my employee makes up words and is impossible to understand

A reader writes:

I have an employee in a technical role (my small team is all technical, including me) who seems to make up words and concepts when he’s talking about things. The results of this are an echo of the issues in the first letter in this previous post but in that case you, correctly I think, suggested leaving it to the manager — and in this case, I am the manager and I’m not sure what to do. This is exclusive to the way this person speaks in meetings (not in his writing) but given we’re all remote, we spend a lot of time in virtual meetings.

Compounding this is that when he goes down this path of using incorrect concepts and words to explain something, he is long-winded. Exact echoes of all the issues in this letter. I really, really like your advice there and will be trying to put some of it into action.

What stops me from going all-in on your advice there, though, is that it’s not the case that everything this long-winded employee says is accurate, correct, or even valuable so I’m not sure about putting in the effort to help this employee succeed, grow, and advance in our organization because I’m not sure he has the skills. I feel like I have to fix the first problem (made-up words and concepts) before I focus on the second problem of long-windedness.

I don’t know how to approach the first thing, because I struggle to understand what’s being said. It takes extreme amounts of effort to determine what he’s actually trying to say so that I can actually answer questions or assess situations. I’ve had to be direct and simply say, “I don’t understand what you just said because those words don’t make sense to me — can you try again?” I’m not sure what to do — this isn’t a second language issue (he’s a native English speaker) and I’m concerned not only that he doesn’t understand his job, but that he may literally lack the capacity to understand it, even with coaching. The employee is not new — he was just very junior when he started and I’ve been ramping him up, but I’m now concerned we’ve gotten to a point of technical complexity where there’s suddenly a limit.

The final issue is that the made-up words can often be quite fantastical, and so certain less technical people who encounter him in meetings perceive him as very smart and technical because they have no idea what he’s trying to say and he’s simply just a tall, straight, white man saying words loudly with authority.

Can I do something to address this?


First, though: how’s the rest of his work? If his work isn’t good aside from the made-up words and the long-windedness, it might be simpler to just focus on the other issues. You don’t have to spend the time and energy trying to solve these two things if he’s not going to be right for the position regardless.

But if that’s not the situation, then my advice is: focus on the outcome you want. The outcome you want here is that he communicates clearly and people understand him, so approach it from that angle. For example: “When you talk about technical topics like X and Y, I and others are struggling to understand what you’re saying. You’re using words that don’t convey the concepts you intend. For example, last week in our meeting with Joe (insert specific example) and this morning in your meeting with me (insert specific example). We end up spending a lot of effort trying to understand, and I’m concerned it’s pointing to larger issues with your grasp of the material.”

Then see what his perspective is, and go from there.

At some point in that conversation you should likely say, “To perform well in this job, you need to communicate in ways that others can understand. If people aren’t grasping your point, it’s a sign that you need to explain differently — even if it’s clear to you. If you’re struggling to find a way to do that, let’s dig deeper into what’s going on.”

Also, because you’re concerned that he fundamentally doesn’t understand his job, have a longer conversation with him to probe for that. Talk about the concepts he needs to understand, and try to assess how much he grasps and how correctly. You’ll probably need to actively test for this (“if I assigned you X, how would you approach that?” … “what’s your understanding of Y?” … “walk me through how you think about Z” … etc.). In doing that, if you realize that he doesn’t have the foundational knowledge and understanding to do the work, you should switch your focus from how he’s communicating to whether he’s equipped to do the job at all. It sounds like you’ll need to be open to the possibility that he’s not. At that point you could look at whether some short, intensive training could get him to where you need him to be — or whether it’s simply a mismatch.

{ 419 comments… read them below }

  1. H.Regalis*

    Certain less technical people who encounter him in meetings perceive him as very smart and technical because they have no idea what he’s trying to say and he’s simply just a tall, straight, white man saying words loudly with authority.

    I have run into more than a few white guys like this. I’m pretty sure that’s how an ex-friend of mine gets hired for jobs.

    Your employee sounds like a bit of a nightmare, OP. Sorry you’re having to deal with them.

    1. Goldenrod*

      Wow. Never underestimate the power of being a tall, white man with nothing else to offer.

      1. hobbydragon*

        Until the offender was described as a white man I would have bet money this was someone I know – they wanted a leadership role in a volunteer based hobby club and we tried so hard to help them succeed (since they were a visible minority) but big/made up words used incorrectly and a tenuous grasp on English, despite it being their only language, drove off some long term reliable volunteers…

        1. RVA Cat*

          You’re making me flash back to Damon Wayans’ classic In Living Color skits as malaprop-prone prisoner Oswald Bates.

          1. Broadway Duchess*

            What a blast from the past! I had to go to YouTube to relive those sketches. Hilarious!

          2. Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk*

            “Moving toward the angina…or the buh-gina…depending on how much time you got.”

      2. Emily*

        Goldenrod: Yep! I related to that line of OP’s letter so much.

        OP, I think Alison’s advice is really good, and I hope you can use it with this employee, but from what you said in your letter, I must admit that I am doubtful if this employee will be very open to coaching/able to improve. Frankly, it sounds like he is taking a “fake it till you make it” approach, and it does not sound like he is very well suited to the job.

        1. Jojo*

          +1. I was thinking of Baffle them with Bullshit, but Fake it till you make it works just as well.

            1. Petty_Boop*

              I believe the full quote is, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Useful when working for/with the govt. in understanding how many of them got their jobs and keep them!

              1. Longtime Reader*

                I’ve usually seen/said it as “dazzle” instead of “blind,” works better with the meter.

          1. Name (Required)*

            The saying I have always heard is “If you can’t blind them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit”. Sounds apt in this case.

          2. MigraineMonth*

            “Give ’em the old Razzle Dazzle
            Razzle dazzle ’em
            Show ’em the first rate sorceror you are
            Long as you keep ’em way off balance
            How can they spot you’ve got no talents
            Razzle Dazzle ’em
            And they’ll make you a star!” –Chicago, the musical

          3. londonedit*

            ‘Baffle them with Bullshit’ is the entire basis for Boris Johnson’s career. Unfortunately people fall for it with alarming readiness.

        2. ampersand*

          And like he fundamentally misunderstood “fake it till you make it,” which I thought was more along the lines of “act confident in your abilities until the real confidence kicks in” and not “make up words so it sounds like you know what you’re saying, even if you don’t.”

      3. Richard Hershberger*

        Being tall, white, and male myself, I am in a good position to look him straight in the eye and ask “I’m not familiar with this word ‘constructitinationomity.’ Could you please define it, for my better understanding?” In an internet context the expected response is bluster about how I clearly am too dull-witted to comprehend. It would be fascinating to see him try this in a face to face work setting.

        1. Alan*

          I’ve done that. (Also tall white male here :-).) It is intimidating. Someone says something nonsensical and no one wants to call them on it. But lately I have been. “I don’t understand. Can you explain that?” And invariably they go off in some totally different direction like even *they* don’t know what they were trying to say. It’s frustrating in the extreme to have these conversations, especially when their affect says they’re the smart one and everyone else is a clueless idiot.

          1. RVA Cat*

            Their affect also says they’re the rude one showing obvious contempt for their audience.

        2. Sparkles McFadden*

          I did exactly that when I was the new person in a huge meeting. I said “I did not understand that last point you made. Could you restate it and clarify what you’re planning on achieving with this project?” I figured I’d get roasted but I really did need to understand what the guy was saying. The speaker said he could not dumb things down enough so someone like me would be capable of understanding anything he said. That prompted someone else to say “I have no idea what you’re trying to say either but your projects don’t affect me so I wasn’t going to question anything. The fact that you’re so defensive about being asked to explain what you’re talking about changes that.” Things got really interesting after that.

          1. Never Knew I Was a Dancer*

            Oh man, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in that exchange!

          2. Jellyfish Catcher*

            Do tell……what did happen after that?
            The speaker’s comment “could not dumb things down enough ………(for you to be) CAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING ANYTHING…..” is abusive and incredibly outside of normal work behavior.
            The part of him NOT being able to explain to others is bad enough, but the verbal abuse is a waving, iridescent red flag.
            I would immediately consider this to be a very probable dismissal.

            1. I Have RBF*

              Yeah, I would have been very, very pissed at being talked down to like that. I might even go to HR about it, especially when I googled his nonsense and found… nothing.

              See, while I don’t have a degree, I tend to be an autodidact. What college I did have gave me a good foundation in research and reading for comprehension and consistency. I frequently read studies, papers and other “advanced” material just out of curiosity. So when some mediocre guy tries to baffle me with bullshit, at least half the time I’ve done some random reading in the area, or I will get curious enough and go down a rabbit hole looking for real information.

              If some arrogant guy implied that I’m too stupid to understand his gobbledygook, I would take that as a challenge, and then happily hoist him by his own petard.

              1. BatManDan*

                Since the whole topic is semantics, I think the original phrase was “hoist on his own petard.”

                1. Meat Oatmeal*

                  Hmm, that doesn’t make sense to me. A petard is a bomb; I think the idea behind the phrase is that the person disastrously is thrown into the air (“hoisted”) by the explosion of his own bomb.

                  Getting thrown into the air ON a bomb could also be a thing, I guess, but it’s very Dr. Strangelove.

                  Anyway, the phrase was originated or at least popularized by Shakespeare, who used it in Hamlet with a different preposition. The quote there is “hoist with his own petard.”

                2. yeah*

                  Okay, well, if we’re really going to be *this* pedantic, the original phrase is from Hamlet and is “hoist WITH his own petard”. The preposition “by” is generally considered by various dictionaries to be an acceptable variant, but “on” is not.

                  This level of nitpicking about language isn’t usually productive and I think is discouraged here. It’s especially grating if the correction is inaccurate.

                3. Worldwalker*

                  Being pedantic here, it’s actually “hoist with his own petard” referring to a military engineer being blown up by his own bomb. It’s from Hamlet.

                  I’ll see myself out.

                  (and props to my fellow autodidact; never let your schooling interfere with your education, as Mark Twain didn’t say)

                4. I Have RBF*

                  Subsequent rabbit hole:

                  Yes, the original was Shakespeare, and used “with”.

                  However, an equivalent meaning is “by”, to mean “blown up by his own bomb” rather than “blown up with his own bomb”, which is a more archaic usage. Using “on” would mean “blown up on his own bomb”, which only makes sense if you imagine him riding his errors down into destruction, which is possible.


            2. Frieda*

              I realized early in my teaching career that I could not write on a student’s paper that I didn’t understand something, or that I was confused by some claim they had made. Students sometimes followed me back to my office after I returned papers to make their inane claims more strongly and loudly. Once in a while they were just openly surprised by how dumb I was, not understanding their (obviously brilliant) paper.

              My favorite: a student somehow believed I had not read, or possibly even heard of, the ancient text around which most of my field is constructed. This is a text I’ve read in its original languages that many, many twelve year olds are expected to have some working knowledge of. (Later, alone, I laughed until I cried.)

              Instead, I write on papers “This is unclear” or after the first two instances of the same grammatical error I tell them the paper needs more proofreading and editing. Even when I can kind of get around the edges of what they seem to be saying, a good old “this is unclear” communicates that whatever it was they thought they were putting down, I’m not picking it up.

