Stephen Fry vs Weird Al Yankovic: the fight for jargon

Rock em Sock em Ariel Waldman

Jargon (mass noun) – special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.

Jargon is often reviled and declaimed across the business world, and amongst despairing writers. But, somehow, there seems to be no escape from it. In the world of business, we all have to communicate, and we all want to sound as if we know what we’re talking about.

I’d like to use this post to review the cases for and against jargon. And what better way to do it than in old school fight night style? So without further ado, here are your contestants, complete with Twitter bios!

In the red corner: Weird Al Yankovic (You know… the Eat It guy)
In the blue corner: Stephen Fry (British Actor, Writer, Lord of Dance, Prince of Swimwear)

Round 1

Ding ding! Here are Weird Al’s opening blows…

You might think that sort of says it all. This musical mission statement could be attributed to any number of corporations. The jargon is familiar, and gives us a vague sense of this anonymous company’s good intentions, but on its own it really doesn’t communicate any information. This is the most dangerous end of the jargon spectrum: where pressure to include words that sound good overrides whatever you were trying to say in the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with a word like ‘operations’, but, unaccompanied, it doesn’t tell you much. Context is important. Even just putting a company name at the top of Al Yankovic’s lyrics would provide some context, although the mission statement would still leave most of us asking ‘so what are you actually going to do, then?’

The case for jargon is looking pretty dismal. What does on earth does it mean to ‘administrate holistically’ anyway? In light of that song, at this stage in the argument even defining a company mission just seems like a corporate fashion statement.

Hold your horses. All is not lost. It’s time for…

Round 2

Ding ding! Remember what I said about context? Stephen Fry comes back with a swift jab-cross…

“…it isn’t a burden to learn the difference between acid and alkaline soil or understand how f-stops and exposure times affect your photograph. There’s no drudgery or humiliation in discovering how to knit, purl and cast off, snowplough your skis, deglaze a pan, carve a dovetail or tot up your bridge hand according to Acol. Only an embarrassed adolescent or deranged coward thinks jargon and reserved languages are pretentious and that detail and structure are boring… When you learn to sail you are literally shown the ropes and taught that they are called sheets and painters and that knots are hitches and forward is aft and right is starboard. That is not pseudery or exclusivity, it is precision, it is part of initiating the newcomer into the guild. Learning the lingo is the beginning of our rite of passage.”

(Stephen Fry – Foreword, The Ode Less Travelled, emphasis my own)W

Fry’s point is that the reserved languages of crafts, trades, industries and skills aren’t really jargon in the sense that Yankovic is evoking. Words from a reserved language communicate effectively when used in the proper way, in the right context.

Don’t throw in the towel

So take heart, friends! All is not lost. Fun as it might be, we needn’t resort to corporate Pictionary in order to communicate our intentions just yet.

As with so many things, the ideal is to achieve a balance. Using the right technical language is important if we’re to express ourselves clearly in a given field, and such usage demonstrates that we are authoritative members of a given profession or group. By the same token, we should be aware of our audience, so that we communicate clearly without excluding those who are not privy to the special words or expressions used by our own profession or group.

Should we beware of slipping into jargon when we’re not really saying much? Absolutely. When we reach for words that are comforting, that make us feel more confident, we should do a double take to make sure that they’re also the ones that will communicate something useful.

If we do this, we should find that it’s easier than we think to harness the power and authority of the right technical terms, used in the right context, without falling foul of a jargon minefield.

Happy communicating!

Written by Chloe Marshall

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