The Oxford English Dictionary has asked the public to contribute examples of the work-specific language — slang, technical terms, acronyms, ‘in’ phrases — which is current in their profession.
The fine lexicographers at the OED are following the practice of Sir James Murray, who in 1878 took on the huge task of preparing and editing the dictionary. Sir James asked people to send in examples of words and the contexts in which they were used, so that every word in the dictionary was accompanied by references and quotations to illustrate its range of meanings and usages. Information and evidence continue to be key components of the fascinating task of tracking and recording our language as it changes and develops.
Oh, but that’s not the whole story, particularly when it comes to the language we use in the workplace. On one level, work-related terminology is functional and essential. Every profession has its particular references and abbreviations, its own peculiar shorthand which enables quick and accurate communication.
If the beginning of the sentence at the top here is rephrased as ‘The OED has reached out to the public…’ we see two examples of the kind of contribution that might be considered: the use of an acronym OED for the title of the publication (actually, it’s an ‘initialism’. Thanks, Oxford English Dictionary) and the business adoption of ‘reach out’ as a way of expressing the idea of contacting or getting in touch with. Pretty straightforward, we might think.
But what about all those people who would not know what the initials stand for? They could feel baffled, or excluded, or ill-informed. And what about those who consider that the use of ‘reach out’ in this context is inappropriate, misleading and misplaced? The OED is a magisterial publication which records evidence. It is not a forum for discussion about the effect of business buzzwords on communication and understanding. But in the cause of promoting clear, unambiguous, inclusive language, we need to consider the range of motives for using workplace jargon, and the effect that its misuse has on personal and professional relationships.
Inappropriate use of jargon
Sometimes our use of jargon isn’t a deliberate choice. It’s something we slip into when we’re short of time or can’t think of a better way to put things. It’s automatic, and we hardly realise we’re doing it. It saves having to think about what we’re saying.
Our default position is to use language which is familiar, even if it has become tired through over-use, and even if it obscures rather than clarifies.
Bad reasons for using jargon inappropriately
- To cover up ignorance
Using an ‘in’ phrase can disguise the fact that you don’t really know what you are talking about. You may not even know precisely what the phrase you are using refers to.
Much better to do your homework, so that you understand the reality behind the phrase.
- To seem to be on the ball
There’s nothing like a snappy expression, delivered with aplomb, to make you look as if you are up with the current lingo, and by extension, absolutely familiar with the latest thinking and developments in your field.
However, it is much better to demonstrate your on-trendiness with clear language which communicates your knowledge and expertise.
- To exclude others
This is a time-honoured function of slang and private languages. Individual groups have their own ways of talking, often intended to be indecipherable to those outside the group. Sometimes this practice is or has been employed for reasons of safety, or protection.
In the workplace, though, deliberately using language which an audience won’t understand is a divisive and dishonourable practice. It creates the worst kind of group solidarity, creating an aura of exclusivity and promoting an inward-looking culture.
If ‘non-insiders’ are involved in your discussion, it’s better to show respect for your audience by paying attention to the context in which you are speaking and choosing accessible language.
- To disguise the truth
Smart-sounding jargon can disguise the reality behind the words. Fancy terms hide unpalatable truths. Concepts such as redundancy, people being fired, budget cuts, people being paid less, people having to do more work for no reward, departments being closed down are couched in expressions which disguise the facts.
It’s better not to hide behind words. Spell it out. Take responsibility for delivering the message unambiguously.
How to respond to this use of jargon
When you feel that someone’s reason for using this kind of terminology falls into the above categories, or similar ones, you can choose not to let it go. You might be tempted to ask the person to speak in plain English. This can sound a bit aggressive, which may or may not be your intention, and may result in them repeating what they said, only more loudly and more slowly.
If you want the meaning to made clear, say something like, ‘Could you put that another way?’
If you don’t understand a word or an abbreviation, don’t apologise. Don’t say anything like ‘Sorry to be so dense’ or ‘I’m just being thick.’ (The unsmart thing would be continuing without understanding.)
Try: ‘Could you remind me what such-and-such means/stands for/refers to.’ If you don’t get a clear explanation, at least you will have an ignoble feeling of satisfaction at their discomfiture. If you are in a group, you could replace ‘me’ with ‘us’.
If you really dislike the tone of the expression, depending on the circumstances, you could express your point of view without asking the speaker to rephrase:
- ‘I understand what you mean, but I have to say that I dislike the use of military language in this context.’
- ‘I prefer not to use business jargon when we are discussing…’
In praise of colourful expressions
Lively, inventive use of language is a joy. Metaphorical expressions can illuminate and delight. Catchy phrases can encapsulate a mood. Well-crafted phraseology can inspire, encapsulate a mood, create a feeling. This applies to every context in which we communicate with each other.
And it can be (quite) good fun to jazz up everyday conversation with misdirected job-related jargon — a bit of copspeak or docspeak can add an unexpected twist to discussions with friends and family.
Just don’t try it at work.
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