Jargon: where did it come from and how do we fix it?
You’ve written your latest webpage, sales email or perhaps a report. Your coworkers are impressed. Your boss loves it. But it flops. Your reader feels confused by all the jargon, and perhaps a little alienated.
So what went wrong? How do you figure out what words to use? Where’s the line between technical or professional language and jargon?
What is jargon?
Ask Google to define jargon and you’ll get this answer:
“Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.”
We’d go one step further and change the first bit to “secret code”. Jargon words and phrases baffle anyone outside the sector or community. In the workplace, jargon might help to create a sense of belonging, but when it comes to openness and inclusivity, it can become a real problem.
Jargon is a bit more complicated than just inside language though. It serves so many purposes and comes in so many forms, that you probably won’t even realise you’re using it.
We’ve identified at least 10 different forms:
acronyms – like “OOO” for “out of office”
technical terms – specific language that laypeople don’t use, for example, “boot” instead of “turn on”
short cuts – like saying an idea is “scalable” instead of explaining that once the initial work has been done, it’s quick and easy to add to it to increase output
business bullshit – often appropriated phrases like “it’s on my radar”
persuasive gobbledeegook – some industries depend on endless sales jargon like “infotainment” (cars)
cod science – what exactly is “nutrileum” in shampoo?
bigging up – for example, “core competencies” instead of just "stuff we’re good at"
niche everyday – specific to different groups of people or activities, like “bulking” for fitness fanatics
artspeak – often taking normal words and making them sound exclusive, like “the real”
academic – using complex words like “tautology” in specific contexts that are often only understood by other academics
So how did it happen in the first place?
Jargon isn’t inherently bad. It evolved the way many words do: to improve communication. It serves a range of purposes:
Humans are lazy. We take shortcuts. And it’s no different when it comes to the language we use. Words are made shorter and we use acronyms to save time. This lingo becomes part of our everyday language and eventually becomes ingrained.
Certain professions have invented new words for concepts that exist in general usage. This helps them avoid confusion with the looser meaning of the word and create a narrower meaning for their workplace. Here are a few examples:
Law: “desist” which means a bit more than just “stop” – it also implies not doing something again in future
Economics: “parity” which is more specific than “equality”
Medicine: “onset” of a disease is when symptoms start – more medically accurate than just saying “beginning”
In certain situations, we might want to disguise what we’re saying to protect others. This is particularly true in the medical world. A doctor might want to communicate a patient’s condition without causing concern. For example, someone might not know immediately what a “cerebrovascular accident” is, but they’d know what was wrong if it was called “stroke”.
Reps, gains, pyramiding. Know what these terms mean? You’re probably at home at the gym. Groups of people with a shared interest often use vocab that is exclusive to them.
Defines new ideas
Technology improves so quickly that language has a hard time keeping up. Technical jargon is sometimes essential to describe new things. But sometimes these technical terms and complex names get used outside of their specialist context and end up confusing people. For example, a lot of people don’t really know what an “SSD drive” is. But everyone is capable of understanding “faster startup times” or “fewer moving parts”.
“A specialised jargon serves not just to label new and needed concepts, but to establish bonds between members of the in-group and enforce boundaries for outsiders. If you cannot understand my jargon, you don't belong to my group.” – Spolsky (1998)
What does jargon in your writing say about your business?
If you’re doubting whether your audience will understand what you mean, you have a problem. When jargon is so ingrained in the way you talk, it can be difficult to spot and even harder to replace. Including jargon in copy when you know it’s not quite right is bad for your business.
You lack confidence
Can’t explain what you do without the jargon? This screams lack of confidence. Being able to communicate what you do or offer in everyday language is certainly a skill worth honing. Especially if you work within certain industries like tech.
You don’t care about accessibility
Jargon has the potential to alienate your reader. And that’s the last thing you want to do. In today’s world, accessibility is a top priority. You need to think about all your readers. Will there be people in your audience that won’t be familiar with your technical terms? Write for them.
You’re unaware of your audience
Making assumptions about your reader is never good. Assuming that they’ll understand your jargon is a recipe for disaster. Getting the general gist of what you’re talking about isn’t good enough. Your readers need clarity and copy written in words they understand.
You don’t want results
While you might talk to a colleague using certain language, you might be more hesitant when talking to others. It’s because you want to be engaging when making conversation. And it’s no different when it comes to copy. If you want results, you’ll need to make your copy compelling – and sometimes this means replacing jargon with a more human touch.
How to fix your copy
We’ve seen that jargon can be useful – whether it’s improving the accuracy of professional language or defining a new concept. But like an internet meme that quickly evolves into something niche and impossible to explain, jargon can soon become alienating.
When you’re an insider, it’s hard to tell if you’ve crossed the line from business speak to fully fledged jargon. But for outsiders (which includes a lot of people reading your content), jargon makes your writing seem weak, or worse, deliberately cliquish.
