An A to Z of office jargon

Blue Sky

Blue Sky

by Simon Henry @simlington

English is a very flexible language – but many of the following examples of office jargon in 2014 stretch it to snapping point.

The merely hackneyed ‘blue-sky’, ‘thought shower’ and ‘pushing the envelope’ have been replaced by the pseudo-scientific ‘transitioning’, ‘operationalise’ and ‘matrix’.

Steve Jenner of the Plain English Campaign says: “Some people think that it is easy to bluff their way through by using long, impressive-sounding words and phrases, even if they don’t know what they mean.”

What follows isn’t an amusing list of made-up, office words like Deja-brew (asking if people want a drink when you know they’ve just got one) or Social Notworking (messing around on Facebook and Twitter instead of working). The full list of these in the Daily Telegraph is worth a read – if only as light relief from the following roll of shame.

This is rather a list of words and phrases that are used every day in British offices. They really are used – often without irony.

In the spirit of constructive criticism rather than hopeless bitching, I’ve given alternatives (or translations) to the jargon. Where I’m genuinely lost for words, I’ve used a question mark – the punctuation equivalent of a horrified shrug.

2017 update: Speak in brackets – As an aside
(Thanks to Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble With Goats And Sheep, for this howler.)

Activity plan – To do list
Actions – To do list
Alignment – Agreed
All hands – Department meeting
Annual leave – Holiday
Asap (when pronounced ‘Ayesap’) – Now
Ask (As in ‘It’s a big ask’) – Difficult.

BAU (Business as usual) – Normal
Backfill – Providing cover while someone is on holiday. Originally an engineering term for filling a hole this is now used as follows: ‘If Charlie’s on annual leave, we’re not going to backfill him.’
Backburner – We’re not going to do it
Ballpark – Estimate (See also ‘Finger in the air’)
Bandwidth – Time or inclination
Baseline – See Re-baseline (it’s funny)
Basis as in ‘On a weekly basis’ – Every week or Weekly
Belt and braces – Do the job properly
Best endeavours – Not a chance
Best in breed – Best
Best in class – Best
Big ask – Impossible
Boiling the ocean – ?
Boulders on the runway – ?
Bunfight – Disagreement, not usually actually involving buns as weapons.

Can we …? – Actually means ‘Can you …?’ And, after you’ve performed the task, the person who said ‘Can we?’ will mop up any credit that’s going.
Cascading up – ? (Though this does illustrate a fundamental ignorance of the laws of physics.)
Catch up – Meeting with the boss (Turns the average British stomach for its false informality and fake friendliness.)
Challenging – ‘S**t’ or – if you don’t like swearing – ‘Crap’
Channels – Departments
Close of play – Home time
Coalface – Desk
Comfort break – Toilet
Competencies – Skills
Conceptual copywriter – If someone describes themselves in this way, beware. They think they can write. They can’t.
Cross-functional representation – ?

Deep dive – Look
Decisioning – Deciding
Deploy – Use
Diarise – ‘We’ll talk about it later.’ Use the extra syllables in this instance to make a real sentence – they’re worth it. If you don’t believe me, say ‘diarise’ out loud. It’s revolting.
Drill down – Find out
DRs – Direct reports – Workers
Ducks in a row – ?

Evolution not revolution – Used as a rhyming excuse for bad decisions or an inability to make a decision at all – with a basic misunderstanding of biology and politics thrown in.
End of play – Home time
Evangelist – Creep

Feeding back – Opinion
Finger in the air – Estimate
Fire fighting – Not saving lives but rather panicking about emails and computers.
Fire off an email – Email (verb)
Fit for purpose – OK
From the get go – From the start
Font door process – Process

Game changer – A change
Game plan – Plan
Going forward – In the future / next
Go no go – Yes or no
Granularity – Detail
Greenlight – Used as a verb, as in ‘This iteration is fit for purpose, so we’re greenlighting it’. How about ‘approve’?

Head count – Workers
Heads-up – Explain or a warning that the crap is about to hit the fan.
High altitude view – ?
HODs (Heads of department) – People who are paid more than you.

Incentivise – Encourage / Pay
Ideation – ?
In flight – Now
Interface – Meet
Issues – Problems

JFDI – Just f***ing do it – Actually this is pretty good.
Journey – This has moved from the office to the wider world. Olympic medal winners have journeys now. So do people who reach the semis of The Great British Bake-Off.
Just – As in ‘Could you just update that spreadsheet?’ Ten hours later you’re still working on it.

