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The problematic origins of common business jargon

These seemingly innocuous phrases indicate just how systemic racism and oppression have wormed their way into our everyday language.

The problematic origins of common business jargon
[Photo: Jason Leung/Unsplash]

No doubt you’ve been at least a little guilty of “circling back” to “touch base” with a colleague to find some “synergies” that will allow you both to “leverage” your shared “intel” to “optimize your goals.” Okay, maybe you haven’t packed all that office jargon into one sentence, but perhaps you’ve also found yourself using a turn of phrase like “chop chop” as a verbal shorthand.

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While it’s perfectly natural to exercise corporate vernacular in the workplace (everybody’s doing it), some of these innocent-sounding quips actually have problematic, or even racist origins. Remember the next time you are tempted to let the corporate speak fly, that one study indicates the words you use most often tend to shape how you think about the world. These seemingly innocuous phrases indicate just how systemic racism and oppression have wormed their way into our everyday language. And continue to propagate with consistent use in daily speech.

Here is a roundup of some of the more troubling roots.

Open the kimono

A euphemism for exhibiting (ahem) radical transparency, this is a phrase that many love to hate (our readers voted it their most loathed a few years ago). It may have come into wide use at Microsoft in the ’80s and ’90s but didn’t originate there. As the New York Times reports:

Probably stemming from the rash of Japanese acquisitions of American enterprises in the ’80s, that has been adopted into the Microspeak marketing lexicon. Basically, a somewhat sexist synonym for ”open the books,” it means to reveal the inner workings of a project or company to a prospective new partner.

If only it were a relic of the past–Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase used in it 2012 when he said his company was “open kimono” with regulators. And most regrettably, Marie Claire used the phrase in 2014 when writing about demographic numbers at Netflix.

Chop chop

According to the Anglo-India dictionary Hobson-Jobson published in 1886, the phrase originates from the Cantonese word kap, which means “make haste” and converted to pidgin English that was often used on sailing ships. However, as NPR reports, “The utterance ‘chop-chop’ would also become closely associated with class over time, and was almost always said by someone powerful to someone below.”

No can do

And speaking of pidgin, the Oxford Dictionary says this phrase also originated there. “The phrase dates from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, an era when Western attitudes toward the Chinese were markedly racist.”

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Long time no see

Some say this when they see someone in person, but many others use a version of this in digital communications like “long time no email.” In any case, the Oxford Dictionary tells us, this too is a form of pidgin English, adapted from Native American origins. “Long time no see was originally meant as a humorous interpretation of a Native American greeting, used after a prolonged separation. The current earliest citation comes from W.F. Drannan’s book Thirty-one Years on Plains (1901): “When we rode up to him he said: ‘Good mornin. Long time no see you.'”

Drink the Kool-Aid

You’ll hear this often among business people (who also often eat their own dog food as it relates to the team actually using whatever solution they’re building themselves) who use it as a way to convey faithful following. While not racist, the term originated when political cult leader Jim Jones ordered his followers to protest by committing suicide by drinking a grape-flavored beverage laced with potent drugs. One small point: the 900 who died weren’t actually drinking Kool-Aid. It was actually a competing juice brand called Flavor Aid, but the market leader stuck in everyone’s mind.

Grandfather clause, or grandfathering in

Sounds like an innocent way to indicate there’s a way to let some people avoid change because they were there before that change was enacted. But the term itself started in the wake of Reconstruction in the American South to allow potential white voters to circumvent literacy tests, poll taxes, and other tactics designed to disenfranchise Southern blacks after a brief period of relatively open voting.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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