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Jargon-bustin’ 2006-11-08

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest.

‘Why can’t we say what we mean?’ — an article by Jim Gilchrist.

Given the word’s original roots in old French, it is perhaps appropriate that a survey of employees has revealed that most regard the jargon used by their management as being for the birds.

Derived from a venerable French word which could mean a warbling of birds, as well as prattle or chatter, “jargon”, as enthusiastically deployed by 21st-century management types across the Western world, is widely seen as counterproductive, broadening the communications gap between workplace managers and their staff, according to a survey newly published by the organisation Investors in People.

As part of a UK survey, the poll found that more than half (53 per cent) of Scottish employees approached regarded management-speak such as “thinking outside the box“, “pushing the envelope” or “blue-sky thinking” as not only annoying but also potentially damaging to business.

One could have been excused for thinking that our traditional Scots scepticism and reductivism might have generated an innate resistance to adopting inflated blethering such as “joined-up thinking” and “on the runway”, but no.

Perhaps significantly, if worryingly, for champions of plain English, the research also found that almost half (48 per cent) of Scottish managers regarded their use of such jargon as harmless, in contrast to 48 per cent of employees, who believed that jargon simply creates misunderstanding about roles and responsibilities.

  • A further 43 per cent of staff threw up their hands at terms such as “singing from the same hymn sheet”, “heads up” and “the helicopter view”, complaining that these didn’t just confuse, but created mistrust in the workplace and made them feel inadequate.

The survey was carried out by YouGov (a market research agency which, it has to be said, sounds suspiciously like condensed jargon) to mark the 15th anniversary of ‘Investors in People‘, an employer-led organisation which helps companies to improve their performance through good management practice, and warns against such a “desk divide” — to lapse into the jargon itself.

“Communication is one of the hardest things to get right in any organisation,” says Mr.Peter Russian, the Edinburgh-based chief executive of ‘Investors in People Scotland‘, commenting on the survey.

“This research challenges bosses to think carefully about the impact of management jargon in the workplace.”

So, are our would-be captains of industry and commerce trying, even subconsciously, to gain acceptance in the eyes of their peers or superiors, or are they quite simply lost for words? Mr.Russian agrees that,

“… aspiring managers and so forth may think that unless they use this language, they’re not going to be seen to be performing at the same level as others in their organisation.

“Yet the real challenge to leaders and managers is that if they expect people to deliver objectives and work towards what the organisation wants to achieve, clarity in communications is absolutely central. It’s easy enough to use jargon, it’s much harder to use plain English, but the rewards of that are a more engaged and more informed workforce. That’s just plain business common sense.”

In the meantime, ‘Investors in People Scotland‘ regards such inflated business-speak as a genuine problem:

“Communication is so important in any organisation,” continues Mr.Russian,

“and the problem we see with jargon is that it’s either being used as a replacement for good communications, or as a barrier to alienate people and pretend that the managers using it have more capabilities than others.”

Jargon, of one kind or another, has been part of the English language for a very long time. As far back as the 14th century, a garrulous character in Chaucer’s ‘Merchant’s Tale’ is described as being “full of jargon as a flekked pye” — as chattersome as a magpie, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that he conversed in terms of “blue-sky thinking”, or even “thought outside the box”.

As Mr.Tom Stewart, a psychologist whose company specialises in user-friendly technology, has observed:

“Jargon is always something other people use. If you use it yourself, it’s just a technical term.”

Naturally, any particular discipline will develop its own language, understandable to its practitioners, but not to outsiders. The realms of science come to mind, or the “accession criteria ” or “rights of initiative” of bureaucratic Eurospeak, or good old, homegrown “legalese” — when was the last time you tried reading the title deeds to your own home?
From the blessedly newspeak-free precincts of ‘The Plain Language Commission‘ in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, its research director, Mr.Martin Cutts, admits jargon is easy to criticise and hard to avoid using:

“Ideally, speech and writing should always be easy to understand. But people in a particular trade or profession have their own specialised vocabulary, [because] it’s a [form of] shorthand that saves them time.”

The real problems start, says Mr.Cutts, when the professionals start using their own language to outsiders without explaining it.

“In context, it’s easy to understand a salesman who says, ‘We need to pick the low-hanging fruit’ — that is, take the easy pickings first — but much harder to understand a manager who says he wants to ‘push the envelope’. Many of these expressions are playful attempts at originality, like ‘we’ll run this up the flagpole and see if it flies’. They sometimes come into mainstream use, then we don’t notice them as any more. It’s part of linguistic change: sometimes malign, sometimes benign, and unstoppable if enough people decide they like it.”

