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Why I Hate Jargon

March 3, 2021 Jeff Bradford

I detest jargon at a visceral level. I not only understand how much jargon sabotages our communication, but I feel how ugly it is, how it stultifies the soul. It does not deserve to live. Hopefully, this article will be another nail in its coffin.

Why do I loathe jargon so? Let me count the ways…

People can’t understand you

By definition, and at its best, jargon is specialized language used to communicate quickly and accurately among a group of people who have something in common, such as an occupation, a hobby or a religion. For example, for Catholics, “consubstantial” is a useful piece of jargon, for it quickly and completely (thus elegantly) communicates a quite complex, even mystical formulation of the Christian Trinity – so complex that it would take the rest of this article to explain. One word takes the place of hundreds, but only because those in the group have spent hundreds of hours learning about the ideas it communicates. Within the group, it is efficient – the highest compliment for any communication.

However, try throwing around “consubstantial” in casual conversation and you’ll get blank stares. It literally means nothing to those who aren’t in the club. The same applies to business jargon, whether it be industry specific or – the worst – general management jargon. People simply will not  understand what you are saying. And they will stop listening – if they ever started, which is doubtful.

You don’t understand  yourself

Even worse, you probably don’t fully understand the jargon you use. Does anyone really know what “boil the ocean” means? Or “ideation?” Or, my favorite, “solutioneering?”

Often, jargon creeps into our language like curse words – it’s just something we pick up by being around the wrong people. In fact, watching someone use jargon in a business meeting or sales pitch is like watching a child curse for the first time. He doesn’t really know what he is saying, but he’s seen grown-ups say it, and it sounds powerful.

The next time someone says he wants to “solutioneer” a problem, ask him what he actually means. Trust me. He won’t have the slightest idea. But, it sure sounds a lot more sophisticated than “solving” a problem. So, it must be better. Right?

You don’t think

Often, jargon is a substitute for thinking – or, as least, original thinking. (Of course, “original thinking” is redundant. Anything else is simply remembering.) Business jargon is shorthand for thoughts that have been thought before, usually long ago.

For example, the first person who used the term “best practices” was probably describing his discovery – i.e., an original thought – that you could improve a process by closely watching what talented people do. The first genius who came up with the concept of “scalability” communicated a clear and exact concept because he had spent a lot of time studying how small enterprises become large ones.

But, these terms have become shopworn tools that lazy people substitute for thinking. Have a problem? No problem, we’ll just survey best practices and develop synergistic, robust and actionable steps that we’ll run up the flagpole for buy-in by all stakeholders. Then, we’ll take it offline to find the secret sauce that will enhance our scalability. No thinking required. The jargon does it for you. (Until you actually have to do something. Not just talk about it.)

It’s for followers, not leaders

Because jargon is largely about pre-chewed ideas, it’s used by people who can’t digest original concepts. Leaders come up with the ideas that eventually get transformed into jargon when they have lost their vitality.

So, if you want to be a leader, speak like one. Describe your thoughts accurately with precise language so that people have a clear idea of what you have in mind. If you speak, write and think this way you will find it impossible to use business jargon, which is almost exclusively about communicating fuzzy concepts that will get a mediocre person through a meeting, but leads nowhere.

It is simply ugly

I am viscerally disgusted by jargon on aesthetic grounds. As a writer, I think language is naturally beautiful. I like the way it sounds. I like the way it facilitates the flow of ideas and emotions. I like the way it makes us human.

Jargon is a chancre on this beauty, primarily because it reeks of cheap pretentions. Why would someone say “utilize” instead of the good old Anglo-Saxon “use” if not because they think a three-syllable word sounds more refined that a one-syllable one? However, unless you have a good reason for “utilizing” instead of “using” (and such reasons do exist), you are pretending to a sophistication you do not possess, and thus, are a fool. You are truly, as the jargon goes, putting lipstick on a pig.

Like all evils, jargon promises easy access to wisdom, sophistication and privilege (at least the appearance of such), but, in fact, leads to weakness of mind and spirit and ultimately, ignominy – or worse, irrelevance. If you wish to think clearly and lead confidently, avoid the siren song of jargon.


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