Kit – What people who don’t really understand technology call hardware.
KPI – Key Performance Indicator – Target
Knowledge specialist – Ignoramus

Land – Finish
Learning – Lesson
Legacy – Old
Leverage – Use
Lock down – Agree
Long pole in the tent – Has a double meaning: 1. Something that physically holds up a structure  – like one of those tents with a pole in the middle. 2. Something that holds up (delays) a project. This second use was popularised by George W Bush. Both uses make you sound dumb and extremely annoying.
Loop in – Include
Loop back – ?
Low-hanging fruit – A tired and massively overused cliche meaning stuff that’s easy to do, like setting up the out of office message on your email or accepting a meeting request. If someone uses this phrase, they’re probably really struggling with life.

Manage expectations – No
Market place – Market
Matrix – Spreadsheet at a push, more likely to be a list.
Mitigation – Excuse
Move things forward – Do some bloody work.

Narrative – Making a push for the title of Worst Corporate Word, 2014. Means ‘history’ or ‘story’ in ‘creative’ industries. A real spine-tingler when heard in context.
Negative space – Used by designers who don’t have any imagination.
No brainer – Obvious

Offline – Later or (more likely) never
Operationalise – ?

Paradigm shift – A useful expression in physics. Used to try to lend gravitas to questionable ideas.
Partnering – Joining
Piece – As in ‘This will lock down the learnings in the ideation piece.’ – Part. Please don’t use ‘piece’ – it sounds really, really, really horrible in this context.
Ping – Send
Pre-prepare: Prepare
Polish this bad boy – ?
Price point – Price
Proactive – Active
Productise – ? Create ? (Ugh.)
Put lipstick on a pig – Similar to ‘Polish a turd’. Usually used in the negative, meaning ‘Bound to fail’. True of the vast majority of projects.

Q1, Q2, H1, etc – Used to give the impression you understand the science of numbers, accountancy, etc when you don’t really, do you?
Quick one – As in ‘Just a quick one: Could you dig out the numbers for Q4 last year?’ Ten hours later, you’re still stuck at your desk. (See ‘Just’).
Quick win – Simple task

Radar – Used by people stuck in an office who failed to get an exciting job that actually uses radar, like fighter pilot.
Rationalise – Fire, or sack
Reach out – Get in touch. (US jargon creeping into the British offices in 2014.)
Re-baseline – We’ve completely screwed up our forecasts and are starting again, but we’re going to pretend that it’s not a monumental cock-up and that it was  planned all along.
RAG status – Means Red, Amber, Green. Things are usually Red – meaning screwed.
Regrettable spend – “Oh sh**ing hell. We’re seriously f***ed.” (New for 2014.)
Resource – People
Real time – Time
Road map – Plan
Roll out – Start

Space – As in ‘We’re leaders in the sub-£3 pre-cut, pre-prepared, pre-washed salad space’ – Market. Like ‘piece’ above, it just sounds horrific in this context. Serious contender for title of Worst Piece of Office Jargon Ever.
Sign off – Finish
Shirt size – Estimate
Skill set – Skill
So – When used as a preamble to a conversation or email is very irritating. Particularly if it doesn’t follow on from anything.
Solutionise – Solve or Fix
Stakeholder (management) – Pain in the arse. Blame Blair for this with his ‘stakeholder society’ – shorthand for selling more council houses.
Strategic – Usually an excuse for poor, unjustifiable decisions that have been demanded by a boss with an inflated ego.
Strategise – Plan or organise.
Step change – Change
Step up to the plate – Do
SME (Subject Matter Expert) – Unlikely they’re an expert in the subject matter.
Sunsetting – Ending or finishing.
Synergies – Force incompatible things together in an attempt to save money. (The consequence is almost always huge extra expense and frustration when things don’t work out as planned.)

Tactical – We haven’t got the money or skills to solve this properly.
Take ownership – Own
Thought leadership – Oh Christ. This is scarily Orwellian. LinkedIn-speak. Horrible, horrible, horrible.
Throwing peanuts from the sidelines – Being annoying
Touch base – Meet
Transformation – Change
Transitioning – Making people redundant.
Triage – Assess. (Used as a verb. And in case you think the BBC comedy W1A overstates things, it doesn’t. Real people do say: ‘We need to triage this shit.’)

Up to speed – Tell
Usability – A discipline that should help make websites easier to use. Actually a discipline that uses jargon like ‘satisficing’, ‘heuristic’ and ‘ribcaging’.

