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In defense of jargon

Alan Brew

Living in such a fragile glass house as I do on the crystal estate of branding, I hesitate to pick up stones and cast it at others over the use of jargon for fear of breaking a few of my own windows. Brand consultants are as notoriously guilty as any professional group in their use of buzzwords but I think it would serve as valuable purpose to draw a distinction between useful professional jargon and what is just lazy, clichéd thinking.

Jargon is like cholesterol: just as there’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, there’s good jargon and there’s bad jargon.

Good jargon serves a purpose. Practitioners of almost any field rely on a professional argot to communicate that is often regarded by outsiders as needlessly complex.  The music industry has an entire language that requires a dictionary – a polyglot of Italian, German and English that covers the terminological gamut from “anhemitonic” to “zug.”  So, too, do lawyers. And few would hold up the language of physicians as the best example of jargon-free communication.

In such cases the use of jargon meets a positive definition of the word: “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.”

Where we sink into the linguistic mire is with bad jargon, defined in the same dictionary (Merriam Webster) as: “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.”

This is the domain of Lucy Kellaway, the Financial Times columnist, who tweaks the noses of corporate bosses at their most inane in her Guffipedia blog. She rightly takes to task the pretentious and the obfuscators who torture the language with such beauts as “architect of change,” “entrance solution,” “iconicity,” “robustify learnability,” “thought-ware,” and “up-skill.” Really.

While these might be the more egregious examples of needlessly pompous language it is, unfortunately, all too easy for us all to fall into the buzzword trap in an attempt to imbue the ordinary with a significance beyond its value or just to avoid having to think through what we really mean.

Take the simple word “align,” for example: Here is Lucy Kellaway quoting Stephen Elop of Microsoft: “To align with Microsoft's strategy, we plan to focus our efforts... We will focus on delivering great breakthrough products in alignment with major milestones ahead...As difficult as some of our changes are today, this direction deliberately aligns our work with the cross company efforts that Satya has described in his recent emails.”

Lucy’s commentary:  “Mr. Elop performs multiple acts of alignment in this memo, each more heroic than the last. In none of them is it clear exactly what he is lining up, nor why it matters that such things should be in a line at all.” In other words, it’s difficult to understand what he means.

When words such as align (or dovetail, ecosystem, leverage and optimize) are drained of their meaning through overuse and abuse, communication is blunted, meaning is dulled and language itself is deadened.

While I hope we branding consultants will be forgiven our trespasses when we use such terms as attributes architecture, B2B, identity, messaging, positioning, value-proposition and wordmark, etc., with the defense that they are a shorthand for involved concepts that are capable, or should be, of tight definition (admittedly, a shaky assumption given the elasticity of interpretation from company to company), we must always remember that essence of effective branding is clarity, communication and connection.

Jargon as defined as “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words” is antithetical to those ends.

Anyway, there’s a few broken windows to repair. I have to go.