The 1990s tech boom had its own wave of jargon that subsequently passed into regular office-speak, of which blamestorming is one example. First recorded around 1997, it means sitting around to discuss why a deadline was missed or a project was a complete shambles, and to pick an individual or department upon whom all the responsibility will be heaped.
Far be it from me to suggest that managers prefer metaphors that evoke huge pieces of phallic machinery, but why else say drill down if you just mean “look at in detail”? To “drill down” or “drill around” is an IT metaphor rather similar to that of “data mining.” (In Australia, Drill Down is the refreshingly straightforward name for a company that “offers job seekers an introduction to what it’s like working in the mines,” by which they mean working in actual holes underground.)
An alpha-male executive whose testicles are so enormous that they brush the ground when he walks is often said to be possessed of low-hanging fruit.
Ducks in a row, get our
“We have to get our ducks in a row on this.” Why? What kind of maniac thinks ducks always have to be lined up perfectly in a row? They are birds, wild and free! Let them waddle where they please! Or are we meant to think of a delicious Chinese buffet featuring crispy Peking ducks all lined up for the delectation of all the guests?
The earliest known printed use of the phrase—meaning to get organized, to have things in place—is from a newspaper in 1889 (“the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row”), but authorities still don’t agree on its origin. Some say it derives from the use of ducks to mean pins in bowling. Another more alarming possibility is that getting your ducks in a row literally means lining up living fowls through treacherously placed bait so that you can kill more than one of them with a single blast of your shotgun.
Top of many people’s hate list is this now-ubiquitous way of saying “from now on” or “in future”. It has the added sly rhetorical aim of wiping clean the slate of the past; it is aimed at shutting down conversation about whatever bad thing has happened. This aspect of the phrase proves to be especially attractive to politicians. The official pronouncements of Obama’s administration are littered with “going forward,” or its sibling “moving forward,” which have been deployed nearly 600 times in the past year in official White House transcripts and press releases.
Hit the ground running
Did it never occur to anyone who uses this phrase that to hit the ground running is quite a stupid thing to do? Don’t ever attempt such a silly stunt: You should, of course, execute the standardized PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) in order to dissipate the force of hitting the ground. Then you can start running. But if you tried to hit the ground running you would presumably have to start running while still in mid-air, like Wile E. Coyote with a parachute. Then one of your feet would touch the ground first, taking all the force of your falling body in an almost certainly less-than-optimal position. You would probably break your leg. And then curse the idiot who ever thought it was a good idea to hit the ground running.
An alpha-male executive whose testicles are so enormous that they brush the ground when he walks is often said to be possessed of low-hanging fruit. To pluck the low-hanging fruit means either to play a tune on these giant testicles, as on a lyre, or to castrate the annoying ball-dragger so that everyone else can get some peace and quiet.
This modern pornographic sense of low-hanging fruit seems to appear only in the late 1960s, when a Guardian critic says of an artist that “His rare images are picked aptly, easily, like low-hanging fruit.” It slowly became an unavoidable image in business (where some simple-minded puritans still insist it means just “the easy stuff”). A 1988 book called The Political Economy of Information argues: “Although word processing can be regarded as the leading edge of the current phase of office automation, many observers view it as simply a grab for the ‘low-hanging fruit’.” That seems a peculiarly sexual attitude to word processing, but office workers have to get their kicks where they can.
“Thinking outside the box” derives from the slang sense of “box” to mean “vagina.”
The matrix is everywhere you look in the modern office. You can have an accountability matrix (AKA a responsibility assignment matrix), a functional matrix, a project matrix and so on ad nauseam. Of course, there is even a sub-species of management called—you guessed it—matrix management.
What is the matrix? Basically, it’s a spreadsheet.
Move the needle
An actual human being has said: “I thrive in situations where marketing can move the needle.” Perhaps we are meant to think of the needle of a seismograph, jerking in response to an earthquake, or the needle of an old-fashioned VU meter, showing the loudness of audio running through a mixing desk.
When talking to venture capitalists in particular, counsels Forbes in its 2011 jargon contest, you should “make clear your intentions of moving the needle”. What, like an incompetent acupuncturist who has to jab you again to hit the right meridian? I would only add that promising to move the needle is not likely to generate an enthusiastic response if you are talking to an aficionado of injectable drugs such as heroin, or an audiophile turntable enthusiast who is terrified of scratching his collection of original vinyl Rush albums. Be careful out there.
Offline, take this
“Hey, can we take this offline?” This is a truly bizarre modern way to say: “Let’s talk about it later or in private.” Oh, I’m sorry! I thought we were human beings in the same room communicating with each other by making noises with our faces! I didn’t realize we were online. Are we all living in the matrix now?
Thinking outside the box
Here is a big cardboard box. It’s big enough to crawl into, curl up small, and close the lid, inhaling that nice cardboardy smell and enjoying the protective gloom. But on no account should you do any thinking in it. The box is rigged with sensors tuned to detect telltale electrical signals of rational activity. If they do, they will set off a small but fatal explosion. The next time someone opens the box they will see that you are dead. So if you need to do any thinking, remember to do it only outside the box.
This derives from the slang sense of “box” to mean “vagina”. It was famously said of a debauched minor lord and notorious cocksman in the early seventeenth century that, if he wanted to avoid squandering his fortune entirely, he would have to learn to think outside the box as well as in it.
I’m afraid I just made that up, because the truth is more mundane. There exists a puzzle in which you have to try to connect nine dots arranged in a square grid on a piece of paper by drawing four straight lines in one continuous motion. You can only do this, remarks a 1970 OED citation, if you “think outside the dots:” the lines must extend beyond the “box” of dots.
The term “brainstorm” is now discouraged, since some people think it’s insensitive to people with epilepsy, on the dubious basis that an epileptic attack is like a storm in the brain. In fact, the National Society for Epilepsy surveyed its members in 2005 as to whether they found the term “brainstorming” offensive, and a large majority said no. Nevertheless, it is more common these days to be invited to a thought shower, which no doubt sounds like a naked romp among Bergman-loving Scandinavian intellectuals only to those with already irredeemably dirty minds.
Doing nothing. A consummation devoutly to be wished.