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Jaded by jargon

I’m a little confused. According to that font of online wisdom, entertainmentwise.com, Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow were seen looking “lovey-dovey and playful” at Robert Downey Jr’s 49th birthday party last weekend.

“But haven’t they just split up?” I asked aloud, squinting in bemusement at my computer screen. Then I remembered. No, they haven’t “split up”. At least, that’s not what they’re calling it.

Conscious uncoupling. The phrase dangled in the air before me in all its macrobiotic beauty. At which point it struck me: poor old Chris and Gwyn are probably also a little confused. And no wonder. How are they supposed to know how to behave having just announced to the world that they’ve “consciously uncoupled”?

Surely if they just came out and said they were “getting divorced” or “separating”, they might have a better idea of how to conduct themselves in public.

But the hazy, yogic jargon of “conscious uncoupling” creates uncertainty in a situation where it would be better for all involved (including me) if things were a little clearer.

Having just emerged from editing several weighty annual reports, in which words and phrases such as “leveraging”, “growth drivers” and “deliverables” abound, I have to admit to feeling rather jaded by jargon in all its myriad forms. True, at least “conscious uncoupling” is original (so original, in fact, no one really knows what it means) – but c’mon, folks; how about we just tell it how it is?

Because jargon creates doubt and distrust. In corporate communications, those reports and articles that reject plain English sow seeds of uncertainty in the minds of readers. When multinational companies use fancy corporate jargon to discuss their financial performance, shareholders must wonder what they’re trying to hide. When MPs resort to sound-bites and rhetoric, political apathy deepens. And when Christopher and Gwyneth describe their separation as “conscious uncoupling”, people quite rightly harangue them for talking total twaddle.

Clarity, on the other hand, leads to credibility. It was with this truism in mind that the UK Government last year announced a moratorium on civil service jargon. In a move designed to rid the civil service of the kind of baffling phrases that kept the writers of The Thick of It in business, the Government banned more than 30 items of jargon from official announcements and communications.

Across Whitehall, the verbs “to foster”, “drive” and “deliver” can now only be used in their original sense (i.e. to raise children that are not your own, to operate a motor vehicle, and to bring and hand over a parcel or goods, respectively). And a “key”, so often misused as an adjectival prefix to denote importance (“a key objective”), is now only to be used when referring to a piece of metal you stick in a lock.

Although it will take years to simplify the tangled lexicon of power, it’s a start at least. The same approach now needs to be applied to all industries and sectors if we are to rid the world of jargon and create clear and compelling communications that simply tell it how it is.

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