Buzzword Blingo

Why do people express such a hatred of jargon?

Recently the new CEO of the organisation I work for said Strategy is a word I dislike. I hope it is the word he dislikes and not the concept, otherwise the organisation will end up as a case-study in business school textbooks and I’ll end up looking for work.

The main reason for disliking jargon is that one does not understand it. Here is a list of words I can never remember the meaning of, even though I looked them up in Wikipedia to write this, and even though each has been explained to me more than once:

I guess that tells you as much as you need to know about my interests and my pragmatic approach to them.

A second reason for disliking jargon is that the writer may not understand it. Problematic is an excellent example of this. Does the writer mean beset by problems or do they mean improbable and unlikely? An outcome can be certain but beset by problems – the plane’s crash-landing was problematic, or it can just be unlikely – the question of whether Blair will resign gracefully is very problematic. You end up having to decide whether or not you trust the writer to limit themselves to words they actually understand.

It gets doubly frustrating when one is dealing with concepts for which there is currently no single-word synonym, such as meme, ideolect, dystopia and, yes, strategy. I have read more than one rant recently against the use of the word ‘meme’. Yes, it is over-used. Yes, it is often used by people who don’t know what it means. But there is no other word which means the same thing.

There is a third reason for being afraid of jargon: this when words are used so loosely that anyone can use them for just about anything. This can happen with odd and unexpected words such as percent. I’ve previously mentioned my naivete in thinking that 20% should always mean one fifth of the total, instead of turning up decoratively as the second part of the 80/20 rule.

The main danger, though, is when it is used about abstract and fashionable concepts such as post-modernism and democracy. In fact, each of these denotes an overlapping group of concepts, like a venn diagram of glass-rings left on a pub table at the end of an evening of drunken pontificating. This gives rise to confusion: I might mean a consensus process where all involved have the opportunity to contribute to the debate and the final decision is a compromise agreed by all parties; and you might mean whatever it was that went on in Florida in November 2000. These are both valid uses of the word, but they refer to different processes and outcomes and are based on different assumptions.

Dangerously, Christianity and Islam are two other examples of these. You might understand Christian to refer to someone with mental health problems so confusing that they believe they hear the voice of Jesus in their head, and I might use it when talking about my elderly widowed neighbour who organises jumble sales.

It gets worse: Democracy and strategy are unchallengeable sacred cows, they are universal get-out-of-jail-free cards. It is impossible to criticise any positive statement including the word democracy, and it is almost impossible to challenge any positive statement including the word strategy. To do so is like saying that you think seal-clubbing is a worthwhile and pleasant way for a student to spend their gap-year, or that you think the Queen Mother was a vindictive and sanctimonious manipulator. Those are concepts which are so far outside the perceived wisdom as to be oxymorons, and impossible to think. This, of course, is how Bush and Blair got away with invading Iraq – they used words like a strategy for democracy, put the pea under the cup and swizzled the cups around around a bit and when the one in the middle was lifted we discovered that there never were any WMDs and that there are 3000 civilian deaths there each month now.

Finally of course there are words which are just too seductive not to use. My personal list of these includes: methodology, landscape, domain, and paradigm. I’d like to say I use them in an ironic post-modern kind of way, but unfortunately I have no idea what that particular phrase means. Even more unfortunately, I use them as a kind of short-hand, because if I am talking to colleagues it gets my meaning over quickly and effectively. The thing I like the most about paradigm though, is the way it is spelt.

The challenge to us as communicators is to balance the downsides of using jargon: turning people off, confusing them, irritating them and just plain failing to communicate at all, with the upsides of using the one and only word which sums up our meaning elegantly and accurately without recourse to a sentence or so of explanation.

I guess our CEO feels the same way about strategy as I feel about post-modernism and democracy, that these are Humpty-Dumpty words and because they mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, they end up meaning nothing at all.

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You might enjoy fooling around with the following sites. Having spent a couple of hours messing around on them I feel mentally and physically queasy. Entertained, but queasy.

And because only nonsense is nonsense:

Finally, you can lose hours of your life in subversive thought provoking ways here:

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3 responses to “Buzzword Blingo

  1. Pingback: Jargon - fuzzifying the facts, fuzzifying history « Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

  2. A lack of understanding often leads to hatred. This applies to a number of things but I’ll stick with jargon for now. I believe part of the problem is context. I’ve been able to present technical, medical, geeky, jargon-filled information only to be thanked for not using jargon.

    It is useless to pick words for their “buzz” factor and then pull them into every conversation. I agree that these words would then mean nothing. On the other hand, some of these same words in a different setting (better conversation, better writing), would bring a level of understanding.

    This triggers a memory from grade school about context clues. When you come across a word you do not understand, you should be able to gather at least a general meaning from the words around it. Have we actually regressed to such a point that communication is now just an exchange of popular syllables? For some (thankfully, not all), I think this is true.

  3. You are of course absolutely right about context. Private Eye, a British satirical magazine, has a section at the back called Pseuds Corner which publishes what it claims is unintelligible garbage. My colleague, who is an IT Architect (a job title which sounds like jargon itself), says that most of it is in fact perfectly intelligible, and that though most of it could be put in simpler language, it would be nowhere near as succinct.

    I spent a lot of my time hanging around medics, (someone has to give them an insight into the outside world, poor dears), and I regularly read the BMJ. Guess what – there is a lot of technical language in there which I don’t understand, but the audience it is written for does and that’s all that’s necessary.

    Perhaps there’s a reluctance to accept that business is a specialist domain, and that it therefore has specialist language.

    It is always a case of horses for courses, and language should always be chosen to communicate not to obfuscate. If only words weren’t so darn seductive!

    Thanks for reading and thanks for posting, EclecticGeek, and many thanks for the link “Millard Fillmore”.

    AB

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