Value engineer – Do it as cheaply as possible
Value Add – Justify
Value steering – ?
Vanilla – Normal
Verticals – Areas

War Room – Meeting room (usually smelling of BO and cheesy feet).
Weaponise – ?
Wheels come off – Broken
Win win – Win
Workshop – A talking shop where no actual work is done
Work stack – Work
Work stream – Work
Wake up call – Warning

Zero in – Focus

If you’ve made it this far, you may be pleased to know this list will be updated as fashions in office jargon change. See it as a testimony to the suffering of innocent office workers who just want to hear plain English – and as a plea to those who use jargon to cut it out. Please!

If you enjoyed this, perhaps you’ll enjoy my Defence of the three-letter acronym and the Verbal tic anthology

With thanks to: Joanna Cannon, Emma Godivala, Cate Nisbet, Daniel James, Mike Dale, Scott Allen, Sarah Jones (@smart_desk), Andy Tyack, Adrian Royles, Jon Maher, Heather Timm, Kevin Marrow, Gordon Brown, Paul Key, Charlie Ross, Paul Denman, Briony Joan Wilson, Tallulah Godivala, Sue Ambler, James Pittendreigh, James Nash, Nicholas Harman. Stephen Kirkby and Eva Finn.

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34 thoughts on “An A to Z of office jargon

  1. andyandyandy

    Simon, that is hilarious. I read it whilst squashed on a commuter train with 8000 other people and kept LOLling. Particularly cathartic after a day’s actionating and strategising

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  2. Nicholas Harman

    One could also watch the comedy series 2012 or W1A.

    I hate people reaching out to me. They can keep their damn hands to themselves. It is becoming UK viral too.. I just asked for a car insurance quote via a form on AXA’s website and got an email thanking me for ‘reaching out ‘ to them. I wasn’t that desperate, I only wanted a quote ffs.

    I also hate people beginning communications, either verbal or mail with ‘So..’ Tossers.

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    1. Simon Henry Post author

      You’re right.
      I’ll try to watch them on iPlayer. Heard good reports.
      The ‘so’ preamble is extremely worrying. I’ve started noticing it too.
      Grrr.
      Thank you.

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  3. James Nash

    Amazing list! I’ve heard virtually all of those… and I’m ashamed to admit I also guilty of using a few. *ahem*

    Anyway, here’s another one for your list that winds me up no end:

    Subject Matter Expert (aka “SME”): Expert

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    1. Simon Henry Post author

      James thank you for SME. I’ll add it in a mo. Pretty horrid, as you rightly say.
      And I hope you feel better for sharing the guilt! He he.
      Thank you. Hope you’ll carry on reading the blog.

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    1. Frank the ex DJ

      Speaking to someone for the first time on a call, I was appalled when they suggested we should organise some ‘face time’ when I’m next in London. Looking back, I think they just meant we should meet…

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  11. Huw Sayer - Business Writer

    Hi Simon – I’m impressed with your stamina, I’d have give up in tears at ‘ideation’ (although that would have meant missing out on JFDI, which I think is almost acceptable anti-jargon).

    I think (but one can never be sure with these things) that ‘cascade up’ and ‘loop back’ are pretty much the same and mean ‘tell your boss’ – as in “we’ll have to cascade back on how big an ask this latest re-baseline really is.” (In plain English, tell the boss his new strategy is as shit as his old one.)

    I see Chris (above) says ‘Win-win’ = we all lose – which is about right but I would suggest it’s more a threat – If I win, you’ll be OK – but if we lose, you get screwed.

    As for ‘ducks in a row’ – it means be prepared/organised (although I once heard someone pronounce the ‘row’ to make it sound as though the ducks were arguing, which put a whole new spin on the phrase). It’s a bit like ‘aligned’ – although that can also mean ‘when we finally understand each other’ (which is increasingly difficult when everyone uses this jargon).

    Best wishes

    Huw

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  12. garry

    Please add my own personal pet-hate ‘utilise’ or even worse ‘utilize’. I have walked out of meetings when people have used this word.

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  13. Scott Keyser

    The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (I’d hate to see the Longer one) has the word ‘jargonist’ from the 18th century, meaning ‘one who affects or uses a jargon’. But I think they meant ‘onanist’.

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  16. DeBakey

    Sorry a bit behind the times finding this.

    ‘Going forward’ is my pet hate. Unless there’s a TARDIS hidden somewhere, then we are all going forward in time. ‘Going forward’ is just a meaningless filler.

    PS Have just been sent an email asking me to ‘really own’ some scheme or other. Ugh.

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  17. apsupplychain@yahoo.co.uk

    I can’t believe that the 4 syllable `absolutely’ (what?) has been allowed to replace the single syllable yes.

    the superfluous existential.

    `very’ unique and `quite’ unprecedented.

    ..and `impact’ used as a verb, in stead of affect

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