Jargon: The Horror

Chris Drabble (November 7, 2019)

Jargon can suck the life out of any business meeting, lecture, PowerPoint deck, therapy session, or web story. Even “Corporate Speak” above gets across how ubiquitous jargon is. Imagine if this video comic sketch were written out. The horror.

You’ll soon do battle with jargon in your own how-to-pieces—and in a quiz for Week 7 based on Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. So, buckle up, brave writing warriors.

The zombies are coming.

Step 1: We need to fight jargon everywhere.

‘The horror, the horror’

Heart of Darkness

That’s the biggest takeaway—and yes, takeaway is jargon. It’s what Pinker and others colorfully call a zombie noun: a word that originates in action—take this away—only to die as a verb and come back to life as the walking dead.

More examples: If you’re not careful, “pompous frills and meaningless jargon” (William Zinsser) will colonize your writing like an influx from Night of the Living Dead. In the excerpt below, Inc. columnist James Sudakow has underlined all the jargon in his riff on US college basketball’s “March Madness.”

Whether you follow sports or not, you’ll recognize this stuff:

From ‘The 89 Worst Business Buzzwords Ever‘ by James Sudakow, Inc., March 14, 2017.

Step 2: Vote on the worst jargon.

In the Week 5 poll, you can choose more than one jargon talker. They are legion.

I hope this poll shines a light (cliché) on the formation (zombie noun) of abstractions (zombie noun) that we need to beat back with a stick (another cliché).

Image: ‘The Walking Dead‘ © id-iom; Creative Commons license.

Step 3: Explain your vote.

For the required poll assignment, comment on the choice(s) you made and the use of jargon in your profession or where you work. The explanation for your choice is the main part of this assignment.

If you make a comment about that on this post—and please do—just be sure you also paste it into the Canvas assignment entry.

A virtual nod to all who include examples of their jargon pet peeves, as in this Boston Globe digital piece about workplace jargon (set up as a slide show)—or this BBC jargon discussion based on reader responses.

And feel free to stand up for jargon, too, or to argue for using it sometimes. For instance: I happen to like takeaway, as long as it’s not thrown in every other sentence. Clichés such as ducks in a row are visual, even appealing, as long as they aren’t overused.

The trouble is, they almost always are overused. Every time I come across elephant in the room, I feel like beating myself with a stick.


Martha Nichols is a faculty instructor in the journalism program at the Harvard Extension School. She’s also the co-founder and editor of Talking Writing, a digital magazine and nonprofit organization based in the Boston area. She’s published work in Utne Reader, Harvard Business Review, Christian Science Monitor, and many other outlets—and recently edited the anthology Into Sanity: Essays About Mental Health, Mental Illness, and Living in Between (Talking Writing Books, 2019).

Vote - how much star power?

20 Replies to “Jargon: The Horror”

  1. I was tempted to say business when I chose medicine and science instead. Business is where most of the writing is done. but a medical professor told me diagnostics are a problem for young doctors who have to spend 30minutes on the computer just to review the latest information. Clearly, computers which store so much new information and update it constantly are part of the problem.

  2. Business people use the worst jargon. I thought I was safe working in higher education, but we now talk like the business people. Our meetings are filled with their jargon. Which is now our jargon.

    When I first heard “low hanging fruit” in a meeting, I knew we had gone to the dark side. And it made me irrationally angry. The next one was “deck.” I refused to use the term “deck” for years. I was perfectly happy creating “presentations.”

    Now it’s days filled with “pivoting” during these unprecedented times, asking if we have the “bandwidth” for a project (we never do, yet we always take on the project), and “let’s take this offline.” This usually means no one wants to address the issue that was brought up, so let’s just say what we really mean: “no.”

  3. I voted for Business People, Tech People and Stock Brokers. As a business executive I am experiencing a lot of jargon talking in my job. Some examples for jargon talking that I hate:

    1. “Lets give him a sandwich feedback”. This is an expression to say that if you want to make a negative comment around the performance of an employee, it is better to start with a positive comment, then, present the negative comment, and then give another positive comment. We could simply say. When you want to discuss a weakness, it is better to present it together with two strengths. Start with one strength, then present the weakness, and then close with another strength.

