In defence of jargon

I missed this story from a couple of weeks ago about the Local Government Association issuing a list of banned words to councils. The move has met with approval from the media and bloggers alike but I wonder how many people have actually taken the time to look at the list. Some of the words on it are convenient terms which would otherwise require long-winded alternatives.

Stakeholder, for example, is a very useful word. A stakeholder is anyone who is likely to be affected by your organisation or your project and who therefore has an interest in its success and its outcomes. Or, as someone once said to me, a stakeholder is anyone who can screw up your company. When starting any major programme I always get people to do a stakeholder map. You identify all the interested parties and plot them on a grid with power on one axis and probable attitude to the project, negative to positive, on the other. It’s a great way of working out who your allies and your powerful opponents are. If the CFO, for example, ends up in the powerful-but-negative box, then you have a problem.

As organisations, especially those in the public sector, become ever more complex, managing relationships and corporate politics become more difficult. Stakeholder is a useful term for the shareholders, customers, suppliers, colleagues, government agencies, pressure groups, journalists, joint-venture partners, charities, community activists and internal rivals who could mess things up for you if you don’t keep them on-side or neutralise them.

In short, I find stakeholder is an indispensable term when helping people manage organisational politics, which is something I do a lot.

There are other useful terms on the list which seem to have been added without much thought about what might replace them. What’s wrong with ‘priority’? The LGA suggests replacing it with ‘most important’ but that could make some sentences more verbose. In the right context, ‘transactional’, ‘robust’ and even ‘revenue-stream’ can be convenient shorthand too.

Some people have leapt to the defence of ‘coterminous’. It’s not a word I use often but I can see why it might be useful in some contexts. The LGA suggests replacing it with “all singing from the same hymn sheet”.

WTF?? Are councils really going to send out documents with the phrase “all singing from the same hymn sheet” on them? It is an ugly cliche discouraged by the Guardian’s style guide (see under ‘cliches’) and has already been banned by some councils on the spurious pretext that it might offend atheists and religious minorities.

Word-snob journalists who have never run anything in their lives love to take cheap shots at new phrases or expressions. It was ever thus. In 1710 Jonathan Swift condemned sham, banter, mob and bully, all words that have now passed into common use.

The LGA’s list of banned words, while it might be well intentioned, smacks of craven populism. While I’m all in favour of  removing the worst excesses of management speak, there is no need to ban useful words. As the world changes, English speakers invent new words.  They have been doing so since the middle-ages and, if our language is to adapt and evolve, they will continue to do so.

Changing times bring forth new words. Attempts to police the language have failed in the past and, most likely, this latest attempt will fail too. Councils have more important things to do than eliminating perfectly good words. They should place the LGA’s list in file B1N.

But perhaps the last word on this story should go to Sutton councillor and blogger Paul Scully. He’s all in favour of the word-ban, concluding:

At the end of the day it is a question of accountability.

Ah, ‘at the end of the day’ – probably the most hackneyed and hated cliche.

You see, it’s dead easy to pick holes in other people’s language.

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12 Responses to In defence of jargon

  1. In fact the LGA’s list seems to be largely nonsense created to help the Daily Mail and others pick fun at councils.

    A post on ThePickards points out that a lot of the words are never, and have never, been used by councils and the most frequent users are the LGA themselves!

  2. ‘Stakeholder’ is a deceptive word: it reduces all sorts of relationship to an anodyne supposed equality. It simply isn’t true that all ‘stakeholder’ voices are equal in any project, except in the sense the project management team will seek to ‘manage’ them all. ( a process which can sometimes disguise the fact that the project team is itself being managed by a particular stakeholder as can occur, for example, in PFI projects where the money men call the tune).

    I think the word ‘stakeholder’ is often used knowingly to disguise such imbalances of power. Which is precisely why it is a prime example of the sorts of jargon which should be automatically distrusted.

  3. dearieme says:

    “Stakeholder” is just a fashionable import that replaces the wtime-honoured “interested party”. I’ll grant that it has two advantages (i) It’s shorter, and (ii) it warns you that the speaker is probably a creep.

  4. dearieme says:

    On reflection I’m not sure that I’m quite right. I think that “interested parties” used to be allowed to identify themselves, whereas I suspect that “stakeholders” are defined by someone who “owns” the issue. So the change in vocabualry may signify the drift to centralisation and managerialsim.

  5. Rick says:

    dearieme – “Interested party” is jargon too. It comes from legalese. It’s just more old-fashioned jargon than “stakeholder”.

    As for being “allowed” to identify themselves – what do you mean? Allowed by whom?

    Oh, and on the subject of fashionable imports, “creep”, as a noun, was coined in the USA in the 1930s. It was once a fashionable import too.

  6. Rick says:

    Charlie – I’ve never understood ‘stakeholder’ to mean that people have equal power. The whole point of the concept is that they don’t have equal power. Therefore, if you are trying to get something done, you need to identify the various power sources and the relationships between them so you can anticipate any resistance before it happens.

    It’s also a useful way of identifying those who will benefit from something but who are relatively weak, and finding ways of making them stronger.

    Like everything else, all stakeholders are not equal. They never have been and, in my view, never will be. But perhaps that’s where our world-views differ. 😉

  7. Rampancy says:

    So in the bussines world we are going down the invaid –> challenged–>special, road too.

  8. Rick says:

    Eh? No idea what you’re on about.

  9. dearieme says:

    “As for being “allowed” to identify themselves..”: you used to see adverts inviting the opinion of “interested parties”; it was then up to them to identify themselves. Perhaps there are adverts inviting people to identify themselves as “stakeholders” but I don’t recall seeing one. Old-fashioned jargon should be preferred if it is widely understood, for obvious reasons.

    American jargon such as “creep” seems suitable for phenomena that start life, or become particularly obvious, in America, such as the corporate creep.

  10. Rampancy says:

    @Rick, what I was trying to say is this: first we called people invalid, then we were supposed to call them challenged and now we are supposed to call them special.

    It’s the same thing right?

  11. Rick says:

    Oh, I see. I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing here. The words I’m defending, at least up to a point, are new terms used as useful shorthand in new types of situation, rather than ones used as less offensive substitutes for existing words.

    The problem with replacing words with ones deemed to be less offensive is that, if the connotations are the same, the new words come to be seen as offensive too.

    I heard a story recently of school children chanting “special needs, special needs” as a taunt at the children who had to have extra lessons with the special needs teacher. What was once a term designed to take the stigma out of their predicament has now been incorporated to the armoury of spiteful playground insults.

  12. jonathan says:

    On the subject of “special needs” – When I went to school, kids with disabilities were sent to “special” school and “naughty” kids were sent to the Headteachers office and/or dealt with by the “unit”

    These days (and I know this from my kids school) disabled kids are integrated with the rest of the school (PE lessons modified etc) and “naughty” kids are ultimately sent to a “special” school

    Don’t know if this has any relevance but I found the flipping of the word “special” interesting

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