Eschew Jargon

Don’t you love that word: eschew? English is rich with so many quirky, wonderful words. One of the great joys of reading great literature is savoring the writer’s word choices like a dish cooked by a master chef.

(Sometimes I just stop reading to wonder at the word a writer has used. How did he/she think of that? It’s so surprising, so utterly perfect. In Dickens’ Bleak House, a nasty old man, Mr. Smallweed, always has at his side his equally nasty granddaughter and caregiver, Judy. Just about every time Dickens mentions her he uses a different adjective: “snappish Judy,” “scornful Judy,” even – with some irony—“gentle Judy.” Several hundred pages into the book, when she turns up yet again by his side, it’s this: “The door is opened by the perennial Judy.” Italics mine. Perennial! So absolutely perfect. But who in the world, other than Charles Dickens, would have thought to use that word in such a context?)

But if words chosen with care and inspiration are like a brilliantly seasoned meal, jargon is the fast food of language. It is predictable and boring and, worse, often fails utterly to do what language is supposed to do: communicate—just as fast food generally fails to deliver either flavor or nutrition.

What exactly is jargon?

Defining jargon can be easier than recognizing it: jargon is the language of insiders. What they are inside of can be as various as a field or a trade, an organization, a hobby or a sport. Jargon is a kind of shorthand. Sometimes, it even has its uses. When doctors write for a medical journal, for example, it makes sense that they’d use medical jargon. Speaking doctor to doctor, jargon might well be the most precise and accurate language they can use. But when they’re writing for a larger audience—when they want to explain the workings of a drug or the causes of a migraine to the rest of us, jargon can kill their communication.

People in the HR, work-life, and related fields have their own jargon, but more often than not the audience for their communications is the whole wide arena of people in their companies. And companies, themselves, have jargon—their own alphabet soup of acronyms for programs and policies, their own job and department titles that make perfect sense within the company but outside—not so much. Actually, assuming your organization, like everyone else’s, has turnover, it’s not even safe to say everyone at your organization will know what you’re talking about. One friend told me how, for the first month on his new job, he kept getting emails with subject lines that ended in “EOM.” Until he mustered the courage to ask, he had no idea that it meant “end of message”—in other words, no need to actually open the email. Acronyms like this are particularly insidious; just check out the acronym section of the free online dictionary to see how many different things the same set of letters can mean.

But even if you feel completely confident that people within your organization will understand your jargon, it pays to remember that folks on the outside—say, the staff scoring Working Mother and NAFE 100 Best Companies applications (over which a lot of HR folk are slaving just now)— will not.

The tricky part about avoiding jargon is that if you understand it, you may not recognize it. You’re so accustomed to referring to certain employees as “hi-pos,” calling that program “FLEAS” and hiring people into the role of “Lead Operations Analyst,” you forget that these are terms used only within your field, your department or your company. You may find it obvious that one term is jargon, but be surprised when your cousin, the cable guy, has no idea what you mean by another term.

Right on the fuzzy border of jargon lies “corporate-speak.”

Corporate-speak is the long list of mis-used, meaningless or clichéd words and phrases that have crept into the lingo of daily life in the business world—and often the nonprofit world, too. The opening paragraph of this post on another website does a wonderful parody of the phenomenon.

Corporate-speak takes many forms. Like jargon, it has no single clear definition and people may disagree over what does and what doesn’t fall into the category. (Over two months ago, someone started a discussion on the topic in one of the LinkedIn groups I belong to and members have been weighing in and arguing almost daily ever since.) It includes invented words, used euphemistically to disguise an ugly truth: downsize started like this, and when even that was deemed too depressing it became rightsize. It includes real words, used incorrectly or at least unnecessarily, for reasons only known to the perpetrator: 99 times out of a 100, when you write utilize you should be writing use. (Utilize means to make use of something as something else—“I’m utilizing my cat as a neck-warmer.” But even in that case, use would do just fine.) And take it from me, something can have an impact on something else, but it can’t impact anything. “Impact” is not a verb. (The word you’re looking for is “affect.”)

Some corporate-speak involves pointless—and pompous–wordiness. How is “this point in time” different from “now”? Some corporate-speak began as image-rich metaphor but took an express train to cliché. Consider: think outside the box, sit at the table, at the end of the day, and push the envelope. (Come to think of it, I don’t have the faintest idea what the origin metaphor of “push the envelope” might be…) Like jargon, corporate-speak can be a tempting shorthand and can even be useful on occasion. But also like jargon, it is the fast food of communication, and is ultimately not only unsatisfying but downright unhealthy.

So stop serving your readers mass-produced, flavorless language. Explore the wealth of the English language and write to communicate. Eschew jargon; give your audience it can chew on.

Have a writing question?  Just want to hand that writing task off to someone else? Struggling with the Working Mother/NAFE “Best Companies” applications? Relief is only a click away.

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