              1. Crooked Bird*

                … Theology, right?? At least I can’t think of anything else that fits. But if it is I am flabbergasted at your student.

                I love “this is unclear.” That’s so good. But what is with people going for the throat immediately on anything that could possibly be interpreted as an admission of weakness??

          3. H.Regalis*

            Me-ow! What a catty response from Mr. Speaker to such a question. What ended up happening?

          4. Good Enough For Government Work*

            I’ve had this happen so many times. One colleague in particular would go on long, almost unintelligible rambles, and I was the only one prepared to go “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean.”

            Every time I did it I’d get messages from other colleagues saying “oh thank God you asked!”

            (Neither tall nor male, but I’d been there a long time and lost my patience for bullshit.)

            1. EllenD*

              I often ask for things to be explained. On one occasion I asked what a technical abbreviation meant and got the reply ‘everyone knows what that means’, I said ‘well I don’t’ and it turned out he didn’t know either just picked it up and thought it sounded good. In my experience, the confident in their knowledge are willing to admit ignorance, so that they can learn more.

            2. Irish Teacher.*

              Not at work, but I once read a long post online that made no sense whatsoever and yet read as if it were intended to. There were some people who thought they had figured it out, but I think every one of them came up with a different interpretation.

              And the person who posted it appeared to take the misunderstandings for disagreement (or was possibly trolling; we couldn’t figure out which) and insisted that this is exactly what they meant, we were all criticising them just because they had a different perspective, to which somebody responded that it wasn’t that we disagreed with their point; it was that nobody had any idea what their point was. They replied that they thought we were just wilfully misunderstanding because we disagreed.

              It was frustrating enough online. Having to work with such a person would be torturous.

            3. Reluctant Mezzo*

              Just last night I had a person attending a meeting who asked some questions about things I thought were already made clear, and knowing her, a lot of it was attention-seeking, but I just Explained Stuff very patiently–it was a hybrid meeting, and I thought, ‘if she’s asking for clarification, maybe other people were afraid to ask and need it anyway’. I got props for being patient with her from the secretary, though!

          5. Hrodvitnir*

            I love you and your coworker (who agreed). I am continuously infuriated that people who talk utter rubbish like this succeed in tricking people to forward their careers, well, it feels like 8/10 times.

            1. tangerineRose*

              I used to have a co-worker like this. He didn’t seem mean, but he seemed to have very little memory combined with a good ability to bluff.

        3. Cinn*

          Is it bad that I kinda want to make up a definition for “constructitinationomity” now?

          1. Resentful Oreos*

            We could start by breaking it down Blazejowski style: con-struc-tit-in-a-tion-o-mi-ty. Had to get the tit and tion in there. Oh my! Thank you.

          2. Worldwalker*

            I’m equally bad! Please several Sniglets have become part of my vocabulary. We need words like “cheedle.”

            My current favorite word is “conglobate.” It means “to roll up like a pillbug.” Yes, there’s a word for that! Usage: “My pet isopods are from a species that can’t conglobate conglobate very well.”

            Second favorite word: “toxicognath.” I seem to be on an arthropod word kick.

              1. Princess Sparklepony*

                Weirdly, cromulent is cropping up more often. It’s the second time I’ve seen it just this week…

        4. Yap, yap, yap*

          I agree and this would be where I started. Why this isn’t a reason for immediately firing him is unclear. Having worked with someone similar I’m guessing there is a diversity issue at play.

          1. Aqua*

            White men who are bad at their jobs only keep them when they’re oppressed in some way?

            1. Old Admin*

              Exactly, could you clarify the diversity issue you see at play here?
              Or is this another fine example of blinding with bullshit?

          2. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

            Seems unlikely given OP’s description of her employee – she’s his manager and she made it very clear she does not think he is a member of any marginalised groups.

      4. Boof*

        There’s also the power of speaking with confidence (which, even if absolutely wrong, will make a lot of people who actually know what’s going on pause to figure out what they’re missing rather than call bs)
        Multiple bias threats!

    2. anonnynon*

      Just dealing with one of these all up in my extremely niche workflow right now. Because he’s a white male eager to talk over actual experts, he sucks all the air out of the room and anyone complaining is painted as the problem. Dude butts into every little thing that catches his eye, and has no hesitation about ‘splaining to everyone in earshot. It doesn’t help that his bed partner holds most of the power in my academic library workplace.

    3. Artemesia*

      I once consulted with a department with a guy like this who had everyone snowed with his big technical words; he managed the data system for a data intensive function. It was all quite simple and mostly nonsense but he had everyone convinced he was indispensable since it was so very very complex and technical.

      My first act after talking with everyone was to institute some cross training in this very siloed operation where some part of the year some people had little to do and others were slammed and vice versa. He immediately objected because his job was much too complex: ‘you cannot expect these women to understand boolian algebra’ (self satisfied smirk). I said ‘you mean ‘and’ and ‘or’ — I’m guessing we can.’

      We could and he could not adapt and eventually we had to fire him as he constantly undercut the director and the changes in the operation.

      1. RedinSC*

        These poor wimmins, it’s much to complicated to understand And and Or.


            1. Former Admin turned Project Manager*

              This is the part where I would “like” and reset and “like” again, if such buttons existed.

    4. irritable vowel*

      A former coworker of mine used to refer to this as Mediocre White Man Syndrome. We had a white male colleague who once attempted to explain how email works, at length, in a meeting where everyone else was a woman and/or not white. Not only was it completely unnecessary but he didn’t even describe it correctly. It was just smoke and mirrors to disguise that he didn’t actually know anything about the actual topic of the meeting.

      1. I Have RBF*

        One of the classic interview questions in my field is “What happens when you type into your browser?” There are lots of rabbit holes to go down if the explanation isn’t concise. It’s very good for weeding out people who just BS their answers.

        1. Professor Dog*

          It…sends you to Google’s search engine homepage, right? What answer does your field look for?

          1. Iain C*

            The answer can range from what you said, to including DNS lookup, firewalls, TCP/IP handshakes, html requests, reply headers, and that’s skipping over what happens on the server.

            It’s as much of a “know your audience” question as a technical one.

            1. I Have RBF*


              If you gave the answer “It…sends you to Google’s search engine homepage”, the subsequent question would be “But how does it do that?”

              You would be expected to know that is uses DNS to translate the domain part of the address into an IP address, then it routes the query to that IP address using TCP/IP and various routes to the server, which then sends back the formatted html to your browser, and then the browser renders the html.

              But there is a lot of detail that can be gone into depending on which part of the field you have been working with.

      2. Princess Sparklepony*

        Never underestimate the confidence (and audacity) of a mediocre white guy.

        If we could bottle that somehow we could solve any problem – maybe not correctly but there would be a solution!

    5. Abundant Shrimp*

      That paragraph scared the living (insert what you want) out of me, precisely because I’ve seen guys like this gain a reputation for being very smart and technical, and get promoted to places where they could do real damage and make people’s lives miserable.

  2. DeskApple*

    I’m dying for examples of these words! “The crux of the extra conglomeration of coding is simply that finding the elemental jaboarding-factor is preventing our systems from extracizing their overtaxed and contemplated resources”. *interns nod in awe*

      1. Goldenrod*

        “Like the engineers on Star Trek XD”

        I was just thinking this! Maybe his true calling is writing fake science for Star Trek?

      2. PickleMum*

        Except you can actually understand the engineers in Star Trek (if you’ve watched enough of it).

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I mean, you can understand the individual words they’re saying, but so far as I can tell there’s zero reason to think that reversing the polarity of the deflector dish would actually cause time travel.

          1. Charlotte Lucas*

            Reversing polarity is the Star Trek version of turning it off and turning it back on again.

            1. Fiorinda*

              Reversing the polarity is Doctor Who’s trick, not Star Trek’s. Especially if you’re doing it to a neutron flow!

            2. Little Bobby Tables*

              Star Trek really needs a competent plug designer so you don’t accidentally plug things in backwards.

    1. not a doctor*

      Same! I wish the letter writer had provided one or two, if only to get an idea of just how crackers they are. Are they words that sound like they *could* be real things, or is he all the way off in fantasyland?

    2. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      That’s hilarious and puts me in the mind of “Oswald Bates” from Saturday Night Live. Worth a google :)

      1. geek5508*

        “Oswald Bates” was actually one of Damon Wayans’ characters on “In Living Color”

    3. Potato Potato*

      Oh, I see that he also has experience optimizing the socketboards of websites! The other day, I was wrangling the codebase when I encountered an 80085 error. Naturally, I was the only one around who understood that something was wrong with the deep code, so I singlehandedly extrapolated the brackets that kept it from working, and then I buffed the firewall while I was in there. I know, I know, I’m awesome. I’ll take my award later. Right now I have to fix an emergency with the subparticle CSS layer.

      1. Anne Shirley Blythe*

        Whoaaa, you are CSS Layer Certified on top of everything else?! Ohhh boy!! :D

      2. Wow, really?*

        You’re going to make me have to look something up on the Internet. Boo. Hiss. Lol

      1. Ari Flynn*

        I love that one!

        There’s at least one transfer of the full original film reel out there, where the Very Serious Scientist Man holds onto his character for a second or two after he’s done, then everyone on set dies laughing. (He was an actor hired to do a training film for GM, who convinced the crew it would be hilarious to hang around and shoot the parody when they were done. He was correct.)

      2. MigraineMonth*

        That’s amazing! The later video “SANS ICS HyperEncabulator” is fun because it has both technobabble and almost-but-not-quite correct words (investigated as a weapon by “the Department of Offense and the Natural Guard”).

      3. Little Bobby Tables*

        The Turbo Encabulator was the first thing I thought of too It’s a technobable legend.

    4. Raising Walking to the Moon*

      As a Linguist I want the examples so badly so I can analyze how they’re being constructed and guess at what he’s trying to say.

      1. linger*

        Not least, is he neolojisming everywhere mainly by recombining morphemes, or by compounding?

      2. GovvieLing*

        Hey! I’m also a linguist (phonologist, specifically) and once had a guy tell me “Korean is a vowelular language… I’m surprised you didn’t know that”. 20 years later and I still laugh at the ridiculousness of it.

        1. Wendy Darling*

          It is so dangerous to make sweeping ignorant statements about languages because you have no idea how many linguists are out there quietly doing apparently-unrelated jobs (hi I’m a recovering sociophonetician). Turns out there’s not much work in linguistics specifically, so we’re everywhere.

          1. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

            @Wendy lol 19-year-old me thought she was going to write a dictionary. Hahahahaaa….

        2. Evan Þ*

          I’m trying to parse “vowelular language”, and the best I can come up with is “a language that contains vowels.”

          Which, I suppose, would be a correct description?

          1. Anon in Aotearoa*

            The kindest explanation I could come up with is that he was trying to say that Korean is a tonal language (where tone affects meaning, like Mandarin or Vietnamese) … only it’s not.

            1. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

              He might have meant that it -prefers- syllables with a vowel at the end. That kind of linguistic nuance often gets misunderstood and twisted by people who don’t speak the language, and then you end up with little urban legends like “people who speak a language without a word for purple can’t see purple!” and “the Inuit have however-many words for snow!”

