The Full English

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Steve Gale likes words as parcels of meaning, but they sometimes need a bit of unwrapping.

The PowerPoint slides flickered and the spoken words rained like a summer shower. I was in a seminar which had cost real cash to attend, and bound once again into a format as familiar as my old school assembly.

It is impressive how Microsoft has taken our imagination hostage, and how rarely we resist its shortcuts to a predictable near-death experience. Standard fonts, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides with too many words are universal currency in business communication – recognised, accepted, consumed like harmless sandwiches that someone else has paid for at a meeting.

But today, zooming out of the presentations, some of which were genuinely engaging, were words that meant nothing at first sight. I wondered how a reasonably educated person like me would get stumped by plain English, delivered for my edification, in a setting that I had subscribed to. For the most part, about 90% of the time, I found the spoken words were meaningful and mainly comprehensible, but I felt the slides that clicked over and under the speech were an interference, invariably confusing, distracting and irrelevant. But when the stories were told, I sat up and listened.

And what I heard were phrases, words and acronyms which left me cold sometimes, or puzzled in others. I did not interrupt the speaker’s flow by asking for clarification, preferring to find out afterwards, make assumptions, or in some cases learn about their meaning as the story unfolded and a workable inference could be drawn.

Examples will show you what I mean, and expose my ignorance, but I reckon some of these conkers will help make my point that our language can move in a mysterious way even when listening to speakers at a fairly non-technical teach-in.

I have some meat and potato jargon, the usual three and four letter acronyms, misappropriated nouns, tortured phrases, and some perfectly grammatical ones, all capable of making your cheeks twitch in annoyance – and all delivered in a clear voice, with a straight face, and without explanation.

The morsels I offer are from memory. I have no record of the six presentations, and this means there are plenty I have forgotten.

“Some phrases just need a good wash and dry as they are too comical to be delivered by a sober person not in a courtroom”

So let’s start with ‘uberisation’. I think I can work out the implication here, in fact I quite like the cheeky feel of it – its knowing deprecation and urbanity. Next, does everyone understand the meaning of ‘accelerator’ when it’s a building but not in Geneva with protons flying around at the speed of light?

‘STEM skills’   were mentioned as something that would diminish in value as AI tightened its grip on the working population. I have to admit I looked this one up when I got back to the office. It means Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, but the prediction is at odds with what I have recently read about people educated in these disciplines being in increasing demand. I am not going to expand on AI, that one’s too easy – and no fun anyway.

The word ‘python’, used to describe another skill, woke me up – but later I assumed it was the programming language my son talks about. Other easy bits of jargon are ‘ransomware’, ‘thin client’ and ‘generation z’, but I foundered on ‘locational snapchat’, ‘digital framework’ and ‘collision coefficient’.

BYOD and IoT have entered our everyday lexicon it appears, but are you okay with LiFi – and could you explain what blockchain technology means, if pressed?

Some phrases just need a good wash and dry as they are too comical to be delivered by a sober person not in a courtroom – like ‘chief happiness officer’, ‘smart contracts’, ‘predictive regulation’ and ‘freedom within boundaries’.

But we all have our favourites, so let’s hear it for ‘ingrained functional inconvenience’ and ‘productivity leakage’ being both blisteringly redolent with innuendo and too slippery to nail down, even when heard in context.

What a marvellous thing our language is, and long live the mutants and mongrels we breed and tolerate.

(For completeness – BYOD is bring your own device, and IoT is the internet of things, both of which will change our lives IMHO. There I go again, just getting into the swing of this!)