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Speaking of Jargon

If we hate it so much, why do we all use it?

The term jargon has become a catchall for a variety of words and phrases, including industry terminology, an alphabet soup of acronyms, and language so contorted that it leaves the listener blinking in confusion. It’s become a popular scapegoat for business communication run aground and has been accused of erasing creative expression in office settings in favor of mind-dulling, hackneyed terms whose meaning may not even be clear. But although writing and communications experts routinely warn against its use and champion plain English, a blanket condemnation of jargon can be as off the mark as excessive reliance on it. Used correctly, jargon can actually be a way to talk succinctly about complex topics, such as manufacturing plastic molds or building a house, to a circle of people in the same field.

“Jargon is neither a good nor a bad thing,” says Suzanne Bates, author of Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results. “The biggest mistake executives and professionals make is to fail to ask themselves if what they’re saying is the best way to communicate to the audience that they’re targeting.”

Understanding the various forms of jargon is the first step in knowing when it is acceptable. Todd Dewett, associate professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has identified three categories of jargon:

Functional, or industry, jargon. These are words and phrases known throughout a given profession or industry but not commonly known to others. When people in information technology refer to a “performant” (someone who shows exceptional performance or does something in a cost-effective way), they’re using functional jargon with the goal of saving time and improving efficiency. In some cases, this lingo may make its way into the popular lexicon. For example, a doctor's request to get something “stat,” or quickly, has become well known thanks to the profusion of television hospital dramas. 

Organizational jargon. Individual companies develop their own methods of communication, too. This form of jargon can be shorthand for commonly known concepts and ideas within the company or group. When someone at Apple says an idea “doesn’t suck,” for instance, it’s considered a positive response, says Dewett. This insider lingo can foster a sense of community and help to get organizational concepts across more clearly.

Mass jargon. Mass jargon includes buzzwords and sayings that can have ambiguous meanings. This is where sports analogies creep into the office alongside words and terms like “synergy,” “leverage,” and “blue sky.” Although mass jargon can become part of organizational jargon when adopted as part of a company’s culture, it is more often language with murky meaning, adding no real efficiency to communication. This is the type of jargon that can make language more cumbersome and less meaningful if used to dissemble or to simply sound important or intelligent rather than to add linguistic value.

Obscuring the Message
Jon Warshawsky, coauthor of Why Businesspeople Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide, agrees that jargon has its place, but it is a limited one, and he warns that too many people use language that is needlessly complicated and overblown. They may be trying to sound smarter or to mimic their bosses. This type of language doesn’t facilitate communication; it hinders it.

In fact, people may even intentionally hinder communication, using long-winded responses, acronyms, and evasiveness to avoid answering hard questions or to hide meaning or failure. This tactic was played to perfection by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who admitted in his recent memoir, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, that he purposely used confusing language to avoid answering questions when testifying before Congress. It may have worked for the august economist, but for the rest of us, this type of language abuse is more likely to cause confusion and create misunderstandings, damaging any transactions or relationships in which it plays a role.

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  1. Suzanne Bates, Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results (McGraw-Hill, 2005): How to develop a communication style that is both effective and authentic.
  2. Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide (Free Press, 2005): Targets clichés and meaningless jargon with aplomb, while making a case for a more plainspoken approach to business communication.
  3. Anatoly Liberman, Word Origins...and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone (Oxford University Press, 2005): An accessible, engaging look at how we determine the origins of our language.
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