“Here’s your ‘buzzword bingo’ card for the meeting,” Wally says to Dilbert, handing him a piece of paper. “If the boss uses a buzzword on your card, you check it off. The objective is to fill a row.”
They go to the meeting, where their pointy-haired boss presides. “You’re all very attentive today,” he observes. “My proactive leadership must be working!”
“Bingo, sir,” says Wally.
This 1994 comic strip by Scott Adams is a perfect caricature of office speak: An oblivious, slightly evil-seeming manager spews conceptual, meaningless words while employees roll their eyes. Yet, even the most cynical cubicle farmers are fluent in buzzwords. An email might be full of calisthenics, with offers to “reach out,” “run it up the flagpole,” and “circle back.” There are nature metaphors like “boil the ocean” and “streamline,” and food-inspired phrases like “soup to nuts” and “low-hanging fruit.” For the fiercest of office workers, there’s always the violent imagery of “pain points,” “drilling down,” and “bleeding edge.”
Over time, different industries have developed their own tribal vocabularies. Some of today’s most popular buzzwords were created by academics who believed that work should satisfy one’s soul; others were coined by consultants who sold the idea that happy workers are effective workers. The Wall Street lingo of the 1980s all comes back to “the bottom line,” while the techie terms of today suggest that humans are creative computers, whose work is measured in “capacity” and “bandwidth.” Corporate jargon may seem meaningless to the extent that it can only be called “bullshit,” but it actually reveals a lot about how workers think about their lives.