“The reason people use unclear language is that they have nothing clear to say” – A Manager’s Manifesto, The Economist
We’ve put together some short tests to help you avoid crossing that line.
How to identify the wrong types of jargon
Your readers are busy people. They don’t have the time to translate jargon that they’re not familiar with. Removing what your audience might stumble on isn’t about dumbing down your copy – it’s about clarity.
Test 1: Have you used acronyms?
One way to immediately exclude readers is by using acronyms they don’t understand. Even when you think they’re common.
When I’m talking about an SME, I’m talking about small and medium enterprises. When my partner uses SME in conversation, he means subject matter expert. That’s quite a big difference in meaning…
If you really must use acronyms, don’t assume your reader understands them immediately. It disrupts the flow of the copy when your reader has to stop and think what it means.
When you use an uncommon abbreviation, always spell it out the first time, then use the abbreviation in brackets. Or if the term only crops up a few times, don’t even bother with the abbreviation. And yes, you should be doing this in internal communications too. Even in the same company, different departments use different jargon, and it’s very off-putting for new staff too.
Test 2: How about abbreviations?
Shortening words is handy when it comes to quick conversations in the office and firing emails between colleagues. But this isn’t the case when it comes to copy. Often shortened words are only understood within your sector.
Take MarComms. It’s obvious to anyone in the world of marketing that it’s short for marketing communication. To everyone else, it’s not so obvious.
If there’s any doubt, there’s usually no harm in writing something out in full or explaining it. “The first quarter of the year” is completely clear and could be worth writing out if just one of your readers doesn’t understand “Q1”.
Test 3: Are there any hyphenated words?
As writers, we’re always a bit suspicious of hyphenated words. Of course, a hyphen is often useful, but they can also raise jargon alarm bells.
Take this example from a university:
“The work-based placement will improve your position in the job market when combined with the specialised academic knowledge offered by your degree.”
Everyone inside the university sector feels comfortable with the phrase “work-based placements”. But that’s exactly the kind of language that might make some readers feel excluded. Why not say “a placement in a workplace” or “a work experience placement”.
Test 4: Are you trying to sound impressive or formal?
Professional writing looks different to different people. For some, it will be very formal. For others, it will be making the simple seem complicated.
As copywriters, we’d say professional writing should demonstrate your expertise and help people understand things clearly. This means keeping your writing clear and concise.
Instead of trying to make your writing seem impressive or formal, pretend you’re writing for just one individual who doesn’t understand the topic as well as you do. You’ll cut out a lot of jargon, and your writing will still sound professional, we promise.
Compare these two examples talking about the same topic. The writer for Dell was probably very pleased with all the buzzwords they crammed in. But the writer for Marketo actually wrote something a real person might like to read:
Modernize your IT infrastructure and use the power of artificial intelligence to deliver new insights, drive operational efficiencies, transform decision making and grow the business.
Marketo AI, as a buzzword, doesn’t do anything for you. But applied, AI is going to blow your marketing mind—and save you a lot of time.
Test 5: Could you use swap complicated words for everyday alternatives?
“Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” - George Orwell
Now think about your writing. Read it through and find phrases or words you can change to make your writing sound like everyday conversation. It won’t make your copy any less technical, it’s just about making sure you’re using the terms your audience is most familiar with.
“As an extremely flexible workflow and rules engine built using the .Net framework, Allvue’s Credit platform excels at communicating with other systems and technologies, storing and operating upon disparate data within its abstracted security master and data warehouse, and automating the workflow and bespoke processes that add operating efficiency and reduce risk.
In this example, the benefits are completely buried among the jargon. While some readers might be very technically minded, a lot of people will only understand fragments of this copy.
Test 6: Have you used a word outside of its usual context?
Artspeak and academic language are particularly tricky for outsiders to understand. With technical terms, a quick search online is all it takes to get the gist of it, but these forms of jargon often take existing words and redefine them for their own use.
This type of jargon isn't restricted to the arts or academic worlds either. In marketing, we have things like "customer journeys" and "snackable content". This example is particularly confusing:
"New Vantage has the most powerful and provocative design language ever seen in a Vantage. A hunter, light in weight and is therefore light in its visual language"
Individually, the words make sense. So don't just look out for things like abbreviations or technical words - check if the meaning behind your words is easy for a layperson to understand.
Test 7: Does your mum understand it?
Would you feel confident giving your copy to your mum? Or if your mum is the CIO of an AI startup, then your grandad maybe. If they would have to stop and ask what things mean, some jargon has probably sneakily slipped in. It might feel frustrating – isn’t it obvious what you mean? Trying to explain stuff isn’t always easy. If it was, everyone would be copywriters and we’d be out of a job.
Getting an outside perspective is key to improving your copy and making sure it’s right for your audience. Think about the readers that know the least about the subject matter and check the copy is suitable for them.
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