Office Talk Visualized

The origins of workplace jargon

It’s easy to poke fun at nonsensical office speak. For one thing, it sounds exhausting: a colleague might “reach out,” “drill down,” and promise to “circle back” in a single e-mail. But by signaling membership in a white-collar tribe, meaningless jargon can be quite powerful.

The buzzwords heard in today’s cubicles and corner offices can be traced to a theory of organizational development popularized in the 1950s and ’60s by Kurt Lewin and Douglas McGregor, both professors at MIT. They argued that jobs are about more than just money, and can in fact be a means of personal fulfillment—an idea that sparked “culture” makeovers at major companies and planted the seeds of today’s many diverse, interconnected dialects of office speak, presented here according to which tribe lays claim to them.

Presented by

Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In