Jargon: Abstain or Explain
by Marcia Yudkin
Someone who helps manage a
health-maintenance organization says her job
involves "migrating" the subscribers.
Hmm, my dictionary says that
"migrating" is an intransitive verb -
one can migrate, but not migrate something else.
I don't know what she means.
A vice-president of one of the
world's largest consulting companies says she's
proud of the firm's ability "to integrate
highly granulated information with pragmatic
solutions." Now, snow can be granulated,
but information - could she be bragging about
her adeptness with old data? Unlikely.
Beware of jargon -
specialists' lingo - when communicating with
general audiences. Jargon gains currency within
an in-group who make up words and expressions to
cover special situations and features they often
talk about. That in-group, either an industry or
just one organization, then often forgets that
they made up these expressions and uses them in
sales messages directed outside their circle.
Sometimes jargon involves
totally new words and phrases, such as "devolutionization"
or "partnergenic integration," and
sometimes it involves familiar words with new
meanings. It may also involve long-established
foreign terms, such as "habeas corpus"
or "doula." All varieties have the
same effect on outsiders.
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Several months ago I told a
software marketer that I didn't understand the
phrase "rich feature set." His reply:
"Sure you do. It means..." I could not
get it through his head that that combination of
words was not ordinary language. As I tell this
story to business audiences - people who
purchase various kinds of software - I always
see a lot of puzzled faces when I cite his
Indeed, puzzled faces
represent one vital clue hinting that your
language may not be getting your message across.
However, because many folks are too polite or
intimidated to let on when they hear meaningless
nonsense, it's helpful to find members of your
target market whom you can trust to be candid
and ask them straight out whether they
understand what you offer.
Recently, for example, I told
a psychologist who'd asked me to look at her
brochure that I was familiar with her word
"intervention" only in the context of
confrontation with drug addicts or alcoholics.
That was so far from what she'd intended to
convey that she reworded the sentence.
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Jargon lovers often protest
that eradicating jargon from their marketing
materials would alienate insiders who know their
buzz words and would come off as condescension.
Not at all, I reply. It's not an either/or
choice. For a combination in-the-know and
out-of-the-loop audience, you can use jargon and
explain it so that you make all readers
insiders. When you do this subtly, tucking
explanations unobtrusively into sentences,
neither the in-group nor the outsiders take
For instance, if you didn't
know much about Chinese medicine, you might be
put off by a mention of "ch'i." Use
the term and explain it, like this:
"Acupuncture restores balance and regulates
the flow of ch'i - the basic life force."
Just four extra words prevent both confusion and
Copyright 1999 Marcia Yudkin.
All rights reserved.
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