The Weather

Suited and Booted: The History of Corporate Language

Like Pig Latin and HTML before it, business jargon is a vocabulary forged out of the failings and clarity of its linguistic ancestors. Over the years, words such as “talk,” “think,” and “time” became too narrow to house all that happens in a boardroom and its corporate environs, and so business jargon was born. Like one of its confusing portmanteaus, it is a hybrid: half language, half technology. It is at once part of a complicated lexical tapestry and completely wiped-clean, free from memory. But however newfangled it may seem, every word has a past…


Action (v.)

“Let’s action all those things ASAP.”

act “a thing done; section of a play” + ion “go.” From Greek ion, neuter present participle of ienai “go.” Literally “to make a show of going away and actually doing something for once.” First used as a verb c. 2010. Although of hazy origins, it’s widely thought to have been introduced moments after “table” was first used as a verb. Replaces the archaic to do something. Almost certainly popularized before its meaning was solidified. Related: actionable.


Advertorial (n.)

“Does this piece on Lululemon and the benefits of Ashtanga yoga read too ‘advertorial’ to you?”

1946, merger of advertisment + editorial. Ad– “toward” + vertere “to turn.” Literally, “a flip-flop (US) or U-turn (UK) for editorial content.” Related: oxymoron, abomination.


B2B (abbrev.)

“Go B2B. You don’t want the customer interfering with this; they hardly ever know what’s right.”

“Business to business” as in “commerce conducted between corporations, bypassing the wits and interests of the consumer.” The abbreviation’s ironic sense of “esoteric” is almost always lost on the people who use it. Often mistakenly thought to be a derived from AtoB, but this ignores the incestuous circularity of the word.


B2C (abbrev.)

“I’d bypass all that corporate bullshit and stick to a strictly B2C model.”

“Business to consumer.” A derivative of B2B; although less circular, the abbreviation has not been as widely popularized because it deliberately rejects the uninitiated, ie. the customer it names.


Bandwidth (n.)

“To be perfectly honest, Bob, I just don’t have the bandwidth right now to organize the nibbles for your leaving drinks and be out of here by 5 o’clock.”

1801, band “band (brass)” + width “wide + breadth.” Related to the idiom “One member shy of a band” meaning “One member shy of a (brass) band.” Modern variant of “not enough people/time/capacity to do a task justice” stems from this. First usage thought to have been in 2009 during a boardroom meeting when an overstretched employee cited his recent gastric bypass as the reason for having missed three consecutive deadlines. Related: one sandwich short of a picnic.


Blue-sky thinking (n.)

“Yes of course I realize that we can’t sew string into sales or afford to buy our own Twitter trend, but this is a blue-sky thinking exercise.”

Blue-sky + thinking, originally two unrelated words. First recorded use in a letter from William Wordsworth to his wife Dorothy discussing his famous poem “Daffodils” or “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud.” Sense of “ignoring the dark storm clouds of reality” from boardroom meetings, 2007 onwards. Antonyms: actionable.


Brain dump (v.)

“So this morning I just want you to brain dump all over the boardroom, guys!”

Earliest record, 1933, from French brasier “to stew” + dumpare “to throw away” meaning “to throw away old stew.” First coined in a very early draft of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Sense of “corporate word vomit which tends to pool in a PowerPoint presentation; a useless brainstorm; a brainstorm” from 2007. Replacing brainstorm and offending Orwell.


Brainstorm (n. & v.)

“There are no wrong answers when we brainstorm. Some are just less valuable in the long-run.”

1997, from French brasier “to stew” + Old Eng. in “into, upon” + Italian stormo “a fight”. Meaning “a poorly illustrated and seemingly unconnected mishmash of ideas.” As a verb meaning “to create a brainstorm, whether you have a working whiteboard pen or not; to draw many lines; to pretend to think very hard about the question in hand” by 1998. Initially popularized but finally de-popularized by The Apprentice. Phased out with the decline of whiteboards and the will to live. Related: spider diagram, clusterfuck.


Diarize (v.)

“Pleeeeease don’t ask me to confirm times face-to-face. Let’s diarize things at a later date.”

2000s, from Latin diarium “daily record” (later “iPhone calendar”) + z “thou unnecessary letter.”


Fire-fighting (v.)

“I know last year was all about fire-fighting but 2014 is the year we build a whopping great loft extension on top of this flammable house of a business! Who’s with me?!”

Fire + fight-ing. Sense of “solving problems; retrieving lost passwords; replacing the toner” attested from 21c. Distinct from Old Eng. feohtan “to fight.”  Unrelated to real-life flames and never comes to fisticuffs. More closely related to firewall (1990) “an imaginary defense against an invisible threat on the web.” Antonym, fire-fighting as actioned in real-time by actual fire(wo)men/people.


Golden Handcuffs (n.)

Robin: “I mean on the one hand, I want to stay past 9 pm so I can expense dinner, but then on the other hand, why would I want to stay past 9 pm?”

Henry: “Golden handcuffs…”

Latin for handcuffs + banker wanker. Figurative meaning “lawful mugging of the soul; can’t complain for fear of falling behind on your mortgage payments” is from German Legend Faust.


Granular (adj.)

“Why would I care what Sally-Ann had for lunch every Tuesday in January? This report is granular to the point of ridiculousness.”

c.2012, “detailed; micro-sized; bitty.” Often used pejoratively in conjunction with too, as in “this report is too granular.” First use “shoot, the recipe stipulated caster,” discovered in the marginalia of a first edition copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child, 1961.


Hot-desking (v.)

