New York Writer
Steve Greechie, MBA, MSLIS, MA
Writer for Business and Personal Affairs


The Merchant's Companion, 1715

A Note on Language for Business Librarians
by Steve Greechie
Information Outlook, the magazine of the Special Libraries Association
September 2005

The misuse of language pervades all but the most literary strata of society, but it's nowhere more prevalent than in the business community. Business language has been poisoned by the use of jargon. The point was made clear to me recently at a seminar sponsored by a respected trade organization. The moderator told us: "jargon is knowledge"; the speakers proceeded to use specialty terms inconsistently and with objective error.

Jargon

"Jargon" is defined variously as technical language, specialty language, misused technical language, etc… If we define it as a misuse of language, there's no need to argue against it. If we define it as a specialized language, we can't deny that it has its place. Virtually every advanced discipline necessarily has its unique set of terms, and the various sectors of the business community have many. But the need for specialty language must not lead to its misuse.

Of course, there is a problem is defining the words themselves. Many words are difficult to define, including many business terms. Some words can only be trusted in the context of a strictly defined discipline. The word "trade" has various meanings to the stockbroker, the consul, the unionist. The word "capital" means one thing to a financier, another to an economist. Its use in phrases is bewildering. To make matters worse, we lack a thorough, dependable business dictionary.

Sloppy language

Granting the above, it's clear still that people use words to have meanings only vaguely related to their definitions. They use verbs as if they were nouns ("a disconnect") and impress each other with participles (God help us, "modularized"). PowerPoint presentations, and even websites, subject the innocent to the horrors of faulty parallelism. We subjected to constructions like:
Choose one:
(1) sign up now
(2) reports
(3) easy

Grammar exists for a reason, and sloppy language reflects sloppy thought.

The business writer apparently assumes that the reader (with the speaker, the listener) will know what she means from the context. Of course, she often does understand. But this occurs in cases in which she knows what the writer means before she reads the material. The danger here is obvious, and language is meant to do more than confirm our expectations. In the long run, the careless use of words makes for confusion and misunderstanding. Unclear definitions make for unclear passages.

Precision

It's the particular responsibility of business librarian to demand the precise use of terms. We who deal with information per se must demand clarity on the micro level. This by no means goes without saying. When asked to identify the companies that comprise a market, how many of us have pointed out that companies comprise an industry? Customers comprise a market.

For example, we might start by discriminating between the "insider" who owns more than 10% of the company's stock (let's call him the "owner insider"), the "insider" who's an officer or director of the corporation (I suggest "position insider"), and the "insider" who has access to non-public information (the "information insider").

Scatology

Further, no one would pretend there's any excuse for the common sexism, racism, homophobia and scatology and we find in business communications, particularly speech. The perpetrators seem to think it's all acceptable, and they're hardly aware of what they're saying in this regard.

Accuracy

Our comrades in law libraries have always understood the importance of accuracy. But it's incumbent on business librarians as well to insist, for example, on the correct name of a corporation. Exxon Mobil Corp is not Exxon USA - or any of the other variations of the name. Even some of our tools, common proprietary databases, throw around company names willy-nilly, assuming that we know to what they're referring.

We expect academia to lead in the area of disciplined terminology, and certainly business schools are more responsible than the corporate world in their lexicon. The danger is that as b-schools identify increasingly with the business community, they compromise their academic standards. They become symptomatic of the discipline rather than prescriptive. Business programs fail to realize the rigorous standards we find in the arts.

As for library schools, it's their nature to be meticulous. We should encourage them to apply to courses related to business the same discipline that they apply to cataloguing.

Intent to mislead

We need to investigate, as well, the causes of the misuse of language in business. I don't have to point out that it's caused largely by intellectual laziness and poor education. But it's caused as well by deliberate intent to mislead. Marketers consider it their job to stretch meaning to its limit, to their own advantage and within the letter of the law. To note only the most obvious example: look at how many press releases we read announcing "new" and "revolutionary" products. No one thinks they're new and revolutionary, least of all people who write that stuff.

This excretion of soft disinformation is so pervasive in business that we exhibit it among ourselves. We tell each other that the product is revolutionary to justify telling this to the public. And look at the condescending blather that HR departments turn out, referring to competencies as "leadership skills", and to commitment as "passion".

Cuttlefish

In 1946, George Orwell wrote that ready-made phrases "will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself" (Orwell, George. 1946. Politics and the English Language). He goes on to say, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible". What would he say of the manipulative, self-serving drivel that's become the prose of business? The typical marketer writes, to apply Orwell's phrase, "like a cuttlefish squirting out ink".

We can't expect the library community to redress the evils of the world. But we do what we can. We suggest, we object, we clarify. In short, we resist. Business librarians straddle two worlds - the world of business and the higher realm of information science. We must include among our professional principles a commitment to further proper business terminology - discipline in usage and integrity in intent.

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