esoteric [es-uh-ter-ik]
adjective
1 understood by or meant for only the select few who have special knowledge or interest
2 belonging to the select few
3 private; secret; confidential

Funny thing about the word ‘esoteric’ is that a lot of people don’t seem to know it, which gives it a certain amount of irony. But now that the definition is out of the way and the word esoteric has been made slightly less esoteric, let’s talk about how it applies to business; specifically, how we use language.

There are many workplaces that function with a certain level of autonomy and isolation. For example, if you work in something like medicine, finance, or the military, you probably have terms and phrases that are mostly exclusive to that industry. They’re understood by your coworkers and allow you to communicate more perspicuously, and subsequently, more productively.

But many of us work in industries that don’t function independently. Being in the business of sound, my work is almost inherently collaborative. In order for my work to reach its full utility, it typically requires additional work from animators, videographers, marketers, sales people, social media experts and so on. This is why I’m continually shocked by the amount of esoteric language that’s used by people in the workplace. In an age of communication and worldwide collaboration, the need for clear and accessible language has never been greater, and strangely enough, our language has never been more esoteric.

I recently attended a presentation where the presenter kept referring to “the funnel”. I now know that they were referring to the sales funnel, which if you’re in sales, I’m sure makes perfect sense. To someone like myself who has a more rudimentary knowledge of sales, this was very confusing. It may seem like a small thing, but again, instead of spending the webinar assimilating information in a natural way, I was taken out of the moment and probably missed something important.

This has even been a problem within my own industry. Once in a while we’ll be asked to do a remote recording session. This is where we’re able to essentially connect two studios via a special high-quality internet connection. In this case, the voice talent was at my studio in Kingston, and they were being directed and monitored by another studio in Toronto. This, of course, required a bit of technical coordination with the engineer on the other side. They kept using the term ‘punch in’. This may be a common term for some people in the sound recording industry, but it wasn’t for me. At first I thought maybe he was asking me to mark parts of the audio for future reference. Turns out when he said ‘punch in’, he meant start recording. I guess it makes sense in retrospect, but you can see how this minor confusion can hinder productivity. At the very least, it’s distracting and takes your focus away from the work.

So where does this come from?

I think some of us are a little too quick to adopt trendy language, or ‘buzz words’ if you will. Others just have more of a propensity for adopting other people’s bad habits.

Another one of these bad habits is speaking in analogies or metaphors. If you want to see this phenomenon with some reductio ad absurdum employed, watch the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Darmok’. It features an alien race that only speaks in metaphors, and as a result, everything they say is incomprehensible to Picard and the rest of the Enterprise crew.

This phenomenon was nearly pushed to the point of absurdity in a previous job of mine. I started noticing a pattern where someone in a position of authority would, instead of expressing themselves in plain language, use an odd phrase to get their point across. What made this even worse, was their authority would influence their subordinates to adopt these phrases, and before you knew it, we had our own language of analogies. For example, if there was a problem that required a solution, they might say, “We need a way out of the weeds”. Or if they wanted an update on something, they might say, “We need some visibility”.

Sometimes we even find ourselves using phrases for which we know the meaning, but not the origin. For example, people like to use the expression ‘the pot calling the kettle black’. I know this is meant to indicate hypocrisy, but I have no idea how the two connect. I own a pot. I own a kettle. Neither of them are black. They also don’t talk to each other. Why have we anthropomorphized the kitchen tools?

So why is it important to know the origin of a saying and not just the meaning? Well for starters,  a lot of them become anachronistic, and subsequently esoteric and meaningless to younger generations. Some expressions are understood, but not because of their literal or obvious meaning, but because you inferred from context when an older person said it. How many of these would mean anything to you if you heard them today for the first time with no context?

                flash in the pan
                half cocked
                champing at the bit
                nip it in the bud
                Bob’s your uncle
                burning the midnight oil
                the cat’s in the bag
                the cat’s out of the bag

Some expressions get pretty silly, but then there are others that people don’t realize are actually kind of offensive. A lot of folks like to say ‘rule of thumb’. I never got this one either, especially since it never seemed to differ from just saying ‘rule’. So I looked it up. A cursory search revealed that eighteenth century English law allowed a man to beat his wife with an implement no wider than his thumb.

I keep a dictionary on my coffee table. Some people think this is weird, and maybe it is. The reason it’s there is I started to realize many years ago that people (myself included) were starting to lose the ability to express themselves with words. Like I said, that Star Trek episode pushed the idea to the point of absurdity (which most great science-fiction does), but we’re not far off from those goofy aliens who only spoke in metaphors.

We’re in the midst of a globalization. For many of us, work is no longer limited by geography, and so many disciplines no longer work in a vacuum. The importance of clear and accessible language has never been greater. If you’re meeting with potential collaborators, and you’re communicating with the ease of a political summit, it may be worth reevaluating your language habits.