Author Topic: The genesis of corporatese  (Read 8289 times)

Joe Carillo

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The genesis of corporatese
« on: December 11, 2023, 06:20:45 PM »
The habit of writing or speaking English corporatese begins harmlessly enough. It starts with snappy little jargon like “concretize,” “prioritize,” “optimize,” “energize,” “synergize,” and “operationalize.” Then it becomes a mild neurosis of talking and writing in euphemisms and fancy diminutives on one hand, such as describing a particularly big company loss as a “tactical setback” or a “strategic retreat,” and, on the other hand, using equally fancy superlatives such as ‘back-to-basics strategy,” “best-in-class initiatives,” “interactive multidimensional feedback loop,” and the classic ENRON bluster that says “laser-sharp focus on earnings per share.” Then the neurosis quickly grows into an overwhelming compulsion, an inner voice that incessantly whispers to one’s ear that to stay on the clear path to success in the corporate world, one should never catch himself being too honest or too forthright with his English.

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After all, the corporatese spinners would say, it’s only words, English words. Like little sticks and stones they are only words and they couldn’t hurt you. But what the corporate types conveniently forget or put under the rug is that there’s such a thing as executive ethics and responsible corporate governance. You are supposed to be honest and truthful to your colleagues and subordinates. You are supposed to be faithful and true to all the stakeholders of the company who put you on the executive suite: the stockholders, the investors, the customers, the employees and their families, the financial community, the government, and the scores of contractuals who wipe the dust off company desks or turn on the lights in the silent morning and take out the trash and finally turn off the lights in the dead of night.

In the few years that I was a passive observer in the corporate boardroom, I would sometimes see a CEO forget his corporatese in a fit of rage or pique. He would revert to speaking like a human when a new product had failed to get market share or when a much-ballyhooed sales or human resources program had fouled up. “What do I care about those greedy, good-for-nothing yokels?” the CEO would rant. “After all, I do all the work here. Them, they do not move their butts and they own only 30% of the stock cumulatively. My family and friends own the remaining 70%, so I can do as I wish for all I care. After us, the deluge.” But after a minute or two of venting spleen, he would be back to form and spouting corporatese again, obviously hard put and too embarrassed to explain a particularly bad year for his company in plainer terms than with this corporatese:

“The Corporation reported a loss from continuing operations before income taxes of Php46.2 billion and an income tax provision of Php132 million for the year ended December 31, 1992, compared with income from continuing operations before income taxes of Php33.6 billion and an income tax provision of Php242 million for the year ended December 31, 1991. The effective rate in 1992 was different from the statutory rate primarily because of nondeductible goodwill amortization expense associated with business acquisitions and because of nondeductible goodwill applicable to assets sold. The effective tax rate in 1992 was different from the statutory rate due to the utilization of state tax credits and foreign sales corporation tax benefits that more than offset nondeductible goodwill amortization expense associated with business combinations.”

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Strange, strange, the English and the logic that I see in vastly convoluted statements like these. Their otherworldly quality never fails to overwhelm me. There simply is no way for anyone with less than superhuman intelligence to get a handle of what they are saying in all this gobbledygook. In fact, statements like these give me the nagging suspicion that they are actually inverse fairy tales or, as one chief accountant had blurted out to me in a rare moment of candor, “little masterpieces of corporate fiction.” You can almost be sure that the use of corporatese in these reports is part of a massive and deliberate effort not to make things clear or understood by laymen like us. They want to keep you and me in the dark. Indeed, their glossing over of spectacular failures and the trumpeting of inconsequential or imaginary triumphs are not communication at all but plain and possibly felonious obfuscation.

This obfuscation is more pronounced in the so-called publicly owned companies, which are actually misnomers because only in very rare cases does the public own more than 30% or 40% of them. The bulk and weight of ownership effectively remains in the private hands of the majority owners, who can continue to call the shots in the company no matter how strident some minority stockholders become in their protestations against corporate malpractice. But that is a long, long story and certainly beyond the pale of this discussion of plain and simple English, so I will now stop.

I will simply add that one way out of this Catch-22 situation is to foster a new generation of enlightened and activist minority stockholders. We must, as a matter of right, demand full corporate transparency. Chairs, CEOs, and boards of directors of public corporations must be compelled by law to be open, candid, and honest in their corporate reporting. By fiat they must be forbidden to speak in corporatese ever again in public, just plain and simple English, perhaps even the vernacular. Their English must be bright and luminous as on that clear day, when the king thought he was in regal dress but was actually parading himself about town with not a stitch on.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
The genesis of corporatese
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The essay above, "The Genesis of Corporatese,” first appeared in Jose A. Carillo’s column in The Manila Times and subsequently in Part I - “Our Uses and Misuses of English” of his book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today's Global Language (First Edition ©2004, Third Updated Edition ©2023; 500 pages). The book is available at National Book Store and Facebook branches in key Philippine cities. For volume orders and overseas deliveries, send e-mail inquiring about pricing and bulk discounts to Manila Times Publishing Corp., circulation@manilatimes.net, or call Tel. +63285245664 to 67 locals 117 and 222.

(Next: Our need for thinking national leaders with the gift of language)     December 21, 2023

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. You can follow me on Facebook and X (Twitter) and e-mail me at j8carillo@yahoo.com.
« Last Edit: December 15, 2023, 01:22:12 AM by Joe Carillo »