Which Devspeak horror words topped the poll + some v interesting comment threads

October 3, 2018 24 By Duncan Green

It was only intended as a bit of Friday fun, but last week’s post on which devspeak words you would most like to ban generated such interesting comments that it warrants a follow up.

First up, the people have spoken. After 500 votes, ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘the field’ are the clear joint winners in the hall of devspeak shame, well ahead of ‘impactful’, ‘capacity building’ and ‘learnings’. Take a bow.

Some new categories and distinctions became clearer through the dozens of contributions on the blog and twitter:

Words that both reflect and encourage lazy thinking: Susan Watkins offered ‘communities’, talked about in reverential tones as if they are single, homogenous and devoid of power imbalances, when ‘they are often riven by acrimony, jealousy, and fear of witchcraft.’

To avoid such laziness, Margaret O’Callaghan suggested that ‘the important thing is to stop in your tracks and check for meaningfulness/appropriateness of such terms’, which brings to mind George Orwell’s wonderful 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English language‘:

‘What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally’.

[long paragraphs were apparently less of a problem before social media]

Words that appear neutral, but aren’t: ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are doubtless useful, but who defines them? As Moctar Aboubacar put it ‘the real problem is not the words themselves, but the practices that lie behind them (thinking that training is enough to solve a problem, being lazy about what participation means).’

Words that are potentially useful, but that become devalued and deadened by over- and mis-use, sprinkled into presentations and documents as a signalling device, rather than adding substance: ‘strategic’ (Lis Jackson) or ‘transformative’ (me).

Words that smuggle in bias and paternalism through the back door: Ann Swidler: ‘We need to think twice (or three or four times) if we are going to use “empower” as a transitive verb, as in “I (or we) empower you.” What in the world could that mean? Usually it means “we are going to train you so that somehow you will be different (no evidence this happens), without giving you any material help or doing anything to change larger structural conditions.”’ I would add the self-serving way aid peeps conflate ‘aid’ and ‘development’ – drives me bonkers.

Jargon can play both valuable and annoying roles, either as genuine use of technically specific words to describe particular concepts, objects or processes, or a lot of hot air designed to prove how smart and insiderish the speaker is. One test is ‘can you find a simpler alternative?’ None of the efforts to find an alternative to ‘stakeholder’ worked, but Remi came up with a delightful list from a booming and allied field of jargon – social entrepreneurs and their businesspeak. Here are the ones I understood:

Wins – Success
Learnings – Failure
Impact – It’s Good but you don’t usually invest in it
Ecosystem – Stakeholders
Zero in – Focus
Derisk – Scale up
BoP/Bottom of the Pyramid – Poor people
Sustainable – Breaking even
Pivot – Start again with the same name
C-suite – Overpaid white male execs
Blockchain – Database
Paradigm shift – Change

Deborah Doane came up with a great rule of thumb – would you use this phrase to describe something in your own life, neighbourhood etc? If not, then why use it elsewhere? Her example: ‘My 16 year old son is looking to achieve a ‘sustainable livelihood’ for half-term in Peckham. If any local ‘stakeholders’ have any opportunities for this ‘beneficiary’ please get in touch. It could be ‘transformative’ & even ’empowering’. Hopefully ‘scaleable’ to his friends.’

Just to prove nothing is ever 100% agreed, there were two heroic pushbacks against the winning/losing words. Ivan Tasic was politely baffled by objections to ‘the field’, ‘I use it a lot so it would be helpful to understand the issue. I’ve heard once that “field” is so nineties, but that is not an argument. I am thinking about community or outreach as alternatives but in my head these are only sub-sections of the field. Anyone?’ I have to say I agree a bit with Ivan – not quite sure what the problem is with ‘the field’ unless you think people mean it in the agricultural sense.

Phil Vernon even defended beneficiaries: ‘Odd that it’s paternalistic to identify the people who are intended to accrue improvements to their lives (aka benefits) from an initiative explicitly designed to help people improve their lives. It would be weird not to be able to articulate that surely?’

Finally, Hilary Footitt took us all a bit deeper: ‘It seems to be OK to take an ironic rhetorical distance from this Development vocabulary but then continue the discussion in a solely anglophone context. Can we really decolonize development in English?’

So thanks to everyone who joined in – will any of us use words differently as a result? For my part, I promise to try not to use ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘the field’ – please shout if you spot me lapsing. And to Tom Kirk: ‘my colleagues and I in academia can make them as fast as you ban them’ – bring it on.