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Our View: Musings on office jargon

A couple of surveys published this summer highlight the most annoying examples of office jargon. At The Durango Herald, we compared notes to see what gets under our skin the most.

The language learning platform Preply polled more than 1,500 Americans and found that more than one in five people say they dislike corporate buzzwords.Two in five say they hear them at least once a day, and seven in 10 admit to using them. Including us.

We use jargon even if it rings hollow and we’d rather not. The worst offenders sneakily creeped in our office lexicon.

According to Preply, the most commonly used jargon is “win-win,” followed by “culture” (as in, work culture), then “circle back,” “it’s on my radar,” “on the same page,” “bring to the table” and “new normal.”

Pet peeves for the Herald editors include “synergy,” “team” and “bandwidth.” Take the word “bandwidth,” as in, “Do you have the bandwidth to edit this Opinion piece?” Bandwidth holds multiple concepts – time, energy, head space, right mood. It’s perfect jargon – it’s inauthentic yet packs a punch. We wouldn’t ask: “Do you have the time, energy, head space to edit this piece? Are you in the right mood?”

Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam Webster, told NPR buzzwords can become a code for professional language substituting for authenticity. “They suddenly become a kind of signifier for something else, which is language that isn’t very direct language, that isn’t very emotionally honest,“ Sokolowski said.

A word like bandwidth has a shelf life. After some time, it’s overused. It will lose power, then dwindle, become outdated and die a lonely death.

In the category of being most annoying, “new normal” was the winner, according to 43% surveyed. We hear this so often, especially after the pandemic. We’re always at a “new normal” with the old normal out the window. Normal just isn’t normal anymore. It reaches new heights and distinctions with every fresh experience. Closely behind is “circle back,” which irks one of our editors to the point we don’t dare use it.

Others on the list include “give 110%,” which is likely impossible. How can you give more than 100%? Giving “110%” diminishes “100%.” Before 110%, 100% was top notch. Now, a person giving 100% is a slacker.

Surprisingly, “at the end of the day” has stood the test of time. It’s been around for decades and 90% of those surveyed weren’t irritated by it in the least.

Jargon is not harmless. A separate June report commissioned by LinkedIn and Duolingo, in which 8,000 workers across eight countries were asked about jargon, found 61% believe workers with keen understandings of buzzwords rise in the ranks. Those who don’t suffer slowed productivity and feelings of being left out of conversations.

So if you don’t get the meaning of “run it up the flagpole” (to present an idea and see whether it receives favorable reaction), you’re at a professional disadvantage. But hearing it the first time doesn’t offer much insight.

Also confusing is “crickets,” used when someone asks a question and gets no response. It means absolute silence or no communication. But it’s nonsensical.

Crickets make that chirping, insecty sound. It’s not absolute quiet. Not as forceful as those rowdy cicadas, of course. But why not select a creature that’s actually quiet, such as a worm or a slot or a rabbit or snail. We could say, “I left multiple phone messages and I got worms.” “Worms” makes better sense than crickets. Why not “worms?”

Also, how about having to “show up” for work. Nowadays, “show up” doesn’t mean walking into the office, lunch bag in hand, ready for a day of writing, editing, taking and making calls, sending emails and having serious conversations about office jargon. It means bringing your whole self, all the parts of you. This is a lot to ask. The workplace can’t meet all of our needs, so why do we “show up” with the parts it can’t address? “Show up” is loaded and implies a new set of social instructions that resemble those poorly – and comically – translated from a foreign language.

We learned the HR-ification of new language, too. “Onboarding” and “outsourcing” and “job shadowing.” We just don’t traffic in this vocabulary often.

In this business, we’re spared the psychological speech, such as “holding space” for people to feel all their feelings. And we’re always “doing the work,” but not in the therapeutic sense. Just producing pages that become newspapers.

Jargon strips away nuance and context. Still, who authors jargon? How does it catch fire, and spread across the country and the globe? We’re inspired to make up homegrown buzzwords and contribute to the gobbeldygoop that is the English language. "At the end of the day,” we’d like to think we have wordsmithing on our side.