It’s Time to Speak Clearly and Ditch the Jargon!

Matthew MacLachlan

25 Jan 2016

If someone told you their core competencies were the ability to think outside the box, keep many balls in the air, be a blue-sky thinker and leverage their expertise you might be forgiven for thinking they were speaking a foreign language.


All the above expressions are examples of business speak or suit-speak that seem to flourish in the modern business world. Why do we use such tired jargon?

Each expression probably had a context before it became a cliché, and was fresh and original when first used. For instance, take terms like “offline”, “unplug” and “bandwidth”.

These were first used in an IT context and made sense but have now become jargon when a company, for example, says they don’t have enough “bandwith” (i.e. capacity) to take on a new client.

Each expression probably had a context before it became a cliché

Communication = Clarity

If the primary objective of communication is clarity so that the intended message is received without confusion or ambiguity, such jargon can only obfuscate and miscommunicate.

How many employees would understand if their manager issued instructions such as “Please run the new product up the flagpole and pass it over the wall to me”?

Silly expressions like “30,000 feet view” which is supposed to mean seeing the big picture, a cliché in itself, or a high-level and therefore clearer view sounds self-defeating as the higher we are the more light-headed we get too! And then there are more obnoxious and rather objectionable sounding jargon like “open the kimono” for revealing information or “Drink the Kool Aid”  a tasteless reference to the Jonestown Massacre in 1978 meaning blind acceptance.

Nouns Converted to Verbs

Jargon masks real meaning. People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.

As language evolves and changes, the unfortunate practice of nominalisation is bad enough where we unnecessarily change a perfectly adequate verb to a noun and then import another verb to complete the sentence.

In the interest of clarity and conciseness, it’s better to  ‘discuss’ rather than ‘have a discussion’, ‘investigate’ rather than ‘conduct an investigation’, and ‘apply for the post’ rather than ‘submit an application for the post’. This now is compounded by nouns that are in turn changed into and used as pseudo-verbs.

Instances are the perfectly hideous “synergise” and “leverage”, the last of which Forbes calls “the granddaddy of nouns converted to verbs”.

According to Jennifer Chatman, management professor at the University of California- Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, “Jargon masks real meaning. People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.”

Jargon? As Clear as…

Here are 10 confusing formulaic phrases common in current usage, and what they actually mean:

  1. Actionable: although used loosely in business speak to mean anything on which action can be taken, the origin has a legal context meaning having reasons for a lawsuit.
  1. Blocking and Tackling: misuse of a sports analogy to mean getting the basics right.
  2. Blue sky thinking: creative thinking unrestrained by practicalities.
  3. Boil the ocean: wasting time trying to do the impossible.
  4. Bring your ‘A’ game: come to the meeting prepared.
  5. Functionality: just another word for functions.
  6. Game changer: first introduced in 1993 according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, it refers to a newly-introduced element that significantly changes an existing situation.
  7. Low hanging fruit: easy, reachable or quick profit.
  8. Rightsizing: politically correct spin on cutbacks or downsizing. Very little right about this one.
  9. Swim Lane: taken from nautical terminology to mean a specific area of responsibility at work.

Is Jargon Dangerous?

These expressions may be considered harmless, but there are real dangers in using them.  Misunderstanding and confusion apart, many of these come across as pompous and annoying that betray a lack of honesty and openness. All too often, such expressions are used to hide lack of genuine content.

They can also be conveniently used to conceal the actual meaning. For this reason, they come in useful for spin doctors who wish to portray negative information in a positive light. Frequently though, it is simply a lesser sin of sheer laziness in finding the appropriate word or expression to convey exact meaning.

Very often, the users themselves are not sure what the word actually means. These buzz words are more noise than words. The overriding reason, perhaps, is the desire to sound impressive and ‘managerial’.   According to Investors in People, a business improvement tool administered by UK Commission for Employment and Skills, this kind of jargon is actually damaging to UK business.

It is timely to heed George Orwell’s concern about the deterioration of our language:

The first is staleness of imagery; the second is lack of precision. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose

He clearly warns that:

…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.

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