Chasing the jargonaut
Why jargon is a problem in the real world
As, ahem, vocabulary professionals ourselves, we run into this argument a lot at Copylab. Yes, jargon may sound a bit silly or be replaceable with much simpler terms, but for busy high-flyers, it’s a really useful form of shorthand that their colleagues and clients “get”.
Language changes, you know, so why get hung up on new terms created in a fast-moving corporate environment? After all, it’s not doing any harm, is it?
Well actually, it turns out, in many cases it is.
Earlier this week, the BBC reported on the utterly impenetrable language bandied around much of the NHS. In one report from a North London hospital, management concluded that one patient’s bad experience could be attributed to “hand-offs, inefficiencies and suboptimal advice and information transfers” that meant the “patient’s pathway” lasted too long. But never fear, because since 2015 the NHS has moved to address such challenges with the establishment of more than 50 “vanguards” – or initiatives, to you and me.
Whether NHS management’s penchant for biz-speak has caused patients any actual harm (besides making them want to pull their own hair out) was not reported. But in another story to emerge this week, grisly jargon was shown to be doing exactly that.
In a survey carried out earlier this year by lender LDF, more than 50% of owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) said that they had hesitated to apply for financing because of the incomprehensible language used by many lenders. Top of the business owners’ black list was the blizzard of acronyms and abbreviations, notably “Capex”. “COGS” and “IFF”.
More bleakly, almost 40% of SME owners said that these issues with navigating finance had forced them to forgo their own salaries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a similar proportion admitted that the lack of funding had led them to feel depressed.
And if these experienced, entrepreneurial business types face such daunting struggles, what chance do young, first-time job seekers have? In In another recent report, charity Business in the Community highlighted the struggle many 16–24-year-olds face in applying for jobs. Not, as the lazier members of the commentariat might suggest, because of any inherent shortcomings in that age group, but because employers are littering their job ads with painful abbreviations and jargon.
In one ad for an HR (human resources, since you’re asking) assistant, a company said that the successful candidate would be the “POC for enquiries” and would need to “adhere to SLAs” while doing so.
Foregoing rant notwithstanding, I am pragmatic (or plain unprincipled) enough to allow that there is a time and place for jargon. The financial world, for instance, would be a far less productive place if its practitioners had to say “gross domestic product” rather than GDP every time it cropped up in a work conversation. The problem is that in professional settings, jargon, once it has taken root, is inclined to spread like poison ivy, ultimately turning your most innocuous or well-intentioned words into a morass of ETFs, KPIs and ambulatory care pathways.
The bottom line is that jargon is not just an unhealthy obsession for us in the communications industry – it is a problem with potentially real-world consequences. The answer, as it so often is, is to strive for clear, accessible words that measure success by how well they are understood. The wellbeing of at least 40% of Scotland’s SME owners – among many, many others – depends on it.
Niels Footman is head of marketing at Copylab, an international communications agency based in Scotland.
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