Jargon and Power: Why “Touching Base” Equals Linguistic Imperialism

I’ve always thought that jargon was just another way to measure inclusivity. Newcomers to the corporate scene are often barraged with inscrutable acronyms, and people who want to “touch base” and “connect” in order to decide on “actionable next steps.” Other favourites of mine are the ever-present “deck,” otherwise known as a PowerPoint presentation in which one expands five sentences into thirty slides with swirling slide transitions, and the “ask” [n.], which, from what I’ve been able to discern, is a way to cut down on the syllables required to say “request.” Efficiency indeed.

In academia, it’s even worse. It seems that no book or article can be taken seriously until the author has proven his or her credentials by name-checking every obscure phrase that has been written on a subject. This practice serves only to repeat ad nauseam the same tired debates over and over with little new beyond increasing specialization, which I’ve attacked at length before.

Considering how pernicious it is to the Plain Language Movement, however, there is shockingly little popular or academic treatment of the subject of jargon. Perhaps it is because, as New Left academic Peter Ives says in his fantastic 1997 article “In defense of jargon,” “jargon is only jargon for those who don’t use it.” Maybe we like to be inscrutable because it makes us feel more intelligent. Or maybe the world is changing so quickly these days, we need something familiar to hold onto, and clichéd language represents a security blanket of sorts.

The ways in which jargon has evolved seem to support this theory. In “‘As Per Your Request’: A History of Business Jargon,” Kitty Locker writes that jargon has eras, identifying the pre-1880s, 1880s-1950s, and post-1950s as distinct periods in business communication. (Given that the article appears in a relatively obscure academic journal and was published in 1987, it obviously doesn’t touch the Internet age, and so I imagine the author would have to add another for the post-1990s period for all of the tech speak we use now.) But if we think that the 1880s-1950s (when jargon use was at its peak, apparently) saw the rise of corporate America, and with that an emphasis on professionalism and specialization, we can see the early roots of corporate-style conformity. And today there is just as much human need for conformity, but more arenas from which to choose one’s allegiance: corporate, social, technological, generational, geographical, etc.

Locker argues that corporate jargon and ‘stock phrases’ came about primarily because new employees tended to copy old correspondence, either in style or in actual phraseology. Often letters doubled as legal documents, and so the terminology had to be fairly set. Then, from the 1920s onward, American firms were interested in improving business communication, with big companies often having a person or department who monitored it and tried to get everyone to use the same words and phrases. (O, that I could have the job of whipping corporate employees’ communications into shape! Alas, cost cutting.)

Today, I suspect jargon use comes less from official processes than by the subtle attempts to reinforce unofficial corporate/academic norms and hierarchies with new employees. Using jargon – in the form of acronyms, company-specific words, or highly technical language – creates a sense of inclusivity among workers, which is exactly why, if senior executives/group leaders ever thought about it, they would have a vested interest in keeping it around.  It is a badge of honour even today for new recruits to master the new group’s/company’s lingo.

Interestingly, Locker points out that companies have had little success in eliminating jargon even when they have tried. A bank in the 1960s tried to freshen up its letters by taking out the standard greetings and salutations, and received numerous complaints from customers who were having trouble recognizing the letters for what they were. As she amusingly quotes, “the value the reader places on the distinctiveness of a business letter can easily be overestimated.” (Indeed.) And it is a daring academic who braves the censure of his or her peers by not mentioning what Foucault thought about the issue, or how “post-x” something is. (One might wonder if s/he even had an advanced degree.) It seems that there is comfort in the conventionality of jargon for both user and receiver.

I wonder if this emphasis on conventionality spreads beyond the walls of corporations and academia. Familiarity and belonging are powerful emotions, after all, and it takes a lot more effort to be fresh and original than to retreat into the comfort of clichéd words and phrases. It is often easier to be anonymous than to be articulate.

Jargon may also have more sinister undertones. Peter Ives argues that most of the jargon we use today (he was writing in 1997) originated in the right-wing military/political/business elite. It seems that we are endorsing a pro-capitalist, individualist language, because the section of society that uses such words also happens to have the means to diffuse their particular linguistic preferences more broadly.

By this logic, even our exhortations to “speak plainly” in language that is “accessible” can be read as elitist, because, as Ives asks, who gets to determine what “accessible” is? Democracy? If so, Chinese would be most accessible. Instead, we assume that “plain English” wins out, and enforce that presumption upon everyone else. Such is the stuff of linguistic imperialism.

It seems language is inextricably tied to power structures, existing hierarchies, and even imperialism. So next time someone asks you to “touch base” later, consider that by deciding just to “talk” instead, you’re standing up for the little guy.

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5 Responses to Jargon and Power: Why “Touching Base” Equals Linguistic Imperialism

  1. Jeremy says:

    The whole time I was reading this post I was thinking about something which you touched on only briefly: the military establishment. If you ever read any materials prepared by the military for the military or those in the know, you will find a blizzard of acronyms for everything. In my class on defense policy planning I began to refer to my readings as alphabet soup for that reason. Indeed, most of the many definitions on the midterm were just a series of letters. Looking back at the essay I wrote for that course, it’s easy to see how quickly one can become sucked into that realm. My relatively short essay included the following:

    USN, CVX, CVN, PA-2, JPALS, VTOL, EMALS, UAV, ESSM, RAM, and of course the ubiquitous NATO. This was after a conscious attempt to minimize the use of acronyms so as not to appear totally ridiculous like many of the readings.

    So, when you talk about how jargon serves to create an environment of inclusiveness among those who use it, as well as to differentiate between veterans and newcomers, and about the notion of how it provides a sense of continuity, the military seems to be ground zero for all three of those phenomena. It’s worth considering, I think.

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      Absolutely – that’s a great point. And the military, by virtue of having access to all the latest technology and global influence (both specific military establishments, like the American one, and military ideals in general), certainly has the means to spread jargon.

  2. Kathryn Exon says:

    This made my day.

  3. Duncan says:

    Jargon is an issue in science, too.

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