Why Jargon Feeds on Lazy Minds

[Note: this post was first published at Harvard Business Review and has been edited]

If I could give every single business writer, guru or executive one thing to read every morning before work, it’d be this essay by George Orwell: Politics and the English Language.

Not only is this essay short, brilliant, thought-provoking and memorable, it calls bullshit on most of what passes today as speech and written language in management circles.

And if you are too lazy to read the article, all you need to remember is this: never use a fancy word when a simpler one will do. If your idea is good, no hype is necessary. Explain it clearly and people will get it, if there truly is something notable to get. If your idea is bad: keep working before you share it with others. And if you don’t have time for that, you might as well be honest. Because when you throw jargon around, most of us know you’re probably lying about something anyway.

The people who use the most jargon have the least confidence in their ideas. The people who use the least jargon have the most confidence.

In honor of Orwell here’s a list of jargon I often hear that should be banned rarely used. Flat out, these words are never used for good reason.

Words that should be banned:

These are the lazy words of our time and whenever I see them used I feel justified in challenging the claims. To use these words with a straight face is to assume the listener is an idiot. They are intellectual insults. They are shortcuts away from good marketing and strong thinking since they try to sneak by with claims they know they cannot prove or do not make any sense.

Marketers and managers use jargon because it’s safe. No one stops them to ask: exactly what is it you are breaking through? What precisely are you transforming, and how are you certain the new thing will be better than the old (e.g. New Coke)? If no one, especially no one in power, challenges its use, jargon spreads, choking the life out of conversations and meetings forever.

Pay attention to who uses the most jargon: it’s never the brightest. It’s those who want to be perceived as the best and the brightest, something they know they are not. They use cheap language tricks to intimidate, distract, and confuse, hoping to sneak past those afraid to ask what they really mean.

I’m going to do my best for the rest of the year to question people who use these lazy, deceptive, and inflated terms. Maybe then they’ll use their real marketing talents and tell me a story so powerful that I believe, all on my own, will transform this, or revolutionize that.

What jargon do you hear these days that you’d like to add to the list above? Let me know.


32 Responses to “Why Jargon Feeds on Lazy Minds”

  1. Ravi Gangadat

    I agree with all of your points. Recently, I finished reading “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser whom provided examples of unnecessary words and meaningless jargon in our writing. I liked the analogy Zinnser used to describe useless jargon; “Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds – the writer is always slightly behind.”

    I would add the following jargon to your list:

    *my current favorite – “raising revenue” should be raising taxes or cutting spending
    *basic tenets of
    *fiscal cliff
    *nonperforming assets
    *pre-owned cars

    1. MCM

      Cutting spending has nothing to do with raising revenue, and not all revenue is taxes. For example, the government also raises revenue through leasing or selling its assets.

      The problem with criticizing “jargon” is that sometimes you’re just an idiot who just doesn’t know the vocabulary the speaker is using. Like this guy.

  2. Mike

    Great post! I’ve always loved Orwell’s fancy vs. simple quote. If there is one rule to live by in writing, that’s it. I’d like to add to your list, though, because the one lazy word that rules them all is “utilize.”

  3. Johanna

    I just loved this post.

    Although I commonly speak Spanish we have terrible words used by people only want to sound fancy or compelling, but left the room after drop some of their wisdom (?).

    Another vice is to use terms in English only to show how cool are they. Very, very disgusting habit. And about words I almost hate “to articulate”.

  4. Albert

    Nice post, and I completely agree with you. My frustration is what if the entire field is saturated with terms you listed, though? I am a grad student in bioinformatics, and the field is filled with buzz words like “next-generation sequencing technology” or “high-throughput sequencing”. And the science behind those technologies does seem,well, “revolutionary” enough to deserve those adjectives. Following your advice, should I try to use different terms even if they are the lingo in the circle? What would be the alternatives? Any suggestion?

  5. Simon

    Exactly that crossed my mind the other day as well. You’ll find a great overview of similar words in Bullshit Bingo: http://www.bullshitbingo.net/cards/bullshit/

    for example:
    – top down
    – reach out
    – key performance indicator

    Not directly belonging to that list, but similar:
    – amazing
    – the most XYZ you will see today

    And my personal favorite: democracy. It is such a big umbrella word which is used in such wide a context that it basically lost its meaning altogehter.

  6. Tisha

    Here’s a phrase I’d love to see gone: have a dialogue with. Nobody just talks or chats with each other any more, they have dialogues.

  7. Deborah

    My least favorite is “thought leader.” I’ve never been sure what it means – a leader of thoughts? It sounds vaguely Orwellian.

  8. Brian S

    One word I have always hated is “Functionality”. It feels so made-up, and can easily be accomplished through “feature” or you know, actually describing what the software does instead of offering “new functionality”.

  9. Sean Crawford

    Regarding “utilize”
    My ROM dictionary says it means use, adding it may strike readers as pretentious jargon and should therefore be used sparingly.

    As I understand it, you “use” screwdriver, you “utilize” a dime when you can’t find your driver.

  10. Phil Simon

    Add synergy, form factor, and price point–three words that grate me.

  11. Mike Nitabach

    I am a grad student in bioinformatics, and the field is filled with buzz words like “next-generation sequencing technology” or “high-throughput sequencing”.

    I consider these two terms to be fine, as they are meant in a very specific way that actually provides valuable information: that nucleic acids are being sequenced en masse in mixtures containing vast numbers of individual molecules of different sequences, rather than as individual cloned DNA molecules. This is an important substantive distinction that provides valuable information to the listener/reader, without having to get into the technical distinctions between different particular sequencing platforms: Illumina, 454, etc.

  12. Scott

    Thanks Colin. I’ll try to keep up the good work.

  13. Scott

    “Being incomprehensible offers unparallel protection [for] having nothing to say” – Alain De Botton

  14. Ross

    I notice “conversation” is a big one this year. I heard the president of a national organization speak a couple of months ago, and I bet she used the word “conversation” 20 times in 30 minutes.

  15. Dan

    Transformative post. Thanks.

  16. Michael Bolton

    I have been pointing people to Orwell’s essay for almost 40 years, and I absolutely agree that people should say what they mean and mean what they say.

    Yet it seems to me that you are confusing jargon (“special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand” with the example “legal jargon”, per the Oxford English Dictionary) with drivel or bullshit (Orwell might have said “humbug”). Pilots, doctors, scientists, and technologists use jargon constantly–not because it’s vague or pretentious or empty, but because it’s economical and precise, intended for a specific audience in a specific context. So I think neither you nor Orwell were complaining about jargon per se, but about words used to suppress or conceal thought. With that, I agree.

    1. Deborah S. Bosley

      That’s an important distinction. Jargon is helpful when one is an expert talking with other experts. But Orwell had poitics in mind and, obviously, the need to warn us about words that have no meaning.

  17. Phil Simon

    Digital Customer Experience Delivery Extreme Powered Platforms


    I wish that I were making this up.

  18. Phil Simon

    I saw this today:

    Is this the Dawn of Social Nicheworks?

    I hope to hell not.

  19. Deborah S. Bosley

    I can’t stand “utilize,” “socialize,” “open the kimono” among about three dozen other attempts at making a simple word overly complex. Research shows that readers are 1) not impressed with complex writing, 2) don’t trust companies that use jargon, and 3) prefer to do business with companies whose written content they can easily understand.



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