When buzzwords start to become fuzzwords

Nonsense and sensibility: Phrases some consider very clever often drive others mad.

Does jargon stop us thinking clearly? Some people love using technical or fashionable language, but others complain that buzzwords simply clutter our minds and hamper communication.

The theatre director stared at the blog post in bewilderment. It was written by the head of Arts Council England, Darren Henley – but what on earth was he on about? The title – Black Lives Matter – gave a clue, but the language was bizarre. He talked of “cultural capital”, “mechanisms” under “Investment Principles” and “strategic decisions that deliver impact”. It was gobbledygook.

Strangely for an organisation that supports brilliant writers, Arts Council England is notorious for its love of jargon. People applying for grants complain that they have to learn a whole special language to fill in its forms. But it is not alone: America’s National Literacy Institute boasts that one of its staff has “presented at various national conferences on educator preparation programme evaluation” – whatever that means.

Jargon is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “words or expressions used by a particular group or profession”. To some it is a useful shorthand: in the army, a soldier who has gone missing is “AWOL”, meaning “absent without leave”.

But there is a problem when people start using private language to outsiders, who often have no idea what they mean. Bank customers have recently been baffled by managers promising to “take ownership” of their complaints when they just mean dealing with them.

Equally, jargon sometimes turns into buzzwords that people use without thinking. One that has caught on in recent months is “systemic” – a medical term for something that runs throughout the entire body. It is now common to accuse organisations of “systemic corruption”, yet it is highly unlikely that every person they employ is dishonest. Rather than reinforcing the accusation, jargon makes it less credible.

For many people, though, using jargon is addictive. They think that because it comes from a specialised world, it suggests that they have specialist knowledge, giving them extra authority.

Military terms are particularly popular because they have connotations of competence and efficiency. The head of a company is often called the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), even though his or her work has nothing to do with the army. During the pandemic, workers have been “furloughed” – a verb meaning to send a soldier on leave – rather than “laid off” as they were in the past.

Business is another notable source of jargon. Every modern organisation is expected to have a “mission statement” and identify its “stakeholders” and “best practice”. The former head of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was so famous for using jargon that his favourite phrases became known as Greenspeak.

A key objection to jargon and buzzwords is that they overcomplicate things. People say “partner with” when they could just say “partner”, and “reach out to” when they could just say “contact”. Media companies hire “content providers” instead of writers.

Does jargon stop us thinking clearly?

Hold the steak

Some say, yes: having clear thoughts and expressing them in a clear fashion go hand in hand. George Orwell advocated using simple language because “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself”. David Lehman argues that jargon “gives an air of novelty and specious profundity to ideas that, if stated directly, would seem superficial, stale, frivolous, or false.”

Others contend that jargon only causes problems when it spreads beyond those it is intended for. Everyone in business knows what stakeholders are, and it is much easier than saying “people with an interest in the company”. Having stock phrases to fall back on is a useful thing in a debate because you can use them to play for time while thinking of a proper answer.

You Decide

  1. Of the authors you have read, which do you admire most for their writing style, and why?
  2. Should everyone, including scientists and mathematicians, have to pass a writing exam to get into university?

Activities

  1. Look up Darren Henley’s blog in the Become an Expert section. Imagine you are a teacher, and award it marks out of 100 for clarity and elegance. Then translate it into plain English.
  2. Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky contains invented words only he understood, but it is still generally comprehensible. Read it and then write a poem using invented words of your own.

Some People Say...

“Political language […] is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

George Orwell (1903-1950), English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that jargon and slang are similar but not the same. Jargon is usually related to a specific profession, so that only people with the right technical vocabulary understand it. Slang is much more informal and tends to twist words deliberately away from their original meaning. “Wicked” has been transformed in slang from an insult to a compliment. In Cockney rhyming slang, your “plates” are not things you eat off, but your feet (“plates of meat”).
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether it is possible to control the words people use. George Orwell’s novel 1984 imagines a society using Newspeak – a language with a limited vocabulary designed to restrict freedom of thought. In North Korea, people are expected to refer to Kim Jong-un as the “Dear Leader” even if they hate him; in Western societies, politically incorrect terms are taboo in public but often still survive in private. Jargon is widely ridiculed but flourishes nonetheless.

Word Watch

Arts Council England
An organisation funded by the UK government to promote the arts. Its inverted name arguably reflects its attitude to language: it would have been simpler to call it the English Arts Council.
National Literacy Institute
An organisation devoted to teaching children to read and write. It also helps with what it calls “achievement growth” in maths.
US Federal Reserve
The US central bank. Nicknamed “the Fed”, it was created in 1913 in reaction to a series of financial panics.
Greenspeak
Greenspan is thought to have used deliberately obscure language because he feared that giving an unambiguous view of America’s economy would cause an extreme reaction in the financial markets.
David Lehman
An American poet and literary critic. As a student he was research assistant to one of the greatest critics of the 20th century, Lionel Trilling.
Specious
Originally meaning beautiful to look at, it has come to indicate something that is apparently true but actually false.
Profundity
Depth. Oscar Wilde wrote a poem about the most miserable time in his life with the Latin title De Profundis, meaning “from the depths”.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.