In this high-tech, gee-whiz world, more and more people seem to speak in jargon or, as I like to call it, gibberish. Whether it’s exclusive terms understandable by only a certain few, buzz-words intended to impress in meetings, or euphemisms to make something seem better than it is, the use of jargon really does little more than confuse the listener.
Jargon tends to go through three stages:
- Jargon starts out as a simple technical sublanguage: users devise abbreviations and acronyms that help speed up processes. It also helps reinforce group solidarity in that it becomes a semi-private language, but with clarity its main aim.
- Jargon can go over to the dark side when it is so dense that “outsiders” have difficulty understanding it. Euphemisms and deception may creep into the discourse of the in-crowd’s private language. Organisations may become less transparent, crisis-prone and unable to communicate with external people.
- Jargon becomes an object of ridicule in some quarters, with counter-jargon springing up as a defence mechanism used by the out-group (i.e. the majority). Jargon may prevail, however, as a means of maintaining organisational and social control.
Do people understand jargon?
George Orwell realised that one of the best ways to tackle jargon is via humour: this, for example, is from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:
Unfortunately, anti-language like Orwell’s parody is heard in offices and boardrooms every day almost 70 years after he put typewriter to paper. The numbers in the table refer to readability.
Readability scores have been around for almost a century, but they are still a work in progress. Rudolph Flesch developed his Flesch reading ease score in the 1940s. Peter Kincaid modified it for the US Navy in the 1970s to produce what is probably the most widely used readability score, the Flesch-Kincaid score.
Flesch’s score could be applied to any text, with texts with perfect clarity scoring 100 and impenetrable gobbledegook scoring zero. Kincaid saw some difficulties with people understanding this, and took some of Flesch’s stats and turned them into school grade levels of understandability, based upon vocabulary awareness tests of students at different levels.
Thus the prophet in the desert scores 78.3 Flesch and 8.4 on Flesch-Kincaid (someone with 8.4 years of post-kindergarten English should be able to understand this). The parody would require 27.1 years of schooling to understand (that’s several PhDs beyond year 12).
Jargon in everyday use
How often do we hear jargon like this parody? Try this one from former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd:
What you saw even prior to the end of the Cold War here, of course, was the evolution of a series of confidence and security-building measures coming off the back of CSCE, OSCE and the Helsinki accords. There has to be a greater synergy between, let’s call it our policy leadership in this, which has been focused so much, legitimately, on targets and global architecture, almost reverse-engineered back to the means by which you can quickly deliver outcomes, and on the demand side in our economy we’re looking at potential advances in terms of 20 to 25% range if you do this across the board. It all takes cost, but let me tell you it’s probably the quickest lever you can pull given the challenges we face.
Using the same readability checker, Rudd scores 15.9 on Flesch-Kincaid readability. Given that 46% of Australians aged 15 and over have a skill level for prose literacy less than what is seen as required to meet the demands of everyday life, most of the people who elected this prime minister would not have a clue what he was talking about.
Some jargon is invented to cover up an unpleasant truth, like getting the sack (coerced transition, decruitment, work force imbalance correction) or making your job sound more prestigious. Take these jargonistic euphemisms:
- Automotive internists (car mechanics)
- Vertical transportation corps (elevator operators)
- Initiate a career enhancement program (lay off workers)
- Negative patient care outcome (the patient died)
- Rapid oxidation (fire in a nuclear power plant)
- Pre-emptive counter attack (home forces attacked first)
- Engaged the enemy on all sides (troops were ambushed)
- Backloading of augmentation personnel (retreat by troops)
- Pre-dawn vertical insertion (invasion)
How to avoid jargon
Orwell realised that word choice was often the source of jargon, or anti-plain English:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.
We in the Anglosphere are fortunate in having had England invaded by French soldiers and Latin scholars, because it has dramatically enhanced our vocabulary (English has about one million words, while French and German only have about 200-300,000). So how do we stop falling prey to, or becoming perpetrators of, jargon?
- Install a readability checker on your word processor and use it to see how your text is going (bearing in mind that they are rough-and-ready figures)
- Use shorter words where longer words can be replaced
- Use shorter sentences
- Remember your audience: will they be able to understand your communication?
- If you must use complex words or acronyms, provide a glossary
- Stay in Phase One of jargon development — don’t let insecurity, contempt for others or a need for control get in the way of good communication
- Use humour to ridicule jargon junkies: look at Dack’s Bullshit Generator — a table that allows you to combine verb, adjective and noun to form completely meaningless jargon like “facilitating holistic mindshare”!
- Learn and practise Plain English.
Baden Eunson is Adjunct Lecturer, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University.