Do you like jargon? Are you a regular user? If so, prepare to have a brick thrown through the window of your soul.
You don’t have to be a Grumpy Old Man to find jargon, buzzwords and clichés irritating. Back in 1996, I attempted to do something about this problem in the public relations agency in which I then worked. I took the unorthodox view that there was no excuse for professional communicators to use such language. Jargon got in the way of effective communication because it made us sound pompous, silly or unintelligible. Disciplining ourselves to use plain English would make us better communicators.
To illustrate the problem, I translated the beginning of the Book of Genesis into PR jargon:
1. At the outset, God’s agenda was to basically focus on his core deliverables, namely two leading-edge products, (a) heaven and (b) earth.
2. However, the earth lacked an overall concept, and had a low profile in terms of its key audiences. Obviously the Spirit of God had to step back and benchmark the existing waters before his game plan could get the green light.
3. And God’s key message was that light was a strategic objective, and it was covered-off.
4. And God’s perception of the light was that it was fit for purpose. However, his desired goal was that light and darkness should be differentiated in the marketplace.
5. So God branded the light ‘Day’, and the darkness he branded ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Light’. And the evening session and morning session made up Day One.
6. Then God set out with the object of factoring-in a firmament to interface with the existing generic waters, to bring to the party two segmented brands.
7. So God tasked himself with the job of rolling-out a firmament, to supply a proactive vehicle for launching his two distinct waters products, and it was up and running.
8. And God branded the firmament ‘heaven’. And at close of play, the prioritised actions for Day Two were ticked off.
(From my essay, ‘Let’s run this up the flagpole and see who salutes’).
The problem is still with us and I have my own pet peeves:
• Business jargon – Currently the most pervasive and pernicious example is ‘going forward’. You can strip this phrase out of any sentence and the meaning remains unchanged. Simple use of the future tense does the job better. The Liberal Democrats are not immune; for example, the terms of reference for last year’s Bones Commission talked of ‘stretch goals’ and ‘step change’.
• American jargon – The use of baseball metaphors is wholly inappropriate in a country that does not play baseball. ‘Touch base’, ‘Stepping up to the plate’ and ‘Coming from left field’ are common examples. British people who use such phrases usually do not understand what they are saying themselves.
• Media jargon – Presenters who say, “At the top of the hour”.
• Young people’s jargon – Like, whatever.
• Trendy jargon – It’s a big ask.
• Blog jargon – Disagreeing with someone in a condescending manner by replying, “Erm, no.”
• Political jargon – In an echo of Richard Nixon’s ‘moral majority’, politicians of all parties try to identify with ‘hard-working families’. Not content with this, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander persist with dismal variations on the theme: ‘hard-pressed families’, ‘struggling families’, ‘ordinary families’ and now ‘modern families’.
• Liberal Democrat jargon – If I hear another Lib Dem councillor refer to something in his ward as “on my patch”, I shall remove his reproductive organs with a rusty boat-hook. Meanwhile, many Focus editors are using the same hackneyed phrases they were publishing 25 years ago.
Jargon is not a new problem. George Orwell analysed it in 1946, in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. Orwell’s view is that ugly and inaccurate English prose causes foolish thoughts and dishonest politics:
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
Orwell offered this advice:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
Jargon is not the preserve of Sir Humphrey Appleby and David Brent. It is not merely an annoyance to Grumpy Old Men. It is a serious political problem, as the Plain English Campaign has demonstrated. It has been campaigning against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information since 1979. If the Liberal Democrats use this sort of language, they are not only blunting their political effectiveness but also disenfranchising people who cannot understand what they mean. Getting rid of this tribal language is not about ‘dumbing down’. It is about being clear and concise.
If you are a Liberal Democrat councillor, check whether your council is one of the 300 local authorities that hold the Plain English Campaign’s Crystal Mark. If it is not, campaign to raise standards. And please note that a Crystal Mark is no excuse for complacency. Guess which Lib Dem-led local authority – both a Crystal Mark holder and a corporate member of the Plain English Campaign – recently won an award from the Financial Times for management twaddle.
Together we can fight and defeat jargon, buzzwords and clichés. Please leave a comment with the jargon words and phrases you find irritating, particularly those you wish to see banished from the Liberal Democrat lexicon. (If I were prone to Lib Dem jargon, I would invite you to “get it off your chest”).
With any luck, the result of our cruel mockery will be a party that communicates more effectively.
* Simon Titley is a Liberal Democrat activist who helps write and produce Liberator magazine.