Gary Mead on why we should avoid the linguistic inauthenticity of cliché and jargon

One of the most memorable creations of George Orwell was Newspeak, the language of Oceania, one of the fictional states in his novel 1984. It always astonishes me how prescient Orwell was. If Newspeak remains a dystopian fantasy, Ballsspeak is to be encountered on a daily basis. One of the finest examples of Ballsspeak can be heard after every tragedy, whether it’s Grenfell Tower or the latest instance of abuse in a care home: “lessons have been learned”, will be intoned by some bureaucrat who cannot imagine life without a cliché. You just know that no lessons have really been learned; the phrase reeks of insincerity, even if it’s meant sincerely.

What can be done about linguistic inauthenticity, better described as Ballsspeak? If there is a USP to Orwell Content it’s a continual effort to discourage our clients from lapsing into the clichés that disguise clarity of thinking, lucidity of expression. Among the piles of Christmas reading this year, I recommend buying a copy of Business Bullshit by André Spicer. It’s packed with examples of the kind of language garbage that has surreptitiously poisoned the world, not just of business but life generally. If the oceans are being poisoned by billions of plastic micro-particles, then our main form of communication – the world of words – has become stuffed to the gills with meaningless jargon. Ballsspeak has gripped the world.

Says Spicer: “This language has become a kind of lingua franca, used by middle managers in the way that Freemasons use secret handshakes – to indicate their membership and status. It echoes across the cubicled landscape. It seems to be everywhere, and refers to anything and nothing.” And it’s having an effect not just on language but on human happiness. Spicer links it to the inexorable rise of bureaucracy: “bureaucracy has gone rampant: there are more forms to be filled in and procedures to be followed than ever. According to a 2014 survey, the average US employee now spends 45% of their working day doing their real job. The other 55% is spent doing things such as wading through endless emails or attending pointless meetings.”

The two things go hand-in-hand – more Ballsspeak, more pointless bureaucracy. Why call people “human resources”? Why call making contact “reaching out”? We can all think of examples. Jargon is nothing other than a private language, used when thinking is inchoate and lacking in focus. All it does is set up barriers that need to be broken down before clarity can be achieved. So here’s a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution – eliminate Ballsspeak wherever you find it. You’ll find it wherever you have to stop and think what this phrase or word really means.

Picture: Megan Duthum/