Pilita Clark: Business language replete with confusing terms

Britain is being helmed by PM Boris Johnson. What is wrong with plain old ‘run’?

It is now more than four months since the FT moved across the Thames into a swanky building over the road from St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet every week a colleague still asks me a question that should have died away by now: where do you sit?

My desk is, admittedly, not in what an estate agent would call a convenient position within easy reach of local amenities. But it’s not that far out of the way either, and as I told a visiting business executive the other day I still bumble idiotically about the building myself when trying to find people.

"Ah," he said, "it might be the wayfinding. "

This was the first time I had heard that word uttered by a human. Until then I had thought it safely confined to architects’ websites or transport department news releases, where it is often used instead of the perfectly adequate word “signs”. Or the equally comprehensible “navigation” or “signage”.


A London design firm named Endpoint boasts on its website that it helped to get the word added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, “after way too much time seeing wayfinding tragically misspelt or hyphenated”.

To me it seems more tragic that it made it in at all. Hearing the word spoken aloud confirmed it had wormed its way into more common use than I had suspected.

Does it matter? I am normally a dull centrist in the language wars. A split infinitive rarely manages to seriously bother me. Ending a sentence with a preposition is something I can live with. I understand languages mutate to include words that initially sound odd but eventually do not. Yet the language of business seems to grow ever more full of redundant or confusing terms it could easily do without.

On water

Not that long ago a helm was something used to steer a boat or ship. The verb “to helm” existed, but anyone doing any helming still tended to be on water. Today they are all over the place.

A London restaurant has just announced it is being helmed by a chef named Adam Rawson.

A business newsletter has let me know Twitter's co-founder Jack Dorsey helms a technology company called Square. Another says Britain is being helmed by prime minister Boris Johnson.

What was wrong with plain old “run”?

You might think helming has grown exponentially since exponential is another word that has taken off at an increasingly rapid rate. “We are living in exponential times,” the British Council for Offices informed me recently.

A green group said the other day it had come up with a strategy “that harnesses the exponential power of modern media”.

The organisers of a technology conference said they were boosting “exponential innovation”. The last two sentences would have been more accurate without the word exponential.

The same goes for another word that has crept into common use for no reason: “space”. People were once content to say they worked in manufacturing, or had a job in the finance industry. It does not help anyone to say you are in the manufacturing or finance space.

Nor is there ever an excuse to say “key learnings” instead of “lessons”. This phrase has been rightly ridiculed for years. Yet it persists with the tenacity of an ugly weed that resists all attempts at eradication.

Two months ago the chairman of Australia's Macquarie Group, Peter Warne, almost said the investment bank was looking at lessons from the fallout of a royal commission that highlighted a string of egregious practices in the financial sector.

What he actually said was this: “We continue to review and monitor the outcomes and initiatives emanating from the commission as well as key learnings.” Which version sounds better to you?

Accept defeat

I doubt there is much hope of salvation. The fight against the “personal journey”, “going forward” and worse has already been lost. Perhaps it is better to accept defeat.

Some months ago a reader urged me to write about the awful use of the word “pivot” instead of reversal or backdown. I promised I would.

Then I discovered I had just written an item about a company’s decision to ditch a much-mocked new name and revert to its sensible old one. It was, I said, “by no means the first pivot of its kind”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019