In Defence of Jargon

Lori Halley 17 August 2010 6 comments

The buzzwords of business-speak have evolved, in part, as a shorthand way of letting us refer to complex ideas with just a few words.

bucketizeSo, much as we may deplore the North American habit of forcing verbs to become nouns, and vice versa – and as annoying as the overuse of jargon may be – this specialized language may actually serve a useful purpose.

Let me give you an example:

In a spirited discussion last night, a friend objected to his supervisor’s use of the word “ask” as a noun. “It’s not an ask,” he ranted, “It’s a question!” Playing devil’s advocate, I suggested that the term refers to a  specific kind of question – and one that arguably has a place in the fundraising world:

  • A question is a much more general inquiry, with an infinitely wide range of possible answers, I suggest. In fact, as we know, a question can even be rhetorical – one that’s posed without the expectation of any answer at all, but simply to make a point or to suggest a new line of thought. 
  • An “ask,” in contrast, is a direct request for the reader or listener to take a specific action – to buy a product, make a donation, sign a petition, volunteer their time, whatever.

Not the same thing!

The two words are not strictly interchangeable; thus, “ask” as a noun can serve a real purpose, making our internal communications just a little more precise, rather than less so. And that’s a "value add” by any calculations. 

Likewise:

  • Ping me” – in the 140-character social media universe – is an economical way to say “Give me a call or send me a message by whatever means you find most convenient.”
  • Drink the Kool-aid” may be an uncomfortably flippant allusion to the tragedy of Jonestown, but it’s evolved into a convenient 3-word code for the blind acceptance of someone else’s belief system, message or directive – without care for critical forethought, weighing of the evidence, or even a quick cost-benefit calculation of the probable outcome.

best-practicesOne big reason why jargon gets such a bad rap is simply because it’s too often over-used. (If you’re “blue-skying” in an “ideation meeting” and your colleagues start playing Nonprofit Buzzword Bingo, take it as a hint!)

Too, lots of otherwise useful buzzwords may be used to obfuscate rather than to clarify, by people who don’t want to let on that they haven’t thought an issue all the way through. And, frankly, there are some people who spew meaningless buzzwords at random (perhaps to be seen as one of the cool kids?) when plain language would serve just as well, or better.

You may have come across such an abuse of jargon in the course of your own work...

Another problem arises when sector-specific terms are used in conversation with those out of the loop, those in other sectors, industries or networks who may use their own, different, internal code. To expect them to understand your organizational jargon is rather like shouting in Mandarin at a unilingual English speaker. Not productive.

But when everyone in the conversation groks exactly what you mean by “Eat your own dog food” or “Break down the silos” or such – and when those terms truly are the quickest and most efficient way to convey an idea – that’s a win-win!

Every sector and every interest group has its own special vocabulary, and the non-profit sector is no different. Given that it’s the very nature of human languages to evolve over time... it is what it is. Where’s the point in fighting that losing battle, when we could be using jargon to our advantage instead?

Your thoughts?

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Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Tuesday, 17 August 2010 at 6:55 PM

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Comments

  • Joanne Fritz said:

    Tuesday, 17 August 2010 at 11:26 AM

    Ha....just as I was about to rant about jargon, Rebecca, you take the opposite tack!  I can't think of another example of "good" jargon at the moment, but I'll keep looking. You're right, of course. We create and use jargon all the time and clearly it works or we would stop...LOL. The key is does it illuminate or obfuscate?

  • Deborah Elizabeth Finn said:

    Tuesday, 17 August 2010 at 7:05 PM

    Dear Rebecca,

    Here's an admittedly snarky counter-balance to your pro-jargon manifesto:

    http://blog.deborah.elizabeth.finn.com/blog/_archives/2010/8/11/4601566.html

    :-)

    Best regards from Deborah

    Deborah Elizabeth Finn

    Strategist and Consultant

    Technology for the Nonprofit and Philanthropic Sector

    Boston, Massachusetts, USA

    Blog: www.deborahelizabethfinn.com

    Skype: Deborah909

    Twitter: Deborah909

    LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah909

    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Deborah.Elizabeth.Finn

  • Keith Holloway said:

    Tuesday, 17 August 2010 at 8:07 PM

    Brilliantly opposing opinion to the popular wisdom!

    @Joanne Fritz:  "The key is does it illuminate or obfuscate?"

    Agreed! There is a differentiation between jargon that obfuscates and jargon that is effectively used to make conversation more efficient. The difference being decided by the audience as much as the speaker.

  • Justin said:

    Tuesday, 24 August 2010 at 11:50 AM

    Interesting take. I did a survey on this very topic last week on my blog. You can see the results here: http://wehrintheworld.blogspot.com/2010/08/words-that-irritate-people-survey.html. It turns out that MBA-like words (at least the ones I picked) annoy people much less than I thought.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Tuesday, 31 August 2010 at 11:41 AM

    Elizabeth Ortiz has published an interesting piece at The Chronicle of Philanthropy about how the use of jargon can get in the way of a non-profit's work - "If it were up to me," she says, "I would eliminate the following three words from the nonprofit vocabulary: innovative, transformative, and impactful."  Read it here:

    http://philanthropy.com/blogPost/How-Jargon-Can-Damage/26498/

  • Pune Dracker said:

    Monday, 13 September 2010 at 9:19 AM

    Hi Rebecca,

    Great blog! As an editor/writer for a nonprofit, I have a love-hate relationship with jargon. Like you, I adore it when it works (basically because it’s so creative, and makes language fun) but we definitely run into problems when using industry-specific terms in communications with the public.

    Great timing, too, since I’d just written a blog on jargon in the animal sheltering world, and just had to do a follow-up linking to your post:

    http://bit.ly/9ad7Mq

    Thanks again! And in these parts, we particularly love hanging chads and wearing our big boy pants : )

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