Business leaders are often caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, not least when it comes to choosing the language they employ. On the one hand, they face pressure to use buzzwords to demonstrate they are innovative, cutting edge and up to the minute with the latest ideas, and on the other, they face pressure to cut the jargon and “talk straight” in a language everyone understands.
Critics are quick to point out the hazards of over-reliance on “Offlish” such as solutioning, siloing and even expendituring. At best, it shows a command of the contemporary vernacular and at worst, it suggests the speakers have no idea what they are talking about. Yet, the fads and fashions of business-speak need to be understood as part of the dynamics of wider language evolution.
Language is not monolithic, and nor are its users. What’s alien or obfuscating to one is not necessarily so to another.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Take the word “strategy”, for instance. Rarely considered jargon, strategy is respected as a staple in the business lexicon, a hardy perennial, immune to the whims of fashion. Consequently, it might be expected that its relevance and meaning is unambiguous, universal and unchanging. Our research paints a different picture. With support from Oxford University Press, we used the Oxford English Corpus, or OEC, a vast database of 1.8 billion words of 21st century English, to investigate how the term strategy and its various grammatical inflections (for example, strategic, strategize) are actually used, not just in business but across the English language.
Strategy has a much more dynamic, nuanced and intriguing character than previously imagined. Imported to English from ancient Greek, strategy is etymologically rooted in stratos, which means “an army or group of soldiers”. A strategos is a leader of a stratos and strategy is the art of warfare, or of leading, or commanding. A stratagem was a device used to deceive an enemy.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first appearance of the word strategy in English back to 1688 and military origins. Around 1840, strategy began to migrate into more common usage, taking on additional meanings around the 1950s in association with business competition and game theory. Despite its widening portfolio of application, the diffusion of strategy across the English language has not been uniform.
English is spoken by an estimated one-third of the world’s population, but not all English is the same English. Important linguistic differences exist between different dialects at the national, regional, local and community levels.
This is reflected strongly in our research, which found significant variation in the popularity of the term strategy across a range of dialects. For example, strategy is most popular in Irish English and South African English, occurring over twice as often as expected (230%) and least popular in Indian English, occurring only around a third as often as expected (36%). In British English and American English, the figures are 130% and 88%, respectively.
In the context of an increasingly globalized business environment, understanding the popularity and relevance of seemingly universal and neutral terms such as strategy can be crucial for effective marketing and communication.
We also found that different subject areas exhibit preferences for different inflections of strategy. The most striking example of this is the adjective strategic, occurring over 10 times more frequently in the military area than expected (1,050%), sending a clear signal that it is mainly a militaristic term. In contrast, the verb strategize occurs only half as often (52%) as expected in the military area. The verb is, by far, the least commonly used inflection of strategy overall, but is the fastest growing. Notably, its patterns of behaviour differ from strategy and strategic in almost every respect. For example, strategizing is almost exclusively used in informal and unedited written contexts such as weblogs and chat rooms, whereas the other inflections are most likely to appear in formal, technical and edited documents and speeches.
Language is in a perpetual state of flux; new words and phrases come and go all the time. Some evolve to become part of the general vocabulary, others adapt to serve specialized niche functions, others still are flash-in-the-pan fads or simply fade away unnoticed.
Our research suggests that those who urge us to simplify the language of business are swimming against the tide. Appeals for straight talk sometimes sound like the quest for “one best way”: in principle, not a bad objective, but under the circumstances, probably impractical. This is especially true if your customers, suppliers, employees and other stakeholders are diverse in terms of language, age, education and interests.
Put simply, it cannot be taken for granted that the particular meanings associated with words or expressions in one linguistic context will be understood in exactly the same way in another or that meanings will remain the same over time. This holds true even for apparently conventional terms such as strategy.
Business leaders who worry about using jargon can afford to relax. They are keeping good company when being creative with language. William Shakespeare, John Keats and Oscar Wilde were famous for their manipulation of English, even though language mavens of the day criticized them for language “abuse”. It’s perfectly apt that a true master in the art of communication, Shakespeare, was the first to turn the noun “dialogue” into a verb in Timon of Athens (1607) —Apemantus: “Dost dialogue with thy shadow? No,’tis to thyself. To the Fool”.
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Eamonn Molloy is a fellow in management studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. Contributions from Susie Dent, journalist and broadcaster, are gratefully acknowledged.