While writing his novel Terms & Conditions, Robert Glancy researched the baffling language of legalese only to find that he was already fluent in an equally cryptic cant.
George Orwell predicted Newspeak but we may have created something worse – Corpspeak. Big Brother didn’t force us to speak it; virus-like it spread swiftly and without resistance. Even my mum recently said, ‘Let’s push the envelope.’
Corpspeak isn’t technically a language. Language communicates meaning. But Corpspeak – a vacuous tube which transmits hype – guarantees that nothing is actually said. It’s anti-language. All industries have their own languages. Law and medicine keep the dead language of Latin on life support. But corporations specialise in creating vampire words that suck sentences dry of meaning.
I know this because I’m bi-lingual and my second language is not French – it’s Corpspeak. I don’t like speaking it but working in PR and not speaking it is like living in France and insisting on only talking English. It results in you being ignored, mocked and having your cappuccino frothed with extra snot.
Language doesn’t evolve in a vacuum; it’s born out of necessity. Corpspeak grew out of a need to make indistinguishable products sound different. Corpspeak is the tissue stuffed into new shoes to help them hold their shape – it fills the gap left by the fact that everyone’s selling exactly the same thing.
And although it’s worthless, Corpspeak is also very expensive. I once had a client whose name became a verb for what it does. I’ll refrain from identifying it but suspect you may know the company of which I speak – let’s just call it X. X paid my agency millions to try and stop people calling it the photocopying company and instead call it the document management company. Apparently there’s a difference.
To do this my agency used a magical thing called – Strategic Brand Development. That’s pure Corpspeak. A very basic translation of which is: Calling X something it’s not. Now ‘Calling X something it’s not’ is one thing but ‘Strategic Brand Development’ – well, that’s a much more expensive thing altogether. Therein lies the power of Corpspeak.
So how did we achieve this corporate alchemy? It wasn’t terribly sophisticated. Rather like X’s products – which replicate words again and again and again – we chanted: “X is not a photocopying company, but it is actually a document management company,” to journalists, customers and anyone else who would listen.
Essentially it’s the Jedi mind trick – These are not the droids you are looking for – but our power wasn’t as potent as the Jedi’s. Instead of saying it once and convincing the world, we had to chant our Corpspeak millions of times in thousands of press releases for many years until people simply lost the will to live and said, Yeah, yeah, OK, it’s a bloody document management company!
Around that time I remember my manager reading a newspaper article about a man who went postal in an X office building, shooting innocent people.
My manager grew pale and muttered, My god.
I know, I said, Such senseless deaths.
No, he explained, The journalists called X the ‘photocopying company’ not the ‘document management company’! Bollocks!
I worked in technology PR in the nineties, a decade rich in Corpspeak acronyms. Wi-Fi, CRM, WAP. For my sins, I once wrote a press release entitled, CRM is the new ERP. I still have no idea what either of those things is. But that’s the magic of Corpspeak: it makes people like me sound like I understand technology when in fact I can barely operate a kettle.
It didn’t matter though. The nineties were about hype and money. We didn’t worry if we knew what we were talking about or were actually making any sense. It was a time when boring things like business plans and the English language were thrown out. Those were old ideas for old men.
And Corpspeak has thrived since the nineties, spreading loops of doom, Babylonian orgies and robust granularity. I made one of those up (but you might be surprised by which one).
There is irony in the fact that it is PR and Marketing people, the ‘communications experts’, who use the most Corpspeak and so often fail to actually communicate anything. In meetings I play a game in which I censor all jargon. I mentally delete baxtrapolation, come to Jesus, and ideation, to see what’s left in the sentences. The answer – not a lot. Once you jargon-blast a sentence all that remains is the buckshot of useless conjunctions and articles – It…. and… is… but.
I don’t fear for English language, which is tough enough to gobble up, and eventually excrete, meaningless phrases. I would just prefer if Corpspeak stayed where it belongs, trapped inside offices, so the real world remains free of infection and my mum can just keep posting envelopes rather than pushing them.