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Terminology or jargon? You’re empowered to decide…

We’ve been here before, but I couldn’t let Plain English month pass without another look at corporate jargon. Back in May, Briony Drimie referred to ‘a vein of Business English …  we commonly know as management-speak, which I have loathed since I first heard it’. She singled out a few well-known offenders: going forward, transitioning, singing from the same hymn sheet – all of which come in for regular denunciation on the Web. Wordnik, for example, has numerous lists created by its users, and several of these feature business jargon, under headings like ‘Business Words I Hate’.

Before we join in the general condemnation, it’s worth remembering that there are many blameless aspects of language which are widely disliked – but for no rational reason: split infinitives, for example, or the most common use of hopefully. Could it be that the widespread aversion to business-speak is just another case of (some) people objecting to perfectly normal examples of language change and innovation?

If Plain English means conveying your meaning clearly and without unnecessary complexity, then terminology has its place. During Subcultural English month, we looked at the ‘sublanguages’ typical of particular groups, from poker players to chemical engineers. Every field or leisure pursuit has its own vocabulary, and using terms your audience is familiar with isn’t incompatible with being ‘plain’. If I’m talking to linguists or language-teachers, it’s more economical to refer to collocation than ‘the way words often go together’. But when does terminology become jargon? Because, judging by its collocates, jargon is quite a negative word: adjectives that frequently occur with it include unnecessary, meaningless, pretentious, and impenetrable.

Many of the usual suspects – words that crop up regularly in people’s ‘hate lists’ – are hard to object to on rational grounds. Skillset and monetize, for example, are both concise ways of expressing a useful meaning, and both are the product of valid word-formation strategies. And while we’re on that subject, it might be useful to see what processes are employed for creating new business meanings. These include:

  • making verbs from nouns: a popular theme in our blog, and a common practice in business (e.g. impact, transition, scope, task, leverage) – but widely criticized
  • using suffixes like -ize or -ful: problematize, incentivize, impactful
  • pluralizing nouns that are usually uncountable: behaviours, synergies, learnings

But if we focus on jargon (bad) as opposed to terminology (good), the interesting question is about motivation: why do people use it? Fashion plays a part (some expressions seem to catch on and then spread like viruses), and so does the desire to identify oneself as belonging to an in-group. Even the familiar clichés (low-hanging fruit, think outside the box, push the envelope, and so on) must have seemed fresh and interesting once – though why some people continue using them in the face of widespread ridicule is less easy to understand.

Another reason for abandoning Plain English is to confer a sense of importance, or imply a degree of complexity, when talking about something that’s essentially simple and straightforward. We see this, for example, in job titles devised to give an inflated view of a simple task (there’s a nice ‘random job generator’ you can use for this purpose), or in some people’s preference for words like utilize or purchase over their simpler equivalents.

Sometimes, though, more sinister motives are at work – when jargon is used to disguise unpleasant truths. The military are well-known for glossing over unfortunate accidents with formulations like collateral damage and friendly fire. The equivalent in the workplace is being fired, and there’s a wide range of euphemisms for this: the company is restructuring, rightsizing, or even resource levelling. One way or another, you are being let go. (Stan Carey’s popular post on management-speak satirizes a corporate memo which is effectively firing the recipients, but avoids saying this in Plain English.) Another word favoured by Human Resources departments is empowerment, which is intended to convey the idea that people in lower positions are being given more power over what happens in the organization. Whether this is genuine or not, I’ll leave you to decide.

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Michael Rundell


  • Thank you for this article. It was so good to hear that these word choices drive others as crazy as they do me. [validization?] 😉

  • Wait .let me get this straight: so when people use cliches, they are desperate to be accepted or show their membership in a class; when you ride in on your high horse of “why some people continue using them in the face of widespread ridicule is less easy to understand”, that is not a desperate attempt to show how modern and linguistically intelligent you are? Riiight.

    Any serious linguist will tell you that everything that exists in any given language has its place and time. and often people have to come up with new expressions to express new concepts. Making fun of any aspect thereof is no less desperate than overusing cliches. And what is the better, more concise way of saying “friendly fire”? It’s not a euphemism. It’s not a mask. It means exactly what t says – someone on our side (friendly) fired a weapon (fire). Parroting cliche accusations without even an attempt to analyze what you’re writing also reeks of despair to be accepted in the “young, hip, linguistically conscious” circles.

    Want a cliche? I have one for you: Just sayin’.

  • Thanks Dozen Matter: I’d have to agree that deciding what’s a cliché and what isn’t can be tricky. Our guiding principle is always to look at the data (rather than just making subjective judgments), and the evidence suggests that expressions like ‘low-hanging fruit’ – even if they encode useful concepts – have crossed that line (see e.g. their regular appearance in games like ‘Bullsh*t Bingo’).You’re right that ‘people have to come up with new expressions to express new concepts’ – neologisms generally arise to fill a perceived ‘lexical gap’. The question is when a fresh new term, coined for good reasons, ends up as a cliché. Our own definition of cliché isn’t a bad starting place: it’s an expression that has become ‘boring because people use it a lot and it is no longer original’. A nice example is the well-known metaphor of ‘life as a journey’, eloquently expressed in poems like Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. In recent years this trope has been repeatedly employed by people in reality TV shows like the X-Factor – everyone feels obliged to talk about the ‘journey’ they have been on. So what starts as an interesting and even profound idea becomes – through constant repetition – a cliché: at first it’s just banal, then irritating, and finally the object of ridicule – and not just among the ‘young, hip, and linguistically conscious’ (I’m at most only the last of those three I’m afraid).

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