I missed this story from a couple of weeks ago about the Local Government Association issuing a list of banned words to councils. The move has met with approval from the media and bloggers alike but I wonder how many people have actually taken the time to look at the list. Some of the words on it are convenient terms which would otherwise require long-winded alternatives.
Stakeholder, for example, is a very useful word. A stakeholder is anyone who is likely to be affected by your organisation or your project and who therefore has an interest in its success and its outcomes. Or, as someone once said to me, a stakeholder is anyone who can screw up your company. When starting any major programme I always get people to do a stakeholder map. You identify all the interested parties and plot them on a grid with power on one axis and probable attitude to the project, negative to positive, on the other. It’s a great way of working out who your allies and your powerful opponents are. If the CFO, for example, ends up in the powerful-but-negative box, then you have a problem.
As organisations, especially those in the public sector, become ever more complex, managing relationships and corporate politics become more difficult. Stakeholder is a useful term for the shareholders, customers, suppliers, colleagues, government agencies, pressure groups, journalists, joint-venture partners, charities, community activists and internal rivals who could mess things up for you if you don’t keep them on-side or neutralise them.
In short, I find stakeholder is an indispensable term when helping people manage organisational politics, which is something I do a lot.
There are other useful terms on the list which seem to have been added without much thought about what might replace them. What’s wrong with ‘priority’? The LGA suggests replacing it with ‘most important’ but that could make some sentences more verbose. In the right context, ‘transactional’, ‘robust’ and even ‘revenue-stream’ can be convenient shorthand too.
Some people have leapt to the defence of ‘coterminous’. It’s not a word I use often but I can see why it might be useful in some contexts. The LGA suggests replacing it with “all singing from the same hymn sheet”.
WTF?? Are councils really going to send out documents with the phrase “all singing from the same hymn sheet” on them? It is an ugly cliche discouraged by the Guardian’s style guide (see under ‘cliches’) and has already been banned by some councils on the spurious pretext that it might offend atheists and religious minorities.
Word-snob journalists who have never run anything in their lives love to take cheap shots at new phrases or expressions. It was ever thus. In 1710 Jonathan Swift condemned sham, banter, mob and bully, all words that have now passed into common use.
The LGA’s list of banned words, while it might be well intentioned, smacks of craven populism. While I’m all in favour of removing the worst excesses of management speak, there is no need to ban useful words. As the world changes, English speakers invent new words. They have been doing so since the middle-ages and, if our language is to adapt and evolve, they will continue to do so.
Changing times bring forth new words. Attempts to police the language have failed in the past and, most likely, this latest attempt will fail too. Councils have more important things to do than eliminating perfectly good words. They should place the LGA’s list in file B1N.
At the end of the day it is a question of accountability.
Ah, ‘at the end of the day’ – probably the most hackneyed and hated cliche.
You see, it’s dead easy to pick holes in other people’s language.