Thursday, April 23, 2015


Bart Everson- From the Coca Cola filmstrip, "Black Treasures." (1969)

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear the word "transparency" used in a business setting, I think that someone's trying to hide something. Maybe not consciously and maybe not even in the present moment, but sooner or later, there is going to be some backsliding going on. Transparency comes from the Medieval Latin transparere, meaning "to show light through". I have a feeling that when companies start using this word, it's when the windows haven't been cleaned for some time and they are trying to restore some sense of credibility.

As I did a little research trying to find out when this word came into vogue, I found a couple of nice links. One is from and is a piece about "The 7 Iconic, Transparent, Empowering Business Buzzwords That Need to Die". It was written by Tim Phillips, who has a book out called Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle, which I'd be quite interested to read.

Here's what Phillips has to say about the word.

Six times as popular in the business press as it was in 2002; about one in 40 press releases claim it. It’s taking over "honesty" and "integrity," maybe because you can claim transparency without any suggestion you’re doing something that improves anyone’s life. Note: The glass industry uses "transparency" in marketing less than the average, but the audit industry uses it ten times as often. Draw your own conclusions.

That was written in 2011. Perhaps you think it's gone into decline since then, but in an  amusing list from on the top fifty business buzz words, it was hanging in there at number 4 as recently as 2013.

I also came across a section of a book of writings by Kate Jennings called Trouble: Evolution of a Radical/ Selected Writings 1970-2010:

  Business jargon is an easy target for language scolds and the usage police, but if corporations are serious about letting in the sunlight as a result of Enron and other business scandals they would do well to consider overhauling the official language of the executive suite and the conference room. 

Note I said "letting in the sunlight" not "creating transparency". Actually, I like the word "transparency". It describes a worthwhile, achievable state. Corporations everywhere have adopted it as their watchword du jour, even while they resist regulation that would actually bring about transparency. It's meaning has been debased, co-opted. It has become part of the smoke that businesses blow up our collective arses.

George Orwell described this process in his perennially pertinent essay "Politics and the English language". "When there is a gap between one's real and declared aims," he wrote, "one turns instinctively to long words and exhaustive idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."


  1. "Transparency" is the new "I take full responsibility."

  2. I thought you might appreciate this one, Peter. I think the odd thing is that even the best meaning companies can't be fully transparent, so it seems like an odd goal.

  3. If a company or politician have to go out of the way to say it's "transparent," well, I can see right through it.

  4. I find it fascinating that they continue to do so, though.

  5. Someone one will come up with a zingy new corporate synonym for "pretending to tell the truth" one of these days.

  6. Not zingy, but "candor" might work.

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  8. Have you ever had occasion to remark on people who preface their utterances with "Frankly"? Nothing does as much to make me wary of a speaker's candor.

  9. My feeling about frankly is that when people preface what they say with it, it usually means they are going to disagree with me.

  10. I think you're right, speaking frankly.