          2. fhqwhgads*

            I choose to believe he meant it uses vowels more frequently than consonants. I have no idea if that’s close to true, but it’s the only thing I can think of that has a snowball’s chance in hell of sounding plausible.

          3. Been There*

            I’m guessing he mixed up vowels and syllables? As Korean does work of syllables more than individual letters like English.

            1. Lexi Vipond*

              That’s what I was thinking – a vowel for every consonant – only I was trying to remember the word ‘abugida’ and failing. It turns out that what I mean is syllabary, anyway!

              1. linger*

                Except it isn’t exactly that either. Unlike Japanese hiragana and katakana, which *are* syllabaries (with one symbol per syllable), Korean hangul is a *phonemic* writing system (with one symbol for each distinctive sound), although those symbols are then *grouped* into syllable blocks.

                Raisin Walking To The Moon above probably comes closest to any accidental truth “vowellular” may express: Korean statistically has slightly more vowels than consonants by corpus frequency, because (i) it has very limited syllable-initial clusters (consonant+glide only) and (ii) it prefers open syllables (though nasals and liquids can occur syllable-finally).
                But even so, there are many languages with an even higher corpus frequency for vowels. E.g. most Polynesian languages have no initial clusters and no closed syllables, so all syllables are (C)V(V) and thus vowels must dominate.

        3. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

          I’m not a linguist, but I took a few linguistics courses in college, and I am convulsed with laughter!

        4. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

          @GovvieLing first of all, hi! <3 and ugh the people who have told me incorrect things about Chinese, about English… it's sad, right? It makes me feel kind of isolated from normal people, haha.
          vowelular. how did he pronounce that? i don't have access to IPA on this machine, so like… vuh-WELL-you-lur?

          1. Worldwalker*

            I want to throttle people who proclaim totally wrong things about ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Starting with the name; “hieroglyphic” is the adjective, like “photographic.” “Hiero” = “holy/priestly” and “glyph” means “letter/writing.” “-ic” makes it an adjective: photographic images, hieroglyphic inscriptions. They’re not “picture writing,” they’re not (usually) ideographic (except when they are), and they incorporate an abjad, an abugida, and a few features that I describe as “the scribes’ full employment act.”

            I have seen historians (from other fields) get this wrong. All of it. I’m just an amateur; if I can learn it, why can’t people speaking as experts?

            I’m a somewhat obsessed amateur, I’ll admit. I’ve created a hieroglyphic font, I’m learning to read and write hieroglyphics, and likewise Middle Egyptian. But this is not a level of expertise that requires more than a shelf full of books and a few Great Courses. But people get it wrong, and yes, it’s always white men talking loudly and authoritatively.

            1. Worldwalker*

              And autocorrect put “-ic” in where it shouldn’t be. I haven’t learned the ME word for “scream” yet.

              1. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

                @Worldwalker YES, and also: How’s Evermore? Will we get a Mythos 2024?

    5. Anne Shirley Blythe*

      I came here to say the same! No doubt the writer wants to preserve anonymity.

    6. reverse the polarity*

      I completely believe the LW that this employee is doing that (mostly because concepts seem iffy too and he can’t explain anything in other words), but I’ve been using a very niche internal system for a few years now and I bet I sound like this to anyone not well-versed in the system if I try to explain things and default to its (specifically translated from technical terms in a foreign language) vernacular!

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        Sure, but part of effective communication is finding ways to describe things without using so much technical jargon your intended audience can’t understand. So at *best* he’s still failing to communicate appropriately.

        1. reverse the polarity*

          For sure- that’s why I included the caveat that I do not think this is the case with LW’s employee. I am not trying to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

        2. I Have RBF*


          If he was really smart he would come up with a way to explain it to everyone there, because part of being smart is knowing how to translate jargon into understandable English.

      2. Hrodvitnir*

        You probably don’t. Spending your time bathed in jargon and having trouble gauging what non-specialists understand is one thing. Being genuinely bad at social skills is another. Being arrogant plus one or both of those is another again.

        None of those are the same as literally making things up where other specialists can tell you’re full of it, and I bet you’ve witnessed it to a lesser degree than this LW.

        I have a friend who is deeply insecure about his intelligence, and when he asked questions in university it was a lot of needless jargon with little content, but it overawed many of our peers. I relate this situation as a worse version of that.

        1. JustaTech*

          I had a coworker who’s writing was the very worst of academia – I must prove to you how smart I am so I will use all the biggest words and most complicated sentence structure possible!

          Except you’re not in academia any more dude, you’re in industry and the name of the game is clear communication. (In his defense he had literally *just* finished his dissertation, so was still very much in that mindset.)
          He did get better, but only after a formal “how to write in industry” class.

          1. Ace in the Hole*

            On the one hand, this is super annoying.

            On the other hand, half the reason my job exists is because of people like this. So I guess I should be grateful for them? The actual information I work with is not difficult for most people to grasp… but being able to translate between technical/regulatory language into regular English is apparently a specialized skill.

            1. JustaTech*

              Oh it totally is a specialized skill!
              When my parents worked at an engineering consulting firm they both regularly joked that part of their jobs was translating “engineer-ese”.
              I’ve also just discovered that if you can follow even a little bit of engineer-speak entirely too many people will be very impressed and assume that you are an engineer, rather than a scientist who spends a lot of social time with engineers.

    7. RPOhno*

      I may be dating myself, but I’m imagining a more charismatic Senor Cardgage telling a room full of people something like “The percent sign combolations are no probalo!”

      1. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

        @RPOhno 20 years later I regularly say “excardon me” and ask people if they want a slice of gum. Senor Cardgage rules.

    8. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      OP gave no examples. His words must be so recognizable to everyone that it would be like putting neon-ium gassical signlicles on all the offictorium baringston postagesafuls.

    9. Elizabeth West*

      I started laughing halfway through the letter imagining just this scenario. If I were in a meeting with this guy, I don’t think I could keep a straight face.

      Not that I think your situation is funny, OP; just that my brain is struggling with it. Like……WHY????

    10. Alan*

      What I’ve noticed is that they start with something like “Well, we can all agree on x” which is *not* something we all agree on and then they wander off into gibberish, or “I’m sure you realize y” and then they wander off into nonsense. Very frustrating.

      1. Cats Ate My Croissant*

        Having flashbacks to one of my uni textbooks that frequently had lines like “from this [relatively straightforward thing] we can obviously conclude [how the universe works]” and me yelling “No! No we cannot!”

        Although presumably they did actually know what they were talking about.

        1. Jopestus*

          I am so glad we had a teacher who actually explained those “obvious conclusions” in mathematics.

          Most of them were obvious if you handle the matter daily for few decades tho. :D

          1. amoeba*

            “trivial” was another of those nice words that had me screaming in frustration…

            1. JustaTech*

              “This (very obvious) proof is left as an exercise to the reader.”
              Oh the wailing and gnashing of teeth – especially when understanding the rest of the chapter required that you understand that not-at-all-obvious proof.

    11. MissBliss*

      “Oh, the problem? Well it has to do with the Jaborwalky Configuration and its misappropriation of confligstances.”

    12. Marshmallows*

      Ok so… I work in a technical field… and I love to call things by the wrong names. Now… I absolutely know what the real word is for it 99% of the time which means I can turn it on and off depending on my audience so hopefully I’m not annoying anyone too much. My new favorite is calling adjustable pipe clamps “cheese bros” because I was googling them recently and saw “adjustable pipe clamps also known as cheseboros” and my brain read “cheese bros”.

      But that industry is full of things with weird names so it ends up being easy to convince people that “yeah, the last place I worked that’s what we called them… you’ve never heard that?”

      The other 1% of the time when I don’t know what real word is… I’m pretty good at describing things so someone knows what I mean.

      Not that it matters but I’m a short white woman.

  3. Ashley*

    Just like not everyone should manage, not every junior person can move into more technical roles. Is this person better off staying in a junior role with no advancement?

    1. ecnaseener*

      I don’t get the sense that there are non-technical junior roles available for him — LW says the team is all technical.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Yeah, almost all technical roles have a steep learning curve where a new person needs to learn the specific skills/knowledge for a given role. Pretty much no one’s expected to be able to hit the ground running immediately.

        The inability to quickly learn those necessary skills/knowledge, though, is a big problem.

      2. Ellie*

        This is the part I don’t get, the rest of the team, being technical, must know he’s making up words. How are they responding to this? In my experience, technical people are not shy about attacking someone who’s attempting to bluff their way through.

    2. Fluffy Fish*

      I think OP means that he was hired as a junior with the expectation that he would get up to speed and progress to working at a higher level of performance. Not that there was an actual junior position and he got promoted to a more senior level.

      That’s pretty common.

    1. Consonance*

      You’ve really captured the cromuscence of the issue. Thanks for sharing your affititudinous perspective.

            1. Miss Chanandler Bong*

              No, but they warned about the Jabberwocky, my son. The claws that bite, the teeth that catch. And also the jub jub bird and the frumious bandersnatch.

            1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

              Oh wow, I hadn’t read that in years, and I’d forgotten how funny it was! Now I want to read both Alice books all over again. Whee!

          1. MigraineMonth*

            My elementary school required that we identify the parts speech for sentences, but they failed to specify the source of those sentences. My awesome 4th grade English teacher had us identifying the which words were verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs in the Jabberwocky poem.

            1. OrigCassandra*

              Similarly, I have been known to teach document structures by reference to Doug Zongker’s justly famous “Chicken chicken chicken: chicken chicken.”

              (Those who are not familiar with this masterpiece — it’s a conference presentation still available on YouTube and associated article — will not regret seeking it out. It’s completely SFW as long as you can laugh aloud.)

            2. Worldwalker*

              Consider the classic joke where a society lady, when asked whether she liked Kipling, replied “I’ll have you know I’ve never kippled!”

              She might not be up on classic literature, but she identified “kipling” by part of speech, and conjugated it for her reply.

      1. Evil Queen of Dysfunction*

        I prefer the King’s English spelling of croumuscence with the “ou”

      1. Ss*

        the words are clearly so startsly that everyone is unkrompt with the affility of the croldurous knowledge. impressive.

      1. LR*

        I hate to say it but I have a senior coworker who has the opposite problem – he regularly misuses words and makes really basic grammatical errors, like using ‘formally’ instead of ‘formerly’ in official marketing materials.

        I hate to be an elitist but it’s a really bad look to not be able to express yourself properly when you’re trying to drum up interest in products you’re selling.

        1. MassMatt*

          I remember wondering in grade school and into junior high WTH all these people that could not form a sentence were going to do for a living. And have since discovered that many of them write marketing material. Or instruction manuals.

          1. Distracted Procrastinator*

            a lot of them are in sales where undeserved confidence can really shine.

        2. Charlotte Lucas*

          Where I work, people often say “permissive” when they mean “permissible.” It has occasionally led to unintentional humor. (For me. They are often Very Serious.)

