One of the strangest legacies of the 2012 Olympics was the turning of the word ‘legacy’ into an adjective. Part of the pitch for London to host the Games was that it would leave a legacy of urban regeneration in east London and something called the Legacy Corporation was set up to deliver it.
Since then, ‘legacy’ has come to mean anything left behind, from the supposed benefits of a prime minister’s period in office to the bad things for which a business leader was responsible that other people will have to clear up. This is where it becomes an adjective, as in ‘legacy issues’. The New York Times recently said that the sacking of Antony Jenkins from Barclays was part of a trend, ‘as banks look to adjust to a new environment of tighter regulatory scrutiny and to move beyond a series of legacy issues and investigations that have plagued results’.
Indeed, ‘issues’ to mean ‘problems’ has been a euphemism for so long that, when drunks square up to each other in a pub, they probably now demand to know, ‘What’s your issue?’ But ‘legacy issues’ has only recently become the standard euphemism of business reporting to mean any bad decisions or horror stories discovered in the accounts of a subsidiary in a faraway country about which it is hoped people will soon stop harping on about.
Balfour Beatty, the construction company, made a particularly jargon-rich announcement, saying that its ‘ongoing, in-depth review of group businesses has continued to identify legacy issues in the UK, US and Middle East which will result in an additional shortfall …’ That is what you do with legacy issues: you have an ongoing and in-depth review of them until they go away.
The peculiar language of the business pages would be a wonderful subject for a linguistics PhD – perhaps it has already been done. It is only in the business pages, for example, that we still see the phrase, ‘let go’, which is as old as the hills. In politics, people ‘resign’ when they are told that that their services are no longer required. But even in the newest of internet companies, the older euphemism survives. The Guardian reported, for example, that ‘redditors’, the users of the Reddit website, were upset when ‘Reddit’s popular director of talent, Victoria Taylor, was let go from her post’. If only we could ‘let go’ of such clichéd euphemisms.