“You can hot-desk with the other interns if you like? No, it’s not paid.”

c.1990 “flexible office space.” Sense of “not enough financial security to offer employees anything but a short-term contract” dates from post-2008.


Infotainment (n.)

“Think didactic but dynamic! By the end of this video I want customers to know how to wire a plug, but I don’t want them to know that they know, well I do, but I don’t want them to know that they’re about to know… Whatever, I want infotainment.”

c.2010, information + entertainment. Sense of “lazy portmanteau which conflates two nouns and forfeits the sense attached to both root words in the process” attested shortly after its conception. Often used to disprove Gestalt psychology which posits that the sum is greater than the value of its parts.


Interface (v.)

Ben: “Let’s interface tomorrow.”

Ted: “But we’re both here right now?”

Of unclear origins and purpose but most likely derived from Latin interfacia “between faces.” Literally “among, between, betwixt, in the midst of faces.”


Killer app (n.)

“Have you heard about Tinder? Killer app.”

Late 21c., slang for “super great and necessary phone application.” Literally “to be beaten into dependency by technological advances” (kill “to strike, beat” + esser “to be” + applicare “attach to, connect”). See: to die for.


Laterbase (n.)

“Add it to the laterbase along with ‘contactless restaurants,’ ‘phablets,’ and ‘6G,’ will you?”

2008, from Latin laterbassin “items which disappear down the sink plughole.” Popularly used to mean “not enough bandwidth to action in the foreseeable future.” Sense of “putting off” adopted by unmotivated or apathetic employees one year into their contract. See: table.


Low-hanging fruit (n.)

“Have we gone after all the low-hanging fruit yet? Did we try posting more photos of cats on our Facebook page already?”

2000s, popularized in the US and UK by video games. Coined in Sony PlayStation Magazine, 1998 “… when running out of life, grab the low-hanging fruit first and then use your renewed strength to jump for the higher-scoring apples.” Has roots in the Greek lorehungfruit “a sponsored Twitter trend is too expensive.”


Offline (adj.)

“Let’s take this offline. Get your coat.”

“Communication conducted without a 3G, 4G, or wireless connection.” Literally “lost computer connection,” off “away from” + line “computer networks.” From the archaic Old Eng. inperson.


Reach out (v.)

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to him. Yes, email him, exactly.”

Early medieval, “extend yourself towards something actual.” Later popularized by Depeche Mode in “Personal Jesus,” August, 1989. Sense of “any form of intangible communication” from early 2000s.


Real-time (adj.)

“I don’t want it in dog years, Susie. I want it in real-time.”

c.∞ or possibly Digital Era, real “actually existing, any true thing” + tima “limited space of time.” Replaces the now archaic time. Meaning of “the time it takes you to do your laundry as opposed to the time elapsed between tweeting about doing your laundry and your first retweet” is post-millennial.


Social Notworking (v.)

“Social Notworking is easily disguised amongst Social Media Editors who have a legitimate reason for spending all day with Facebook and Twitter open on their browsers.”

2014, social (adj.)+ not (adv.)+ work-ing (v.),“listless and undirected sociability during office hours.” A play on early modern Amer. social-networking “feeling, though not being, connected to a sphere of people.” First recorded use in UK publication The Guardian (2014) but thought to be in common parlance considerably earlier. Stems from the reaction to the multi-tab culture of the early 2010s. Likely roots in a phrase from TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton “Distracted from distraction by distraction” but no concrete lineage on account of the The Voice being on that week.


Synergy (n.)

“I want to be able to feel the synergy, people.”

21c., of disputed origin, most likely corrupted Greek or Latin, possibly Old Norse. Some scholars suggest it comes from the French synergein “to work together.” Alternatively Old Eng. synn “moral wrong-doing, mischief” + Latin gregarius “pertaining to a flock; of the herd.” Literally “a sin against the collective good.”


Table (v.)

“Uh, I thought we tabled that last week which sort of explains why I haven’t done it… But if I’m being perfectly honest, Bill, I wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth anyway.”

mid-15c., “enter into a list, form into a list or catalogue.” The sense of “delay, postpone an idea; make a note to add to next week’s agenda and then misplace that note so all trace of the irksome task sinks to the bottom of the post room” from c.2010.


Trending (v.)

“Did you see that Cher’s dead?! #nowthatchersdead was trending all day.”

2005, Old Eng. for village gossip. Trend + –ing.


Troubleshoot (v.)

“Hi, I’m calling from Blue Sky Thinking Inc. We specialize in troubleshooting for companies who have been treading water all year because they only have enough bandwidth to fight fires. Sir are you still there? Sir?”

Anglo-America slang, “to destroy challenges to blue-sky thinking.” From Amer. pop culture trouble “Taylor Swift’s idea of a bad boyfriend” + shoot “to obliterate something with little care for the lives of others.” Thought to have been first used in a NRA pamphlet.


Verbiage (n.)

“Don’t waste time with the verbiage—we can get one of the English majors to add in that crap once we’ve signed off on the basics.”

“The bits in between buzzwords and bullet points” as in “we can add in the verbiage later.” First found in technobabble of early 2010s. Literally “do away with the archaic idea of language.” Replacing verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, ad infinitum. Related: newspeak.


White labelling (v.)

“We have a GREAT brand identity which really lends itself to branded content! Of course we can also white-label it if you’d rather not be associated with the brand.”

Originally white (adj.) + label (n.), first used as a verb c.2012 when sponsored content became king and integrity fell into decline. See advertorial.

Emma is a writer living in London and working for The Wylie Agency. Her writing has found its way onto The Huffington Post and the occasional dating website. She is also the author of one half of a published book about university. She can be found and hired here: @emma_etc.