Jargon. A tool of exclusion, efficient technical language or just the ‘cheeping of birds’?

20130426-205100.jpgMy last post about meetings led to a bit of a discussion about jargon. It’s something that’s despised by many people, but has probably been used by most of us on occasions . So I’m being particularly carefull to avoid using it in this post.

It’s worth having a think about why jargon exists and why we use it.

Basically it’s just a very specific form of language used by people to communicate and (hopefully) help others understand what they are saying.

The origins of the term jargon seems to have come from the Old French word ‘gargun’ which describes the ‘cheeping of birds’. In the 14th century it was used to describe unintelligible or confused speech. Some of the modern definitions of jargon you’ll find include:

  • confused unintelligible language;
  • technical terminology or characteristic language of a special activity or group; and
  • obscure and often pretentious language marked by the unnecessary use of too many, long, vague and uncommon words.

For me, there seems to be two distinctly different reasons for using jargon, one acceptable (with conditions) the other completely unacceptable:

Technical. In this case you have a specific highly technical area where jargon helps communicate more clearly, efficiently and effectively (within the technical community).
Posturing. Here people choose to use language that prevents others understanding what they are saying. The word ‘evasive’ is used a lot in connection with this type of jargon.

What do you do about jargon?

Posturing Jargon. In the case of posturing this is easy (in theory). Just say, “I haven’t got a clue what you are talking about. Please could you explain that without the jargon.” Obviously, this isn’t as easy to do as it sounds, but it’s worth thinking about. Remember that the use of jargon will be an (unconscious or deliberate) act to exclude you from a conversation or prevent you understanding what is being said. You may have encountered this sort of person……..

Technical Jargon. For technical jargon it’s much less clear-cut. This might be a highly specialised area and the jargon actually helps with communication. I remember as an undergraduate I used a specialised scientific dictionary as part of classes. Perfectly reasonable as most of the words didn’t need to be used in general conversation, but it helped greatly in the laboratory. To people outside of that community it was just jargon – ‘cheeping birds’. You need to be on your guard to avoid excluding people from the conversation if they don’t understand the specialised words. There are useful approaches like having a ‘jargon buster’ (explanations of the jargon) available, but the objective should surely be to minimise the jargon in the first place, or keep it where it belongs, in the specialist community.

Management Speak. The place where this gets messy is the crossover between technical and posturing. What if you have someone posturing using technical jargon terms? Dangerous territory. If I was being sceptical I could say that this is the territory of management speak. This Guardian article highlights some of the worst examples like, ‘drill down’ (look in detail) and ‘sunset’ (close down the project). I’m sure you could find plenty of jargon and management speak from your own experience, and use it in that the old favourite ‘Buzzword Bingo‘.

One final thought whilst I was thinking about this post I stumbled upon a book by Tony White called NHS Jargon Explained. Initially I thought it was a joke. It’s not, you can buy it on Amazon. I’ve no doubt it’s necessary, but I do wonder if we’ve over complicated things to the point where people have written books to explain what public services are talking about. Not just for people who work in the service but also, “campaigners, patient interest groups, researchers and journalists, and patients and their relatives may also find it useful and enlightening!” No further comment…….

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Jargon has its place in specialised technical communities where it helps communication and understanding.
  2. Once you take that language outside of the community you have to explain clearly what you mean, or risk excluding people.
  3. People using jargon to posture, evade, confuse or exclude people should not be tolerated. Ask the question, “I don’t understand, what do you mean?”

Just checking, how jargon free is this post? Anyone know of a jargon checker I could use?

Photo Source. Birds on a wire. http://johnsmyth.ie/blog/2011/11/21/the-chattering-classes/

Linked Posts: Buzzword Bingo http://whatsthepont.com/2012/11/16/best-practice-glossary-or-buzzword-bingo/

Meetings Sabotage http://whatsthepont.com/2011/10/30/meetings-sabotage-additional-field-examples/


NHS Jargon Buster

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

18 Responses

  1. A related and at least as frustrating language fault for me is the use of acronyms. I find that clever technical people use them in appropriately when speaking to or writing for an audience which extends beyond those close to the subject. They leave many completely in the dark as to what they are talking about and consequently miss opportunities and sell themselves badly. Your PONT 3 is just a pertinent here!

  2. Tony Dowling

    Jargon also has brand connotations. Those ‘in the know’ or part of the ‘in crowd’ have all the desirous language to hand – those on the outside are excluded!
    It’s a great tool to allow us to differentiate and distinguish our tribes and tribes mates
    For that reason, I prefer to see the positive side!
    Another great article! thanks Chris

  3. I think Pont 2 is really interesting here, because often we use jargon down to habit rather than an attempt to alienate. This then develops a perception that services exclude people, when in the case of public services they work for people’s benefit.

    I hate referring people back to work we’ve done in blog comments as it reeks of self-promotion, but I’m going to do it anyway! The National Principles for Public Engagement in Wales have led to the development of an Evaluation Toolkit. The Principles can handily work as a benchmark to measure the work we’ve done. Principle 5 is that “The information provided will be jargon free, appropriate and understandable”, and the success criteria is:

    • Information is clear, accessible, appropriate and available in a range of methods to
    include as many groups / individuals in the consultation / engagement exercise.
    • People are saying ‘I have the information I need’.
    • People are saying, ‘I have a greater understanding of…’
    • The right amount of information is provided that is relevant to the engagement process

    There’s more information on the Principles under http://www.participationcymru.org.uk/principles and the Evaluation Toolkit at http://www.participationcymru.org.uk/principles/evaluation-toolkit should you be interested!

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