Ask Mint | Juggling with jargon

Ask Mint | Juggling with jargon
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First Published: Mon, Sep 24 2007. 01 37 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Sep 24 2007. 01 37 AM IST
How many times did you hear the word “operationalize” in the last few weeks? My own count is about to pass the 100 mark. A Left party leader put it on the air, and his comrades echoed it. Soon, everyone who wanted to be heard was using the word.
It caught the fancy of speakers because of its grand Latinate sound, and the opportunity it gave them to soften the impact that a simpler, more direct word would have caused. To operationalize means little more than carry out, or implement, or give effect to.
The fact is that operationalize is today close to the top of every lexicon of jargon. Business people like its sonorous syllables; so do politicians, as is evident here. There is a technical ring to it, too, and that makes an emotional reaction less likely. Operationalize is a model for a whole set of “-ize” words. Most of them are unnecessary, and many of them are ugly, cacophonous formations. When the word “finalize” was first used, it gave rise to a prolonged debate. It was seen as another addition to gobbledegook or officialese; scholars like Partridge and Gowers cautioned against the spread of the word. But it had come to stay. President Eisenhower used it in 1958, and then the word seemed to have acquired legitimacy. So has “prioritize”, after an initial period of probation. But “commoditize”, “incentivize”, and “anonymize” seem to be still on the border.
Jargon is defined primarily as the specialized language of a profession or trade or group. Its use is normal and unobjectionable for communication within the group. Jargon has a second meaning: language that is deliberately pretentious and inflated, convoluted, and vague.
Close behind operationalize, you have “leverage”. People get annoyed by the use of this word in contexts where a far simpler word will do. An example: “This joint exercise will leverage our functionality vis-à-vis the competition.”
Strangely, the phrase that roused the highest resentment was a very simple one, “at the end of the day”. Surveys in English-speaking countries show that this is ranked first in a list of over-used expressions, with “in the red” and “in the black” close behind. No interview seems to be complete without the interviewee saying “at the end of the day” at least once. If it is not “at the end of the day”, then it must be “basically”.
Winston Churchill raised his voice against jargon of the second kind, which he named officialese. In India, you might get a letter that begins, “I am, by direction of the Syndicate, to inform you that the Vice-Chancellor is pleased to appoint you as Lecturer.... You are directed to report to the undersigned...” Compare that to this letter from a top business school in the US: “Congratulations. You have been selected to join the Wharton MBA class of 1997.” I am surely not going to do business with people who call themselves the undersigned.
The examples of officialese Churchill gave were: “Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect” and “the receipt of your communication is hereby acknowledged with thanks.” The Manchester Guardian hailed him, “Jack the Jargon Killer.”
The campaign against jargon has a long history. Aristophanes (fifth century BC) exposed the absurdity of medical jargon in his comedies. In the age of Queen Elizabeth I, scholars objected to jargon, which they called “inkhorn terms”. Alan Herbert declared a Word War on jungle English. He conducted a campaign in Punch for the use of “Plain English”. In 1935, he wrote What a Word!, bringing to his discussion of good writing his fine sense of humour. To drive home his point, he translated “Home sweet home” as “Accommodation unit sweet accommodation unit”!
Churchill’s concern for good English still occupies the minds of British MPs. Tessa Jowell, culture secretary, started a crusade against politicians who spouted jargon, and maintained a record of the gobbledegook generated in parliamentary debates. She warned the MPs that using expressions like “reproofing expenditure” and “regional cultural data feedback rollout” would raise a barrier between ministers and the public.
Besides political gobbledegook, there is management-speak, which revels in phrases like “paradigm shift”, “pushing the envelope” and “thinking outside the box”. Surveys in the UK have shown that employees don’t take easily to such jargon. Customers, too, can be alienated.
The golden rule is not to use words that you wouldn’t normally hear in daily conversation. Keep your marketspeak, or management-speak or techspeak for occasions when you have the right audience for them.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Sep 24 2007. 01 37 AM IST