        3. Madre del becchino*

          Not in a work context, but I know someone who used the word “erotic” when he meant “erratic”…

            1. Maggie*

              In a meeting right after my maternity leave ended, I accidentally slipped and referred to “breast practices” instead of “best”. Everyone was extremely kind in just pretending I hadn’t said it.

              1. Timothy (TRiG)*

                I was once in the back office of an agricultural show, and found a discarded misprinted sash for the “Brest dressed lady”. I wonder whether I still have that photo?

          1. Snoozing not schmoozing*

            I had a boss years ago who always said “plubic” for “public” which was somehow worse than saying “pubic,” because it added a gross moist element.

          2. Kiv*

            We had someone use “Erogenously” where he meant “Erroneously” in a presentation. It was just a slip of the tongue, but there went the afternoon’s productivity.

            1. COHikerGirl*

              My major on one of my early resumes was Evolution, Population, and Orgasmic Biology. Not *technically* wrong because it is part of all that but definitely not the Organismic Biology it needed to be.

              I check it every time now. Even though I copy paste that part.

              1. NotJane*

                My high school biology teacher once said “orgasm” instead of “organism” during a lecture and we never let her live it down!

          3. londonedit*

            That’s amazing. Erotic!

            I get a lot of authors talking about the ‘forward’ to their book, when they mean ‘foreword’. And when I was doing my refereeing course one of the instructors kept saying ‘severical’ when he meant ‘spherical’ (one of the Laws of the Game is about the regulation size and shape of the ball, which is defined as being ‘spherical’).

          4. Wintermute*

            I’ve mentioned this one here before but my favorite is someone who got their sauces mixed and said he needed to “marinara” on an idea rather than “marinate”

          5. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

            I commented downthread about someone; they say “copaseptic” instead of copacetic and “altrimpic” instead of “intrinsic.”

          6. Former Admin turned Project Manager*

            Our organization publishes a monthly lists of minor corrections that are made in our publication, and we refer to the entries as Errata. It was all I could do recently when a stakeholder was asking me many questions about the “erotica table” and the entries therein.

    2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Yea, that’s pretty much what 8 out of every 5 tickets in my queue look like.

    3. Not Australian*

      I would like to take this opportunity of pointing everyone too young to remember him in the direction of the late, great ‘Professor’ Stanley Unwin, who made a career out of speaking gobbledegook… sure you’ll find plenty of examples on YouTube!

      1. Phony Genius*

        There’s also an American entertainer named Durwood Fincher, aka Dr. Robert Payne, aka Mr. Doubletalk who specializes in speaking at corporate events in a similar unintelligible manner.

      2. Antiqueight*

        My favourite has always been Professor Stanley Unwin Interviews Bill & Ben – BBC TV 1962

    4. Phony Genius*

      Yes, but it takes experience to do it well. The first time I tried, I gupped like a mattress.

      1. Miss Muffett*

        Right?! This comment section is making my entire week. I don’t care if it is only Tuesday. Nothing is going to improve on this.

    5. Reality.Bites*

      I recently discovered that cromulent is now in the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries. Cromulent is now a perfectly cromulent word – and embiggen is totally real and goes back to the 1800s!

  4. WorkerDrone*

    You should certainly have the overall discussion with him, but when possible, could you also start interrupting him and asking him to clearly define the made-up word he is using every single time? Ideally, multiple times a meeting? Just address this in real-time, in front of others.

    That will show less technical people that he isn’t as smart as he appears, it will convey information for those technical people who don’t get his made-up word, and hopefully it will frustrate him to the point of just using normal language.

    1. Czhorat*

      That’s tempting, but the idea shouldn’t be to break him down but to improve him; slapping him at the moment might be satisfying, but it’s also likely to make him defensive and angry.

      A discreet conversation – especially from someone in authority – can *maybe* put him on the right path.

      You should at least give him a chance.

      1. BethRA*

        I don’t think interrupting someone and asking them to explain what they mean, or to clarify what they’re saying automatically equals “breaking them down” or “slapping” them.

        Certainly, you CAN do it in a mean-spirited way, but it doesn’t need to be – and I’d argue that letting someone carry on speaking nonsense really isn’t doing them any favors in the long run.

        1. Czhorat*

          Oh, I don’t disagree.

          I just think that the initial plan – especially for the manager – should be to proactively discuss the issue before taking the risk of giving him a public humiliation, even if that public humiliation is richly deserved.

          He’s also been getting away with this for some time, and needs it made clear to him that it will not be allowed to continue.

          If he does it again after being warned/coached on it then you publicly slap him down.

      2. anonnynon*

        Yeah, dudes get violent if you don’t coddle them properly. Just nod along and smile pleasantly, like women have been trained & expected to do for millennia.

        1. Maglev to Crazytown*

          I actually had a guy physically lunge at me, like he was about to attack me, for professionally pointing out something dangerously incorrect that he said. I got fired due to “culture for” for reporting the incident to HR.

          This shit is all too real for many women.

        2. Wintermute*

          This is a really extreme position to take! Men around the world get feedback daily and none of them get violent. Management should not be conditioned on paranoid assumptions that all men are going to hurt you if you are not on constant eggshells.

          You solve that problem by vetting people you hire, having a workplace violence plan, and dealing strongly with any of the lead-up displays of aggression.

          It would also be really rare for someone who has not shown violence in the past to go that far, usually there’s boundary testing and escalation not straight 0-60 in 2.5 seconds.

          1. Laser99*

            Yes, men get feedback everywhere, all the time. The point is they REALLY don’t like it from women.

      3. Observer*

        That’s tempting, but the idea shouldn’t be to break him down but to improve him; slapping him at the moment might be satisfying, but it’s also likely to make him defensive and angry.

        The idea is not to “break him down” but to make it clear to people with less knowledge and experience that he’s actually NOT communicating well.

        If he actually reacts with anger (especially if he doesn’t get it under control) that’s an even bigger problem.

        1. Wintermute*

          I wouldn’t do this in public though, still. Yes that’s an important message to send but **you don’t need to send it in front of his face** and doing so is counterproductive.

          Because people may want to ask followups, and you won’t be able to be blunt as you should be unless you are being cruel for it’s own sake. Then again there would be no other point to do this in public in a meeting not privately to the people involved.

          I agree the other people should be taken aside and told he is full of it, but it should be in a private meeting where you can be frank and open without throwing a grenade into your relationship by having a very public fight with an employee and dressing them down in front of a meeting while questioning their intelligence, professionalism and qualifiications.

          Your boss doing that is not something your career comes back from. It’s something that should send you to a cabin in the woods for a month for quiet spiritual contemplation (unless your boss is known to be a complete banana).

          1. Reverse the polarity of the power flow*

            A meeting is a perfect time to bring up a lack of understanding due to unclear communication. I hate it when I need information and someone sounds like I jumped in the middle of a sci-fi show’s engineering plot. Part of my success in my field is being able to communicate. Technobabble doesn’t impress me. Especially when it turns out their long winded explanation comes down to restart the PC. In any field miscommunication causes problems.

      4. Amanda*

        Yeah, nah. Nope.

        There are far too many emperor-with-no-clothes examples of dudes in positions of power who Peter their ways up. We have to stop coddling the dudes.

    2. DeskApple*

      100%, “Hey Steve, I admit I was feeling a little uneducated a minute ago so I googled what “Perscupiated networks” are and can’t find any info. Could you correct my spelling?”

    3. RavinsPet*

      This was my thought. Talk to him one on one, sure, but don’t let him just blabber nonsense!

      “I’m going to stop you right there Jeffrey, you said something like, ‘adjurtanturcate’. I must have misheard you, what word did you use?”

    4. I should really pick a name*

      Shame is not a good management technique if you’re hoping to keep employees

      1. AngryOctopus*

        But it’s not shame. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone to explain when you don’t understand what they’ve said. You can say “hold on a second, I’m not familiar with the term you just used to describe the widget. Can you please define/explain?”. If he feels shame, that’s on him because he chose to make words up.

        1. I_Code_For_Food*

          Asking for explanations is not shaming someone.
          Many, many years ago, I worked as a purchasing agent buying printed product, When a sales rep would blame a late delivery or some other problem on a technical problem that I’d never heard of, that’s what I did. I asked questions until I either understood the technical problem (and why my delivery was late), or until the rep ran out of excuses and understood that I wasn’t buying his (bullshit) excuse.
          It was a useful approach, allowing me to learn the about the technical problems when they were real… and to pretty quickly discern when they were not.

        2. I should really pick a name*

          Asking for clarification isn’t inherently bad, but the advice was given in the context of showing others that he’s not as smart as he appears which is where it feels like there’s an element of shame.

          1. Czhorat*

            Especially if it’s a premeditated “gotcha”.

            OP knows that the employee does this. OP knows that they will likely do it again.

            The choice is to address it now, quietly and professionally or to wait until it happens again and then spring a trap – one that makes the entire team look bad in front of whatever stakeholders are there in the meeting (and if it includes customers or other external stakeholders you risk damaging the entire company’s reputation)

            1. tangerineRose*

              What if they address it quietly and professionally, and then if that doesn’t work after a few meetings, then start asking for definitions in public?

              1. Wintermute*

                That’s still bad management. If a direct conversation doesn’t work from there it’s discipline to firing, public humiliation has no part of it and trap cards should be reserved for yuh-gi-oh

        3. BethRA*

          It’s also not shaming to correct someone in the process of giving out incorrect information so other people aren’t misled about something.

      2. Czhorat*

        This is where I come in as well.

        It might need to escalate to that, but first you need to be professional and address it discreetly, as you would any other behavioral or performance issue.

        1. AngryOctopus*

          Speaking out in a meeting (especially if it’s not one with outside stakeholders) IS professionally addressing it. If I can’t explain myself in a lab meeting when someone asks me to explain something, that’s on me for not doing my work and trying to skate. Same with this guy. He’s trying to skate through on the power of his words confusing people, so he should be called out and asked to explain.

      3. WorkerDrone*

        I mean, I personally don’t feel ashamed if someone asks me to define a word I’ve used they don’t know, even multiple times in one conversation. And this does happen, often, and will happen, often. I work with a lot of English as a second language speakers, and in an academic department that has a lot of jargon, so those two things combined can make communicating tricky. I can sometimes spend almost as much time defining words as I do speaking them to begin with.

        My suggestion wasn’t to shame or “slap” down at an employee as some have interpreted it to be and I have to admit I am surprised it came across that way. I do this for others all the time (defining words) and others ask me to define things all the time when they don’t understand what I have said. The idea that asking someone to define a word is meant to shame or punish the employee is… not at all the idea.

        And, indeed, sometimes it shows I’m not as smart as I think I am when I misuse a word, and it helps people understand me much better, and sometimes it frustrates me enough that I realize I need to use better words or explain things more simply.

        1. I Have RBF*


          If you use a word that your audience does not recognize or understand, you should expect to be asked to define it. Yes, you may have a malapropism or an aphasic word substitution, but a definition can help clear things up and get everyone on the same page.

          That’s what talking is for – communication. When people don’t understand what the other person is saying, then that person is not communicating, they are just making noise.

        2. MassMatt*

          It did come across that way to me; you recommended interrupting him, multiple times, showing people he isn’t as smart as he appears, in order to “frustrate him”.

