed bit of corporate jargon for 64% of survey respondents, and a stone cold classic. “Some of these idiomatic expressions are all about expressing politeness,” says Calude, who confessed to using “moving forward” earlier that morning. “This is a polite way of directing action, of hurrying something along without seeming like a dick.” But “moving forward” is also highly contextual, she says, and can be deployed in many different ways.
For me, a chronic catastrophiser, “moving forward” in an email is an extremely formal device and denotes that someone, most likely you, has already been, or is about to be, in serious trouble. If I ever got an email with the subject line “moving forward” I would not open it and simply immediately pop on a wig and a high-vis vest and reinvent myself as an affable traffic warden. I’ll show you moving forward. I’ll show you all.
‘On my radar’
I believe it was Britney Spears who once said: “I’m checking you, so hot, so hot / Wonder if you know you’re on my radar (On my radar) / On my radar (On my radar)”. Not so appropriate in your friendly work emails now, is it? HR nightmare aside, Calude says this is a textbook example of using a gentle metaphor instead of just saying “I want your attention”. Still, the word “radar” is a fun way to infuse some sci-fi fantasy into the work day, even if the only thing truly on your radar is a PR pitch about inspiring more women to buy luxury cars this International Women’s Day.
‘Trim the fat’
A true body horror phrase, mostly used in relation to making something more concise, to reduce or to downscale. Given that this was the number one most loathed phrase by 48% of survey respondents, it is clear “trim the fat” has absolutely no place being uttered anywhere outside of Nigella Lawson advising on how to prepare a leg of lamb.
Calude agrees that we must t*** the f** on “trim the fat”. “We’re in the age when we’re very concerned with discrimination and injustices and we don’t want to be unkind to anybody based on appearances,” she explains. “There’s something unpleasant about this. It suggests that you’re not superfluous, but that you’re a negative factor in the equation. It’s basically insulting.”
‘Boil the ocean’
The bleakest and most elusive of them all, I had never encountered this phrase outside of a climate crisis context before. Google it and you’ll get both a business definition – “to increase the scope of a project or task until it is practically impossible to accomplish as envisioned” – and a New York magazine article about how we are literally boiling the ocean faster than we thought. Calude tells me the phrase was coined far from a boardroom, and in fact by American humorist Will Rogers in relation to capturing German U-boats during World War One.
“It doesn’t sound like it is being used how he meant it either,” she muses. “It’s something that’s migrated and changed over time, which is quite common for idiomatic phrases.” I don’t want to rock the boat too much here, but have we considered doing a deep dive while boiling the ocean? Just a blue sky thought.
‘Touching base’ (ft. ‘Reaching out’)
I naturally grouped these together because they were two of the most commonly-used phrases and both have vaguely intimate energy. “These are both using motion metaphors, to touch and to reach,” says Calude. “These are bodily functions, but they’re used here to talk about essentially a kind of abstract connection between people. This is something we do all the time, using motion as a proxy for more conceptual ideas. You’re not touching anything or reaching for anything… you are most likely sitting at your desk typing.”
‘Just circling back’
Time is a flat circle, it’s the circle of life, and “circling back” is so powerful that it didn’t appear in the survey results at all. I love to circle back so much that an email search of the phrase reveals 1-50 results of “many”. I love to circle back so much that it has permeated my group chats, relating to everything from waterproof mattress protectors to Trade Me coffee table reviews. It’s a lovely bit of corporate jargon, which Calude says can be particularly useful for managers.
“In businesses, there’s always a hierarchy. For a lot of people talking to employees, you’re trying to be polite and to not seem like a kind of mini Napoleon trying to direct everyone around. Circling back is just a nice way of directing the conversation or the attention to whatever it is that the person wants to get back to.” The optional addition of the word “just” (a personal favourite despite the many thinkpieces) is what Calude calls a “mitigator” to tone things down even more.
“The general rule in English, and something that actually trips up a lot of non native speakers, is that wordiness equals politeness,” she explains. “The more wordy and fumbling you are, weirdly enough, the more polite you seem to appear.” A note to my editors: I’m not waffling, I’m just working harder linguistically to show my ongoing deference, hope we are on the same page!
Another common phrase that appeared in the top 25. Instead of telling your colleagues you are burnt out, falling apart, not sleeping well or hanging on by a thread, a cheery note that you are “at capacity” can hide some truly haunting truths. You’re at capacity! Like a theatre! Or an elevator! Haha! “This is using a container metaphor to discuss more abstract ideas that you can’t take on more business, you can’t hire more people, stuff like that,” Calude explains.
One of the least-liked phrases, chosen by 35% of respondents as one they’d rather see be boiled in the sea. “Again, this is a metaphor trying to avoid an unpleasant truth,” says Calude. “This is about going for the easy stuff, the quick return. But you don’t want to portray the fact that you’re maybe trying to get something quickly for very low effort, because that doesn’t seem like a worthy noble enterprise.” For example, some may say that writing a listicle about office jargon is low-hanging fruit. And to that I say: bon appetit.