    2. “Please review the process and identify the bottlenecks”. I have also seen it as a verb (“this part of the process have bottlenecked us”) or as a gerund (“please avoid steps bottlenecking our efficiencies”). Here, bottleneck means obstacle, a problematic part of the process.

    3. “I want our organisation to be agile to be able to transform”. Here we have two jargon words, agile and transform. It simply means that people need to be able to change priorities and methodologies in order to adapt to new circumstances.

  4. In my opinion, stockbrokers and financiers use the most difficult-to-understand jargon. It’s a whole other world with code words, chart patterns with confusing names and a constant use of animals to describe trends in the market. For example, there there are frequent references to “the bears,” “the bulls,” and “the whales” which refer to different types of investors in the market, but to us just refer to animals.

    Furthermore, chart technical analysis is like a new language within itself! In addition to terms like “fibonacci replacement,” and “exponential moving average”, these financial wizards use everyday life to describe chart patterns – “cup and handle, head and shoulders and golden cross” are prime examples of how everyday terms are used in a totally different context thus rendering us normal folk completely gormless.

    “NIO has a cup and handle, is about to hook down and then we will see plenty of bullish action before it hits the golden cross” means something very different to a stock market investor!

  5. I chose businesspeople and government officials.

    I chose business people because I’ve come across extreme jargon from sales people. If I can’t understand what they are saying, I’ll go somewhere else to make a purchase.

    I also chose government officials. Recently, I learned the term “gaslighting” which is jargon for when a political party is responsible for an action but blames the other party for the very same action. GOP officials do this constantly. It was refreshing to find there was a name for it.

  6. I work as the marketing director at a technology company, so, for better or worse, writing and deciphering jargon is my forte! I’m used to debating with executives who use phrases like “objectives and key results,” “middle-of-the-funnel Marcom strategies,” and endless acronyms (RFP, SDR, SME, SMB, etc., etc.). As painful as all of this jargon is, I’ve never heard more jargon than from my legal friends. Any time a sentence contains “herein” or “hereafter,” my brain shuts down. Don’t even get me started on “bifurcated,” “compensatory damages” and “malfeasance.” In the legal field, there’s little room for casual behavior, so that’s the main reason it gets my vote for having the “worst jargon.” At least in my tech startup, we can step away from “corporate speak” to chat about current events or the weather. 🙂

  7. Having worked in the tech industry for about 2 decades (with and for corporates), I selected Business people and Tech people. It’s difficult for me to imagine a conversation that isn’t packed with jargon. Because tech is a young industry that invented a lot of its own words, it may have gone too far. Nowadays, a lot of the same words and terms are reused by everyone. I recognise the degree to which people are all saying the same thing over and over. We’ve become parrots. Some of my favorites:
    We need to double-click into that element of the plan.
    Let’s park that idea for now.
    Why don’t we take that offline?
    Have you guys synced yet?

  8. Business school definitely has the worst jargon. I spend my days recording (capturing) the class (section) comments (contributions) of Harvard (HBS) MBA students (future leaders who will make a difference). They talk about “reverse engineering” or “backing into” a competitor’s (comparable’s) financial model or calculating the “WACC” or “NPV” of some new “start-up.” Many of the first-year students (RCs) hope to “land” an internship with “consulting,” “PE,” or “VC” “firms, but they really have to watch out for “exploding offers.” If they’re lucky enough to sit on the “sky deck,” they have a full view of the visiting case “protagonist” and “sectionmates” who are not “living the community values” by using their “devices” during the “case” discussion.

  9. Business People and Jargon
    It’s a vast ocean we look across in the world of commerce, we must see the consumer for their need to achieve. As the consumer finds a way to take an end run around the target, we have to continually create a message that wows them and brings them back on point.
    It is so fun to write these. Why business? I clumped advertising into this bucket and who has more jargon than ad people? We’re inundated every day with messages that have no meaning, enticing us to buy products we do not need. As Martha mentioned, jargon can spice up a few sentences and we each have our own favorites but overuse is their doom. Why is jargon prevalent? It is a comfort to our ears to hear familiar phrases. It sounds familiar so we listen but we’re not clear on the meaning. That brings us back for a second look because it engages us. When we focus on what is being said, we realize jargon tries to create something that isn’t there.

