Have you ever come out of a meeting where a lot of jargon was bandied about, and you weren’t clear what was said? You’re not alone. Excessive use of business jargon can weigh down communication and tax listeners. It may make it more difficult for people to grasp the full meaning behind a message. Worst of all, jargon can be distancing and exclusionary because some listeners may not be able to comprehend all the buzzwords coming at them – especially if they come on thick and fast.
So, what exactly is the definition of “jargon,” where did the term originate, and why is our language peppered with so much of it, especially in the business world? Let’s explore.
What Is Jargon?
The origin of the term jargon dates back to the Old French word jargoun, meaning “twittering.” According to Maurizio Gotti, author of The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds, one of its earliest recorded uses in the English language was in the 14th century, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. (In this context, Chaucer referred to jargon as the utterance of birds, or sounds resembling it.)
Today, there are two primary definitions of jargon. The first, as noted in Dictionary.com, defines jargon as “the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group,” such as legal or scientific jargon. It’s basically shop talk, the shortcut language used among experts in the same field. This is the positive or neutral connotation of the word.
The second definition of jargon refers to inflated or showy language, often heard in business today. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes this negative interpretation of business jargon as “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.” It’s characterized by convoluted phrasing and vague meaning.
The Origin of Three Popular Pieces of Jargon
The list of frequently used jargon is extensive. Let’s look at the origin of three prevalent business buzzwords, according to a 2022 Preply survey of 1,002 in-person and remote U.S. workers.
Synergy stems from the Greek word sunergos, meaning “working together.” A simple definition of synergy is “the working together of two things (muscles or drugs, for example) to produce an effect greater than the sum of their individual effects.” According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of “synergy” was in 1632.
Today, synergy shows up as one of most overused buzzwords, often unnecessarily replacing more straightforward terms such as “collaboration” or “working together” – effectively diluting its original, impactful meaning. In fact, the term synergy placed fifth on Preply’s list of the 10 most annoying buzzwords, based on its survey.
Think Outside the Box
According the Preply survey respondents, the phrase “think outside the box” is the fifth most commonly used piece of corporate jargon. It’s believed that the term was inspired by the Nine Dots Puzzle, which first appeared in a 1914 book on puzzles. The Nine Dots Puzzle presents nine dots in a 3x3 grid. The challenge is to connect all the dots using no more than four straight lines, without lifting your pen from the paper. It’s not possible to solve the puzzle without drawing outside the box formed by the nine dots.
But in today’s business world, the phrase has become overused and hackneyed. Instead of relying on this ambiguous cliché, it can often be more productive to provide context and offer practical techniques to promote creativity and foster an environment that values diverse perspectives and innovative ideas, rather than asking others to simply “think outside the box.” A detailed approach – in place of vague jargon – may be more likely to lead to genuinely impactful creative thinking within a team or organization.
The expression “low-hanging fruit” is also considered to be irritating office jargon. Low-hanging fruit refers to what’s easily achievable without much effort. While the exact origin of the expression, which can be traced back to the literal act of harvesting fruit, is unclear, it began to appear in corporate-speak in the late 20th century.
The phrase gained popularity in business and management contexts as a way to describe tasks or projects that provide relatively quick wins or results without requiring significant investments of time, money, or energy – in other words, “easy pickings.” But along with that popularity came overuse, landing the phrase “low-hanging fruit” on Preply’s list of the 10 most annoying buzzwords, based on its survey.
Why Do We Use So Much Jargon?
Try to think about some of the expressions we hear – and use – day in and day out:
- We take it offline, unplug, or don’t have the bandwidth.
- We unpack a statement, push the envelope, and drill down. We circle back, run the numbers, ramp up, dive deeper, and reach out.
- We talk about leading edge, cutting edge, and bleeding edge. We’re always on the edge of something.
- We refer to people as thought leaders, ninjas, rock stars, gurus, and wizards.
- Things are robust, seamless, and scalable.
Whatever happened to using plain language?
It’s safe to say that most people may not use inflated language at home. It’s not our weekend talk. Buzzwords and jargon can generally be the domain of “office speak.” Why do we have jargon overload in the business environment? There are several reasons.
For one thing, people may use this type of jargon because everyone on their team does and they naturally want to fit in and belong. It’s a way of feeling or appearing as an insider. Others may use it because their leaders do, and they want to impress. Some may use it because they think it makes them look more intelligent or professional. And sometimes jargon use can simply be due to a habitual pattern of speaking developed over time. Jargon may seem like the easier route, supplying ready-made expressions without the need to think of more tangible and relevant ways to explain concepts.
How Can We Deal With All the Jargon?
If you’re a business owner or leader looking to communicate in a way that genuinely engages your audience’s attention, you may consider evaluating the jargon you’re in the habit of using. Carefully constructing your important messages to avoid buzzwords and replacing them with thoughtful expressions may pay dividends. For one thing, the absence of stock phrases or formulaic expressions can signal that you’re speaking authentically, from the heart, about things that matter to your business and to those you’re addressing. Buzzword-free communication can help you stand above the din of the crowd.
The Bottom Line
Consider using language that’s generally understood by a ninth grader. Ask yourself: Would a friend or family member not involved in the business world understand the expressions I’m using? If not, try to change them to plain language. This isn’t about “dumbing down” your content. It’s about explaining the same content in plainer speak that’s widely understood and relatable – the kind of language that’s more likely to reach your audience.
A version of this article was originally published on June 27, 2017.
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