Fighting the Jargon Wars


I have been amazed for over thirty years at how people are addicted to using jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords. I am sure I fall victim to it myself occasionally – but I try to put up “the good fight,” which requires daily diligence.
In my first job out of college, at a big New York bank, we used to sit in presentations and listen for certain key words or phrases like “positioned against the customer” – I for one had no interest in being “against” our customers. Later this evolved into bingo, which required those in the audience to call out “bingo” when a speaker had used all the buzzwords on a designated list, which covered everything from TQM to “C-level,” “A-round” to Re-engineering.
Of course all this nonsense is not restricted to the world of work – it’s just as common in academia if not more so. I once had an idea about a management book that needed to be written, and when I showed it to a professor friend of mine, his first reaction was “This is a great idea, now you just have to invent a word for the phenomenon.” Not me.
Sometimes I think consultants are the very worst, often standing at the intersection of academia and business, combining the worst of both worlds in their language. When I worked at a big department store company and our senior management paid then-enormous sums to subscribe to the “wisdom” of a big consulting firm, I used to write internal parodies of their reports and circulate them for my colleagues’ amusement. One year the consultants said “We have discovered that we have entered the me generation and that changes everything” and then the next year the high-priced headline was “Big news! We discover the end of the me generation!”
There are a few times when you really do need to invent a word, and of course if you make a new service or product it needs a name – even then I often think the more straight-forward the better – but for most communication, the existing dictionary works fine.
And I mean the dictionary of our own language.
Years ago, when I was building BOOKSTOP, a consulting firm came in and wanted me to pay them to help our company become a “kaizen” company – that’s the Japanese word for continuous improvement. Now I believe in continuous improvement. It is a wonderful idea. But this consultancy was going to come into our company and put a whole new language on our operation – kaizen was just the first of many terms to be applied to people, policies, and procedures. 
But from my viewpoint as the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of a growing company, the first thing I knew was that on any given day, half my employees were “new” – or had been there less than a year. So if I took everyone through the kaizen process, six months later only half the company would know the silly language. Unless I continually invested in teaching every new employee this foreign language, I would have people walking down the hall calling each other names, and often the recipient would not know whether they had been complimented or insulted. And most new employees do not want to look stupid by asking “What do you mean?” (Although I think that is a question all of us, old and new, need to ask continuously in our conversations.)
Every industry has its jargon. I spent a few years in the travel industry. It took the average travel agent something like three years to become really proficient at using “automated” reservations systems, due to all the alphabet soup and jargon in that industry. That was a huge waste of money. Now, only 10 years later, people like Expedia and Travelocity have simplified the same processes enough that most people make all their own reservations, without three years of training.
The use of all this jargon and these acronyms may seem harmless enough, but it clogs up our thinking, our communication, and extends beyond our internal world. When I had the bookstore chain, we were designing the store, and were among the first stores to have a more visible and noticeable children’s department, reflecting our customers’ changing demands. When I sat with my friends who had spent their careers in children’s books, they could not stop using the industry term “juveniles” or “juvies.” When we made reports to our Board, when we talked to customers, this term kept raising its head. But when you speak to someone, you need to be using a shared language, not your own exclusive language.
I once saw a report about a big utility company, and they called their customers “ratepayers.” That has to have done (negative) wonders for all their internal conversations (and conclusions) about marketing to and serving “ratepayers.” 
Soon after I started making speeches for a living some years ago, I realized how important it was to put myself in the shoes of my audience. Your audience is your customer, and putting yourself in their shoes is just as important to selling your ideas as it is in selling someone a product or service. That does not mean I had to say what they wanted to hear or agree with them, but it did mean I should use language that made sense to them. It did mean that I had to preview every sentence in my head before I said it and think, “How are they going to react to this? Will they understand it? Do they really know the meaning or definition of each idea or term that I use? Or do I need to speak more clearly, defining as I go along?”
A few years ago I spoke to a large group of entrepreneurs in Dubai. I wanted to know more about the country, so I got there several days early, and explored 6 of the 7 emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. The speaker before me was John Edwards, former candidate for President and VP. He is a dashing figure with a silver tongue. He spoke about his philosophies and accomplishments, and in the midst of his speech he said something to the effect, “And due to my program we were able to double the number of people who earned a GED in North Carolina.”
It never occurred to him that those people in Dubai might not have heard of a GED, which is an American form of high school diploma, usually earned by those who did not finish school. Clearly, his speech was “off the shelf” and worked fine in the USA. But to me it showed how little regard he had for his audience. Communicating to them, understanding them, or learning about them was not his priority – he flew in, had a nice dinner, made the speech, and flew out. I know politicians have a lot on their plate, and maybe if I wanted to be President, I would have done the same thing. But then why bother to fly to Dubai, except for the money?
Leading enterprises, selling others on our products and ideas, all require communication. Speaking and writing are among the most important skills anyone can develop.
The careless use of language lowers the intelligence and wisdom of all of us. We throw around words that we don’t really know the meaning of. I once heard someone say that CBS, NBC, and ABC had brands. To me, those are the names of television networks. A brand means something that is clearly identifiable, that stands apart from the competition. ESPN is a brand, it means sports broadcasting.  CNN is a brand, the Weather Channel is a brand, MTV is a brand – but CBS, NBC, ABC? Can anyone tell me the difference between those? “Brand” itself is a word I do not use often, because half the time the people who use it do not have a clue what they are talking about.
In a recent post I used “WMD” and “pro-life” as examples of our confusion. 
WMD (“weapons of mass destruction”) makes no sense at all, if you think about it. It is a code word for nuclear and biological weapons. But not included are the types of bombs that destroyed Tokyo, Berlin, and much of London. Was that destruction not massive?
The entire abortion debate is completely muddled by the language used on both sides. I personally am opposed to abortion, I do not think it is a good idea, I do not think it is good for society. But I believe it is a very difficult and highly personal decision to be made by a woman with the input of those she trusts, not by the government and certainly not by the federal government. Your abortion is not my business. But does that make me “pro-abortion?” Does that make me “anti-life?”
Watchers of CNN will notice that Lou Dobbs seems to be the only person left on earth who always calls China “Communist China.” I think that would be a very complex assessment to make – I have visited China, and as repressive as their government may be in certain ways, it is certainly not traditional Marxism-Leninism that they are practicing over there. And I don’t think such language is helpful to furthering discussions and communications.
The more we muddle our language, the more we muddle our minds.
Here is my suggestion to you. Slow down when you talk. Think hard before you talk. Listen to others carefully, parse each word and phrase they say. Never hesitate to stop someone and say, “Exactly what do you mean by that?” or “I don’t really understand what you just said.” Be persistent. They – and you – will emerge smarter from the conversation. Follow this same process in your own head – ask yourself, “what do I really mean when I say that?”
This is a fight that needs to be waged everywhere and every day. For the good of us all.


  1. I’m sure those parodies were great fun to read!

    The emergency management alphabet soup is amazingly entrenched. One good example is with 10 codes (e.g., what’s your 10-20?). That could easily be “translated” to “Where are you?” Fortunately, recently there’s been a huge push to limit their use. Makes communication much more streamlined. And in this case, it might actually save lives.