          I think you are extrapolating your experience of being a normal person being asked to define a word someone else doesn’t know to this situation. But in this case, the word is something even the SPEAKER doesn’t even know, because he made it up. And he does it a lot.

          IMO the LW seems very thoughtful, but seems to be giving this person too much benefit of the doubt. I wonder why, if “it’s not the case that everything this long-winded employee says is accurate, correct, or even valuable so I’m not sure about putting in the effort to help this employee succeed, grow, and advance in our organization because I’m not sure he has the skills” LW is also “ramping him up”. Or for that matter how he got past a probationary period.

          I would put him on a PIP if I were unable to just get rid of him.

          1. blah*

            Yeah, you have a direct conversation with him in private, then put him on a PIP if those clear expectations aren’t met within an acceptable time frame.

            Because people are assuming this guy is the worst, it’s obviously completely fine to purposefully make him frustrated during a meeting. If I saw a manager do that to someone, I would lost respect for the manager, not the babbling guy.

        3. fhqwhgads*

          This is fair, although in my experience with dudes the like one described in the letter, unfortunately the explanations were also gibberish. Different gibberish. In my case the guy wasn’t making up words – I understood all the individual words, but the way he strung them together would reliably either make no sense or more often just mean absolutely nothing.

          The higher ups were really keen on this guy and hired him without any input from the people who’d be working with him directly (which was unusual for this company). Apparently they were so wowed by his samples and skills test scores they decided he was too good to pass up. There was a bit of initial hesitance from basically everyone – really smart people – who thought he must just be THAT technically brilliant we didn’t understand. Took about two weeks to realize, nope, he might have been a brilliant coder but he was impossible to communicate with even about the simplest things. And he took forever to do any work. He’d spend five minutes answering “do you think you’ll be done with X by close of business today?” and we still weren’t sure if he was saying yes or no. He didn’t last long, and it was still longer than he should have.

          Which I suppose is my own longwinded way of saying I don’t have high hopes that interrupting to ask for clarification would help much, other than perhaps confirming this dude won’t work out.

        4. MCMonkeyBean*

          I agree, it’s not about shaming him into doing better but about actually clarifying in the moment! If you wait until you’re not in the meeting to talk about it one-on-one so as not to embarrass him in front of everyone in the meeting… then everyone in the meeting doesn’t know what he meant to say!

          I don’t think it’s a big deal to just straight up say in the moment “sorry Joe, I’m not sure what you meant when you said we need to flogulate the persnixtors, can you clarify that a bit?” It doesn’t need to be embarrassing or shameful. Clarifying questions in a meeting are normal, and it sounds like this guy may just need to be asked a lot more of them.

    5. Myrin*

      I’m actually surprised that hasn’t happened already, especially right in the beginning and not as a “gotcha” but innocently and earnestly – are OP and team just letting him blubber on without actually understanding a thing he says?
      It sounds like people can’t even interact with what he’s saying, so is he just left to blubber senselessly and then OP is like “okay, thank you for that” and then the next person speaks and no one ever talks about it again? That sounds incredibly awkward, not to mention entirely useless.

      1. Raida*

        I was thinking that – it seems very time-wastey to put in lots and lots of effort to try to understand and then… not understand.
        Or tell him it’s an issue.

        Is he embarassing himself in front of the technical folks? yup. Shouldn’t somebody tell him…?

    6. Urp*

      Agreed, it sounds like this is someone who likes to hear himself talk. Asking for clarification and explanation will hopefully prevent him from getting into a long-winded, off track monologue. If he consistently gets feedback that he can’t ramble on if he can’t be understood, maybe he’ll put more effort into clear communication. Or he’ll be really offended and frustrated that he can’t ramble on whenever he wants, which would be helpful info to have as a manager.

    7. MigraineMonth*

      I don’t think this needs to be combative or shaming at all. LW could even add softening language like “Sorry, I’m not following” or “Would you please repeat that?” if that’s their style.

      LW is the manager; they absolutely have the standing to ask the LW to slow down, define unfamiliar words and explain in a way that they can follow. That should be standard for a technical team, in my opinion.

    8. nnn*

      That’s what I came here to suggest.

      It would be a natural consequence to his unclear communication (the meeting can’t proceed until he clarifies), plus it makes him do the cognitive labour.

      1. nnn*

        ETA: And I’m thinking you should be precise and specific with this. “Could you clarify what precisely you mean by cromulent?”

        A lot of the suggestions have been very general (e.g. “I’m afraid I don’t understand”), and it would likely be more productive to focus on the precise thing that’s the issue.

        Or if it’s the statement rather than the word, ask for clarification on that. (e.g. “Could you elaborate on how reversing the polarity of the deflector dish will enable us to time travel?”)

    9. OrigCassandra*

      For what it’s worth, I got a bit overtechnical at a work meeting once, and a colleague let me wind down, then said, “I didn’t understand that or its relevance to {work thing under discussion}, could you rephrase?”

      And her tone was a little annoyed, but nothing unreasonable.

      So I apologized, rephrased, and checked for understanding, and I did a good enough job rephrasing that she was satisfied with her understanding, and the meeting went on, and it was fine. I didn’t feel punished and (I hope and believe) my colleague didn’t feel insulted or condescended to.

    10. ClaireW*

      Yeah I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or just me having reached senior level and having seen guys like this before – once it became clear that it’s a pattern rather than the odd genuine misunderstanding, I would just be calling it out like “Can you repeat that?” or “that’s not a word” or “That doesn’t make sense in this context”.

  5. Jiminy Cricket*

    Does he write more clearly and accurately than he speaks? Could you ask him to send important information in an email when he starts going off the rails? That might help you gauge his actual understanding of the concepts better, too.

    1. linger*

      Unfortunately, not foolproof: his level of comprehension needs to be tested in real time.
      In writing, his neologisms might just be filtered out by spellcheck.
      Also, if his writing *does* stay within correct terminology, but still fails to demonstrate understanding, what are the chances he’s using ChatGP and/or extensive Wikipedia quoting to help generate written communication?

    2. Smithy*

      I say this from the perspective of working with colleagues where English isn’t the first language – if I know someone is presented with either highly accented English or is less confident in articulating technical concepts in English, I’ll recommend either slides or handouts to accompany a meeting with the key take points written down. When everyone’s ultimately all aligned on the same goal (clear communication), I’ve found it to be helpful to have accompanying material to support verbal communication that might be less clear on its own. We then also get the chance to copy edit/wordsmith the most important pieces, again in a collaborative aim of clarity.

      If this employee is presenting, I do think asking for the development of slides/accompanying materials could be a tool for that clarity – particularly if this employee is working in good faith. If not – you may also find out. Like many of us, I’m in an industry where a lot of our jargon is taking a word like partner and then giving it a very specific industry term. And of course because that’s a word in English that can mean many things – it also has multiple industry definitions based on context. So I’ve noticed that people who are intentionally trying to mislead or big themselves up will use a lot of those types of jargon terms without clarifying which definition they’re using. And at its worse, they don’t even know the relevant definitions.

      Because the ultimate result is unclear or misleading language, I find it can be very difficult to call people out without it seeming accusatory or pedantic. For example, if someone says they have many “development partners” – both are terms that can have a number of meanings in my industry. And if I can’t place the definition they’re intending, saying “can we go back to development partners and go into more detail about what you mean there” that dynamic a few times can be so disruptive that you risk appearing hyper critical and disruptive. The benefit of having materials accompany a presentation or follow up in email, is that there then becomes more of a private context to determine if there is or isn’t an intent to mislead.

      1. Ms. Elaneous*

        How about having Mr. Gobbledegook be required to put his comments in the Chat, so that the rest of us can look up unfamiliar words.

        Yeah that invented word thing was endearing in Wicked, but for this guy, nope, shut it down.

        And, as a manager, give him a heads up that you are timing his comments, and he has 3 minutes ( or whatever you decide), and then you hit mute.
        ( and then you may allow Q&A if it’s helpful).
        I would not worry 10 seconds about insulting this guy.

        1. Over-Sharers Anonymous*

          I learned a lot about self-policing when I was on a volunteer board for a non-profit. The scribe we had at the time was particularly conscientious, attributed every remark, and made sure they all appeared in the minutes. So when I found out my occasional side-snark or over-participation was going to show up in print, I learned to be much more circumspect. Is there any chance the LW can supply a transcript of these remarks for awhile?

          1. linger*

            Nonce vocabulary will tend to break transcription systems (machine or human).
            But if employee were assigned to transcribe his own contributions, we might be getting somewhere!

  6. DataOrItDidn’tHappen*

    We had a colleague like that. Consensus was that he was either a genius or had no idea what he was doing. I inherited his code and it was option 2. Did wonders for my imposter syndrome!

    Heartily second/third the advice to first decide whether this guy is worth the effort.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I initially learned all my technical skills through reading, so I didn’t know how to pronounce many of the terms or I would forget the last syllable of the word. It didn’t help that I’m a woman and for the longest time I worked with men that were neurologically incapable of having an intelligent conversation with a woman.
      But then I went through a degree program and now I work with a great team that has lots of nerd discussions. But I still stop myself when I have to pronounce new words, I still have a fear of looking silly.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        So many of us learned words first by reading then had to learn pronunciation in embarrassing real time…

        ASS-per-egg-us was my bane for a while.

        1. Eeyore004*

          Even Beverly Cleary hit up against this- her memoir describes how she pronounced “patio” as “pay-sho” until she moved to an area where the thing actually existed.

        2. New Jack Karyn*

          It’s spelled ‘rhetoric’ but pronounced ‘rederrick’.

          I thought it was ‘ru-TOR-ik’ because I had heard the phrase ‘a rhetorical question’.

          I will never get over this.

        3. Smurfette*

          As a well-read child who didn’t have many actual conversations, I used to say dee-oh-DAW-rint (deodorant) and jod-FIRS (jodhpurs).

  7. Juicebox Hero*

    What a leejfong. He sounds like a complete squipnongle to deal with.

    Unfortunately, he also sounds like much younger and very insecure me, back in the days when I’d try to sound far more brainulous than I was by misusing, and misprounouncing, big words, which did not work so well.

    I kind of wonder if he’s in over his head and is hiding behind the nonsense words because A) people believe his white maleness, and B) no one’s ever called him out on it before. Also, in my experience, people tend to either tune out or just agree with long-winded people in order to make them shut up.

    However, that won’t fool anyone taking a close look at his work product and I have a feeling he’ll need to be let go irregardless (hah) of what happens with his nonsense and bloviation.

    1. 3DogNight*

      Squipnongle and Brainulous are now part of my lexicon, and it would be ridonkulous not to use them. Bonus–OP, ridonkulous was word of the year a few years back, totally made up, so you could be a trendsetter here!

  8. DannyG*

    The OP indicated that this was a verbal communication problem, his writing is not a problem. Quick solution would be to request everything in writing.

    1. Emily*

      That’s not a great solution though because OP said they are remote, so they are in a lot of virtual meetings. Being able to communicate well *both* in writing and speaking is important in a lot of jobs, and it certainly sounds like it is very important in this job.

      1. LCH*

        i wonder if the spelling/grammar catcher is getting him in written form which is why he’s better there.