  10. I chose academics, sports writers, and politics-related tweeters, (although anything related to politics would have applied). The last two made my list because I am familiar with only the basics of sports and politics, so anything I read is a confusing mash of specialized terminology doused in jargon. But academics is the world I’m immersed in so I know it is full of jargon that is sometimes helpful but often annoying. The verb “unpack,” for example, is a one-word way of saying “to analyze the nature of by examining in detail” (Merriam-Webster), as in “to unpack the content standards.” I like it. It’s concise and clear. On the other, last week the staff and faculty at my workplace came together for a recharge day in order to discuss how to be student ready whereas last year we had a development day to discuss how to be student centered. Maybe not such a big deal, but my contract spells out that I am required to attend a specific portion of development days and says nothing about recharge days. I had to waste time bothering my supervisor to learn that a recharge day *is* a development day with a cuter name and all the same obligations. It’s just one example of many I could share.

  11. To me, jargon is used to make one’s self sound smarter. I chose tech people and lawyers since I interact with both in my day-to-day life. Their vernacular exemplifies jargon, but I’m struggling with whether or not I think it’s a bad thing.

    Jargon comes with every profession; take the medical field. Scalpel is just a knife with a fancy word for medical elites to throw around. I know nothing about the medical industry so as far I know, a scalpel can be a specific type of knife at a certain size and thickness used for only a few procedures, or it can be the complete opposite. I don’t know, but by achieving expertise in a profession, should that allow for the overuse of jargon to show the world your stature? Or, is there no simple alternative to effectively get your point across to the average person without using the textbook talk? That’s where I am lost.

    I work in the tech field where IT is always in the middle of UX, UI, redesigning sites’ content management systems with integrating feeds, AJAX, etc. These are all fancy words for complicated things so can the talk actually be simplified? When my colleagues ask who will be receiving our email marketing campaigns, the explanation of queries, preference centers, and targeting demographics sometimes confuses them. I have to break it down and I do find it challenging for me to do so in certain circumstances since it innate for me and it is difficult to put myself in an outsider’s shoes; therefore, I occasionally use jargon.

    I am also in constant communication with an attorney for ‘legalese’ in our marketing materials and I find that I am often in the same confusion as my coworkers. I’m not entirely sure what is being said, but I go along with their recommendations since they are the legal experts and I am just the average professional outside of the legal world.

    The intent of the speech is important, and I believe if one knows you are not mocking them or trying to belittle their comprehension by using elaborate language, then your explanation will not be perceived as jargon.

  12. I found this a very interesting question. Why? Because it was not easy to choose. However, I voted for:
    1. Academics
    2. Lawyers
    3. Pentagon officials
    If I do a deep research, maybe I will be surprised that these are not the industries that use the worst jargon, but for me they are.
    The first thing that came up to my mind are the long talks and thickness of the books and documents related to these fields.
    For example, reading contracts or terms and conditions is very time consuming and hard to understand for readers, reason why not many people do so; and who writes these? Lawyers.

  13. Answering this poll was harder than I thought once I looked at the choices. All of those options definitely use a decent amount of jargon, but the two I had to debate between the most were the lawyer and tech people. In the end, I chose tech people because I think their jargon reaches (and annoys) more people.

    As someone who works in IT, I see this jargon issue pop up a lot. I’m not that great at tech and I still see it! Of course things like “SIS ID” or “Hex codes” elicit some blank stares from non-tech-savvy professors. But there are small things like when I reference “The toolbar” “Your dashboard” or “The shared folder” that I don’t even think twice about saying that trip some people up. I think this concept of tech jargon can be especially different between generations. Millennials that grew up editing basic code to change their MySpace profile might understand a bit more than their grandparents who look at iPhones like they’re spaceships.

    Lawyers may use jargon (and as a former legal-studies minor I know this struggle) but I think tech jargon is more prevalent in an average person’s life. Plus, lawyers are expected to get an in-depth education that teaches them all the fancy legal terms, that’s why people pay them to assist in the courtroom instead of playing lawyer themselves. In this case, it’s almost comforting to reconfirm that they know the necessary jargon.

