Up in Cloud Cuckoo Land by Angela Caldin

Ever heard of Cloud Computing? I hadn’t until last week when I wondered if it meant computing in secret or computing somewhere high in the rainforest. I decided I must overcome my ignorance and looked up the expression on www.techterms.com. There I learnt that:

‘Cloud Computing refers to applications and services offered over the Internet. These services are offered from data centres all over the world, which collectively are referred to as the ‘cloud.’ This metaphor represents the intangible, yet universal nature of the Internet.”

I pondered for a while on the idea of teccies agreeing on such a poetic name for a very mundane concept. It led me on to think about the phrase ‘blue sky thinking’, which implies a lack of clouds, enabling a clear, uninterrupted view. I looked forward to using that evocative phrase in my writing. But then I googled it and discovered that an Internet Advertising Bureau survey had found that ‘blue sky thinking’ is the most unpopular business phrase in the UK. According to en.wiktionary.org, it has two meanings:

  1. Thinking that is not grounded or in touch in the realities of the present.
  2. Open-minded thinking (i.e. as wide and clear as the blue sky).

Perhaps this hints at the reason for the unpopularity of the phrase: its meaning is woolly and vague because it’s unclear whether it’s a good or a bad thing. But in spite of this, in my opinion, it remains a most poetic and expressive term.

Listed as a synonym is ‘brainstorming’ which was a very popular phrase until quite a few years ago when it fell into disuse because it was realised that ‘brainstorm’ is another word for a seizure and may be experienced by people who have epilepsy, so the use of the word in a business context is insensitive to epileptics. (Although the Epilepsy Society, when consulted, said they didn’t have a problem with it and used the term frequently in meetings.) This leaves us with ‘thinking outside the box’ which is defined as approaching problems in new, innovative ways, outside the current terms of reference. However, many feel that this exhortation has become a new box all of its own in which people are trapped. What all three expressions really mean is ‘come up with some new ideas and solutions’. Why can’t we say just that? Why do we need the metaphors at all?

Another phrase on the list of the 10 most unpopular is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. This means making sure everyone is agreed, or conforming to the same set of facts. The problem with this expression is that not everyone sings hymns. What about Atheists, Moslems, Humanists, Hindus, Sikhs and all the other myriad religious groups represented in the business world? It is a white, Anglican, narrow expression from a colonial past. The same goes for the ubiquitous exhortation to please let me have that piece of work ‘by close of play’. This reverts back to the British Empire in India, where civil servants played cricket day after day and requested their Indian minions to get the work done by the time the day’s cricket ended. These expressions are rooted in a distant past and have no place in modern day business practice.

A more modern term is ‘taking a granular view’, which means taking a close and detailed view of something. Again we have an image, this time taken from the concept of grains and the idea of examining something in minute detail. Its opposite would be ‘a helicopter view’ which has replaced the old fashioned ‘a bird’s eye view’ and means to take an overview of a situation. These expressions are clear in their meaning and free from colonial overtones or origins in a distant past. The metaphors are up to date and positive, but do we need them? Why don’t we just say ‘a detailed view’ or ‘an overview’? Why don’t we simplify and stop introducing images and symbols into what should be the down to earth business world. Could it be that metaphor adds colour and interest to what would otherwise be dull as dishwater? What would Cloud Computing be if the metaphor were not allowed? We would have to say something like ‘Internet Computing’ which is not nearly as expressive or evocative.

Do you have a business phrase or term that really sets your teeth on edge? If so, post it here and I’ll start to compile a list of most hated Kiwi expressions.

2 Comments on “Up in Cloud Cuckoo Land by Angela Caldin

  1. I can’t stand it when shop assistants say “Can I help you, at all, or “Is there anything else, at all” Where did this “at all” come from?

    • I think ‘at all’ on the end of a sentence means ‘even a little’.
      So, if you say ‘Do you like dancing at all?’ it means ‘Do you like dancing even a little?’
      When a shop assistant says ‘Can I help you at all?’ he or she means ‘Can I help you even in a small way?’

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