Meaning Guide

The meaning of business jargon

Two things annoy me about mainstream commentary on business jargon:

  1. The assumption that “why couldn’t they just say what they mean”?
  2. The nauseatingly self-righteous tone

If you want a topical example, then look at the BBC piece Joe Miller has just posted on language at Davos 2018.  I’m finding myself feeling more and more cross when I read these critiques, at the simplicity, the willingness to mock others, and probably more than anything else at the sheer lack of curiosity and wonder.

Here are some counter-thoughts on the use of jargon, starting (hopefully!) from a position of curiosity.

Language is never settled

Some of the critiques remind me of the tone taken by the grammar police – the “Eats shoots and leaves” brigade that pops up from time to time to tell people that they’re doing language all wrong.  The trouble is that the critiques usually say more about the critiquer than the critiqued.  You end up with arbitrary rules (you must not split infinitives, you must not use double negatives) that pretend there is some kind of “absolute standard” that language has to conform to, completely ignoring the historical vicssitudes that got us there in the first place.  Standard English is based on the historical dialect of southern England, not because northern dialects are somehow less articulate, but because power in England has always extended from the south.  The first English grammars were originally based on Latin grammars, not because of the innate superiority of Latin, but because Latin grammars existed as a classical precedent.

Similarly with business jargon.  Instead of just mocking people because they talk about benchmarking and low hanging fruit and getting their ducks in a row, the more curious stance is to wonder why these idioms have arisen in the first place, and what people are achieve in using them.  Surely at the very least there has to be some acknowledgement that the higher up the management chain you go, the more abstract, ambiguous and uncertain the things are that you have to talk about?  And that the more complex and chaotic the world becomes, the more metaphorical and malleable the language of those in power is likely to become in response?

Just because it doesn’t mean anything to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything

This is what I mean by self-righteousness.  I joined in with the minor Twitterstorm that blew up over Joe’s original article at the start of Davos, just because so many of the terms he picked out seemed perfectly normal parts of the business lexicon.  What’s so jargon-y about “benchmarking” and “negative feedback loops”?

If you see language as a fixed system then usage has to accord to a particular standard, so who gets to choose the standard?  That’s easy:  It’s “people like us”.  The tone of these jargon-critiques tends to be chummy and resemble the side of an Innocent smoothie bottle.  “You and I, we’re mates, let’s have some fun at the expense of those bigwigs who can’t speak like regular people.”  No curiosity to unpack what’s being said, just contempt and the blithe assumption that what’s meaningless to me must be meaningless to everyone.

What’s really wrong with business jargon

I’ve made a distinction elsewhere between meaning of substance (what does this say about me in the world) and meaning of identity (what does this say about me in relation to other people).  The thing that really annoys people about jargon is that it so often parades itself as saying something substantial about the world, when in reality it’s only saying something about the speaker’s self-identity.  When someone uses the word “benchmarking”, is this because they want to measure the progress of something against an objective standard, or because they want to be perceived as “the kind of person who uses the word benchmarking”?

I often liken the latter kind of meaning to dogs peeing against trees, and it’s happening continuously to a greater or lesser extent in everything we say, whether jargon or not.  At the risk of going a bit too meta (and probably earning his wrath for using the word “meta”), when Joe at the BBC criticises people for using the word “benchmarking”, he’s also implicitly saying “I am the kind of person who criticises people for using the word ‘benchmarking'”.

I could (and probably will at some point!) write a book on this.  But all I want to point out now is, can you see how much more interesting it is to treat the unfamiliar with curiosity than contempt?  It’s not that I’m cool with jargon.  I think it massively gets in the way of all sorts of important conversations, but for much more nuanced reasons than people think.  The appropriate response to unfamiliar phrases and metaphors is to ask questions that bring the concepts down to the level of shared experience.  That way we create shared meaning instead of shared mockery.


  • Nice — have you dipped into “Thing Explainer” at all? ( — walks through the practical consequences of a world without jargon (alluded to in

    I feel you are a bit hard on projects (in the piece about Meaning and pseudo-meaning) as although there’s a lot of identity signalling in early project meanings, a successful project relies on the construction of locally-constructed locally-shared language (ie. jargon).

    Part of the problem with jargon is that it becomes so because it has been “exported” from a locally-constructed context (e.g. the project, or the academic discipline) and used it a wider way without adaptation or recognition that this is in some sense a invalid move.

  • Hi Tim

    The Thing Explainer is sat in the studio somewhere – I remember being really excited when it arrived and then being a bit disappointed, but I can’t remember why! I’ll dig it out, try and remember what I thought and maybe write a post on it sometime. I do thing xkcd is a great example of shared meaning-making though. It underlines to me how meaning is separate from aesthetics. A few stick men drawn by someone who knows what they’re trying to say beats a deckful of bulletpoints by an “expert” anyday.

    Re projects, you’re probably right and I am too harsh. Maybe I’m a hammer in search of nails. Or maybe there’s a selection bias on my experience of projects, as the nature of our work means we probably don’t get called in to so many mature projects where everyone’s already on the same page.

    The bigger problem, as I see it, is that the local jargon that emerges as a programme moves from storming to performing grows away from the language of the business. Then something big happens that shakes everything up (M&A, new CEO etc.) and the programme gets junked because it’s out of touch – its language and culture had developed around a solution that was great for the situation two years earlier, but no one really understands it any more because the priorities and language of the business have moved on

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