Tracking the wild jargonist: A field guide to gibberish

Sometimes professionals in a particular field have no choice but to use technical language. Other times, it’s clear that the writer/speaker is just shoveling fertilizer. Check your shoes.

We all know what jargon is. It makes us groan and roll our eyes.

Jargonism is all around us, especially in the worlds of social media and computers. You might think you’re immune to its effects, but that’s not giving it the weight it deserves. Jargon is not just overenthusiastic use of a thesaurus, nor is it merely harmless pretension.

Jargon makes it harder for your brain to process information, which is why jargonists use it: It makes what they have to say sound more significant than it actually is.

Jargon is a confidence trick.

There’s nothing wrong with the mundane. It’s OK to do stuff people might think is boring; it’s never boring if it’s your job. Be proud of it, be good at it, and don’t call a “spade” a “precision terrain sculpting tool” to make people respect digging. Make them respect it by virtue of its value to the world. We’d be lost without the ordinary; it’s valuable.

It’s hubris to disguise digging as rocket science for the sake of ego. Hubris is the worst crime in classical Greek universe: arrogance before the gods themselves, punishable by a nasty death at the hands of the goddess Nemesis. Which is sort of what jargon gets you, except rather than a nasty death, it’s the scorn of people who think you’re a jerk once they work out what you’re really saying.

Jargonism is also a form of linguistic colonialism (taking the words of one culture and claiming them for another). It takes the meaning of these claimed words and supplants them with a different meaning altogether, normally to make something mundane sound like something exceptional. As with real colonialism, jargon’s intellectual colonization of professional language devalues the territory it annexes. In short, jargonists diminish the value and meaning of the words they steal and, in doing so, diminish their proper usage as well.

At its worst, jargon is a few steps away from being full-blown word salad. In psychiatric terminology, word salad indicates neurological injury or a psychological disorder, often associated with stroke victims or psychotic breakdowns. Jargon isn’t quite the same, but it indicates the person speaking has status issues or is a charlatan or a narcissist-possibly all three.

Jargon is a gray area; jargonism isn’t.

Jargon originally described impenetrable, specialized technical terms as they sounded to the ears of the layperson. I once explained to a client how websites could use cookies and databases to serve up dynamic page content. He snapped at me:

“That’s a just smokescreen of jargon to justify your fees; you just stick it on a computer with FrontPage, and other people can see it on their Web thingy. Anyone can do it!”

That was a fun conversation.

We all encounter linguistic problems translating technical terminology into plain English. We hear it from plumbers, insurance brokers, mobile phone salesmen and others. It’s where common parlance and professional terminology collide. It’s not jargonism.

Jargonism is when people use technical terms to describe things that are not technical; use abstract concepts to describe discrete, tangible things; or describe a process as a thing, or vice versa.

There’s no word, it seems, that can’t take an -ing or -ation. Nouns and verbs mean nothing to the jargonist, and a word such as “engagement” is used as both—when in fact, the way jargonists employ it, it’s neither. It’s not dumbing down; it’s dumbing up.

Here are a few examples:

No. 1: “Waste management facility technician” (a.k.a. bathroom attendant) jargon:

“Marketers have to embrace experimentation, creating learning environments that support quick execution, rigorous analysis and continuous improvements of results.” (Twitter advertising seminar)

Embrace experimentation, creating learning environments? Right. So here we see a common trick: Our jargonist is using terms that reference both laboratory science and academia, but the topic is actually the targeting of advertising tweets—those irritating, irrelevant tweets no one wants. Since when did marketers work in a lab or create learning environments? They do marketing, which is a perfectly valid occupation.

“Rigorous analysis” in this case is probably counting how many people complain that you’ve spammed them.

No. 2: “Welcome to the future” jargon:

“Technology unites and interrupts us; it relays news, depicts worldwide photos, and shrinks the distances between our relationships. We tune into events elsewhere, witnessing the experiences of others unfolding in real time. Our communications paradigm has shifted and, with it, the interactions of our immediate environments have evolved.” (Real time media event)

This paragraph conjures images of a brave new world. It’s loaded with emotive hyperbole and powerful terms that imply a sense of grand, dynamic change. Unites, interrupts, relays, depicts, worldwide, shrinks distances, witnesses, experiences, unfolding in real time, paradigm shifts, immediate environments, evolution. It’s like a voiceover for an epic action movie.

It all seems rather hollow when you consider it’s describing something unremarkable, like the endless stream of spammy tweets from #AppleLive. Oooh, the new iPhone is thinner and has a bigger screen. Oooh, they’ve launched a smartwatch. Oooh look, pictures of a massive marketing event on the other side of the world.

I was expecting that a paradigm shift in our communications, not to mention the evolution of interactions in our immediate environments, would be a bit more exciting or, at the very least, a bit less crap.

No. 3. “Word salad” jargon:

I’ve saved the worst until last…

“In the beginning, digital and social were afterthoughts. After 20 years in the business I see a clear trajectory for businesses and it is headed only in one direct. Digital media sitting at the core of a brand, helping to locate and clarify or invent a truth that glues the organization together with their employees, collaborators and ultimately with their customers. Seeing this inevitability is incredibly empowering as simplifying and dynamizing a businesses’ core story greatly invigorates the whole mix, from communications to service conception and design, to the underlaying product itself.” (Agency event blurb)

Surely the author of the above is the Crown Prince of Jargon (if not proofreading, “heading in one direct”). This person comes about as close to word salad as someone can get—without being in need of urgent medical assistance.

Does he really mean “invent a truth”? Isn’t that what my 3-year-old did when he claimed the Hulk scribbled biro all over the wall underneath the hall window?

Read it again, see if that helps: trajectory… core… locate… glues… collaborators… er… inevitability… empowering… simplifying… dynamizing… another core… conception… underlaying. Nope. Still nothing. Businesses’ ? Should that be business’ ? Is it a test?

Either this jargonist is so smart he’s incomprehensible to lesser mortals, or he’s blowing smoke. Given that the only “underlaying product” I can think of is the stuff called underlay that you put down before laying a carpet, I’m leaning toward the latter.

Please post your own favorite examples in the comments, and let’s see whether we can get some engagement, leverage the crowd and concept a few new paradigms of our own to maximize the reach of our social. In real time.

How dynamizing would that be?

Andrew Walker is a business and technology writer. A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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