The intentionally confusing language of business, politics, and advertising that helps the speaker fit in, lie, and pretend to say something when saying nothing.
After WWII there was increasing interest in the sociology of leadership, how groups of people interact, etc. The military as well as corporations (such as General Electric, AT&T, IBM, etc.) wanted to know the most efficient ways to run their organizations. They wanted to know how workers could find personal fulfillment in the workplace while also increasing profits. They turned to researchers and consultants to help them manage their growing workforces. This was the dawn of corporate jargon.
Corporate jargon (e.g. customer-centric, CSAT, flywheel, hard stop, disrupt, in the loop, stakeholders, value added, value stream, synergy, restructure, disrupt, circle-back, think outside of the box, paradigm shift …) is a product of post-WWII consulting. Corporate jargon is the language of white-collar business – it’s metaphors, acronyms, euphemisms, and other linguistic tools used to dress up ideas.
Mid-century consultants peppered their advice with this new business speak. Their clients heard these terms and used the same jargon towards their coworkers, who then told other coworkers, etc. Over time the business lexicon changed & grew as it spread around the world like a virus.
Corporate jargon is a form of doublespeak and doublespeak is designed to deceive. It’s a way to obfuscate the truth. George Orwell’s ideas of “doublethink” and “newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty-Four are the basis of our modern idea of doublespeak. You find doublespeak not just in business but in politics and advertising as well. It’s a way of speaking that can make it seem like you’re saying something when you’re saying nothing at all. It can make the simple seem complex. More dangerously it can make intolerable concepts seem benign – “downsizing” instead of “we’re laying people off”, “gaming” instead of “gambling”, “collateral damage” instead of “we accidentally killed/hurt civilians.”
In the closing of his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language (which you can download here) Orwell says that “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Doublespeak isn’t about communication it’s designed to achieve conformity, or as Joseph Goebbels said, “We do not talk to say something, but to obtain a certain effect.”
Despite knowing that corporate jargon is nonsense people keep using it, and not just to lie or confuse. Using this kind of speech can serve as a signifier that you’re part of the powerful in-crowd, that you’re a serious member of the workplace. Linking right back to how corporate jargon spread in the first place, people use the words & phrases they hear their manager say and they, in turn, use the same words when talking with coworkers.
Using corporate speak is but the latest example in a long line of things subordinates have done to curry favor with their superiors. In the mid 17th century French King Louis XIV began to lose his hair (a side effect of syphilis). He turned to wearing a wig to hide this problem. Soon other members of court also took to wearing wigs so as to copy the style of the king and seek his favor. More extreme is when Louis required a surgery for an anal fistula and, again to be like the boss, other members of court also got the surgery (even if it wasn’t needed). In the court of Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette some women got special pouf hair styles constructed to advertise that they had been inoculated against smallpox just like the king & queen had been — people finding ways to signal that they are (or want to be) like the people in power.
People have always found ways to appeal to those in power and to signal their membership in a tribe. People want to be a part of the in-crowd. While corporate jargon is relatively new the motivations behind it are nothing new.
Bonus: have fun (while a part of you dies) using a corporate jargon generator.