Meeting Deadlines: The Lexicon of Professional Violence
“Knock ‘em dead, big guy. Go in there / guns blazing, buddy. You crushed / at the show. No, it was a blowout. No, / a massacre.”1 For the poet Ocean Vuong, the English language is a battlefield. His poem “Old Glory,” cited here, catalogs a series of English idioms which convey success and admiration through a rhetoric of death and destruction. In so doing, Vuong bears witness to what he calls a “lexicon of American violence”2 —particularly in regards to expressing masculinity—and he demonstrates our numbness to such figments of brutality.
As I read Ocean Vuong from the post-graduate world, it occurs to me that what is at stake in his work extends beyond masculinity; this “lexicon of American violence” is embedded in the American workplace, too. Indeed, perhaps it comes as no surprise that the words we use to assert masculinity and professionalism might be etymologically linked. Take, for instance, spearhead 3 —as in, “I spearheaded the team’s effort” to mean “I led the group.” When did leadership—from Old English lædan, meaning to go forth, to travel—become a hunt? How would our understanding of professional success change if we agreed that there is no prey?
Even for an office newcomer, violent language is de rigueur. “I took a stab at that drawing.” “I gave it my best shot.” And when stress is introduced? “I’ve got this deadline4 , so I’ve been under the gun. I’m just slammed right now.” And when you need to be heard, “send an email blast.” From cutthroat to steamroll, the lexicon of the American workplace is shaped by threats of violence.
When our language reinforces that violence and fear, not love and trust, are essential to professional competence, it is easy to believe that gentleness is a sign of weakness in the workplace. If Ocean Vuong points us to the consequences of such a logic—“Bro, for real though, I’m dead,” as “Old Glory” tellingly concludes—then we, aspiring architects, have a decision to make. I, for one, would like to suggest that we choose our words with care.
- Ocean Vuong, “Old Glory,” in Time is a Mother (New York: Penguin Press, 2022), ↩︎
- Hua Hsu, “Ocean Vuong Is Still Learning,” The New Yorker, April 10, 2022. ↩︎
- Etymonline offers that the use of the verbal form of spear-head to mean, symbolically, “to lead” was first recorded in 1938. ↩︎
- Again referring to Etymonline, the term “deadline” originated in the American Civil War to refer to the do-not-cross line drawn around a prison, beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot. ↩︎