Monday, July 16, 2012

Jargon: "Never use a long word where a short one will do."

Recently I circled back with some peers. We were trying to add some colour to deck the EIC had conceptualized. The intent was for a transformative break through but the numbers did not gel and the ultimately our collective was able to provide little value-add without throwing the EIC off course.

Translation: Who knows but this is the sort of nonsense I, and am certain you do to, come across often enough in the business world. Invariably it seems that when one word goes "out-of-fashion" it is replaced by two more in-vogue vocabulary busters.

Firstly, let me start off by saying that I have been guilty on many occasions of using jargon, in all its dubious forms. In part, I believe it is because the use of this language has become a norm in the corporate sector hence it is accepted with little to no resistance.

Before I delve a little deeper into the murky world of jargon let's look at the definition of the word. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines jargon as:

1.a: confused unintelligible language
  b: a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect
  c: a hybrid language or dialect simplified in vocabulary and grammar and used for communication between peoples of different speech

2. the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group

3. obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words

But why did this become a norm? How did "confused unintelligible language" become so pervasive in our daily lives? Tragically it seems there appears to be a belief in the business sector that the more jargon used the greater one's intellect and ability. Conversely the greater the use of plain speaking the lower ones intellect / ability is. This ridiculous correlation appears more akin to a game of Scrabble than one's competence.

The good news is that there are many of you who appear to feel the same way towards the use of jargon in our daily work lives. The chart (Chart 1) is based on a survey from the Harvard Business Review blog titled "I Don't Understand What Anyone Is Saying Anymore". Over 9,000 votes later and "Thinking outside the box" takes first prize for meaningless expressions followed closely by one of my favourites "Synergy".  The survey is fairly limited in its choices and excludes such examples (to name a few) as:

Jargon
  • right-sizing 
  • redeployment, 
  • mission-critical
  • goal-oriented 
  • best-practices 
  • paradigm shifts 
  • customer-centric 
  • low-hanging fruit 
  • value-add
  • keep me in the loop
  • optimize
Even with its limitations the survey does provide an insight into what expressions irk the most from a sizeable data set.

So how does one combat the barrage of meaningless expressions? Approximately 65 years ago George Orwell felt strongly enough about a similar topic that he penned the essay Politics And The English Language.   In the Essay George wrote, "But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. 

So the next time you are about to string a sentence together that comprises an "optimize" here and a "goal-orientated" there, stop yourself. Whilst the gentleman who wrote Animal Farm may have been expressing his views about writing and politics, his words are equally relevant in the today's business world. After all it is difficult to argue with, "Never use a long word where a short one will do". Now that is value-add :)

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