Words to sprinkle, camouflage and befuddle: Idle musings on the slipperiness of language

February 11, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Words, words, words. In snowbound lockdown I process thousands of them every day, writing them, reading them, tweaking them. And spotting odd patterns, and layers of obfuscation and general slipperiness. Here are a few thoughts (I’m not doing standard devspeak rants here – plenty of those already on the blog), aided and abetted by crowdsourcing on twitter.

Sprinkler words

Sprinkler words are those words you find scattered across the documents of aid agencies and others, designed to signal up-to-the-minuteness, or general cleverness, but often pretty much devoid of substance. Here’s a few I have noticed – please add your own.

Strategic – if you want to impress management, sprinkling ‘strategic’ over your bullet points gives an impression of deep thought and weighty analysis.

Empowering/empowerment – can’t really go wrong with that one, can you?

Sustainable, Transformative – ditto

And a couple that I have been unintentionally promoting:

Adaptive – ‘adaptive-washing’ is everywhere, sprinkled on project reports and funding applications to signal that you’re down with the latest on ‘thinking and working politically’. Even if you really aren’t.

Systems Thinking. In the middle of a meeting, interrupt, look into the middle distance and say ‘this is really a systems problem’. And stop there, before you make a fool of yourself. Never fails to impress.


Handy test: would anyone ever say the opposite  of a given word/phrase? If not, it may well be redundant. As in ‘this project is unstrategic, disempowering and not sustainable. It is rigid, linear and has no ability to adapt, and blithely ignores the system around it.’…….

Camouflage words

If you want to influence decision makers and gatekeepers elsewhere in the aid/academic jungle, it’s often wise to dress up your ideas in their language, so just add:

Capital – this one’s for the economists. If you want to be taken seriously at the World Bank, you need to add ‘capital’ to dangerous liberal words like social, environmental or even human. Alternatively you can just add ‘economy’ to politics and – voila! – ‘this is a political economy question’ sounds sooo much more serious than ‘this is just politics’

Priors – posh word for assumptions. Ideal for the economists.

Security – a good one for the risk and diplomacy community, eg former DfID types trying to get the attention of their new overlords at the FCO.

Random Latin – for the Oxbridge types I guess. Ex ante, post facto etc etc

Inappropriately macho words

Politicians are always ‘rolling out’ stuff – making a few instructional emails sound like lugging a shiny new supertanker down the slipway. Aid bosses and pols alike love to ‘leverage’ things, making them sound like some Gordon Gecko type City hustler.

Or maybe it just makes them feel like Archimedes, because there’s also the attraction of pseudo-science. Step forward ‘synergies’, ‘resilience’, ‘paradigm shift’ etc.

Researchers occasionally slip into the same mode – I was chatting to some NGO types recently who were alarmed that some researchers wanted to ‘interrogate’ and ‘investigate’ their work – they felt like they were about to go on trial. They saw ‘disruption’ as a negative form of change, not a driver (there we go again) of innovation). In fact they ‘pushed back’ (see?).

Mind you, academics also sometimes take the edge off words – using ‘contested’ instead of ‘disagreement or conflict’ always makes me think of some TV game show.

Then of course there’s words that just mean different things to different people. Got into big trouble with my in-laws a few years ago for describing them as ‘peasants’. To me that was just a description of smallholder farming, but apparently it means other (less flattering) things in the Scottish islands….

Thanks for suggestions to Arbie Baguios, Martin Clark, Nicholas Colloff, Jay Goulden, Katherine Marshall, Annemarie Meyer, Monica Morrison, Jenny Ricks, Julia Roig, John Twigg, with apologies for all the time I wasted (but it was their choice…)

And just for the sheer horror of it, here’s the private sector version

February 11, 2021
Duncan Green