A vintage year for the Management Guff Awards


Jargon, mixed metaphors and ridiculous euphemisms were taken to new heights in 2010

AT THE beginning of every year, I hand out prizes to companies and individuals who have shown the greatest flair for butchering the English language or for talking through their hats during the previous 12 months.

Every year I observe that the quality of the jargon has been the best yet, but in 2010 it was so outstandingly good it has shifted every paradigm in the book.

Indeed, it has even shifted the book itself. Thus the first gong in the 2010 Management Guff Awards is in a brand new category – daft new names for common nouns. Ian Freed, vice-president of Amazon Kindle, gets a silver medal for renaming books “reading containers”, but Toyota, which has rebranded the car as a “sustainable mobility solution”, scoops the gold.

Another new award is for the best combination of weasel words. The overused “deliver” and “window” – which are only acceptable when referring to something that can be transported in a van or to something you can see through – are combined by Royal Dutch Shell to create something entirely opaque.

The company recently declared that it was “in a delivery window for new growth” – a statement that was surely gagging for a gong.

In previous years, I have handed out numerous awards for euphemisms, but the winner of this year’s Golden Fig Leaf is rather special. Stockbroker JM Finn explained to customers that it was charging more: “We have decided to further progress a fee element.” Not only was a negative masquerading as a positive, but a split infinitive was thrown in for nothing.

In 2010, there was a stack of new euphemisms for firing people, the best of which came from a US bank that spoke airily of “bank-initiated departures”. But I have decided to subvert the award and give it to HB Fuller, the UK coatings company, for the announcement: “We invested in several key talent additions.” To use jargon for firings is wrong but understandable. To use it for hirings makes no sense at all.

One of the main pillars of jargon has always been metaphor, both sporting and mixed. Last month, a young man with an MBA said to me: “We should just hang round the hoop.” I wasn’t sure what he meant; I was sure he deserved the prize.

The mixed metaphor award goes to an equally outstanding entry. The UK Corporate Governance Code contains a heroic quadruple mixed metaphor: “a turning point in attacking the fungus of ‘boiler-plate’”, which is perhaps the most arresting thing in the whole document.

The fungus of jargon, meanwhile, starts with the little things – such as the preposition “up”. When I read in a recent report from Ernst & Young the phrase “the up-skilling of the workforce”, I considered up-chucking my lunch but decided instead to give the entry two awards. Not only does it win the prize for most annoying use of “up”, it also wins the nerb award, handed out for nouns pretending to be verbs. The gerund “skilling” introduces us to the new and unneeded verb: to skill.

The most hotly contested award is always for the silliest job title. I would like to commend consultants Frost & Sullivan for its client value enhancement executive, and the “major international bank” that advertised for a customer journey re-engineering manager. But the prize goes to Andy Roach of FBM consulting, who calls himself a “prosultant”.

This is as simple as it is gruesome, and I have a nasty feeling it might catch on.

In spite of the outstanding quality of the entries for the last year, I had no difficulty in deciding who should win the much-coveted golden flannel award for talking utter jibberish.

The 2010 winner is the investor Chuck Davies who was quoted in the FTas saying: “He is a deep-dive, granular, research-oriented person who really understands the inner workings of companies and is just a very free-cash flow, hard-asset-based investor.” He was speaking of one of the men who may take over from Warren Buffett; on the basis of this testimony one rather hopes someone else can be found instead.

Finally, the global guff award, given to purveyors of nonsense struggling in a tongue that is not their mother’s. This prize goes to the People’s Republic of China, which has taken a great leap forward in guff. In a yellow box at the bottom of its new Five Year Plan it declares: “Facing the future we are standing at a new historic starting point.” Which is just the sort of meaningless drivel that will make this new economic power fit right in with the business supremos of the anglophone world. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011)