Rivkah Writes…

July 21, 2009

RIFs, Terminations, and Other Delights of Corporate Etymology

You’ve heard that layoffs* are imminent – or, in the words of the Department Wit – RIFs are rife. What’s not clear is whether you’ll be RIF-d, fired, or canned.

Let’s take a step back and analyze some of more arcane of these terms, like RIF. For those of you who’ve managed to remain blissfully ignorant of the term, RIF is an abbreviation for Reduction in Force, which in its turn, is a euphemism for being laid off, which in its turn is one way of saying you’ve been let go, which in its turn…I could go on, but will spare you.

The point is, RIF joins the pantheon of wildly euphemistic expressions for losing a job. Why euphemize a necessary corporate decision? Because no company or CEO wants to be associated with human grief, humiliation, and all the nasty, messy stuff job loss entails. So any kind of language that throws a mist of ambiguity over the stark truth is an absolute boon to the corporate hierarchy.

The funny thing about ambiguity, though, is the variety of meanings it can disguise. After all, the only reason RIFs signify job loss to us, is the same reason Pavlov’s dogs started drooling for food when they heard a bell  – conditioning – the combining of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus which, through repeated pairing, turns into a conditioned response. So after a while, we don’t think about the phonetic associations or actual denotation of RIFs, because like Dr. Pavlov’s canines, we’ve bought into the whole conditioned reflex scenario.

But humor me, if you will, and assume you’re one of fortunate few who’ve never heard of RIF or any of the veiled references to job loss. What might be the first thing to enter your mind when you hear one of these terms?  

Let’s start with RIF. Add another “f” to “RIF” and you’ve got, in essence, a joke or witty expression. Like my riff on the inanities of corporate etymology. So before conditioning turns the phonetic denotation of “riff” into its unmistakable connotation, the mysterious RIF could be misunderstood as a joke or sly aside – hardly subtle on the part of corporate when you think about it. I can see the headlines now, “Getting Fired Isn’t Funny!” or “RIFs – Nothing to Riff About.”

Here’s another favorite of mine: “Your position is being eliminated.” Now to “eliminate” means to get rid of – it also means to expel waste from the body. So as the possible meanings of this expression pass through your mind, you’d be forgiven for the accompanying restroom imagery. No wonder you run tearfully from the site of your “elimination” deeming yourself no better than toilet paper. As for being “terminated” – Schwarzenegger machine-gunning his way through your cubicle wouldn’t be an unusual stretch.

So what do we have here? Instead of some harmlessly bland expressions prompting employees to vacate the premises in a civilized fashion, we have arguably harmful expressions whose ambiguity connotes a variety of unpleasant meanings. Is it any wonder, then, that getting RIF-d, eliminated or terminated is seen as a personal affront?

In his famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly…”

Precisely. Which begs the question – does corporate America seek to think more clearly? I leave you with this parting thought: on occasion, playing dumb isn’t the sole province of blondes.

 

*For more articles related to layoffs and unemployment, please click on Laid Off: Variations on a Theme and You Know You’ve Reached an All-Time Low When…

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