Jargon: how to recognise it, and let it go

Inez Romanos | June 22, 2017

Just hold the line and I’ll reach out to her.

I’d love to dialogue that with you, but let’s take it offline.

Going forward, we’ll be transitioning to a leaner team.

More work in this space will facilitate a paradigm shift.

Do any of these sentences make sense to you? Whether they do or not, they’re all suffering from a bad case of jargon.

How do you spot jargon?

A business writer got in touch and asked, if English isn’t your first language, how do you spot jargon? How did the phrase or word become jargon? Who decided?

We realised that everyone’s in the same situation, whether or not English is your mother tongue.

Jargon may not seem to make sense

Jargon terms often use words that are out of place with the subject matter. If you’re thinking outside of the box, do you have to climb inside first? What’s an elephant doing in your meeting room? Heck, how did it get through the doorway?

The online English Oxford Living Dictionary defines jargon as ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.’

When you look up the keyword in a dictionary, you probably won’t find its jargon meaning. For example, there’s ‘the elephant in the room’ — the unpalatable truth that everyone avoids. There’s ‘low-hanging fruit’ — the tasks that are easy to complete, so you can quickly show results. Doing so will ‘get you some runs on the board’. That’s nothing to do with cricket.

You may find the whole phrase defined, but look up ‘elephant’, ‘fruit’, and ‘board’ by themselves, and you won’t find any of the meanings above.

In jargon, fashions change

Jargon goes in and out of fashion. ‘Flavour of the month’ came and went in New Zealand a few years ago. If you thought an idea was popular, you said it was ‘flavour of the month’, just like the latest ice cream. Recently I heard someone say, ‘That policy just isn’t flavour of the month any more’. And you know what? He and his opinion sounded dated. ‘Flavour of the month’ just isn’t flavour of the month any more.

In 15 years’ time when you read about elephants in the room and low hanging fruit, you’ll wonder what the writer meant. As I wrote this blog, I asked my colleagues for examples of old business jargon that has gone out of style. Nobody could think of a thing. Once the fashion has passed, the term fades from our minds.

Who decides that language is jargon?

That’s a mystery, but we can speculate. I think that someone in a meeting somewhere said, ‘We’ve got to think outside the box for this one’. Everyone thought that sounded great, and used the phrase wherever they went. Soon everyone was saying it, especially in business. That’s usually where you find boxes with thoughts floating above them, and unhappy elephants in rooms.

Perhaps someone decided it was jargon when they thought ‘If I hear “outside the box” one more time, I’m going to scream’.

Avoid jargon, avoid frustrating your reader

Think about each term and phrase. Consider carefully when to use jargon, and when to avoid it.

Think about your audience. Are they colleagues? Customers? The public? Will they get your message? Will they understand your choice of words?

And how will your words make them feel? Will they roll their eyes? Will they think you’re being clear and professional? Or will they want to scream?

Eat a reality sandwich — check out the wild world of jargon.

We liked the Office Life’s Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary. But just for reading. Not for writing. Ever. (Well, just that once.)

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.