      2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

        wouldn’t remote work give *more* opportunities for written communication?

        1. Emily*

          It might, but there are some things that need to be discussed in real time, and not all communication can be written. There’s the ongoing debate about “a meeting that could have been an email”, but OP specifically says they have a lot of virtual meetings, and if the employee cannot communicate well verbally in those meetings, that is a serious problem.

    2. Chirpy*

      Writing gives him time to research what he’s saying, if he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He needs to be tested in real time, verbally.

  9. Alternative possibilities*

    A long time ago I taught an introductory science class at a community college. I had a student who was engaged and verbally competent, but the first paper they turned in was… word salad. It turns out that they had been in an accident and had a traumatic brain injury and did not realize what the effects were until we had a conversation about that paper.

    I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily what’s happening in your case, just to leave open the door that there might be something else going on with the making-up-words thing that is not apparent or intentional.

    1. Cluttering Not Stuttering*

      Sometimes it’s not even a brain injury, per se, but there are speech disorders that make people hard to understand even if they’re obviously speaking a language that’s native to them.

      And as much as I resent the default perception that well-dressed white men are smart and competent, I generally only judge the ones who ARE mediocre while viewing others as dumb and incompetent.

      1. Tau*

        I also had that go through my mind (I’m Stuttering Not Cluttering myself, but I’m familiar with cluttering as a cousin speech disorder to my own). I hope that if LW investigates, it becomes obvious if he’s incompetent and trying to hide it, competent but doing this intentionally for some reason, or competent and genuinely having difficulty speaking in a way that lets people understand him. The three need different approaches.

      2. thats just me*

        I also think this sounds like it could be some kind of condition, disability, etc. I have a harder time explaining things out loud compared to in writing — for me, it’s mostly ADHD mixed with what I think is covid-related brain fog. I often forget common words or names of people I know, especially when I have a bit of an audience (like at a meeting) and feel a little nervous.

        If that’s the case, it might be helpful to ask this employee to write down what they plan to say in the meeting ahead of time. If his work is otherwise good, this is an avenue worth exploring.

    2. Lady_Lessa*

      Having tutored a student in community college chemistry, it was quite a challenge to try to get him to explain things back to me in a way that would make sense to his instructor. (I knew that he was neurodiverse going in).

      I and the other tutoring wasn’t able to help him pass that course, but he did a lower, easier one.

      (also showed me how much basic chemistry I had forgotten, because I don’t use it.)

    3. Sharon*

      If the person communicates clearly in writing but not in off-the-cuff speaking situations, there’s something going on. Make it clear to the person that they need to improve, but also emphasize that it’s completely OK to say they need more time to review or process and provide their input later.

    4. I Have RBF*

      I have aphasia from a brain injury/stroke. If I’m tired or overly stressed, I start … substituting parts of words for sound alike or similar works. Things like “awkful” for “awkward”, or “relationed” for “rationed”. I can tell when I’ve done it in person when people get a really confused expression on their face, because the word is almost right, but isn’t.

      I don’t think Mr SmartGuy is doing that, though. People with aphasia don’t tend to double down and call everyone else stupid.

    5. Yap, yap, yap*

      doesn’t matter, he has to be able to communicate with his coworkers. it’s not discriminatory to hold him to a reasonable standard of clear, concise. complete, and correct verbal communication.

      1. thats just me*

        I mean, it might be discriminatory. It depends on a lot of other factors we don’t know about.

    6. AKchic*

      Gotta love brain injuries.
      After my last one, I couldn’t pronounce “cinnamon” correctly for over a year. Even as a child I could say it correctly, but not after that head injury as an adult!

      Now I’m 40 and there are times where I forget words, or have verbal stumbles where I just can’t get words out properly. However, my writing hasn’t changed at all.

      1. Broadway Duchess*

        I have a physician relative who is incredibly smart and good at distilling complex concepts for any audience, but there is one word that plagues her: turquoise. She can say the syllables individually, but together: TOR-KWORZE. And none of us can figure out fron where it came!

    7. Florp*

      I’m glad you mentioned this. While I do think there are a lot of mediocre white men sailing through life unbothered, I’d always want to start with a compassionate conversation. “I’ve noticed you use words when you speak that most of us aren’t familiar with. It’s difficult to follow, and it would be better to stick to technical vocabulary that everyone knows. Would it be helpful to create presentation slides in advance, or to provide a verbal summary and follow up with more detail in an email?” You can also frame it as “I’m trying to be mindful of everyone’s time and make sure our meetings are only as long as they need to be. I’d like everyone to be able communicate in concise bullet points if possible.” How he reacts to that is the key.

      My son has the opposite problem–you can have an intelligent, nuanced conversation with him about any subject, and he can take apart and reassemble any machine or electronics, but if you ask him to write a paragraph about any of it, you get word salad written in camel case. (He has dysgraphia and a processing speed disorder.)

      From years of testing, treatment, and convincing people he’s not sloppy or lazy, I learned that the parts of the brain and the neural pathways used for verbal expression are different than the ones used to write (writing is psychologically and physiologically really freakin’ complicated). This guy could have a speech, language, or processing disorder, aphasia, a head injury, or a stroke (mini-strokes can cause speech problems and often go undiagnosed). Sometimes, when the right word won’t come, a panicked brain will supply another!

    1. FricketyFrack*

      Oh great point. I didn’t even think about that, but he may well be getting an assist from AI or something, which would be another issue.

      1. Cluttering Not Stuttering*

        People have varying degrees of fluency in skills that for some reason are grouped together. Some people can write better than they speak, and vice versa. Some people remember if they hear the words than if theg have to read them, and vice versa.

        1. Wintermute*

          yes, absolutely. It also can vary based on SO much, how you learned to speak, how much you read and wrote as a child, even what language.

          For instance I am a native English speaker and I speak fluent german and intermediate Japanese. In English I’m equally proficient in speaking, writing and reading. In German I am far more proficient in speaking and listening, I read decently but write with much more difficulty. In Japanese I read much better than I listen or speak, even despite the fact it uses three separate alphabets one of which has thousands of symbols, yet I cannot really write much.

    2. Wintermute*

      Is there any possible reason to assume he’s not? I feel like raising such an extreme possibility when there is no hint of it anywhere in the letter isn’t right.

  10. Anon For This*

    OH MY GOSH. I was literally just in a meeting w/ someone who does this, and she did it so much today that I wrote down some examples and was wondering if I should bring it up with her. In my case, she’s also a native speaker but she’s from a different culture than mine. I get the sense she’s kind of cosplaying her idea of a professional woman- she didn’t grow up in a white-collar culture and she’s trying her best to fit in. It makes me so embarrassed for her, but if I came at her like “you’re using every 3-syllable word wrong and it’s harming your reputation” I’d just look racist.

    1. Cluttering Not Stuttering*

      Worry more about BEING racist than looking racist probably. In 2024, anyone who claims to be a professional must’ve been aware of a thing called “subconscious biases,” and something about your post makes me think you do have certain thoughts about her because of her race but are savvy enough not to say most of the wrong words. The last sentence though.

    2. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      You could tell her when you don’t understand a word she uses and ask her to explain what she means. That’s necessary for clarity. If you ask politely, why would it look racist?

    3. Raida*

      I’d say don’t ‘come at her’ with it.

      I’d say ‘strike up a conversation with her, discuss work histories, discuss imposter syndrome, discuss methods of coping and things I did when I was young that did/didn’t work well and how about you…..?’

      Find some common ground, even if it’s just “being employed” and then, when you are not some rando from some meeting, say “I want to tell you about something in [meeting] which I think harms your professional perception but I don’t know how to say it” they’ll prompt you, you can say “I heard a good five made-up words/incorrectly used words”. and then “Broadly that gave me the impression of someone either trying to fit in with big words or who doesn’t know the subject and is trying to cover.” And I was wondering… do you want to talk about it?

      – if you’re both women feel free to chuck in “And I’ve totally met some men over the years who did this and it just made them sound smart. But I don’t think it’d work for us, y’know?”

      If you come at them with a criticism, and they have an existing hypervigilance for race, then yeah they could assume. If you come at them offering a colleague and not offering to teach them but to listen, then it’s more treating-them-as-a-person and not as their age/race/gender for any hypervigilance to trigger.

      If all of this is too much – I don’t know you mate, I don’t know your workplace, I don’t know the age differences here or anything – then you can drop a line to your manager to chat to her manager about the impression it gives.

      1. Anon for This*

        @Raida I like this a lot, thank you. It doesn’t seem like too much, it actually… I don’t know, it’s just perfect. You know, part of acknowledging subconscious bias is that I can’t trust my instincts and even during earnest reflection I’m often like “that could be the ingrained -ism talking.” But I like this because it puts the focus on getting to know her better, like essentially forgetting about the issue and just getting to know her. That’s always a good thing.
        Thank you.

        1. anonynope*

          Oh no, please don’t use this script. I cringed imagining a relatively new acquaintance telling me that I speak incorrectly, that I am inventing words, and that you get the sense that I’m doing this to pass as a smart and professional person. Oh, and by the way, I’m apparently FAILING to pass as a smart and professional person, which is why you’re trying to “help” me. I would feel absolutely humiliated.

          I am not a racial minority, but I do have a disability that affects my communication. Every now and then, I encounter someone making a wild assumption about my situation and offering offensive and unsolicited advice on how to get by in life. Doesn’t matter if the intentions were good, it triggers me for days. Please look up “stereotype threat” if you’re not already familiar with this term.

          1. Dhonka*

            i didn’t read Raida’s comment as saying to do that as a new acquaintance! that would be nuts.

    4. Yap, yap, yap*

      This is so true and I suspect that is what is going on here. The commentator who assumes you are being some type of closeted racist for pointing this out is just wrong.

      1. Anon For This*

        That’s okay, yap. Cluttered’s response kind of illustrates exactly why I’m trying to be mindful of how my coworker will perceive her language being critiqued. Even though in this case *I* know it’s based in fact- that saying “altrimpic” instead of intrinsic, “adhesive” instead of abrasive, and “repulticate” for replicate is harming her reputation- I want to make sure she understands it’s not about her dialect, her accent, her attitude… it’s just that the words are wrong.

  11. Frodo*

    I know a tall, white, cis guy who used to work near my office in NYC. He later started using words like covfefe, bigly and didn’t understand the job he was hired for, so he made up a ton of shit and well, here we are.

      1. pally*

        That’s nothing. You should see what he owes New York state!

        Hey, your bf and New York state have something else in common! You both have the same chance of ever receiving payment from that man.

  12. HugeTractsofLand*

    Yeah, this sounds like an employee who either is trying to cover up what he doesn’t know, or tried to learn what he didn’t know from some very crappy resources instead of asking questions. Paired with being long-winded, I’d be concerned that this employee cares too much about being an “expert” and isn’t willing to learn from the team. Alison’s advice to hone in on clear communication is a great way to suss out if this is salvageable. That’s the underlying issue, and if he isn’t willing to adapt or to admit ignorance, then he’s got way more problems than it’s worth dealing with.

