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Towards a transformative hermeneutics of linguistic periphrasticism, or, why do people love jargon?

Frustrated woman working on laptop

In authoring this thought-leadership white paper my strategic roadmap was to build a key deliverable for continuous professional development and learnings.

Er, what now?

I said, I wrote this article to help you be a better writer.

Only now, the Harvard Business Review will reject my publishing proposal.

Yes, folks, we’re talking about jargon.

We all hate it. And yet our clients all seem to love it. Which is odd, to say the least. But hang on a minute. How much do copywriters really hate jargon?

You know that native advertising you were writing the other day? Was it linked to a clickbait MPU? Was the heatmap useful?

How about the buckslip in your last mailpack? Did you consider a bangtail or a bellyband instead?

Hmm.

Defining the enemy

So what is jargon? Is it just language ‘they’ use that ‘we’ don’t care for? A matter of aesthetics, in other words? Or is there something deeper going on?

I will now perform the most famous copywriting trick of all and reach for <drumroll> a dictionary, in this case my trusty Shorter Oxford.

Wherein I find that definitions one through five rely on the following words:

‘inarticulate’

‘unintelligible’

‘meaningless’

‘barbarous’

‘debased’

Definition six says this:

“(A form of) speech or writing having many unfamiliar terms or restricted to a particular category of people or occupation.”

Which is, I think, how most of us (how most people) feel about jargon.

Jargon means Twitter

Rather delightfully, there seems to be some etymological evidence that jargon arises form the Old French word jargonner, meaning to twitter. Who knew?

So, in the sense that most of us use it, jargon is an in-house language used by members of a particular trade of profession. At first sight, or prima facie as a barrister might say, that would make it quite a useful tool.

One doesn’t need to perform too complicated a cognitive contortion to imagine many practical uses for jargon.

Among surgeons performing a brain operation, saving time by instructing a colleague to maintain the patient’s ‘ICP‘ would seem an entirely laudable linguistic shortcut.

Combat commanders might prefer to order their troops to don ‘battle rattle‘ and it doesn’t obviously seem to be harming anyone (the use of jargon, I mean, not the battle rattle, which probably will).

No room for euphemisms

Let’s be clear here, we are not talking about euphemisms

When politicians or senior military commanders talk about ‘collateral damage’ we should pull them up sharply and insist they admit to dead civilians.

And when a new CEO glibly refers to ‘downsizing’ in a press conference, we should be alert to her intention to sack lots of workers.

Jargon becomes a problem when its users deploy it beyond the perimeter fence of their own group. It’s a human problem, in other words. So why do people insist on using their internal code for external communications?

Psychobabble

Psychologically speaking, we are looking at a problem of self-esteem, or the lack of it. Abraham Maslow, noted psychologist and originator of the eponymous Hierarchy of Needs, believed that ‘esteem needs’ were critical to human self-fulfillment, only one degree lower than self-actualisation in his model.

Possession of arcane knowledge has long been one of the keys to the castle of increased esteem. Priests, shamans, gurus, business coaches, lifehack bloggers: all have thrived on the status, wonder and awe accorded to them by the great unjargoned.

So it’s little wonder that a middle manager grinding out his days in a cubicle at a mid-sized company is going to seize his chance for glory at the golf-club and drop a few ‘burning platforms’, ‘core competencies’ and ‘legacy systems’ into the conversation.

The problem is obvious: he is using language as a badge of status; we, copywriters, use it as a communication tool. His interlocutors neither know nor care what he is wittering on about; the consequences for their inattention are minimal.

If our readers fail to grasp what we’re saying, the consequences are severe. No engagement. No influence. No sign-ups. No leads. No orders. No money. (And, shortly thereafter, no clients, no job, no business.)

Jeremy Klaxon said it, so I’ll say it too

Or, to take another arena where jargon holds sway, let’s consider the argot of the petrolhead. Suppose for a moment you were, oh, I don’t know, a middle-aged white male motoring journalist with an incipient paunch, a predilection for wearing double-denim and a shaky grasp of workplace conduct rules.

You might find pleasure in talking endlessly about ‘torque-steer’, ‘LSDs’, ‘crossovers’ and ‘heel-and-toeing’. Your fans know what you mean, or think they do. And it’s a tie that binds them to you.

Yet we should be wary of lumping any words we don’t know the meaning of under the heading of jargon.

‘Turbocharger’ is not jargon. It a technical word for a car engine component and no more jargon than ‘scalpel’, ‘bias binding’ or ‘gerund’.

Glamorising the humdrum

I suspect that in business particularly, jargon helps people find meaning in their jobs where, perhaps, there is little. ‘Kicking something to the curb’ sounds a lot more dramatic and confers agency onto the user in a way that  ‘rejecting’ it doesn’t.

They may also seek to glamorise otherwise humdrum qualities or activities.

So being open becomes ‘transparent’.

Everyone is happy becomes a ‘win-win situation’.

A star bond salesperson becomes a ‘rainmaker’.

Should copywriters ever use jargon?

Can there ever be a case for copywriters using their clients’ jargon? Of course. Just so long as we follow the first rule of copywriting club: always write for your reader.

An example. I wrote an email for an information provider about a product that used heuristics to pinpoint the positions of merchant ships around the world. This is how I used the word ‘heuristics’ in my copy:

We’ve actually taught our model to think like a human, with shades of grey as well as black and white. It’s what our technical guys call ‘heuristics’.

The technically savvy reader could be content he wasn’t reading a Noddy guide to merchant shipping geolocation; the rookie could pretend to a knowledge he didn’t yet possess.

So, going forward, use jargon with care. It could make you a rainmaker. Or, more likely, get you kicked to the curb.

Categories: Advertising copywriting, Business-to-business, Corporate copywriting, and Style.

3 Responses to Towards a transformative hermeneutics of linguistic periphrasticism, or, why do people love jargon?

  • Honor
    March 26, 2015

    I love copywriting club. You’ve made me feel better about the necessary words that I’m sometimes afraid are jargon. Gerund is the perfect example.

  • rentaquill
    March 26, 2015

    A tenuously related point

    ‘Jargon’, as Andy points out, is, etymologically-speaking, derived from the mid-14th Old French meaning ‘a chattering’ (of birds). But ‘j’, as a phoneme, was a scribal creation first used in continental Medieval Latin to distinguish the small -i- in cursive writing from the strokes of other letters. It’s a relatively recent addition to the alphabet as we think of it today. ‘Argon’ is a chemical element that’s always suffered from unwelcome character assassination: its roots are in the Greek ‘argon’, being the neuter of argos (idle, not working the ground, living without labour). Together? The definition of jargon could also be construed as ‘modern-day laziness’.

  • Geraldine
    March 27, 2015

    Bet that headline took a while to ‘formulate’ – uh, I mean, write!

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