Jargonbuster: Taking the simple optionality

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The World Today
1 minute READ

Would Pfizer break up AstraZeneca if the takeover went ahead? Ian Read, Pfizer’s chief executive, replied: ‘We will conserve that optionality.’ You did not need to put that through the Enigma machine to know that he meant: ‘We might.’ It was a wonderful example of the use of jargon to do three things at once: to avoid answering a question directly; to try to sound expert and thoughtful; and to fail at both.

He might as well have said: ‘We will optionalize that conservation.’ Or: ‘We will maintain maximum flexibility within the decision-making envelope.’ If he were a government minister he would probably have said: ‘All options are on the table and it is very important that I rule nothing out and I rule nothing in.’

Indeed, Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, recently said: ‘There will be an overall envelope of resources for operating costs that will be subject to a downward trajectory over time.’

The English language is well suited to padding. It is easy to change verbs into nouns and back again, adding new suffixes each time. This makes life too easy for people who are under the illusion that longer words sound more impressive. Deliver can thus become a deliverable, and it may not be long before we encounter deliverabilization. Even Sainsbury’s now instructs customers to cook ready meals in an ‘ovenable’ tray.

The other way of making sentences longer without adding to their meaning is to use metaphors – such as envelope or trajectory.

‘Envelope’ once contained a hint of graphs of aerodynamic performance, but now makes you sound as if you are talking about office stationery. And trajectory makes it sound as if you are talking about rocket science rather than accountancy.

Science analogies are popular in business and politics, presumably because they lend an air of precision and pioneering excitement. That is why people talk about bandwidth when they mean capacity, or ‘moving the needle’ when they mean something that people might notice.

Still, the flexibility of English is also its great strength. Will the language survive? We must conserve that optionality.