“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Deliveroo seems to be quite his equal as a master of verbal control. A list of do and don’t terms for managers, seen by the Guardian, stresses that the couriers start the day not signing in, but “logging on”. They are not workers, staff or team members but “independent suppliers”. They are not hired but “onboarded” (which is, of course, not a word at all, and deeply ugly to boot). They agree availability instead of accepting shifts; their branded outfits are “kit” or “equipment” rather than uniform. The website urges people to “ride with us” and “join the Roo community”, as if applicants are seeking a group of fellow sports enthusiasts, rather than a means of paying rent.
Business jargon is sometimes a sign that those using it are not really sure what they are talking about. At other times it is evidence that they know all too well, and hope to make things sound better than they are. Taco Bell calls its entry-level staff “food champions”, as if tiring, low-wage work can be elevated by the grandeur of its title. Changing a name is free; improving pay and conditions costs money. Redundancies were renamed as downsizing, then as rightsizing or optimising or rewiring for growth. Axed staff are unlikely to have felt any happier, but the companies hoped to minimise brand damage.
Deliveroo’s case is somewhat different. The terms appear to be designed to fend off claims that the couriers are employees, a growing issue given the string of legal challenges to gig-economy companies whose business model depends on using self-employed contractors rather than employees (and thereby avoiding such inconveniences as holiday or sick pay or maternity leave). But the bottom line is really the same: it is all about the bottom line.
“When I make a word do a lot of work … I always pay it extra,” Humpty Dumpty concluded in Through the Looking Glass. When Deliveroo and other companies do so, it is language that is diminished, and only the firms who profit.