Corporate lingo is all about obfuscation, group-think, and creating unnecessary work rather than clarity. For New York Magazine, Molly Young examines corporate jargon like “futureproofing” and “level-setting” to try and understand where it came from, why corporate employees opt-in (ha) to this group linguistic delusion, and what such gibberish does and does not do for people. Take, for example, the term “parallel-path,” which more simply means to do two things at once. Office workers already did multiple things at once constantly. Why did anyone need a confusing term for language that was already clear? “It was,” Young says, “in its fakery and puffery and lack of a reason to exist, the perfect corporate neologism.” Young calls all such lingo “garbage language,” a term borrowed from Anna Wiener, author of the new tech life memoir, Uncanny Valley. “The meaningful threat of garbage language,” Young writes, “is that it confirms delusion as an asset in the workplace.”
Another thing this language has in common with garbage is that we can’t stop generating it. Garbage language isn’t unique to start-ups; it’s endemic to business itself, and the form it takes tends to reflect the operating economic metaphors of its day. A 1911 book by Frederick Winslow Taylor called The Principles of Scientific Management borrows its language from manufacturing; men, like machines, are useful for their output and productive capacity. The conglomeration of companies in the 1950s and ’60s required organizations to address alienated employees who felt faceless amid a sea of identical gray-suited toilers, and managers were encouraged to create a climate conducive to human growth and to focus on the self-actualization needs of their employees. In the 1980s, garbage language smelled strongly of Wall Street: leverage, stakeholder, value-add. The rise of big tech brought us computing and gaming metaphors: bandwidth, hack, the concept of double-clicking on something, the concept of talking off-line, the concept of leveling up.
One of the most influential business books of the 1990s was Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen is responsible for the popularity of the word disruptive. (The term has since been diluted and tortured, but his initial definition was narrow: Disruption happens when a small company, such as a start-up, targets a limited segment of an incumbent’s audience and then uses that foothold to attract a bigger segment, by which point it’s too late for the incumbent to catch up.) The metaphors in that book had a militaristic strain: Firms won or lost battles. Business units were killed. A disk drive was revolutionary. The market was a radar screen. The missilelike attack of the desktop computer wounded minicomputer-makers. Over the next decade and a half, the language fully migrated from combative to New Agey: “I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, urging readers to seek their truth and find personal fulfillment. In Delivering Happiness, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh described making conscious choices and evolving organically. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries pitched his method as a movement to unlock a vast storehouse of human potential. You can always track the assimilation of garbage language by its shedding of scare quotes; in 1911, “initiative” and “incentive” were still cloaked in speculative punctuation.