In a book called Business Bullshit, trailed in a Guardian Long Read, author André Spicer joins a long tradition of jargon-bashing that stretches back to George Orwell and beyond.
As someone whose job is writing stuff for business that’s clear, appealing and easy to understand, my reaction to this latest broadside against jargon is:
Stop it. Stop it now. Leave “business bullshit” alone. Because it’s useful. It’s there for a reason.
Yes, of course it’s endless fun to laugh along with Dilbert and poke fun at the “thought showers”, “deep dives” and “reaching out” that pepper some corporate conversations.
I’ve had first-hand experience of the starry-eyed management evangelism that Spicer sees as the root of jargon evil. I can confirm it is as pointless and self-serving as he says it is. (“Execute strategy violently” was my favourite slide. Needless to say, that particular strategy didn’t end well, even after many millions had been lavished on it.)
Spicer seems to blame jargon for the existence of “bullshit jobs”, as if somehow mere words created meaningless middle-management positions. Yet some of the most meaningful jobs contain the most jargon. Take the language of aviation, dubbed ‘Aerose’ by 747 pilot and writer Mark Vanhoenacker in his book Skyfaring. This is jargon on which life depends.
He quotes an extract: “Establish localiser two-seven-right, when established descend glide.” I don’t hear anyone complaining they can’t understand stuff like that because it’s “bullshit”, or not in “plain English”. We’re all just happy there’s a community of professionals whose special words help us descend from 8,000 metres to the ground without dying.
In business, yes, some jargon is laughable and infuriatingly naff. But often, the most preposterous terms disappear. For example, “glocal” (global, yet also local) seems mercifully to have disappeared. What might happen to “phygital” (the fusion of physical and digital commerce), a term I encountered for the first time a couple of weeks ago? It’ll die out. Firstly because it’s pretty horrible, but more importantly physical and digital businesses will probably all fuse before too long, so we won’t need the term any more.
The point is that jargon exists because it can be genuinely useful. “Proactive” tops the list on our Jargon Matrix, because it was a new and useful way of saying something that otherwise takes a huge sentence to describe: “Tending actively to instigate changes in anticipation of future developments, as opposed to merely reacting to events as they occur”.
Spicer says we need an “anti-bullshit” movement. I say forget that. Just keep jargon in its place – the cockpit, the lab, the boardroom – where it saves time, speeds understanding and even saves lives.
Then we can all have time for more meaningful conversations.