There’s a well-worn axiom, particularly in the worlds of business and politics, that goes like this: “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.” I’d like to propose a corollary, pertaining to the predilection, particularly in the worlds of business and politics, to write and say things that have no discernible meaning and that resist all attempts to plumb their ostensible meanings: “Never believe anything that makes no earthly sense.”

Case in point: I recently saw an announcement touting the availability of something described thusly:

Innovative Next Generation Platform Solution

You can tell yourself lots of things about that phrase or whatever it is the phrase purports to describe or impart. But you can’t tell yourself it means anything or makes any earthly sense.

Where’s the Magnifying Glass?

Back before the turn of the century, one of my literature professors said this: “John Donne‘s poetry rewards study.” Since I’ve applied that notion to many seemingly inscrutable texts with a fair degree of success, I had an idea — maybe, if we take this phrase apart, we can figure out what it means. Let’s have at it, then, shall we?

  • Innovative. Whatever this thing is, it has something less than a snowball’s chance in Hell of being innovative. Ignoring this word entirely is probably the best thing we can do.
  • Next. It’s not clear if this thing is supposed to be next. And there’s no way to know without knowing what was first. It’s pretty likely we should ignore this word, too.
  • Next Generation. Considering the fact that David Meerman Scott analyzed news releases from 1/1/06 to 9/30/06 and found the most over-used phrase, even back then, was next generation (9,895 uses), it’s a pretty safe bet this means nothing at all (except, perhaps, to Star Trek fans).
  • Platform. This word made the Financial Times list. Need we say more? Fuggedaboudit.
  • Solution. It’s not salt water. It’s not milk of magnesia. Other than language, there’s no Gordian knot here to cut. Whatever this thing is, it solves nothing. So, it’s definitely not a solution.

With our fruitless search for meaning as evidence, I humbly submit there are only two groups of people with which that kind of vapid palaver is okay: (1) Cryptologists who possess all manner of Gibberish Translators and Secret Decoder Rings. (2) Those who share the conviction that nothing they write, say, read, or hear actually has to mean anything.

Where’s the Beef?

The rest of us will be with Clara Peller. We’ll constantly be in search of clarity, of specificity, of substance, of discernible meaning, of plain language that says what it means, which is no simple matter (or, at least, not one to be undertaken without discerning forethought and respect for language). We may never be as blithely, obliviously untroubled as the folks in groups 1 and 2. But each of us will have some inkling of what the others of us are on about.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just worried about nothing. After all, it’s only words.

Image by qimono, courtesy of