The unfortunate descent of business language into a muddle of multi-syllabic, pseudo-scientific jargon serves to confuse business people and customers alike about what is being said, what is being promised, and what is being sold.

The quotes below are from two politicians. One statement uses the active voice and fairly straight forward words. The other employs the passive voice, nominalizations, and an excessive prepositional chain. One speaker is a two term President, the other a failed Presidential candidate. You can probably guess which statement belongs to which speaker.

The community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists. If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow.

I think you have to have a globalization of the interest in the outcome of Iraq. If the outcome of Iraq is linked to the American enterprise, to Halliburton, to our reconstruction, to the perception of . . . only American, unilateral effort, I think it’s far more complicated than if it is a global, United Nations-sanctioned, internationally accepted effort.

Frankly, when people use unnecessary jargon (and little jargon is necessary outside of say, aerospace engineering or neurology) and complex phraseology, they sound less intelligent. A recent study in fact, which I would cite if I could find it (it does exist, I swear!), found that when high school students read similar essays, one written plainly and the other with a high degree of flourish and complexity, they most often thought the writer of the plainly written essay the more intelligent of the two.

George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, is still relevant sixty years later, not only with regards to political language but business language, too. Merely transpose “business” for “political” and the meaning is the same:

[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts … 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.

The main problem with jargon is that it generally involves drastically narrowing the meaning of a word or broadening the meaning of a very specific word. The word “ping” is a technical word with roots in submarine warfare and UNIX computing (referring to the sonar “ping” sound or to a network protocol, respectively). For some reason it is fashionable to refer to contacting a person about a matter as “pinging” that person. The word “contact” is sufficient.

A “solution” is an answer to a problem. It is fashionable in business to refer to whatever it is that a business sells as a “solution”, especially in the IT and professional services sectors. The reason that the economy is measured in “goods and services”, and not “goods, services, and solutions”, is that all goods and services are solutions! A business intelligence research service is a solution to a marketing need. A cleaning service is a solution too: it’s a “dirty home solution”. A hammer is a “nail insertion solution”, a taxi service is a “short term rental transportation solution”, and a mug is a “coffee drinking solution”.

There is a drive here to rename the database the “business information portal”. That is all well and good, since the website is in fact a portal to information which constitutes “business intelligence”. However a portal, especially in IT, is nothing more than an entry way or collection point. The website may be a portal, but the database is still the database. The Yahoo website is considered a portal, but not the information which it contains.

When regular business practices and services are hussied up in esoteric names they are degraded like common prostitutes. With every further obfuscation people lose sight of what they are actually expecting for and expecting to deliver. Maybe in a year or two it will be in vogue to sell a product that “saves you money and stuff”.