  13. morethantired*

    I have to admit that I have learned over the past 5 years that a lot of the terminology I learned in my early career is entirely incorrect and the toxic workplace I came up in just sort of used words to make things sound good as opposed to using them properly. This has led to a lot of embarrassment for me as I use these words and then coworkers ask “X is not a Y… what do you mean?” and then I have to sheepishly explain why I just so confidently used a word completely wrong. “I had learned X was called Y at a previous workplace but your comment makes me realize this is incorrect. What is the right way to talk about this?”

    1. Generic Name*

      Oh NO! My last company was infamous (in my mind) for that kind of thing. It’s a small company whose founder just retired. Many employees have worked there their whole careers. The “new” CEO, an internal promotion, has never worked anywhere else. So, much of company leadership just doesn’t know how things work anywhere else. They would use terms wrong ALL the time. My favorite was they called trainings held over the lunch hour with a company-provided lunch “BBLs”. Short for “brown bag lunch”. Pretty much every other English speaker thinks of that term as “bring your own lunch (in a brown paper bag) to this meeting”.

      1. morethantired*

        It has been an awful thing to discover and it made me want to write my former boss with a glossary of terms titled “what these actually mean and how to stop embarrassing yourself and everyone else.”

      2. GammaGirl1908*

        A) At a former job, we often had brown bags, but no one ever brought lunch to them, heh. I always thought it was odd that I would go to a 55-minute long brown bag and then have to wolf a sandwich down in 5 minutes right afterward.

        B) That said, that was not where I thought this comment was going. I hear BBL and think “Brazilian butt lift.” Oops.

        1. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

          @GammaGirl1908 my face the first time my therapist said he was a big supporter of “CBT”

      3. Tau*

        I also encountered that use of “brown bag lunch”, but I’m in Germany and am used to English terms taking on some wacky and unexpected new lives their place of origin would not recognise in both my 95% non-native speaker workplace and country overall. Thankfully, I don’t expect to ever work in an English-speaking country again, otherwise there could be issues.

      4. londonedit*

        I wouldn’t have had a clue what a ‘brown bag lunch’ was anyway (we don’t use that term; bringing your own lunch would be a ‘packed lunch’ here) so I’d have been extremely confused, let alone if they just called it a ‘BBL’ with no explanation at all!

    2. pally*

      Oh does this resonate with me!
      See, while I was taking night classes in Quality Assurance, my boss was teaching me QA at work.

      Only, he got the concepts completely different from what I was gleaning from the class (and the books). Not wrong, just different. Unfortunately, since he was my boss, I had to make his version of QA work. It was almost like learning two completely unrelated languages at the same time.

      So when I went to job interviews, I had to be careful how I used the words and talked about the concepts (the correct way or the boss way). As if that wasn’t bad enough, many times I was in the position of having to defend my boss and how we did QA at work (without making my boss look like a fool). Dicey. There were times when I didn’t realize until after the interview, that I probably sounded like I didn’t know what I was talking about.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        That feeling when the new person interjects in a team meeting and tells the Principal Engineers “I’m not really sure what you’re asking for here as what you seem to mean by ‘integration test’ is not at all how I’m accustomed to that term being used.” and all of QA is like “oooh he said the quiet part outloud!”

        1. Test type definition flashback*

          Flashback headache – meetings and PowerPoints and wiki pages full of definitions of various kinds of tests that

          a) the team doesn’t all agree with (perhaps because “smoke test”, “regression test”, “integration test” and “UI test” would have nearly completely overlapped if we’d made a Venn diagram of this stuff)

          b) the broadly used/understood definitions of each thing that you’d encounter “in the wild” i.e. stackexchange, github, framework documentation… did not match this stuff at all

          c) the person insisting most strongly on the definitions so presented != QA (and man, he did NOT believe in cross-functioning/silo reduction. If you were QA and you had the audacity to make code/design suggestions? All the weird.)

    3. Merci Dee*

      But this is okay — you used the best words that you knew for the concept that you had in your head, and you are willing to question those things you learned when you discover they might not be correct. Everybody learns something during their lives that isn’t correct. The important thing is being willing to admit that what you learned wasn’t right, and then learning the right thing. I think you’re doing a great job with this. :)

    4. learnedthehardway*

      I worked for a global company that had its own dictionary of terms and acronyms. In fact, there were DIALECTS of company-speak. After leaving, there were times when I would say something and people would get that dog-head-tilt look, as if I had gone from speaking English to suddenly speaking Klingon. Took awhile to wean myself off of the company-speak.

  14. Evil Queen of Dysfunction*

    One way to cut down is to control the meeting. Limit how long people can speak for. I used to meet with a group every week and we used the “Harvard Guide to Running Meetings” to build our meeting framework. They were without a doubt the most effective meetings I have ever been in.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Very much this! Some people just view meetings as their own personal live in-person podcast and just ramble on. A well-run meeting is a great thing and quite productive.

  15. Generic Name*

    I think the script of what to say is a good start, but I think that OP really needs to call out the fact that the employee is using completely made up words! Saying that they simply need to explain stuff so a wider/non-technical audience is a much different issue than what is happening. Many highly technical people have a hard time “dumbing down” technical concepts (although I would argue that one doesn’t truly understand something unless they can explain it to a smart 14 year old). But this guy is just making crap up and hoping no one calls him on it. OP, as his manager, you need to call him on it. During meetings, write down the nonsensical words as best you can. Look up the words to triple check that they ARE made up. I believe you that they are, but on the off chance they are just really obscure, it’s best to double-check. Then meet with him and mention that people need to understand what he is saying and ask him to explain a couple of the words you wrote down (and verified are made up). After he flounders, do an internet search of the words in front of him to show that you know he’s making things up. The intent isn’t to shame him, but it’s to avoid an inevitable argument where he insists tesalect is an actual word and you insist it isn’t. Ask him why he feels the need to do that.

    The best scenario is he feels out of his depth and is trying to sound smart to keep up. In that case you can explain why he specifically was hired and that his existing skills/knowledge brings value and what more you expect of him. Unfortunately, he may be doing that for the reasons you suspect- he really isn’t up to the job but wants to hide that. If you do end up letting him go, don’t feel too bad. He’s likely one of those “fail upward” types and will land on his feet.

  16. Stuart Foote*

    I realize this isn’t the most likely explanation, but I prefer to believe this guy is bored and trying to entertain himself during boring virtual meetings by seeing how long he can get away with making up words.

    1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      The impact on his colleagues is the same so even if somehow he’s doing this, it doesn’t change much.

  17. el l*

    Ruthlessly treat muddy communication as a sign of muddy thinking.

    “Not grasping your logic there – could you try again?”
    “How would you suggest I explain…what you just said…to someone with a high school education?”
    “Can you say that in a normal-person sentence?”

    And, ultimately,
    “Clear communication is part of the job. I’m going to have to see you prove that you can communicate complex concepts clearly and accurately in everyday English. The longer it takes to do that, the greater the chances that we’ll have to all conclude this is a bad fit.”

  18. Anne Shirley Blythe*

    OP, pleaaase generate an update file should this be something you find yourself able to accomplish. We will awaiten the update with eagertude.!

  19. subaru outback driver*

    I am a bit sad to see how many folks seem to be lining up against this guy. The LW specifically states they don’t know what kind of skills the long winded making up words guy is in his job. Personally, I just have a call with him and just talk to him. Tell him what you have noticed and see what he says. I know I can get very wordy and talkative at times. Luckily, I had someone early in my career and point it out and I have gotten a lot better.

    1. Gust of wind*

      I agree. Especially since the OP said it’s not in his writing. Maybe he has issues with presenting/talking.
      Most of us have a way of communication that’s easier to process. For me it’s definitely reading/writing and I have to be careful when talking because my brain wants to use the wrong words when talking.
      As/if his written work is fine I wouldn’t solely judge his technical capabilities on spoken communication.

    2. Katy*

      The LW said they’re not sure he has the skills for the job – implying that it seems like he doesn’t. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that someone who seems to lack skills and also has a tendency to bloviate and make things up might be posturing as a way to seem more competent than he is.

  20. Raida*

    You say he’s recently been ‘ramped up’ – perhaps he has reached his limit technically.
    So, was he successful prior to this?
    Is the fantastical talkiness a new thing?

    Do you have space for, and find value in, someone doing the less strenuous technical role he had as a junior? Or is that space realistically of value because it allows new people to come in and progress?

    I just ask these things to help you ascertain if he was *ever* good at his job and worth coaching and training to save.

  21. Coverage Associate*

    I am one of those people who writes better than I speak. Writing, I can look up usage of technical terms, etc. When I was beginning, I made myself a dictionary cheat sheet, just a couple pages, which I put up in my office.

    So I am not as suspicious as others about his writing being better than his oral presentations. I recommend every office dealing with technical terminology to develop a dictionary for the whole office to use. For example, in my last job, “BI” stood for “bodily injury.” Now, it means “business income,” and it’s the same general area of law.

  22. Nihil Scio*

    In university, I had a philosophy professor who kept his students in befuddled silence as they tried to unravel what, the heck, he was saying

    It took only one lecture for me to discover that he was adding ‘unlicensed’ prefixes and suffixes to core words to ‘clarify’ their meaning

    Latin for the win

    1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      My philosophy 101 professor was a native French speaker, and never did learn to pronounce ‘th’ correctly. So much trouble distinguishing ‘fate’ and ‘faith’, which come up a zillion times in the 101 class…

    2. Jam on Toast*

      Ooh, Academia is the homeworld of bafflegab! People who desperately want to sound smart throw in a buffet of Heideggerian/Sausseurian/Marxist/Hermeneutic theory terms willy-nilly into their papers and discussions. But despite the big words, 99% of the time, it’s either pedestrian observations couched in unnecessarily fancy language OR it’s completely nonsensical observations designed to make you feel dumb for not following their argument. It’s so painful and infuriating, not to mention alienating!

  23. ConstantlyComic*

    The description of this guy makes me think of Miles Bron from Glass Onion. I hope he’s not that bad.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      That was so well done in that movie! I think I had only noticed one of the weird word uses so I took it as just a mistake on the part of the writer or the actor, but my partner definitely noticed all of them and was like “wtf? ohhhh ok”

  24. BigLawEx*

    I honestly don’t know how he has the energy to do this. I keep trying to imagine how I would this and just…can’t. But I’m a black woman held to an entirely different standard.

  25. Hexiva*

    I’m a bit surprised at everyone assuming he’s using fake words because he’s, like, a pathological liar. The use of the word “fantastical” and the implication that he’s hard to understand even when he’s using normal words made me wonder if he’s having some sort of break. A lot of conditions can result in bizarre language usage.

    1. Andromeda*

      I haven’t really seen anyone suggest pathological lying, but I have seen lots of people suggest “continually bullshitting” which is significantly more common.

      I feel like a health condition or disability explanation is pretty unlikely, but either way the advice would not change: having a quiet word one-on-one, calmly asking him to explain himself in the moment, most likely both. Other commentators are right that communicating clearly with colleagues is a really important part of almost any job, and while enabling that communication is something that a manager can help him with, he is likely to also need to make an effort himself.

