“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” ― Nelson Mandela

Nonsense is futile.

Who Touched Based in my Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon ― Steven Poole


The ability, or rather desire, to speak clearly seems to have decreased substantially in recent years. Office jargon emerged across the UK and the USA in the late 20th century, but it has grown more meaningless and, frankly, perverse as time has progressed.

Author, journalist and cultural critic Steven Poole attempts to chase the roots of some of the more common and obscure examples of modern day office jargon in Who touched base in my thought shower?. Poole gives examples of office jargon ranging from “across the piece” to “zerotasking”, giving hilarious literal deconstructions, before exploring the origin and development of each phrase.

The book appeals for individuals to simply say what they mean, rather than subjecting workers to the horrors of jargon, which he refers to as one of the most “spirit sapping indignities of modern life”. There is nothing more frustrating than obscuring meaning through the use of meaningless terminology, which presents itself as “a kind of cheap competence that often marks a lack of competence in anything that matters”.

Poole writes of how he became extremely popular upon first writing about jargon for the Guardian in 2013. Commenters on the Guardian website’s network related to Poole’s fury by saying that office jargon made them want to “stab someone in the eye with a pen”, and even admitting to engaging in “Bullshit bingo” during meetings, by picking out how many times bosses used ridiculous terms.

Nowadays jargon is extensively used within the workplace and by those in the public sphere, and has proved particularly popular among politicians. Poole points out that Margaret Thatcher was one of the few politicians who refused to use jargon, referring to it as “all this guffy stuff”.

Speaking about his book on Radio 4’s Today programme, Poole emphasised that office jargon often has far more sinister undertones than just being annoying, and is frequently used by bosses in an attempt to obscure what is actually going on. Examples include referring to the need for staff cutbacks as “resizing” the company, rather than simply saying that people will be laid off – resizing would never be used if a company was being expanded.

Poole’s message is on the importance of clarity of communication. In a world where offices and organisations are increasingly interacting with people for whom English is not a first language, it is important, now more than ever before, to communicate clearly and without all the ‘guff’ that office jargon encompasses. Meaning is so easily lost when tied up within jargon, if indeed a meaning ever existed in the first place. To give a famous example, Kevin Rudd told an interviewer back in 2008 when asked a question about Asian security “I’ll reverse engineer and start at the third and move back to the first”. Frankly, your guess is as good as mine – and presumably his.

Poole’s concise jargon dictionary is a hilarious look at modern office jargon and the perceived need to obscure all meaning. A phrase which stands out as perhaps the most memorable: “As the astronaut Jack Swigert famously said during the near catastrophic Apollo 13 mission: “Houston, we have a solution opportunity”, because of course, it would be wrong to ever admit to there being a problem.

This review was first published in Global: the international briefing