Words Matter: The Financial, Spiritual and Cognitive Cost of Language Obfuscation

Laura Rittenhouse is a 21st century Orwell, who scours shareholder letters for "cliches, weasel words, jargon, hyperbole, nonsensical statements, and overused words."]


"Good prose is like a windowpane," wrote George Orwell when he was evaluating his own body of work in 1946. When he had lacked a strong motive, Orwell observed, he produced "lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."


Three years later Orwell published the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which he explored the much more sinister problem in language we refer to as doublespeak. Totalitarian regimes don't use transparent language. The fictional Oceanian province, which is in a state of perpetual war, uses language as a weapon, distorting meaning in order to make the historical record conform to the Ingsoc party line.  

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published 64 years ago today. But what would Orwell think of the types of government and corporate communications we see today?  

The investor-relations specialist, Laura Rittenhouse, is a 21st century Orwell, who scours shareholder letters for "cliches, weasel words, jargon, hyperbole, nonsensical statements, and overused words." These garner point deductions in her Rittenhouse Rankings, a survey that grades 100 big companies based on seemingly unquantifiable metrics relating to corporate culture and candor.

FOG is the acronym for Rittenhouse's methodology. It stands for "fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities." Rittenhouse's analysis reveals that companies that use transparency in corporate communications (like Berkshire Hathaway) greatly outperform companies that use tortured language constructions and obfuscation (like Enron).  

So words matter. A letter from a CEO can be a canary in the coal mine, as was the case with Enron. Alternatively, the legendary CEO Jack Welch’s letters were not only clear, but fun to read and informative. Moreover, Rittenhouse tells Big Think, language obfuscation is deeply impacting our culture. Neuroscience is starting to scratch at the surface of how words shape how we think. And so there is not only a cultural and financial cost, but indeed a deep spiritual and cognitive cost, to language obfuscation. 

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
Keep reading Show less

Banned books: 10 of the most-challenged books in America

America isn't immune to attempts to remove books from libraries and schools, here are ten frequent targets and why you ought to go check them out.

Nazis burn books on a huge bonfire of 'anti-German' literature in the Opernplatz, Berlin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • Even in America, books are frequently challenged and removed from schools and public libraries.
  • Every year, the American Library Association puts on Banned Books Week to draw attention to this fact.
  • Some of the books they include on their list of most frequently challenged are some of the greatest, most beloved, and entertaining books there are.
Keep reading Show less

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

(Photo by Andres Pantoja/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
Keep reading Show less