Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Officespeak Dissected: On Use vs. Utilize

In his groundbreaking work, Talk Around the Watercooler: The Syntax of Officespeak (2003), Chicago linguist Bertrand Hillworth describes the twelve syntactical and dialectical patterns that differentiate Officespeak from regular English. In chapter seven (“Throwing Out the Phrasal Verbs”) Hillworth documents the tendency among Officespeakers to choose longer, more complex Latinate verbs where casual English speakers would use shorter, Anglo-Saxon ones:

Officespeak Casual English
purchase buy
initiate start
identify find
disseminate let (someone) know
utilize use

Hillworth, however, understates both the overwhelming predominance of the utilize substitution in Officespeak and the discord between utilize and the more casual use. Consider the dictionary definition of the former:
utilize vt [F utiliser, fr. Utile] (1807): to make use of : turn to practical use or account 
A synonym study of use reveals that
UTILIZE may suggest the discovery of a new, profitable, or practical use for something 
These definitions imply that utilize, in the strictest sense, means to use something that is otherwise not being used, or to use something for a purpose other than its intended one. Thus, one can say:
Having accidentally brought the backpack full of office supplies on the camping trip, I utilized a letter opener to clean and gut the salmon.
I utilized my brother’s toothbrush to clean the inside of my hubcaps.
In the Macgyver pilot, the title character utilizes chocolate bars to plug a leak in the reactor. 
Consider situations where use would be more appropriate for these same items:
Rather than risk a papercut, I used a letter opener to open the morning mail.
I always use the same toothbrush for longer than I should.
Don’t eat the chocolate! Let’s use it for smores instead. 
However, as Farnsworth (2005) and Creyton (2008) document, Officespeakers are more likely to use utilize as a synonym for use in their everyday work speech:
Our organization can utilize the technology grant to purchase new computers.
You can utilize either the main entrance or the side door in the morning.
I suggest utilizing your time productively. 
In each example, (all taken from Creyton), the speaker uses utilize as a synonym for use while ignoring utilize’s definition of using something for a purpose other than its intended one. So widespread is utilize’s appearance in American offices that the literal definition has become all but lost, with the majority of Officespeakers expressing disbelief when confronted with the difference.

Creyton offers further proof of utilize’s ubiquity in the administrative world by noting that utilize is the most common dialectical trait for casual English speakers to copy when attempting conversation with Officespeakers. Simply put, if a non-Officespeaker meets an Officespeaker, he’s more likely to slip a stray utilize into his speech than to pick up on any other aspect of the dialect.

Why is utilize so common? Linguists differ widely on this question, but Farnsworth’s theory holds that because utilize is such an easily copied way of giving a matter the illusion of importance, those who aspire to pomposity in their professional lives subconsciously emulate it as a way of sounding more important, though they’ve not yet mastered the other Latinate verbs on Hillworth’s list or learned to alter their verbs into nouns (i.e. say be a recipient instead of the simpler receive). Thus, an overuse of utilize implies that not only does the speaker harbor dreams of advancement, he or she may be an apprentice Officespeaker not yet comfortable with the dialect.

The Economist recently gave a nod to my coining of the term Officespeak in an article on reflexive pronouns. Click here for the full article.


Danicus said...

Congratulations on the mention! Don't forget us when you're famous!

Thomas O'Keefe said...

More reason that we should stick with Orwell's 4-6 rules for avoiding 'modern English' follies.
Also, if I may add, I know damn well that office-workers live in a claustrophobic world, that gets small er and smaller, sometimes with each passing minute. Whatever they (we, sadly) can do to make themselves feel bigger, or their walls seem a little further away, they will do. Given the corrosive effects that office work has on one's creativity, the 'world-embiggening' usually amounts to little more than overzealous syllable-adding. Terrible, I know, but true. Can we be blamed for this? YES, of course we can! Get off our asses and get the blood moving, for starters! Take responsibility, especially when no-one else will.

Ian said...

Dan - Never.

Tom - Excellent point. I'll add that office workers resort to many ways to make their world bigger, and I'm sure a thoughtful observer could find a few that you and I are guilty of.

Also, as far as Orwell's concerned, I can't recommend his "Politics and the English Language" essay enough: