Opinion: Going forward

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.

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39 Comments

  • Simon Titley 29th Jan '09 - 5:50pm

    Matthew – So you’d prefer a party of Stalinist discipline and unquestioning obedience, would you?

    If you want to read Pravda, read Liberal Democrat News.

    No can we get back to the topic of jargon, please.

  • David Allen 29th Jan '09 - 5:58pm

    Yes, loyalty and discretion are what matters in the ZaNuLibDem Party. Let’s tell Captain Clegg that there’s a small ice cube floating somewhere in the general vicinity of our Titanic.

  • Simon Titley 29th Jan '09 - 7:15pm

    Alix – I neither stated nor believe that jargon is “the be-all and end-all of the problem”. I could have talked about other facets of bad writing, such as poor grammar and punctuation. But jargon is a specific problem that needs addressing.

    I don’t agree that much jargon becomes “today’s mainstream speech”. The process tends to work in the other direction. Freshly-minted turns of phrase degenerate into jargon and cliché.

    The party needs to improve its communication. Getting rid of stale, hand-me-down phrases is one way (but not the only way) to achieve this.

    Alex – I am pefectly able to distinguish between jargon and analogies. It is possible for an analogy also to be jargon.

  • I actually think the ‘modern families’ label is appropriate. It sets us apart from dusty old Tories who bang on about the ‘nuclear families’ – you know, mum, dad, two children, generally on Midsomer Murders killing each other – by bringing in single parent families, or families where the parents are gay, or whatever. It actually shows how tolerant (or whatever you want to call it – we are.

  • Alix Mortimer 29th Jan '09 - 7:59pm

    “The process tends to work in the other direction.”

    Can you give an example? And, if that is the case, it must imply that you think there is a certain window of time in which it’s ok to use the “freshly-minted word or phrase”, up to the point at which it becomes jargon. I’d agree this is reasonable, but how do you tell? Is the degeneration literal, in the sense of some kind of shortening? And anyway can’t the same process also work for words that aren’t jargon? Plenty of words and phrases are old and tired, but still do a decent job of meaning what they say they mean. So it is with some of the things you have labelled “jargon”.

    What I’m getting at, I think, is that I’m not sure what you’re categorising as jargon and how you’re deciding it’s jargon. In your list you’ve got analogies (“American jargon”), linguistic fillers (“Young people’s jargon” – there’s a technical name for this “filler” function of speech which I’ve now forgotten), and examples of recent linguistic evolution (“blog jargon” – or internet jargon as we might more widely term it).

    I also think it’s a little odd to be that prescriptive about American sporting analogies. We can’t use the jargon of a sport because we don’t play it? We don’t have bear-baiting any more in this country, but “bearpit” is still commonly applied in these parts to the House of Commons as PMQs. Of course, you could object to this on the grounds that it’s lazy and cliched and be right (I thought I was winging it with “rabid dogs” the other day, actually) but that’s a different thing. And as for comprehension – how many people understand “to pass muster” when they use it?

  • Why is “on my patch” worse than “in my ward” or “in my division”.

    The latter are correct but probably a lot less understood.

  • My bad.

  • Simon Titley 29th Jan '09 - 9:39pm

    Alix – I can think of several examples of phrases that were once freshly-minted but now sound hackneyed.

    “The light at the end of the tunnel”.

    “You don’t have to be mad to work here (but it helps).”

    “When the rubber hits the road”.

    The first time such phrases were used, they were effective because they had the power to evoke an image in the reader’s mind. But however creative such phrases once were, eventually they lose that power – what Orwell called a “staleness of imagery”. They become just verbiage.

    As for an objective test for jargon, Kenneth Hudson put it well in his book The Jargon of the Professions: “The key test for jargon is the question: ‘Could this have been expressed more simply without communication suffering in the process?’ If the answer is ‘Yes’, then the probability is that one is faced with a piece of jargon.”

    More generally, Alix, I am curious why my posting has clearly irritated you and you feel such a strong need to defend jargon.

    Perhaps the explanation comes, again, from Kenneth Hudson: “It is difficult to be a regular user of jargon and to possess a strong sense of humour. Most addicts, in all fields, tend to take themselves very seriously, from which one may be permitted to deduce that jargon is to a considerable extent a matter of temperament. The irreverent are apt to find jargon funny, but those who live by jargon are usually unable to understand what the merriment is about.”

  • Alix Mortimer 29th Jan '09 - 9:58pm

    Um (sorry! that was puzzlement), no. No irritation here. I’m sorry if it came across like that. I’m just very interested in language. Possibly being a bit intense.

    I agree on staleness of imagery and formerly meaningful phrases turning into cliches. I’d argue that’s a different thing from what most people understand to mean “jargon”, but maybe (gathering from the Kenneth H quote) you’re using the word in a more, er, holistic (sorry!) sense.

  • Alix Mortimer 29th Jan '09 - 10:01pm

    Actually, I was just about to thank you for such a thought-provoking post. Just blogged it.

    http://fabulousblueporcupine.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/should-you-use-jargon-in-your-focus-leaflets/

  • Alix Mortimer 29th Jan '09 - 10:57pm

    “persiflage”

    🙂

  • More bang for the buck.

  • Simon Titley 29th Jan '09 - 11:09pm

    Alex – Who is arguing against the use of “every allusion, flight of fancy, piece of persiflage, moment of poetry, even every extra adjective”? Not me and not Kenneth Hudson.

    This is not an argument for Newspeak. It is an argument for effective communication. It is an argument against stale verbiage, trendy phrases and inpenetrable terminology.

    When I wrote my original post, I never imagined so many defenders of bollocks would come out of the woodwork.

    Our party has a real problem here. Most of our Focus leaflets are full of clapped out phrases that should have been pensioned off twenty years ago. Meanwhile, under the tutelage of John Sharkey, our leader trots out conservative tropes about “[insert worthy adjective here]-families” that are effectively meaningless.

    You mention 1984 but it was written by George Orwell, the foremost critic of jargon, clichés and verbiage.

    I am for creative language. I want to cut out the crap. Judging by the comments so far, it would seem the party prefers to lard it on.

  • Erm, and I think it’s safe to say that no one who understands the meaning of the word “panacea” would use the phrase “panacea to all our problems”.

  • Alix Mortimer 29th Jan '09 - 11:18pm

    Not at all! I just think there’s scope for using words in a creative way which would appear to fall into your “jargon” categories. You’ve cast your prohibition net a bit too wide is all I’m suggesting.

    And maybe I’ve misunderstood, but I thought you were advocating Plain English? That’s not creative at all. It’s for credit card agreements, not political messaging. Make It Happen was mostly written in plain English (with the exception of the cringe-making “hard-working families”) and was rather dull as a result.

  • Simon Titley 29th Jan '09 - 11:29pm

    Alix – You are confusing creativity with unnecessary verbiage. Plain English can be creative. Read Orwell, who achieved both.

    Make it Happen suffers from many problems but plain English isn’t one of them. Inserting ‘going forward’ into the text wouldn’t have made it any better; stripping out ‘struggling families’ might have.

  • Alix Mortimer 29th Jan '09 - 11:39pm

    I’ve read Orwell, thank you. I agreed in my first comment that his rules are the ones to follow – and I made the point that they don’t preclude a lot of the things you do preclude.

    I’m sure we can agree about the undesirability of unnecessary verbiage. But I had a specific example in mind – the use of “ask” as a noun, which is on your proscribed list. That seems to me to be a legitimate example of linguistic evolution. It fills an empty space. “It’s a big ask” is significantly different from “It’s a big demand” (too accusatory) and “It’s a big request” (too weak). And, since the latter two already act as nouns and verbs, there’s no logical reason why “ask” shouldn’t be pressed into the same service. It may be a little self-consciously “trendy” now, I grant you, but give it a couple of years and I’d happily advocate putting it on a Focus leaflet.

    However, I’m starting to wonder why you’re getting irritated to be honest – that’s what your tone is now suggesting. There was me thinking I’d found someone to have a nice chat with about linguistic usage, but it seems you’d rather just shut down the conversation. Ho hum.

  • Simon Titley 29th Jan '09 - 11:47pm

    Alex – Calm down, calm down.

    You are labouring under the delusion that creativity and simplicity are mutually exclusive. Orwell was a master of plain English yet was one of our country’s most creative writers.

    I am glad you support creativity and fun and a good turn of phrase. All of these can be achieved using straightforward language. None require unwarranted or inpenetrable verbiage.

  • This thread could be called ‘When pedants collide…’

    I agree with Alex and Alix that the original article is hopelessly confused about what jargon is. There is some overlap, but I think it’s important that jargon and cliché are different things. Jargon is almost always unimaginative and inaccessible, but most clichés are widely understood – even if some have stopped functioning as metaphors and become ‘sayings’ (whether meaningful or not).

    The main thing I object to here is the suggestion that talk of ‘families’ is jargon. It plainly isn’t, although ‘hard-working families’ is probably a political cliché. (most successful political language probably turns to cliché in the end – it is, after all, written to be endlessly repeated)

    It seems to me that Nick Clegg and others are trying to find a liberal way to talk about families – and to use that word in an inclusive way. I don’t agree with people who think that’s the wrong thing to do, but their grounds for objection surely aren’t that it’s jargon?

    Family is, in politics, a contested idea – and I think it’s right that we should try to reclaim it. I’m not sure we’ve got it consistently right yet, but the families we talk about should be quite a sharp contrast with ‘hard-working families’. It has always seemed to me that the point of that phrase was to appeal to people’s sense of desert, partly by implying toughness on some others who in Victorian terms would be the ‘undeserving poor’ (perhaps also the undeserving rich…but New Labour hasn’t been so good at that).

    Aren’t we trying to talk about families in a way which doesn’t divide people, but makes them think about their own interests in a broader way?

    It’s an interesting discussion, but some of the reaction to our leaders using a word which is plainly a fully functioning, useful part of the language strikes me as odd and depressingly uncharitable about their intentions. All politicians do talk about families, yes. But all politicians also talk about freedom, fairness and a whole host of other terms which don’t offend the Liberator Collective’s staunchly liberal but grumpy-old-man-ish instincts.

  • Gavin, what’s wrong with just talking about ‘people’? And if the f-word does have to be used, why not just ‘families’ with no qualification?

  • Entirely agree with you Simon. As a former Officer at Stockport Council we were encouraged to use as much jargon as possible. Mostly to avoid difficult questions we couldn’t answer.

    Car driving seemed to inspire many of the phrases

    Lets just park that idea.

    We need get off the motorway and onto the A roads.

    Remember, it’s corporate.

    Etc.

  • One curious phrase I’ve noticed a few times on the BBC – “a man handed himself in at the police station”.

    Difficult, unless he was a contortionist …

  • “Our party has a real problem here. Most of our Focus leaflets are full of clapped out phrases that should have been pensioned off twenty years ago. Meanwhile, under the tutelage of John Sharkey, our leader trots out conservative tropes about “[insert worthy adjective here]-families” that are effectively meaningless.”

    Plenty of jargon here:
    “Focus leaflets” (many leaflets not called Focus and meaningless to many outside the party)
    “clapped out”
    “pensioned off” (arguable this one)
    “trots out”

  • David Allen 1st Feb '09 - 6:16pm

    Trots Out – Stalinists In!

  • David Allen's Candid Friend 1st Feb '09 - 8:39pm

    Comrade Allen, we didn’t know you were One Of Us.

  • In England, forms are filled in, not filled out.

  • Gavin: – “write me”, “aluminum”, “trash” etc etc

  • If you put this on your page, please do so without revealing my name, as I’m non-political and have been referred to your excellent article from elsewhere.

    Two points:-

    1. Could the phrase ‘negative growth’ please be abolished? There is no such thing. The economy has not ‘experienced two consecutive quarters of negative growth’. For two quarters running, the economy has shrunk.

    2. Not only does Orwell’s fourth rule about not using the passive simplify text and make it easier to follow. People also use the passive to evade responsibility. ‘The decision was taken to ………’. No. Someone or some group of people decided to ….. .

    ‘I am instructed to advise you …’. No. Either ‘X has told me to tell you …… ‘, or ‘I am telling you but would prefer to evade responsibility for doing so.’

    There are occasions to use the passive. An example, is where one wants to keep the same subject for two successive verbs, ‘Parliament passed 7 minor bills and was then prorogued’. But there are not many such occasions.

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