World in Brief: Jargonbuster

Going forward

The World Today Published 4 October 2013 Updated 7 December 2018 1 minute READ

We are all towers of Pisa. Sheryl Sandberg, the boss of Facebook, is leaning in. Barack Obama ought to be more forward-leaning over or into Syria, according to some commentators, who regret that public opinion on the subject is so backward-leaning.

Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, in an interview lamented that the West had not been more forward-leaning in Afghanistan before 9/11 to try to head off the terror threat.

To ‘lean in’, the title of Sandberg’s book, apparently means to be more assertive in grabbing opportunities. To lean forward simply means to be more assertive. It is one of a family of clichés popular in politics and business in which the metaphor of pointing in the right direction is used to suggest decisiveness.

Strangely enough, however, the phrase ‘direction of travel’ itself does not signify decisiveness so much as a conviction that one has got the general idea. As in: ‘Never mind the details, the direction of travel is clear.’

The metaphor of direction was simplified to the point of absurdity as the title of the Labour Party manifesto in 2005, Forward Not Back, which was also, while we are being pedantic, an example of the Tautological Negative.

The most common example of this kind of language is ‘going forward’, which usually means no more than ‘next’ or ‘in future’ and which is usually redundant.

The confusion of travelling in geography and in time means that some businesses are now working to make themselves ‘future-proof’.

However, ‘forward’ has spawned a whole sub-dialect of jargon, starting with that other tautology, ‘forward planning’. Companies and political parties have long wanted to be ‘forward-looking’, ‘forward-thinking’ and they want to ‘own the future’. Newer varieties of the dialect include ‘forward architecture’ (as in ‘your role does not exist in the forward architecture’).

At least it is not forward-leaning architecture, whether in Pisa or elsewhere, for which the foundations were presumably not properly laid.