  14. I have worked as a technology director in some capacity for the last 24 years, it is very easy for us to say, “please hold while we repair the systems registry from an unauthorized OS update that appears to have created a bug in your registry files of your PC”. Then comes a pause over the phone with a drawn-out response of “Oh Kay”.

    I was recruited 18 months ago to overhaul a failing tech department in a critical needs school district. I used the typical tech jargon to get things moving when I arrived and the entire department just looked at me. I asked the systems lead administrator to develop a blueprint design for overhaul and reconfiguration for a new state of the art enterprise network infrastructure and he would look at me. I would later learn he did not even know what his title meant, he thought it was just a fancy title to reset google passwords.

    I have learned to break it down, speak simple and pray a lot and use zero jargon for anything technology. A URL is the name of the website dot com or please move over and let me drive for five minutes at your computer. I am not sure if there will ever be a bridge of normal conversation and technology support as long as tech jargon exists.

  15. When you work in business education, it’s hard to discuss this topic without ranting, so be warned: I am going to rant.

    I can safely say that marketing material used to attract students to enrol in a business school is 20% informative and 80% bullshit. Jargon and predictable buzzwords are shamelessly used, one need look no further than a simple course description:

    “New, digital business models, processes and customer relationships as well as customized leadership systems are the key to successful innovation and transformation. With a transfer work, the participants gain the competence to recognize the challenges of digitization and to weigh appropriate measures”

    Ouch.

    I’ve seen course names are changed to include a new trendy word just to boost enrolments, even if that word does not reflect the course content. Or to inflate the reputation of a school a program, when it could not possibly follow through.

    Sadly, it works.

    And just to finish the rant – what the hell is a “Though Leader”? Whatever it’s supposed to be, if you’re calling yourself one, I’m pretty sure you can’t be a good one.

    1. Yasmina, I am quite fond of rants, so no worries about that. And of course I agree. I find “thought leader” to be hilarious—as did my husband when, as a visiting scholar at Deakin University in Geelong a few years back, his title was “Thinker in Residence.”

      But here’s the challenge in what you say about using a new buzzword in a title to boost enrollment. If it works, that means the buzzword is an effective hook. So, what’s the right balance between using hooks to engage readers and avoiding jargon that is bs?

  16. I’ve worked in a number of different industries and I promise you none come close to the tech industry in terms of horrible jargon use. I married a tech guy who is a “Senior Systems Administrator” at work. I love my husband and most of the things that come with him… like the gargantuan, electricity-squandering server rack in our garage, the detritus of computer parts strewn across my music room, the home VPN that he dutifully updates conveniently when our kids need something, and even the graveyard of antiquated devices he keeps “just in case” he needs them.

    Picture this. My husband’s co-worker invites us to his gorgeous Center City, Philadelphia home for a dinner party. The period furniture, pristine interior design, and perfect cleanliness were almost as impressive as the painstakingly crafted gourmet food. As I was sipping the signature cocktail of the dinner party (yes, there was a signature cocktail), I observed that I was sitting in the middle of an alternate universe. Only a few glasses of Glenfiddich 18 in and all of a sudden, my husband and his colleagues were speaking a language I didn’t recognize. And that’s saying something because I speak four and read six.

    -“Can you believe that the devs didn’t circle back?”
    -“No, and we even pivoted and synced our processes to accommodate them!”
    -“Ugh. We even involved the ninjas from the seventh floor!”
    -“Put it on the action items for the meeting.”
    -“Yeah, that and the telecoms taking the servers offline for maintenance.”
    -“They are so out of it…”

    At first, I thought it was some male pissing contest about tech knowledge or some juicy office gossip. As time went on, I realized this is the way tech employees talk all day. It’s exhausting at best, pompous and condescending at worst. Sorry, brogrammers… you guys are way worse than anyone else when it comes to jargon use!

    1. This is hilarious, Kerri. You’ve just written a mini-story with great capsule description, an anecdote, and a complete arc 🙂

      Given my experiences last week with Feedback Fruits tech support, I have to agree. I did tell one of the nice techs (and they weren’t all bros) that it felt as if they were speaking another language—and (this is the part that matters) they seemed unable to understand the concerns of an instructor like me about what my end users (students) were seeing. To which I’ve received many apologies and reassurances that they were doing a “complete UX overhaul.”

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