Mr.Russian agrees that the line between reasonable metaphor and inflated gobbledegook can be a fine one:

“If you’re talking in a business context about an organisation having ‘a vision and a mission,’ for example, or things like ‘reward and recognition’, I think these are acceptable enough phrases to use, because they are standard business parlance. The danger comes when we start using phrases like ‘ducks in a row’ or ‘pushing the envelope’, which don’t really make any sense.”

But where do these phrases come from? One is tempted to wonder whether influential companies employ a creative-jargon consultant, perhaps as a wing of their HR department (“human relations”, once simply called “personnel” and, yes, another example of now acceptable jargon), or is jargon perceived as yet another cultural bane that came from across the Atlantic?

“To some extent, some of it must have been picked up from the United States,” says Mr.Russian,

“but I’ve also seen other examples where people have created their own jargon, possibly in an attempt to create a suitable metaphor, which simply becomes jargon. An example I heard recently was ‘not lighting a bonfire in your own back garden.'”

With a Westminster parliament which boasts such impenetrables as “the Woolsack”, “Below the Gangway”, and the “Chiltern Hundreds”, perhaps we shouldn’t be at all surprised by an institutionalised tendency towards officialese which prompted Ms.Tessa Jowell, then culture secretary, to warn before the last general election that Mr.Tony Blair’s ministers should “cut the crap” if they were to avoid scaring off voters.

Ms.Jowell said at the time that she had been keeping “a little book of bollocks”, listing the “absurd” jargon favoured by ministers which, she argued, was creating a linguistic barrier between politicians and the public. The offending phrases included “reprofiling expenditure”, “sustainable eating in schools”, and the impressive “regional cultural data feedback roll-out”.

Well, they do have a tradition to maintain. It was Mr.Winston Churchill who coined a notably finely honed example of off-the-cuff jargon when, to avoid courting disciplinary procedures for using “unparliamentary language”, he famously described an alleged lie as a “terminological inexactitude”.


  1. Joined-Up Thinking
  2. Push The Envelope
  3. Low-Hanging Fruit
  4. Blue-Sky Thinking
  5. Level Playing Field
  6. Brain – Dump
  7. Ducks In A Row
  8. Gap Analysis
  9. Knowledge Transfer
  10. Think Outside The Box
  11. Drilling Down
  12. Strategic Fit
  13. The Helicopter View
  14. Tick All The Right Boxes
  15. Singing From The Same Hymn Sheet
  16. A Win-Win Situation
  17. Paradigm Shift
  18. Strategise
  19. Walk The Talk
  20. Square The Circle
  21. Adding Value
  22. Synergy
  23. Face Time
  24. Getting In On The Ground Floor
  25. Serial Entrepreneur
  26. Blamestorming
  27. Budgetunity
  28. Upskilling
  29. Potentialise
  30. Bobbleheading

See if you can work out what these workplace-jargon phrases actually mean. Answers below.

  1. Taking into account how separate things can affect each other, rather than looking at something in isolation. [back]
  2. Improving performance by going beyond accepted boundaries. [back]
  3. The easiest targets for sales or other business. [back]
  4. Visionary ideas which don’t necessarily have practical applications. [back]
  5. A position of equality, without any unfair advantage for any party. [back]
  6. To explain absolutely everything you know about a particular topic. [back]
  7. Arrangements that have been efficiently ordered. [back]
  8. Assessing untapped opportunities. [back]
  9. Transferring ideas, research results and/or skills between universities, research organisations, businesses and so on. [back]
  10. Be creative and not confined by your job description. [back]
  11. Gaining further detail about a topic or issue. [back]
  12. Meeting all the required priorities and aims. [back]
  13. The overview. [back]
  14. Fit the required criteria. [back]
  15. Operating according to the same plan, a productive consensus. [back]
  16. One in which you can’t lose. [back]
  17. A radical change in assumptions or thinking. [back]
  18. Plan. [back]
  19. Do, or perform, as you say you will. [back]
  20. Perform a difficult or impossible task. [back]
  21. Adding something other than cash to a business venture or relationship. [back]
  22. A perfect, mutually beneficial match that yields more than expected. [back]
  23. Meeting up with someone away from the phone or e-mail. [back]
  24. Being in on the start of something. [back]
  25. Someone who starts up many businesses. [back]
  26. A group process where participants analyse a failed project and look for scapegoats other than themselves. [back]
  27. An opportunity for innovative budgeting. [back]
  28. To develop new skills. [back]
  29. Trying to increase the potential returns of a project. [back]
  30. The mass nod of agreement by participants in a meeting to their boss’s comments, even though most have no idea what he or she just said. [back]


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