A couple or so years ago, the university where I teach introduced a new way for staff to record information about tutorials, grandly calling it the “Co-Tutor Student Management Relationship System.” The name possesses the linguistic features that appeal to managers today: nouns strung together without intervening prepositions, with some of the nouns conveying generally desirable qualities (“relationship,” “system”). Despite its pomposity the name is vague: it doesn’t tell you what sorts of relationships are being systematically managed or who might be doing the managing.
Managers can also favour long words which make simple actions seem rather grand. One example that linguists like to cite is the word “autocondimentation.” The story is that managers in the catering industry devised the word to describe the practice of customers applying sauce to their hamburgers: the long word made the managers appear expert.
According to critical linguists, who have studied official and ideological language, there are good reasons why managers might like such language. By using nouns or verbs in the passive voice, authorities can present their own decisions as if they were objective realities, rather than as actions arbitrarily taken by powerful persons. If you put up a notice saying “Pedestrians are requested not to walk on the grass,” (or better still, “No Access”) you don’t have to say who is requesting (or, rather, commanding) the pedestrians.
Those who work in British universities are aware of the Research Excellence Framework, a group of nouns capable of striking fear into the calmest of academics. By choosing nouns—and nouns alone—our authorities can convey that the so-called “framework” for judging the research of academic staff, has some sort of independent existence (thereby leaving in the linguistic shadows those who devise, run and benefit from all the judging) and that somehow the whole business really does have something to do with a thing called “research excellence.”
When academic linguists have exposed the modern power of big nouns, they have tended to use exactly the same sort of language themselves. Like other social scientists, and like the managers of universities and other big businesses, critical linguists have shown a penchant for big nouns. They write about the language of managers being filled with “nominalization” and “passivization”; and they refer to the coining of new managerial terms,…