Words to sprinkle, camouflage and befuddle: Idle musings on the slipperiness of language

Words, words, words. In snowbound lockdown I process thousands of them every day, writing them, reading them, tweaking them. And spotting odd patterns, and layers of obfuscation and general slipperiness. Here are a few thoughts (I’m not doing standard devspeak rants here – plenty of those already on the blog), aided and abetted by crowdsourcing on twitter.

Sprinkler words

Sprinkler words are those words you find scattered across the documents of aid agencies and others, designed to signal up-to-the-minuteness, or general cleverness, but often pretty much devoid of substance. Here’s a few I have noticed – please add your own.

Strategic – if you want to impress management, sprinkling ‘strategic’ over your bullet points gives an impression of deep thought and weighty analysis.

Empowering/empowerment – can’t really go wrong with that one, can you?

Sustainable, Transformative – ditto

And a couple that I have been unintentionally promoting:

Adaptive – ‘adaptive-washing’ is everywhere, sprinkled on project reports and funding applications to signal that you’re down with the latest on ‘thinking and working politically’. Even if you really aren’t.

Systems Thinking. In the middle of a meeting, interrupt, look into the middle distance and say ‘this is really a systems problem’. And stop there, before you make a fool of yourself. Never fails to impress.


Handy test: would anyone ever say the opposite  of a given word/phrase? If not, it may well be redundant. As in ‘this project is unstrategic, disempowering and not sustainable. It is rigid, linear and has no ability to adapt, and blithely ignores the system around it.’…….

Camouflage words

If you want to influence decision makers and gatekeepers elsewhere in the aid/academic jungle, it’s often wise to dress up your ideas in their language, so just add:

Capital – this one’s for the economists. If you want to be taken seriously at the World Bank, you need to add ‘capital’ to dangerous liberal words like social, environmental or even human. Alternatively you can just add ‘economy’ to politics and – voila! – ‘this is a political economy question’ sounds sooo much more serious than ‘this is just politics’

Priors – posh word for assumptions. Ideal for the economists.

Security – a good one for the risk and diplomacy community, eg former DfID types trying to get the attention of their new overlords at the FCO.

Random Latin – for the Oxbridge types I guess. Ex ante, post facto etc etc

Inappropriately macho words

Politicians are always ‘rolling out’ stuff – making a few instructional emails sound like lugging a shiny new supertanker down the slipway. Aid bosses and pols alike love to ‘leverage’ things, making them sound like some Gordon Gecko type City hustler.

Or maybe it just makes them feel like Archimedes, because there’s also the attraction of pseudo-science. Step forward ‘synergies’, ‘resilience’, ‘paradigm shift’ etc.

Researchers occasionally slip into the same mode – I was chatting to some NGO types recently who were alarmed that some researchers wanted to ‘interrogate’ and ‘investigate’ their work – they felt like they were about to go on trial. They saw ‘disruption’ as a negative form of change, not a driver (there we go again) of innovation). In fact they ‘pushed back’ (see?).

Mind you, academics also sometimes take the edge off words – using ‘contested’ instead of ‘disagreement or conflict’ always makes me think of some TV game show.

Then of course there’s words that just mean different things to different people. Got into big trouble with my in-laws a few years ago for describing them as ‘peasants’. To me that was just a description of smallholder farming, but apparently it means other (less flattering) things in the Scottish islands….

Thanks for suggestions to Arbie Baguios, Martin Clark, Nicholas Colloff, Jay Goulden, Katherine Marshall, Annemarie Meyer, Monica Morrison, Jenny Ricks, Julia Roig, John Twigg, with apologies for all the time I wasted (but it was their choice…)

And just for the sheer horror of it, here’s the private sector version

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13 Responses to “Words to sprinkle, camouflage and befuddle: Idle musings on the slipperiness of language”
  1. agility

    with all the ‘pivotting’ and ‘re-centering’ ive been asked to do as a result of COVID I developed a serious sprain, it meant I had to avoid all ‘Bold moves’ and to be a little less ‘agile’ and ‘re calibrate’ my ‘ambition 2021’, fortunately i have good ‘bench strength’ so have been able to remain ‘future focussed’

  2. I think this is great if we’re having a chuckle at our own expense, and doing a reality-check about the extent of the cleverness and originality of our proposals and reports. I think its also good to ask the question – did I use these words to try and disguise the fact that I don’t really understand how this project will result in change, or I don’t really believe it will?
    I do think there’s a risk we read this and instead of moving on after a self-deprecating chuckle, we think its a call to action and jump on the jargon policing bandwagon (oh no I just used cliches!). It takes me long enough to write proposals or reports in a way that addresses the priorities of the readers while also expressing clearly why the projects are valuable to the communities that are doing them. I really don’t want to add further worry that I’ve inadvertently revealed my subconscious chauvinist by saying something like ‘leverage’ to indicate that the project has a multiplicative effect on resource-efficiency. Passive writing styles are so difficult to read. But its what we are told to do in order to be considered intelligent, neutral and professional. I’d far rather be interesting. Perhaps the issue is in who is doing the leveraging … If I say the community leverages their existing resources, its very different from saying, I have designed this project to leverage my organisation’s effectiveness.
    In short, I agree, take ourselves less seriously – but also don’t take this article too seriously.

  3. Dan

    I would, and frequently do, say “this project is unstrategic, disempowering and not sustainable. It is rigid, linear and has no ability to adapt, and blithely ignores the system around it.” It’s why I work in MEL and not fundraising.

  4. Robin

    Brilliant. My pet peeves – ‘leverage’ (often misued as well) and ‘utilize’ (just say ‘use’). And I know this because I ask – for many listeners and readers (even in Canada – surprise!) English is their second or third language. Past a certain point, you lose them.

  5. Siphiwe

    Brilliant! Thanks for the good chuckle reading this….while I do a search on my document to make sure that words like ‘strengthen the health system’ and ‘strategic decision making’ and evidence based interventions’ appear enough to convince readers that my work is relevant and I know what I’m talking about. Lol…

  6. Florence

    Indeed, so much sense tends to get lost in the jargon and fancy speak. That “private sector video’ at the end takes the day. Anyways, thanks for sharing, this has cracked me up a good one:-)

  7. Kate

    I’m on a (so far) one woman mission to halt the rise of “ecosystem”, when there is no ecology involved. I’ve observed that such (mis)references often relate to technology and internal processes. A good test is to ask if there are carbon atoms involved; if not, then it’s just a “system”.

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