For an interesting exercise, consider this: take a critical look at words and expressions.

Do you think of yourself as a human resource? I certainly do not, and I have always found it highly undesirable that for many years organisations have had “human resources departments”, instead of personnel departments, which used to be the norm. I am sure the experts can produce reasons for this, but the reasons do not convince me. In my opinion, the term is used as a means of making people impersonal and, therefore, making it easier to ignore them and their needs.

It is also, I suspect, part of a much wider practice of using words, and terms, as jargon, with little regard to thinking about the real meaning of what one is trying to say. It cannot even be argued that the practice saves words and time. Human resources, after all, is two words where one — personnel — is perfectly satisfactory.

The same can be said of the widely used “at this moment in time”, which means “now”. It is used out of pure habit, and I imagine many who use it believe that it is in some way more official — rather than simply more verbose. Sometimes expressions are used not necessarily because they are thought to lend authority but simply because it has become the practice never to use one word where three can be found. A good, and widely used, example is “in terms of”. An interesting exercise is to consider whether there is any case when the use of that phrase adds anything at all to the meaning being conveyed.

There are many instances of expressions whose users feel that they lend authority to what is being said. A good example is “let’s touch base about that offline”. It is difficult to see why that should be thought an improvement on “we should talk about that outside the office”. It has simply become “the name of the game” — and speaking personally, it is not a game I wish to play.

I also dislike the concept of “pushing the envelope”. Apart from the fact that it rarely if ever adds anything to what the speaker means, the concept is nonsensical. Envelopes are to put things in, not to push.

Equally stupid is the idea of “thinking outside the box”. It raises the question what sort of box is being referred to — and the question also about what meaning is intended with the box reference. Presumably the idea is that the person doing the thinking is inside a box, which is strange. What sort of box is referred to? Why is the thinker inside it? If I were in a box (other than a coffin!) I would be thinking about how to get out of it, and would continue my other thinking when I had achieved that.

Another of my favourite dislikes is the use of the phrase “the elephant in the room”. The idea it is intended to convey is that what is being referred to is well known but is something that people do not want to mention. Grudgingly, I’m prepared to admit that the phrase does have something to commend it — but that is not going to encourage me to use it.

I readily agree that language should not be rigidly set in time. New linguistic ideas are certainly worth considering. That said, there is surely a strong case for thinking carefully about what any word or phrase actually adds to the point that one is trying to make. What gain in meaning, for example, is obtained by talking of “360 degree thinking’? To me, it suggests going round in circles.

Very often words are used in order to give an impression that what is referred to is more authoritative than is necessary (or indeed reasonable). An example which I find irritating is “logistics”. Its meaning is well defined as the commercial activity of transporting goods to customers — but is that really better than “furniture removal”?

Sometimes the pomposity of jargon can be a great cause of amusement. A recent example in my experience was a lorry bearing the slogan “equine nutrition”. I would have loved to stop it in order to ask how this differed from horse food.

I admit that in writing this article I am firmly labelling myself as a pedant. I admit, too, that, as I mentioned above, we should all accept that language is constantly changing. I do not resist all change. That said, my instinct to look critically at many words and expressions remains.

bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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