Jargon: fluency an advantage, but should it be essential?

Here, we look at office jargon – where it comes from, why people use it and how some of the most commonly used examples translate into plain English.

Howard Smith on 21/05/18

The organisation that’s completely free of office jargon hasn’t been invented yet. And as an in-house lawyer working with all the core business functions, you can expect to be on the receiving end of lots of it. With this in mind it may help you to know what some of it actually means.

"Have you got the bandwidth to do the heavy lifting on this one for us? It’s a lights-on initiative, so we need someone who can paddle on both sides.”

Translation - "Are you able to do the really hard work on this project? The company’s survival depends on it so we need someone who can get stuck in.”

If you ever hear people speaking like this in your professional life, you know you’re working in an environment where office jargon is alive and well. Worse, if you understand it – and can even reply fluently in the same vein – then the chances are you’re something of a jargoneer, or jargonist, yourself.

What is jargon?

Jargon is form of language developed by groups of people with common interests, ideas and challenges. It’s thought to have originated among 18th century scientists who felt that a vocabulary unique to their concepts and theories would make discourse between them easier and more fluid.

Today, almost every specialist industry, from IT to agriculture, has its own jargon. And when used between people who are all in the know, it’s quite benign – beneficial even. After all, what harm can a few linguistic shortcuts taken by boffins cause in the wider world?

The problem is that a more insidious form of jargon is spreading inexorably into everyday business conversations and it affects every one of us. It’s difficult to know who to blame for this, but if you work in business planning, strategy, marketing, IT, PR, HR or production, don’t assume for one minute that you’ll make it to the end of today without hearing or using some kind of in-group jargon.

Don’t think either that you’ll escape jargon by moving out of the private sector. Some of the most impressive exponents of doublespeak and obfuscation work in politics – national and local – and social policymaking.

Why use jargon?

As we mentioned above, jargon, when used as a substitute for longwinded specialised concepts between people who understand each other, is not necessarily a bad thing. It can save time, make meetings more productive and written materials easier to digest. However, in a wider context, reasons for using jargon are usually more complex, and not always in a good way. Many straight talkers regard jargoneers with great suspicion, accusing them of speaking the way they do to:

  • Appear more clever than they really are – by using phrases you’ve not heard before or aren’t familiar with, the jargoneers aim to make themselves look and sound smarter than you;
  • Present themselves as part of an exclusive group – such as the ‘strategy planning and business transformation executive committee’;
  • Disguise the real meaning behind what they’re saying – an accomplished jargoneer can lead you to believe they’re going to do something while stopping short of promising it outright. This gives them ‘deniability’ in the event that their implied outcome doesn’t come off or that they change their mind; and
  • Create a barrier to entry into a clique or a conversation – the idea being that unfathomable terminology will deter others from trying to muscle in on a high-level or perhaps, illicit, discussion between two or more jargoneers. This is nothing new, of course. The market traders, hawkers and costermongers of 1840s London developed cockney rhyming slang for exactly the same reason.

How not to say it as it is

Writing in the Guardian, Agglomer8’s guru royale Connie Taylor, (Aka Jessica Hynes, who played Siobhan Sharpe in the hilariously jargon-packed BBC spoofs, Twenty Twelve and W1A) gives us her A-Z of modern business speak. Her favourites range from the ubiquitous – blue sky thinking, Internet of things and joined up thinking – to others perhaps not yet ‘on your radar’ – Hodl (holding on for dear life), strategic staircase (a business plan) and deep dive (to read something without skipping bits).

Connie Taylor is not the only one to have had her views on office jargon taken up by a national newspaper. In June 2017, Mailonline covered the findings of a survey into the subject and revealed the 50 most hated soundbites among office workers. They include:

  • Idea shower – the successor to brainstorm, now regarded as politically incorrect and offensive to people with brain disorders or mental health conditions. An alternative is thought shower;
  • Getting the ball rolling – this simply means getting something started, presumably at a ‘kick-off’ meeting. If the person ‘in the driving seat’ is a motorsports enthusiast, they’ll probably go with the more high octane ‘rubber hits tarmac’;
  • Moving the goalposts – changing the agreed purpose of an assignment after you’ve got the ball rolling. The mental image is of two people lifting a goal and moving it to one side so that the rolling ball misses its target. Already bad, the euphemism becomes disastrous when followed up with:
  • Taking a project off-piste - if talking like a football coach (especially to non-followers of the game) is bad form, switching sport mid jargon is a definite no-no. Asking people to perform about-turns in the way they visualise their work is enough to make them ‘lose sight of their wider objectives’ completely;
  • On the same page – not the best way to express agreement among a group of people, but still three syllables closer to the point than:
  • Singing from the same hymn sheet – surprisingly outside the top 10 (it came in at 11) this is long, unwieldy and vaguely righteous – ideal for office jargon, some might say. Worse, it completely ignores the fact that in our diverse and multi-cultural workplaces there are many people who, while happy to communicate the same messages as you, will never sing from any hymn sheet;
  • Going forward – think of all the times you’ve heard or seen these two words in a sentence, then remove them. Does the sentence lose anything?
  • Action plan – because what else does a plan set out? and
  • ASAP – this one just made it in at number 50, possibly because it can mean whatever you want it to mean. It may commit one person to cancelling everything to get that ‘value added bench marked feasibility study’ on your desk by EOP (end of play) today, while for another, it’ll be next on the list after tomorrow’s inter-office Wheel of Wow competition. ASAP may even be the jargonistic progenitor of ALAP, as suggested by JC to the website of all things business jargon, the Office Life. Submitting your work as late as possible before a deadline reduces the chances of being given further tasks, thus making your life easier.

So, at best, office jargon can be economical and convenient. At worst it can be pompous, righteous, exclusive and a tool for distorting the truth. Almost always, it’s baffling and long-winded. Occasionally it’s hilarious. But however you see it, it’s here to stay. So long as we have offices, we’ll always have jargoneers. You won’t always beat them – but that’s no excuse for joining them.


Originally conceived as a form of shorthand for specialist discussion, jargon has become almost a second language in business and politics. Whether used to self-aggrandise, exclude or mislead, it generates as much (if not more) ridicule than mutual understanding. Avoid being seen as a jargoneer in your organisation by keeping a keen ear out for it and preferring plain English every time.
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