Who Stole My Vocabulary?

If you’ve worked for any amount of time — and particularly if you’ve worked in any large, bureaucratic organizations for more than 20 or 30 seconds — you’ve likely borne witness to a phenomenon psychiatrists, psychologists, behaviorologists, anthropologists, linguists, and empiricists have diagnosed and codified as kleptovocabularis.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:

Kleptovocabularis is a syndrome that manifests as a pervasive pattern of misappropriating lexicographical elements from one field or discipline and applying them in other fields or disciplines for the purpose of concealing or obfuscating feelings of insecurity; masking lack of knowledge, ability, or aptitude; and/or cloaking the complete absence of competence or accomplishment. The more severe the case of kleptovocabularis, the more obscure and arcane the lexicographical elements misappropriated by the kleptovocabularic (noun) will be.

Those afflicted with kleptovocabularis (as opposed to those who suffer from it — that would be the rest of us) can be hard to spot. But they’re quite easy to hear.

Telltale Signs

Purveyors of kleptovocabularis may present symptoms anywhere. But their symptoms typically manifest in conversation, be it in meetings or on the phone. (Since most carriers of kleptovocabularis are wary of creating evidence of their having the syndrome, they seldom risk exposing themselves in emails, reports, or other variations of the proverbial paper trail.)

So, if you keep your ears open, you’ll almost certainly hear exchanges like this one between the Boss and the kleptovocabularic (adjective) Gopher and find them to be diagnostically self-revealing:

Boss: Can you update us on your progress since last week, Gopher?
Gopher: Yes, sir. The hexagonal parametrics of the object’s linear surface structure posted insertional problems with the aperture of the roto-honing mechanism.
Boss: All I asked you do to is sharpen my pencil.
Gopher: I’m sorry, sir. Is there a question in there?
Boss: Did you get it done?
Gopher: In terms of philosophical intentionality, the project was brought to a satisfactory conceptual conclusion. In terms of teleological actualization, there may be further action required to achieve tactical fulfillment of the mission-critical but proleterianly menial behest.
Boss: Good grief.

There He Is

If you want to know who stole your vocabulary, you probably won’t have to look far. He’ll be the guy who talks the most, says the least, and does even less than that. He may not have used your vocabulary yet. But he’s got it. You’ll be sure of it when he uses all the right words in all the wrong ways. And you’ll find out what kind of detective your boss is when you see if he falls for it.

Be careful. The words you lose may be your own.

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