Going backward

'My particular bugbear is that inherently redundant phrase “forward planning”. Ever tried ‘backward planning’?'

Madeline Grant

Over the years, a rising tide of meaningless corporate jargon has flooded our workplaces. If you’ve ever held down an office job, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Think “touching base”, “synergy”, “benchmarking” or “onboarding” (‘hiring people’ as we English-speakers say).

My particular bugbear is that inherently redundant phrase “forward planning”. Ever tried ‘backward planning’? All planning is for the future; how could it NOT be ‘forward’? Once the domain of management consultants, jargon has become depressingly widespread even in non-corporate environments. Yet nowhere has the ‘mission creep’ of meaningless language been stronger than in politics where platitudes such as “let me be absolutely clear” usually come before deliberate obfuscation—or ‘With respect’ as a prelude to breathtaking rudeness, before promising to “deliver” (what, exactly?)  Such trends shouldn’t just worry pedants and snobs. Jargon carries greater heft in the political sphere. As George Orwell wrote in his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language”, sterile, technocratic language harms democracy by alienating people from politicians and even meaning itself. In 2019, this kind of language may deepen already deep divisions. Lawmakers and policymakers speak cautiously, to avoid actually saying something. Even the word ‘say’ looks outdated. Today’s politicians more often ‘intimate’ or ‘indicate’, just as they prefer to ‘review’ than ‘read’ and ‘challenges’ to ‘problems’. Note how political newspeak often softens or removes accountability for decisions, just as HR reps regularly choose “off-boarding” rather than “sacking someone”. Take this extract from Philip Hammond’s 2018 Budget speech: “We will harvest a double “Deal Dividend. A boost from the end of uncertainty; and a boost from releasing some of the fiscal headroom that I am holding in reserve at the moment. We are confident that we will secure a deal which delivers that dividend. Confident, but not complacent.” ‘Fiscal headroom’, ‘Deal Dividends’? Where’s the meaning, let alone the inspiration?

Humour is one solution: Orwell once ridiculed the debasement of meaning by translating a Bible passage into technocratic ‘anti-language’. Voters’ loud groans at Theresa May’s 2017 Election slogans “Strong and Stable” and “Coalition of Chaos” offer some hope. Yet with Orwellian anti-language still infesting offices, boardrooms and government decades after he put typewriter to paper, we can expect political newspeak to survive well into the future. Or should I say, ‘going forward’?

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