Quote from John Maynard Smith about jargon

Improve communication by beating boring business jargon

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The term ‘Jargon’ has a bad name. it’s often used to describe words or phrases that are difficult to understand or deliberately confusing for someone who is not ‘in the know’. However, this negative connotation isn’t entirely warranted. Jargon can be a useful form of shorthand to aid communication within groups with a common interest or purpose. Problems arise when jargon is used in everyday communication and, rather than aid understanding, it simply confuses people. Jargon doesn’t work unless everyone involved in the conversation knows its meaning. In fact, a 2014 study by a Malaysian university revealed that overuse of company jargon lead to a negative effect on employees.

What is jargon?

The Oxford dictionary defines jargon as: ‘Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand’ (OED). The word itself originates from Late Middle English meaning twittering, chattering, and later gibberish. Its current pejorative meaning dates from the seventeenth century.

Is jargon a bad thing?

I am often asked: is jargon a bad thing? The answer, I think, is not always. If you are writing for a specific audience, who will be familiar with your terminology or perhaps it is commonly understood in your profession or industry, then fine. It may serve as a shortcut to avoid what would otherwise be a long, convoluted explanation, or it may precisely express your intended meaning. Generally though, I prefer plain English that can be easily understood by any audience with a reasonable standard of education. Terms which are pretentious, pompous, long-winded or designed to mislead should be avoided.

Business jargon favourites

Whilst jargon isn’t just restricted to the business world, academia and many hobbies and pursuits have their fair share of gobbledegook, the terms listed below are those that I come across most frequently when editing and proofreading business documents. Here are a few of my favourites and you can check a full A to Z list in this Guardian article:

1. The helicopter view – an overview of a project
2. Drink our own champagne – the business uses the product it sells
3. Blue sky thinking – a visionary idea without practical application
4. Low hanging fruit – do the easy things first
5. Boil the ocean – there doesn’t seem to be agreement on this one. I found some definitions which interpreted this as doing something that is impossible and others which stated that it meant wasting time
6. Hard outcomes – results that are clear and obvious (nothing to do with difficulty)
7. Peel the onion – get to the heart of the issue
8. Press on that bruise – exploit a known weakness
9. Flying a kite – starting a project with no defined end or target
10. Run it up the flagpole – obtain views on a new idea

I worked in the insurance industry for more years than I care to admit, and like many professions it is riddled with jargon. My own particular bugbear is the phrase ‘close of play’ – if a project needs to be completed by a particular deadline then state the date and time, be exact. This is especially relevant when you are working with people across different time zones. It might be Monday morning for you, but I’m just turning in on Sunday night.

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