Several words and phrases have the tendency to annoy some of us. Sure, there’s the constant misuse of words such as “persecution” (which does not mean you didn’t get your way) and “in lieu of” ( think “instead”; “in light of” is not the same thing). And there are the non-words like “amazeballs” and “irregardless” (which one of my columnists tries far too often to get past me).
And then there’s jargon.
We hear it everywhere, even when we don’t realize it—in diners, at the doctor’s office, in our own offices—that specialized language typically used by particular groups or professions.
Several jargon words and phrases usually make it onto Lake Superior State University’s Banished Words List every year, such as “stakeholder,” “presser,” “game changer,” and “incentivize.” The voters on that list are clearly no lovers of business-speak.
And why should they be? It’s seriously annoying. I have the tendency, as I’m sure a lot of people do, to tune out when I hear that stuff.
Journalists aren’t immune either, as the presence of jargon-y words and phrases like “garner,” “all-time record,” and “prior to” can attest. Lord help us when the daily critique points out those terms to everyone in the newsroom email group. When the goal is clear communication, jargon can sometimes muck up the works … or at least make editors a little perturbed … more than usual, anyway. And not just because the cat of one of those editors blamed the spill in the kitchen on tiny ninjas having a water fight. It definitely wasn’t him just playing crazily with the ice in his bowl. But I digress.
During the election season, we in the media have to deal with even more jargon than usual, thanks to all those public-relations types involved in the campaigns who’ve come to rely far too much on old, meaningless standbys like “going forward,” “reach out,” and “circle back,” adding to the already annoying political jargon such as “pivot,” “dog-whistle politics,” and “free stuff” (which is, by itself, a dog whistle).
It’s enough to make you want to scream … for ice cream to soothe your frayed nerves.
Former Miami Herald editorial writer and columnist Tony Proscio has long fought against jargon in public-policy matters, so much so that in 2000 he wrote a treatise, “In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations.” In a recent podcast interview with Mac Prichard, Proscio, now a communication consultant, said the “whole point of inspiring people to do things is that you reach them at a level that’s both emotional and intellectual. The emotions are stirred by emotional speech and the intellect is stirred by originality. Neither of those things is going to come from a lot of cliché, jargon, abstractions, and technicalities.”
Awwww … but then what would people have to say? Originality is hard! At least that’s what people who love form letters tell me.
In the U.K., former Prime Minister David Cameron made efforts in his tenure to ban jargon. DJ Taylor of the Independent wrote last year: “In a letter to be circulated to every civil servant, Mr. Cameron is calling on officials to simplify the language used in ministerial submissions, and not hide bad news in a fog of obfuscation-heavy complexity. There will even, apparently, be a new award, to be presented annually at Buckingham Palace, to the public employee who has best succeeded in the knotty task of telling ministers what they need to know with clarity and succinctness.”
Before that, it was the Local Government Association, which banned, to its public-sector staff, a list of some 200 words and phrases, including “improvement levers,” and “menu of options” (which, quite frankly, should be struck more for redundancy than for being jargon).
Has either effort helped? Can’t prove it by me since the language just seems to keep growing.
Here in the U.S., plainlanguage.gov states: “Foreign words, jargon, and abbreviations may detract from the clarity of your writing. Readers often skip over terms they don’t understand, hoping to get their meaning from the rest of the sentence. Readers complain about jargon more than any other writing fault. Every profession, trade, and organization has its own specialized terms. While we all complain about jargon, everyone writes it. We hate everyone else’s jargon, but we love our own. Plain language does not ban jargon and other specialist terms. But you need to understand your readers and match your language to their needs.”
Sounds simple enough, but just like partisans and talking points, it’s pretty hard to separate entrenched civil servants and PR types from their beloved jargon security blankets. Believe me, if you decide to wash them, they’ll be right there next to the washer and dryer, weeping, until those blankets emerge, dry, fluffy and waiting to absorb even more jargon.
Linus Van Pelt would be ashamed of these people, and would probably sic the Great Pumpkin on them.
Even if banning such words as “synergy” and “leverage” worked, you’d still have to deal with all the war and sports metaphors that have infected jargon and language in general (marshalling resources, picking battles, making Hail Mary passes, etc.).
It would seem, unfortunately, that we’re stuck with much of the jargon we’ve allowed to become so intertwined with plain English.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we have to like it, or use it. But I’ll get the dunce cap set up in the corner … just in case.
Though I intended not to mention Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I had to add a short note to say how much I’m enjoying the Trump kids being trolled on Twitter for their “outreach” to millennials. I don’t often enjoy the antics of trolls (which generally have little true humor), this is really cracking me up.