Jargon or vocabulary?

The British news media appear to be unanimous in approving the Local Government Association’s call for less jargon and more plain English in the documents created by local councils. Unfortunately, in their quest for a story, they appear to have missed an opportunity to look critically at what the LGA is advocating.

In December 2007, the LGA sent to councils a list of “100 words that all public sector bodies should avoid when talking to people about the work they do and the services they provide.” That sounds like a sensible thing to do, doesn’t it? Well, yes — if the concern is that the language that councils use is making life difficult for people who want or need to use their services. If, on the other hand, their view is that all council documents should have these terms removed, then I would be worried that this advice could dilute the accuracy or effectiveness of those documents. What the LGA appears to have done is failed to make a distinction between documents for public users of local authority services and internal discussion papers, for example.

As a result, the 100 “non-words” include mutants such as “predictors of beaconicity” alongside comprehensible, but non-standard, terms like “core message”. Bizarrely, it also suggests that the phrase “most important” should replace “priority”. Why? Is importance more difficult for people to understand than priority?

Today, the LGA has doubled the size of the “bad words” list, and reiterated its demand for councils to use plain English. New on the list are words like “taxonomy” and “proactive” (neither of which need be used at all, according to the LGA). In fact, the alternatives suggested by the LGA can be just as cumbersome or confusing as the original word or phrase: can anyone tell me why the phrase “devil in the detail” is more acceptable than “cautiously welcome”? There are even inaccuracies: “privatisation” is not a synonym for “outsourcing” — an outsourced service can be provided by another public body.

Looking down the list, I see very few words or phrases that actually appear in my local council’s public documents. On the other hand, I am sure that many of them appear in their internal working papers or in documents that deal with technically complex matters. I think that is perfectly acceptable.

The point about jargon is that some of it is actually useful. It may be used to exclude people from understanding something, in which case it should be shunned, but often a simple word or phrase encapsulates an idea or concept economically in a way that is acceptable to all those who use it. For many years (and possibly still) people at IBM maintained a dictionary of their jargon. The 1990 version of that document ran to 65 pages, but not one of the words or phrases in it could be defined by a simpler word or shorter phrase.

I think many organisational activities (including knowledge-related work) depend on good outward communication as well as effective internal discussion. It is clearly counterproductive if the language we use in our outward communication exclude people who need to know about our work. On the other hand, use of a rich technical language and vocabulary can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our work. Branding everything unusual as “jargon” and calling indiscriminately for its banning is pointless and two-faced: the LGA illustrates the hypocrisy in its use of a number of the hated words in its own mission statement.