A strategy to bring language back to life

Mbabane, Swaziland | 8 Jan 2014
Bill Snaddon

Is anyone else hearing the word “strategy” a lot lately?

It seems to be cropping up at meetings, workshops, and press conferences. You see it in all sorts of documents and papers.

In fact, you tend to hear this word at nearly every public occasion; and more and more it is being used in private settings. A friend recently told me she was not going into a relationship unless it was a “strategic relationship”. I presume this meant she wasn’t going to marry a man unless he had considerable wealth. Fair enough. Or perhaps, from the cheeky look in her eye, she was defining strategic in other ways.

Another friend was thinking about changing jobs. He said he wanted to make sure it was a “strategic shift”.

I thought about putting these two friends in touch. They’d make a decent match.

It seems these days that if something is not strategic — at least in theory — it has less worth.

If you or your organisation are not strategic then you’re doing something wrong, so we’re led to believe.

How did this word strategic (an adjective that means “relating to the identification of long-term overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them”) come to occupy such a dominant place in the modern English language?

You can’t just have a plan or a framework without that slippery Strategic slipping in. How much better is a Strategic Plan compared to just a plain old “plan”? A Strategic Framework has more chance of catching eyes than its poor cousin, the friendless “framework”.

But seriously, by their very nature shouldn’t plans and frameworks be strategic? That is, shouldn’t they be strategic, anyway, without having to slavishly wedge that word in front?

Many speeches, too, will make several references to the word. Next time you’re listening to a speech or in a meeting, just for fun, count the number of times you hear the word “strategy”. If it gets to more than 10, start clapping.

Of course this column is an attempt to throw some levity onto the word, but the question remains: How did this word creep so far into our lives?

Author and historian Don Watson, who has written about the rise of jargon (or “weasel words” as he might say) suggests a few answers in his book Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language.

A review of the book by James Button in The Age newspaper says Watson “charts how ‘managerial language’ has infiltrated the English of politics, business, bureaucracy, education and the arts. The book is about the rise of core strategies and key performance indicators, and the death of clarity and irony and funny old things called verbs,” says Button.

“It is about a new language that Watson calls sludge and clag and gruel. Those three blunt words speak to the book’s larger intention. Death Sentence is also a manifesto, the first shots, Watson hopes, in a campaign everyone can join to bring the language back to life.”

In short, if everything is strategic then nothing in strategic: much like another favourite piece of jargon in NGO and management circles, innovativeEverything seems to be innovative these days, not to mention dynamic and results-driven.

So, in keeping with the times, I’d like to propose a working title for this not-so-dynamic and not-so-results-driven column. Let’s call it the Non-Strategic Planning Framework Benchmark Strategy Document Policy Paper (NSPFBSDPP). Or, perhaps, let’s just call it an article about using the word strategy too much.

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland

#4_A strategy to bring language back to life


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