Lecture 2: Jargon, Terminology, and Big Words in Business Writing

Definition of jargon

Jargon refers to the special words or expressions professional and other groups use in communicating with each other. These may be words in everyday use, but which take on a meaning that outsiders cannot understand without explanation. Jargon includes acronyms. Jargon and specialist terminology are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, terminology is the “official” vocabulary of an industry or field, jargon is the informal terms for such words.


Where jargon serves a valuable purpose

Jargon and terminology are useful in the right context, where they promote quick, easy, and precise communication. The alternatives may require circumlocution. “Guarantee company,” for example, saves financial and legal professionals the trouble of writing “a company whose members do not have to pay more than they agreed to contribute if the enterprise goes bankrupt” each time they want to refer to such an organisation.

“Who is the SI0 for the Midway  SOCA? The chief wants corres now,” a British policeman might say to a colleague. The two sentences are full of jargon. What the policeman means is: “Who is the Senior Investigating Officer in charge of this Serious and Organised Crime Case that occurred in Midway. The chief is asking for correspondence and paperwork immediately.” Among colleagues who understand the lingo, jargon serves the practical purpose of saving time.

A doctor might call for an “MRI scan” (a test using a technique for producing images of bodily organs by measuring the response of the atomic nuclei of tissues to high-frequency radio waves when placed in a strong magnetic field) “stat” (in a hurry). “Ex post facto” is the term lawyers use for laws changing the legal effect of past acts. “Sold ex dividend” refers to shares sold under the condition the seller reaps the dividends announced just before the transaction. The buyer will not get that dividend. “JV” is short for a joint venture between two or more companies.


Exclusivity and protectionism

Among peers, jargon serves more than the practical purpose of speedy communications. It  also has a socio-psychological function of creating a sense of group cohesion and identity among insiders.

But for those not in the group, jargon forms a barrier frustrating their attempts to understand. Jargon and technical terminology keep the public dependent on those who speak the lingo. Most of us are happy to leave engineering to the engineers.—that is, until something goes wrong with our car or heating system, and we want to know if the problem is one we can fix ourselves before calling an engineer and incurring a big bill. We are reluctant to give up trying to understand fields such as law and finance where the jargon and terminology often seem unnecessary and costly. Lawyers, accountants, and other specialists might argue that the terminology of their trade is vital for precision.

Often, perhaps usually, plain language works as well or better. Jargon and terminology protect exclusive interest groups from outside scrutiny and inflate the fees they command in serving a public uninitiated in what to non-specialists seems like a Masonic code. If you are a lawyer, accountant, or other specialist who insists on using jargon, you should consider whether you are being fair, honest, and open with your clients, customers, and the public. This is where I wax ethical and political, and I do so unapologetically. I believe specialists of whatever type have a duty to speak and write to those outside their narrow professional circle in the plainest language possible “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler,” is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein. While there is some controversy about whether he wrote those precise words, it is still excellent advice.


Self-defeating

Many professions I have worked with defend the use of jargon and terminology on grounds their audiences understand, expect, and value such vocabulary over clear, simple, unambiguous prose. But I have never heard of a chief executive, financial regulator, or any professional complaining about a lack of jargon in business communications. They do, however, sometimes rail against the use of jargon by their own colleagues and staff.

In a 2010 memo to staff of SpaceX, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, wrote: “There is a creeping tendency to use made-up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made-up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication. . . . No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance.”

Eight years later, Musk said much the same thing in an email to staff at vehicle manufacturer Tesla. “Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software, or processes at Tesla,” Musk wrote, according to a leaked email. “In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorise a glossary just to function at Tesla.”

Jargon and terminology unnecessarily limit the potential reach and impact of business communications. Non-specialist audiences cannot understand those exclusionary words. Take, for example, reports that investment-bank economists issue after the release of government statistics. Often it would be to the advantage of the economists to write without jargon. But hubris blinds them to the opportunity. Their reports do not go just into the email inboxes of clients. They also often appear on the websites of the banks.

Why would anyone not go to the effort of writing in plain language, to appeal possibly to high-school students researching for a project, or households keen to make wise investments for college or pension funds? In a society where some teenagers have become internet influencer stars raking in millions of dollars a year, writing in language comprehensible to an eighth- or tenth-grade student makes more sense than insisting on abstruse language to boost the egos of economists.

Furthermore, writing clearly so that non-specialists can understand promotes transparency and fairness. It helps keeps everyone not simply honest, but also clear-headed. Many economists and other specialists need the discipline of jargon-free communications to save them from the muddle-headedness so common in the written communications of so many professions. As we discussed earlier, not even the experts fully understood the technical terminology of elaborately named financial securities which almost caused the global financial system to collapse in 2008.