Monday, July 23, 2012

"Enterprise English": the Confusion of Tongues

La parole a été donnée à l'homme pour déguiser sa pensée.
(Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.)
~ Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

Engraving The Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré (1865)

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, English vocabulary pertinent to science and technology has been growing at an unprecedented pace. The Information Age, with new technologies springing up like mushrooms after a rain shower, has accelerated this growth even further. Business lexicon has manifested similar tendencies.

It seems, however, that over the past few decades these vocabularies (maybe, with the exception of those limited to theoretical sciences) have been growing much more rapidly than the actual body of objects/phenomena/concepts they are meant to describe. I am just speculating here, but it appears that the market-driven (for lack of a better word) nature of modern applied science, technology, and, of course, business, as well as government and politics, creates pressure to make up new names with the intent to "sell more stuff", whatever forms "selling" and "stuff" may manifest themselves in.

Whether we like it or not, marketers rule the world. So, if
  • calling bras "intimate apparel solutions" (I stole this one from Geoffrey Nunberg) boosts underwear sales,
  • a receptionist referred to as "customer service liaison" (a real-life job title I have personally seen) works twice as hard on pure self-esteem and doesn't ask for a raise,
  • or labeling ibuprofen Advil, Motrin, and about a dozen other brand names (see the U.S. National Library of Medicine web site) sells more... well... ibuprofen,
who am I to object? I just wish the prolific creators of buzz words, unnecessary euphemisms, hyper-inflated job titles, and countless brand names could understand that, for computers, all this is very confusing because, although very fast, they are still pretty dumb.

As we, humans, strive to gain benefits - real or perceived - by creating more and more "neologisms", we limit the amount of work that can be delegated to machines, thus increasing the amount of work we have to do ourselves. Sounds kind of counterproductive to me. If "natural" languages continue evolving in this direction, natural language processing might not become reality... ever...

A few more examples of neo-Orwellian business English that are sure to make not only a computer's head spin:
    This is the opening sentence of an e-mail from a recruiter: "I am reaching out to you for the opportunity to align myself as a resource for you." Whatever the intended purpose of this introduction may have been, all it did was made me dizzy!

    Here is another gem: "We utilize social media to create and maintain synergy in the IT industry." Excuse me, what is it that you actually do?!

Indeed, "speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts"... or lack thereof...


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