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The History of Jargon

Ever wonder where popular jargon such as "low-hanging fruit" comes from? Learn the story behind these phrases—and why you should avoid using them.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
June 27, 2017

Have you ever come out of a meeting where a lot of jargon was bandied about, and you weren't clear what was said?

"The single biggest problem in communication," said playwright George Bernard Shaw, "is the illusion that it has taken place."

Nowhere is this perhaps more applicable than in describing our jargon-loaded discourse. Excessive use of jargon can weigh down our communication and can be taxing to listeners. It may make it more difficult for others to grasp the full meaning behind our message. Worst of all, using jargon can be distancing. It may make some listeners feel excluded because they may not understand all the jargon and buzzwords being used—especially if it comes on thick and fast.

When did the word jargon originate and how has the meaning evolved? Why is our language peppered with so much jargon?

Where Did Jargon Come From?

The story of the word jargon dates back to the Old French word jargoun meaning "twittering." According to University of Bergamo professor Maurizio Gotti, author of The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds, the word showed up in the English language through Chaucer's ​The Canterbury Tales. (Chaucer referred to it as the utterance of birds, or sounds resembling it.) Dictionary.com refers to "jargon" today as "unintelligible, or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish."

Today, there are two primary definitions of jargon.

The first definition refers to the specialized or technical language of a trade, industry or profession, such as legal or scientific jargon. It's shop talk, the shortcut language used between one expert and another in the same field. This is the positive or neutral connotation of the word.

Jargon may seem like the easier route, supplying ready-made expressions without the need to think of different ways of explaining concepts.

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 jargon as "obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words." It's convoluted phrasing and vague meaning.

It's this second definition of jargon addressed here.

The Origin of 3 Popular Pieces of Jargon

The list of frequently used jargon is extensive. Let's look at three of the most prevalent ones.

Synergy

Synergy stems from the Greek word sunergos, meaning "working together." A 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." The word appeared in medical literature as far back as the 19th century.

Dave Wilton, lecturer at Texas A & M University, traced synergy's history and discovered that the word became popular in the 1980s after it appeared in an Economist article at that time. "Suddenly," writes Wilton, "every company had to be exploiting the 'synergistic effects' of something or other."

Today, synergy shows up as one of most overused buzzwords, replacing more plain expressions such as "collaboration" or "working together." A 2017 survey by The Creative Group asked 400 advertising and marketing executives to name the most annoying or overused buzzwords. "Synergy" came up third on the list.

Thinking Outside the Box

In addition to synergy, thinking outside the box also appears in surveys as one of the most bothersome business buzzwords. A 2015 survey of 2,000 workers in the UK found that "thinking outside the box" is one of the top 50 most annoying "management speak" phrases.

It's believed that the phrase was inspired by the Nine Dots Puzzle, which appeared more than a hundred years ago in a 1914 book on puzzles. The Nine Dot puzzle is where we're presented with nine dots in a grid pattern and we're asked to connect all the dots using no more than four straight lines, without lifting our pencil or pen from the paper. It's not possible to solve the puzzle without drawing outside the box formed by the nine dots.

Low-Hanging Fruit

The expression "low-hanging fruit" is also among the top most irritating office lingo that showed up in surveys.

"Low-hanging fruit" refers to what's easily achievable without much effort. This expression first appeared as early as the 17th century in various poetic or literary works as a vivid metaphor. According to Investopedia, the exact phrase "low-hanging fruit" likely first appeared in print in a 1968 article in the Guardian newspaper, gaining popularity in the following decades, and "becoming a staple in corporate management and sales lingo" by the early 1990s. It even appeared in a 2009 Dilbert cartoon as an example of "the vacuous way managers speak."

In 2016, writer Zack Crockett authored an article on Priceonomics showing the explosion in usage of this expression. But his research shows that the expression has now become totally irrelevant by the change in apple tree genetics grafting. When the expression was first popularized, the majority of apple trees were tall and the only fruits that were easily within reach were those that hung low on the branch. But today, as Crockett writes, the majority of apple trees are dwarfs.

Yet another reason for abandoning this stale buzzword.

Why Do We Use So Much Jargon?

Think about some of the expressions you may hear day in and day out. Computer-related jargon has surged in popularity, as for example, hacking, not having the bandwidth, taking it offline, unplugging or pinging someone.

We do the heavy lifting, 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, wizards or they're a part of a tiger team.

Things are robust, seamless or scalable.

Whatever happened to using plain English?

It's safe to say that most people don't use inflated language at home. It's not our weekend talk. Buzzwords and jargon are generally the domain of "office speak." Why do we have jargon overload in the business environment? There are many possible reasons.

For one thing, people may use this type of jargon because everyone else in the 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 they hear their leaders use it and it seems like it's the right thing to do. Yet others use it because they may think that it makes them look more intelligent or more professional. And sometimes it could 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 different ways of explaining concepts.

What Can You Do to Deal With All the Jargon?

If you're a business owner or leader looking to communicate in a way that holds your audience's attention, you may consider evaluating any jargon you might be 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 may 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 out above the din of the crowd.​

Consider using language that's understood by a 9th grader. You might want to check out sites such as Plain Language to help simplify your communication. Ask yourself: would a friend or family member not involved in the business world understand the expressions I'm using? If not, change them to plain English. This is not about "dumbing down" your content. It's about explaining the same content in plainer language that's widely understood.

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