“In that case,” said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, “I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies—”
“Speak English!” said the Eaglet. “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!” And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.
“What I was going to say,” said the Dodo in an offended tone, “was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.”
The other day I was working in-house for a company and heard cries of distress issuing from one of the offices. I rushed in to find one of the editors in a state of frustration trying to decipher web copy for a specialty software application that was, ironically, supposed to make her job easier.
“I can’t understand what they’re talking about,” she lamented. “What is a ‘solution,’ for one thing?”
I looked over the site and tried to translate as much as possible, but not only was the copy obtuse, it consisted for the most part of useless gobbledygook that failed to explain in plain English what the program actually did. Result: the company lost a potential customer.
This particular software provider had fallen victim to the trend to engage in what is kindly referred to as “business jargon,” namely, the use of nouveau terms in place of plain English.
Case in point: savvy businesspeople apparently no longer say they work in a particular industry; they now refer to a “space” or “vertical.” Technology is “deployed” as if it were a covert military operation. “Enterprise” doesn’t refer to an undertaking, rental car, or starship—it’s just another name for a corporation. How exactly do “skill sets” differ from “skills”? And when I first heard the term “thought leader,” what came to mind was the Thought Police from George Orwell’s 1984.
Before using business jargon, techno lingo, or other obscure terms, know thy audience.
Case in point, this scene from the BBC science fiction/situation comedy Red Dwarf. In it, Lister (a human), Rimmer (a hologram of a dead human), and the Cat (what results when cats evolve into humanoids), who isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, go through a stasis leak. You might want to forward one minute into the video unless you’d like to learn how to take cyanide.
Here’s the transcript:
Cat: (to Rimmer) What is it?
Rimmer: It’s a rent in the space-time continuum.
Cat: (to Lister) What is it?
Lister: The stasis room freezes time, you know, makes time stand still. So whenever you have a leak, it must preserve whatever it’s leaked into, and it’s leaked into this room.
Cat: (to Rimmer) What is it?
Rimmer: It’s singularity, a point in the universe where the normal laws of space and time don’t apply.
Cat: (to Lister) What is it?
Lister: It’s a hole back into the past.
Cat: Oh, a magic door! Well, why didn’t you say?
Now, there are times when it is necessary to make distinctions and specify what you’re talking about for a specialized audience. A retailer can tell other industry insiders that the store’s visual merchandising includes dump bins, waterfall displays and endcaps. IT pros aren’t just geeking out when they wax lyrical about VoIP and ERP and SAP (oh my!). But don’t go overboard, as illustrated in Monty Python’s “banter sketch”:
Here’s what they’re saying, because it’s worth the read:
Jones: Morning, Squadron Leader.
Idle: What-ho, Squiffy.
Jones: How was it?
Idle: Top-hole. Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.
Jones: Er, I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, Squadron Leader.
Idle: It’s perfectly ordinary banter, Squiffy. Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.
Jones: No, I’m just not understanding banter at all well today. Give us it slower.
Idle: Banter’s not the same if you say it slower, Squiffy.
Jones: Hold on then… Wingco! Bend an ear to the Squadron Leader’s banter for a sec, would you?
Chapman: Can do.
Jones: Jolly good. Fire away.
Idle: Bally Jerry, Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.
Chapman: No, I don’t understand that banter at all.
Idle: Something up with my banter, chaps?
GRAMS: AIR RAID SIRENS
(Enter Palin, out of breath)
Palin: Bunch of monkeys on the ceiling, sir! Grab your egg-and-fours and let’s get the bacon delivered!
Chapman (to Idle): Do *you* understand that?
Idle: No, I didn’t get a word of it.
Chapman: Sorry, old man, we don’t understand your banter.
Palin: You know, bally tenpenny ones dropping in the custard!
Palin: Um… Charlie choppers chucking a handful!
Chapman: No no, sorry.
Jones: Say it slower, old chap.
Palin: Slower *banter*, sir?
Palin: Um… sausage squad up the blue end?
Idle: No, still don’t get it.
Palin: Um… cabbage crates coming over the briny?
The others: No, no.
(Film of air-raid)
Idle (voice-over): But by then it was too late. The first cabbage crates hit London on July the 7th. That was just the beginning.
Moral of the story: There’s nothing wrong with plain English, especially if you want to communicate a message rather than sound pretentious. As we can see, excessive use of banter, i.e. business jargon, can lead to death by cabbage.
But don’t take it from me. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell himself states: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”