Garbage Language: The Landfill of Self-Importance

Garbage language.  Hollow corporate jargon that trickles down to communication outside the workplace.  Similar to bombast but more concerned with appearing savvy than dignified.  Culprits include operationalize, futureproof, level set, parallel path, chat async, and ladder up—quasi-technical expressions that displace ordinary, intelligible words.

I first became aware of the term in a newsletter by Cheri Lucas Rowlands that referenced an article by Molly Young who credited the coinage to Anna Wiener, author of the Silicon Valley memoir Uncanny Valley.

Pop art rendition of a girl’s mouth with the caption bubble Bla Bla Bla.

Especially resonant was Rowlands’ observation that garbage language has even infiltrated the world of wellness.  Using yoga as an example, she explicates a number of instructional phrases, starting with the problematic “Let go of what no longer serves you.”  In this context the word serve and its relationship to the word you bothers her, and I agree.  After all, the religious traditions responsible for the development of yoga emphasize liberation from oneself.  It’s not about you or being served.  Embellishment of the essential phrase “Let go” only reveals a self-serving agenda.

Like real garbage, garbage language need not be highly visible.  It can tumble far from its source, shed its technical gloss, and hide in seemingly innocuous phrases such as reach out.  “Thanks for reaching out,” I often hear in response to having initiated contact.  What am I—a baby?  The implicit reminder that my overture makes me inherently vulnerable or dependent is altogether unnecessary.  But reaching out is not reserved for subordinates alone.  Those in positions of power can apply the phrase to themselves, thereby appearing charitable or even magnanimous, as in the usage “We’re reaching out to inform you…”

Sometimes a perfectly good word can carry the stench of garbage.  Share comes to mind, having been appropriated by social media companies as a pretext for data mining.  That fact changes the scope of that word and subsequently colors its meaning.  What was once a positive sentiment paired with cooperation now carries a creepy connotation.

Perhaps tainted words and contrived neologisms are just a case of good intentions misguided by lopsided values.  In practice, however, they reveal a much darker side of human behavior.  Garbage language empowers speakers by giving listeners no leeway to contest ad hoc expressions that nonetheless carry the authority of convention.  And those who question the slick lingo face ostracism as nitpicks or ninnies.  After all, they disrupt the pursuit of happiness, or in corporate terms, the pursuit of power.  Thus a phrase at the heart of the nation could itself become garbage in due time.

Despite the legitimacy given to corporate culture by culture at large, there remains something juvenile in its jargon and modus operandi.  The hiring and firing, the ambitions and secrets, the mergers and power plays…  Somehow the whole business retains an element of the schoolyard.  The emotions are the same only now the stakes are higher and involve more cunning.

Is it a stretch to connect garbage language to the bloated project of modern American selfhood, which in turn connects to a capitalist society suffering from broken families and non-existent communities?  Might an overdose of individualism be to blame for our continued susceptibility to garbage?  Let us not demonize the individual nor the possibility of acquiring wealth, rather, let us recognize the need for balance, or, counter-values and traditions that exist alongside moneymaking and other self-interests.

Pop art rendition of a girl’s mouth with the caption bubble Bla Bla Bla.
Me Me Me

Author: Todd Garlington

Urban spectator, Inner space cadet

7 thoughts

  1. Well written. I never gave thought to this aspect. At times, I myself am using some of the jargon randomly. “Operationalize,” “ROI” and a few more. Maybe at times we feel some sense of stress-killing joy from doing this.

  2. Someone at work said something incredibly annoying in Slack today, which reminded me, yet again, of the Vulture piece. It’s truly a brilliant, timeless article. Very glad to see that my newsletter (and Molly’s story) inspired this post.

  3. Pretty much spot on analysis as always.
    Corporations get away with doublespeak because it’s invaded the rest of society. The Yoga thing highlights that perfectly and gets back to my previous gripes about Marin County Buddhists and “spiritual materialism.” Even that term is being corrupted from Chögyam Trungpa’s original definition by some New Agers.
    Honestly, I wonder how long society… hell, civilization, can hold together when people just apply whatever definition they want to everything.

    1. Hello there. You’re welcome.
      Although garbage language can employ euphemism, it generally doesn’t. It’s more about making yourself feel important than veiling difficult or potentially offensive concepts. What the two have in common is the use of language that obscures meaning. Whereas euphemism softens its message, garbage language warps it.


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