Keep it simple – jargon is never a good idea

People walk past a giant dictionary installed as an initiative by publishing house Zanichelli to save unused words in Italian, on October 02, 2019 in Turin, Italy. Getty
People walk past a giant dictionary installed as an initiative by publishing house Zanichelli to save unused words in Italian, on October 02, 2019 in Turin, Italy. Getty

As a writer, my intention is that readers will always understand my work, even if they don’t agree with it. I have, therefore, never been a great fan of "management speak" or business jargon. It causes confusion and misunderstanding among those outside the charmed circle of initiates.

A few days ago, I read a newspaper report about an investigation in my other home, Jersey, into the death of an inpatient in one of the island’s medical centres. A sufferer from severe anxiety and depression, he was found dead in his room. An inquest was held to establish the cause and circumstances of his death and also, according to the report, “to see if any lessons needed to be learnt”.

There were plenty of lessons learnt, although they need not concern us here. I was struck, though, by words used by a local health professional that were quoted in the report: “Staff also now hold safety huddles on the ward three times a day. This ensures that any factor that could impact patient safety … is shared, discussed and documented.”

“Impact patient safety”? Presumably that means any factors that could have, in particular, a negative effect. Why not say so? A quick look at the dictionary tells me that impact is generally a noun, with use of the word as a verb being mainly confined to American English. As a verb, in my view, it is not so specific in terms of its meaning.

I was more perturbed, though, by the term "safety huddles". Did this mean people coming together in huddles for their safety? Or to discuss safety issues? In a medical facility at a time when social distancing is mandatory, because of the Covid-19 virus? As a friend commented on social media: “Safety Huddles in the middle of a pandemic? I hate this cavalier attitude to life, Mr H.”

In fact, as my friend knew, and I discovered, thanks to an internet search, the term is a jargonistic alternative for “safety briefing”. That is easily understood by everyone. Hence my reply: “Why use jargon, instead of terms that ordinary people can understand? Plain simple English, please!”

Surely there must have been another way of putting it

Such use of "management speak" has been spreading for years, despite the efforts of organisations like the Plain English Campaign. Nor is this a problem confined merely to business life. Similar issues can be found in the language used across the world by governments, lawyers and in many professions.

The sentence that follows is taken from a 30-year old British government legal document: "References in these regulations to a regulation are references to a regulation in these regulations and references to a schedule are references to a schedule to these regulations."

If read carefully, perhaps more than once, it is possible to understand it but surely there must have been another way of putting it?

Back to management speak. According to an article on the Plain English Campaign, it believes that many people in big companies or organisations opt to make use of management speak to try to conceal the fact that they have not done their job properly. “Some people think that it is easy to bluff their way through by using long, impressive-sounding words and phrases, even if they don't know what they mean, which is telling in itself.”

I have certainly had some experience of that. A few years ago, an organisation with which I was involved was instructed to bring in some management consultants to give us some advice. The consultants, we discovered, had virtually no knowledge of the field in which we worked, but they wandered around, spoke to a few people and collected some of our internal documents.

In due course, they put together a lengthy report, full of the latest jargon. A colleague and I delved into it, trying to determine whether it contained anything of value. We scratched our heads, read it two or three times and tried to make some sense of it. Eventually, we realised that the consultants were presenting to us the same ideas and suggestions we had given them, but wrapped up and rewritten in management jargon, so that it sounded different. They had nothing to offer and had learnt nothing. So we paid their bill, and put the report on a shelf.

Is it too late, I wonder, to try to revive the idea that the simpler the language, the more easily it is understood? There are certainly a few commonly used phrases that could benefit from such an approach.

These days, for example, we often hear of how women are being "empowered". Empowered to do what? To manage? To take decisions? To have the authority either to act or to delegate responsibility for acting? "Empowerment" can cover all of those.

I have no idea if other languages have their own versions of management speak, though I suspect most do. It throws up smokescreens and obscures reality. Perhaps it is, indeed, too late to turn back the tide, but I am happy to continue complaining about it, even if, to mix my metaphors, I am a voice crying in the wilderness.

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National

Published: June 3, 2021 01:00 PM

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