    2. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      “Pathological liar” would mean that he lies all the time, whether or not it benefits him. In this case, I think the guy is trying to sound more knowledgeable and smarter than he is.

      If you’re right about him having some kind of break, his manager should still start by treating the issue as a performance/competence problem. Being allowed to take up lots of time at meetings while giving incorrect “information” or gibberish isn’t a reasonable accommodation, even if this person had recognized the problem and asked for accommodations under the ADA.

  26. XFB*

    So my boss communicates similarly to this, in that she filibusters and frequently uses words and concepts when she doesn’t know what they mean. I could be wrong but my perception is that she does this because she thinks it makes her look smart. It’s frustrating to me because it reflects poorly on me when she does this in meetings with external partners; it causes confusion internally; and the filibustering just takes up limited time within meetings that we need to actually discuss and resolve things.

  27. Lady Kelvin*

    I think one thing you can do is ask him to say it again (or the first time) in “plain language”. As someone who works in a technical field, even switching from our technical jargon to plain language when they are real words really clarifies what someone is saying, and is am important component of being able to communicate with people outside our field. If he can’t say it again using plain language, then he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

  28. BW*

    Time to rewatch the Turbo Encabulator video, and throw bits of it back at the guy and see if he flinches.

  29. Alan*

    I got frustrated with my gen-Z daughters using abbreviations that I don’t understand so I begin making up my own, starting with a message to my daughter, “gttsn”. She immediately asks (I bet after googling so as not to look stupid in front of her father), “What does that mean?” “Going to the store now.” It’s a small victory but quite fun :-).

  30. Port*

    …he’s simply just a tall, straight, white man saying words loudly with authority.

    When they don’t actually have earned authority, these guys are the source of so much professional frustration.

  31. Port*

    When I taught freshman composition, there was a bit of this, with students turning in papers that were not written in plain English, because they (reasonably) perceived academic English to be more obtuse and less comprehensible. They were sort of imagining out a new writing style based on the difficult readings they were given and didn’t really understand. We consider it a developmental step toward true rhetorical awareness, understanding your communication in the context of the situation and audience. Possibly this guy is just in the developmental stages of his professional communication. He might want to take a technical writing course geared to his specialty—I actually think a lot of people would benefit from one.

    1. Katy*

      Right; it’s the “you don’t know what you don’t know” problem. If you don’t have a high enough literacy level to actually understand academic or business jargon, but you notice that it has a lot of long words and passive voice, you can end up thinking that the way to sound “smart” is to throw a bunch of long words and passive voice into an incomprehensible word salad. Students who write like this are often very defensive when you ask them to clarify, because they’re not writing to communicate, they’re writing to sound smart, and they think you are asking them to dumb down their writing. Those students who genuinely are trying to communicate, but have picked up bad habits, are much more open to feedback and don’t tend to make this mistake for long.

      1. In My Underdark Era*

        I got sooo frustrated when I actually dove into academic research in undergrad and realized just how obtuse research papers can get. once you have a working knowledge of a subject, it becomes obvious when a concept is needlessly obfuscated. as if the author can evade serious criticism of their research if no one can understand it.

    2. OrigCassandra*

      This is both a kind framing and a not-unlikely one. If the guy can be pointed to someone whose communication style he could usefully watch and then try to emulate, maybe that would also help?

    3. thats just me*

      This is a really interesting possibility, especially since it sounds like this guy was recently promoted or moved into a more technical role.

    4. glouby*

      Thanks for sharing this, Port! This is very helpful. Can you suggest a book or search terms to learn more about these developmental patterns in writers/speakers?

  32. Snoozing not schmoozing*

    There was a contestant on the new season of Survivor last week who had some of this problem. He assumed he was brilliant and would become a legendary player, but he was cluelessly inadequate, and got into an argument with his teammates because he was positive the word “several” meant seven. Seriously. He was offended that no one agreed with him. He got voted out, which is what you may have to do with your employee.

    1. Boof*

      I… made this mistake as a tween trick or treating. Why do we have so many words for “a few” including one that sounds suspiciously like a much higher, but still fairly reasonable amount??

    2. Hydrangea MacDuff*

      This was me with the word “penultimate”
      I thought it was like The ULTIMATE ULTIMATE
      , better than the best…leading to a very confusing conversation with my then boyfriend, now spouse, laughing hysterically and very nicely explaining that it meant second to last. And then making me a mix tape where side A was “the penultimate side” and side B was “the ultimate side”

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          Omg I love and hate it and am going to try to start using it as much as possible

        2. allathian*

          I learned this and penultimate when I studied Spanish, because you count the syllables you stress from the end of a word, not the beginning.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        That one is super common for sure! Personally I think it’s because most of us wouldn’t think there would ever even be a need for such a specific word that means “almost last but not quite” lol. I feel like I’ve only ever really seen it used when talking about seasons of television, to talk about the episode before the season finale but that’s probably just due to the types of discussions I’m most likely to frequent…

  33. flashbacon*

    I could swear LW is working with a former colleague of mine. I once overheard him tell a client they would be issued a “certificate of receivery.” My brother in Christ do you mean a RECEIPT? This one was also a tall white man and fairly decent at his job but utterly, utterly catty and insufferable to work with.

    1. metadata minion*

      Oh noooo…though this also sounds like the stuff my brain comes up with when I suddenly forget a word. “I need the….fine-grained hemispherical noodle-washer” “the colander??”.

  34. Copy that*

    As a woman in her mid-30s who works in highly specialised technical roles and is utterly sick of tall cisgendered dudes talking over the top of me about what I specialise in and they know nothing about, I can relate to OP’s frustration and confusion. That said, I’ve also known a lot of women who do the same thing, including the worst manager I’ve ever had to deal with.

    My experience with the type of person OP is writing in about can be divided into two main groups: someone who speaks in an overly grand way for reasons that might include their desire to sound impressive and knowledgeable in front of their boss, and someone who does actually know what they’re talking about but all or part of the team doesn’t understand them (sometimes due to a lack of knowledge on their part, and sometimes because the jargon/language the new person is using is specific to a previous work/educational environment).

    What’s interesting is that his writing doesn’t have the same problems as his overly complicated verbal communication. Do his written work and communication indicate that he does actually understand his job?

  35. Karma is my Boyfriend*

    I was thinking this was in line with @samuelsleeves on instagram’s latest scheme of making up new slang so his Gen Z students get confused—except the slang has caught on—to ESPN no less!

  36. Katy*

    I would suggest being very direct with him about what you said in your letter. It sounds like this guy’s job is on the line, and that keeping it will start with – but not be limited to – learning to speak clearly and not make up fake jargon. Especially if this is someone with communication problems, I think he needs to have that clearly stated for him.

    I would tell him directly that you have two major concerns. The first is that he uses words that do not exist (with examples) and is not communicating effectively in meetings.

    The second is that you have concerns about his ability to meet X and Y job requirements, and that his lack of clear communication is working against him because he is giving the impression that he does not understand X and Y aspects of his job. You need to see evidence that he does understand it, and for him to do that, he needs to take the following (specific) steps to fix his communication style within the following (specific) timeline.

  37. Gail Davidson Durst*

    Anyone fascinated by the made-up technical lingo: look up “Patriot – piping lingo” on YouTube! The writers really had fun with it, and the actors throw themselves into it with abandon!

    (Also watch the show Patriot – it’s great!)

  38. In My Underdark Era*

    I’m sure it happens in all fields, but I regard this kind of thing as Computer Science Posing Syndrome. in school especially I had sooo many classmates who always needed to appear as if they understood everything, which resulted in a lot of nonsensical talking-around-the-point. (at least in front of other men- once a lab partner nodded along and agreed we should solder a component on, until the other guys left to go get it, and he asked me what solder was. Lord.)

    i’ve found that the reputational hit I take for Not Understanding Genius is absolutely worth it to cut to the chase. makes meetings, code reviews, and requirements analysis so much faster and less painful if I always just say exactly what I mean and press others to do the same.

    when my team hired several fresh grads, I made a point to admit “I’m not entirely sure” and describe things as explicitly as I could to try and ward off the technical-knowledge-posing. I still worry that my perceived gender made it less effective, but I think at least it made the new hires less nervous.

  39. Cookingcutie11*

    1) Made-up words, check
    2) Long-winded, check
    3) Nobody understands but nods politely after asking for explanations.

    OP, you’re… employing a toddler.

  40. Jess*

    I was going to say ah! so that’s where she ended up! but its a fella apparently.

    My favorite is still “the data is tenacious” to append the typical excuse for failure in the department of blaming it on the “the system”.

    One of these days I know the two bumble and futz twins will end up in AAM and I am here for it.

  41. theletter*

    I’ve noticed this quirk from working with people who are trying to break into technical fields, where the gut instinct is to phrase concepts ‘in our own words’, like we were taught back in middle school.

    But technical language is very different! If I say ‘We need to create new docker files for our bamboo jobs before we upgrade to Python 3,” that’s exactly what I mean, and I’m not interested in hearing someone trying to say this information back to me in a different way to prove they understand. I would trust you more if you just repeated what I said verbatim!

  42. Kate*

    It is wild to me that there are two people who do this (OP’s coworker and the one in the letter OP references) because I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone doing this in real life. A lot of times when I think people are making up words that sound plausible, they turn out to be real words I was unfamiliar with (like, “predominately” will never not sound wrong to me, even though it’s a standard word.)

    1. Jam on Toast*

      @Kate Come hang out at an academic conference…you’ll need extra hands to count all the novel wordsmiths you meet there :)

    2. allathian*

      Me too. It just sounds wrong, and I have to fight the urge to correct it to “predominantly” when they mean the same thing.

      Similarly, “momentarily” in the sense of “in a short while” will never not sound wrong to me. “I’ll be with you momentarily” always makes me want to add “and then you’ll go away again without helping me” to the end.

  43. The Riddlee*

    I could almost imagine my boss writing this letter about me or one of my teammates. He joined the company a year and a half ago but still has not managed to learn neither the domain language of our industry nor the team’s specific lingo. I don’t know if he can’t or won’t. So he constantly misunderstands us or debates with us when we explain things to him.

  44. Ho-ho-holey hose*

    I worked with someone like this, and in my experience his knowledge was worthless because he couldn’t effectively share it. He would always lose his audience and confuse issues by using long, sometimes very metaphorical and poetic phrases to describe very clear cut technical facts. I was brought in to his projects specifically because I had a similar level of expertise and could understand when he was saying something valuable vs. was going off on a tangent…but in reality that meant I just spent most of my time managing him and damage correcting.

    I also have found that people like this often have outsized egos (because you need a big ego to be okay with taking up all the time and space in meetings), which means they don’t work well with others or take criticism well. In short, I question how valuable this person really is, when you look at the outcomes and not just whether they raised technically salient points.

  45. clifford*

    “he’s simply just a tall, straight, white man”…

    Do we really need to go here when trying to analyze someone’s actions with the intention of helping them/coaching them?

  46. Meaningful Business Terminology*

    Managers, if he…
    — makes up words
    — invents concepts that sound plausible but are actually nonsense
    — sounds smarter than he really is

    He’s not your employee, he’s ChatGPT-3.5-turbo.

Comments are closed.