Friday, August 16, 2002

The other day, I was talking to my Dad about the absurdity of "business-speak," the acronym-studded, jargon-laden, nonsensical babble that you hear in conference rooms these days. Sure, we've all heard the jokes about TLA's (Three-Letter-Acronyms), we've listened to opaque and seemingly-interchangeable technical terms that seem to serve no purpose other than to inflate the speech balloon over the speaker's head to bursting, some of us have even been lucky enough to hear people with C's in their titles tell us we need to "Grok the opportunity that [this or that endeavor] represents."

I've heard this said. No kidding.

Yes, these are sad and frightening trends, but what I've been noticing is more sinister trend towards blurring the line between the two most fundamental linguistic elements, Nouns and Verbs.

Now, nouns and verbs and their dichotomous interplay form the very basis of our language. The fundamental rythm of subject-verb, subject-verb, with the occasional coda-like addition of a direct object conducts the dance of ideas from mind to mind. The rythm is almost as natural as breathing in and out. Noun, Verb. In, and out. Dominant, tonic. Like waves on the shore. Pause, and step. Pause, and step.

But there's now a move underway in the business world to squash this semantic ballet by creating a new form of word that is neither noun nor verb, but a blurry smear of both - the "Nerb".

Consider the bastard creation, "decisioning," as in "that issue is currently going through the decisioning process," or "our company delivers decisioning software to Fortune 500 companies." How about "actionable?" There's a fun one - trying to masquerade as an adjective by hiding behind that "-able" suffix. Don't be fooled. It's a nerb at heart.

These are words that should not be. Their parentage is not only questionable, it is discernably monstrous. These are the linguistic Cat-Dogs that are being bred in the secret chambers of our lexicon. And this is not happening in the gutters and asylums, my friends, oh no, it's being done in the cathedrals of power - the boardrooms, the conference tables, the executive toilets. Like the Royals in England, these combinatory mistakes are destined not only to exist, but to rule.

Apart from just sounding absurd, these words actually do something potentially harmful, and I suspect that this is the competative advantage that has allowed these mutants to survive, even thrive, in a business environment. Like the passive voice, they remove responsibility from action.

Here's how. Consider the sentence "That issue is in the decisioning process." Compare it with "We are deciding that issue," or even "That issue is being decided." Even the latter, which is in the passive voice, seems more direct. "Decisioning processes" (or the previously-cited "decisioning software") actually place the responsibility for deciding on an external, often inanimate thing; a process or a program. "Wait," you might ask, "Isn't it the words "process" or "software" that actually obscure the responsibility by replacing the human actor?" In a way, this is correct - the word "decisioning" is just a modifier; it is actually the thing modified (a noun) that picks up the responsibility of the subject or actor. However, the blurriness of the word "decisioning" makes it easier to take as a modifier for poor scapegoats like process and software - somehow "deciding software" or even "deciding process" sound more awkward, are more difficult to swallow.

By the same token, the phrase "I decisioned that" doesn't work either. The use of the Nerb seems to force the use of the passive voice. Since there is already a more appropriate transitive verb ("to decide"), the brain doesn't accept the use of the Nerb ("decisioning") in this same role. The introduction of the Nerb into the sentence is made palatable only by the use of the passive voice. Perhaps the fact that it is part Noun allows the Nerb to assume some of that responsibility itself, thus removing it from any subject whatsoever.

They're wiley, these bird-fish.

Like most business-speak, the goal is to soften, to obscure, and to beguile; to shift the responsibility for action or inaction away from the human beings involved, and to artifically place it on abstractions, systems, processes, and the like.

Who knows. Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, we are bound to try to determine if our date is "wifeable" or "husbandable". Our Salami and Swiss will be "put through the sandwiching process," and we will read about the "deathing" of convicted felons in the paper.

Actually, more likely, that kind of news will be Televisioned.