Thursday, April 14, 2011

A white elephant and an 800-pound gorilla walk into a room ...

I love business jargon, really I do. I’m right there with the early adopters in asking people to thread the needle for me, or move the needle, or stick the damn needle in my arm and put me out of my misery. I have readily switched my focus from “big picture” to “30,000-foot view,” and then held on tight as I sat through meetings where the altitude was variously described as anywhere between 1,000 and 100,000 feet, and every level in between. Business-speak is a wild ride these days, and I often walk out of conference rooms wanting to lay a bouquet at the door, in memory of all the perfectly good language that was senselessly slaughtered in there.

I appreciate that most people in meetings aren’t listening to the speaker. But it often seems to me as if the speaker isn’t listening closely, either, based on how swiftly jargon gets mashed up and misused. As a master language mangler with whom I was once acquainted often said, “I’m just talking out loud here.” Many speakers are, and the result is that phrases which once contained at least a smidgen of descriptive usefulness have now become almost homeopathic in their dissolution.

My case in point refers to certain pachyderms taking up residence in certain domiciles. To wit: The Elephant in the Room. The phrase was hot in the 90s, when recoveryspeak took the country by Stuart-Smalley-esque storm. Suddenly all those Serenity Prayer plaques were overthrown in favor of such sparkling gems as “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” And the Elephant in the Room, a phrase which refers to the large, uncomfortable truth that everyone would rather avoid confronting, sat down in the Barcalounger and became part of the everyday lexicon.

But then, like a crazed creature in Jurassic Park, the elephant began to turn sinister and stupid. I began to hear references to “the white elephant in the room,” as if a useless gift and a land mammal had mated to pose an even more menacing threat to the general welfare. Recently, the phrase has twisted to combine the world of recovery with the unlikely milieu of dumb jokes. An 800-pound gorilla (from the joke:  where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?  Anywhere he wants) has been grafted onto that poor ol’ big-eared elephant, and the resulting creature is squishing up the cushions on living room sofas all over America.

The new freak phrasing is accepted usage in many circles, including politics, where, it must be admitted, meaning often takes a back seat to volume. Mike Huckabee recently referred to Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan as "the 800-pound elephant in the room." And Huckabee used to weigh 800 pounds, so he should know. Even the artsy crowd has fallen prey to the blunder. A recent theater review of “Next Fall” in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had the hoity-toitily named Graydon Royce declaring, “The 800-pound elephant in the room is the relationship between Luke and Adam.” That must look great on stage; I hope they use lots of dry ice.

It must be the complete lack of logic indicated by these new 800-pound elephant quips (note: a male African elephant weighs, on average, about 15,000 pounds) that makes my brain hurt so badly whenever I read them. It’s even worse to be held captive in a meeting where the gorillas and the elephants are roaming free, untethered by rational thought. The 100,000-foot view is bad enough, but this sort of language is too wild for words.

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