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ESSAY: Just Say No to Jargon


Every day conversation is often full of clichés and colloquialisms, but Lake Effect essayist Kipp Friedman would prefer we skip the jargon:

It is what it is.

What is?

Know what I’m sayin’?

No, not really.

There you go.

Where? I haven’t budged from this spot.

When people speak in meaningless, confusing and pretentious-sounding catchphrases and jargon, my first thought is to want to shout in my best Chris Tucker imitation, “DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH!” for I have no idea what they are saying.

Of course, we live in a civil society (who lives in an un-civil society?), so I typically show restraint. A part of me realizes that those who speak in jargon are well-intentioned folks who are simply parroting phrases that literally fill in the cracks between conversational dead air. In the context of the conversation, they may even be conveying some kind of meaning. But I much prefer dead air to this verbal flatulence and laziness.

Oh, sure, I know that I must come across as some kind of boorish, elitist snob, but all’s I’m sayin’ - whoops, there I go again! - is that this overuse of mindless, convoluted gibberish is hastening the decline of Western Civilization. Okay, maybe I’m overstating this a bit, but, at the very least, it is quite annoying. When all is said and done, jargon creep - like mission creep - has gotten way out of hand. Before you raise your hands in protest, and sigh C’est La Vie! or roll your eyes and utter a dismissive "Whatever!" please understand that it must be stopped.

Mark my words, one day President Ronald Reagan’s enduring legacy will not be for having spoken the words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” but for his other confusing, pointless phrase: “There you go again.” Although the Gipper rode that folksy, disarming expression all the way to the White House - everything happens for a reason! - he would have been better served if he’d listened to his wife, Nancy, and "just said no" to jargon.

I’m not sure where this annoying trend of spouting mindless nonsensical phrases started, which seems to be have taken a particular foothold in the business world - i.e., core competencies, think outside of the box, best practices, drinking the Kool-Aid - but I wouldn’t be surprised if there has always been jargon dating back to the beginning of the written word. I’m pretty certain Egyptologists who have deciphered ancient hieroglyphs have encountered papyrus scrolls laden with jargon-like decrees from the Court of Ramses.

What better way in which to obfuscate, sound knowledgeable and persuasive all in the same breath? An entire industry of propagandists - a.k.a. public relations/advertising professionals - can thank jargon for the ability to use miscommunication as an effective tool of communication, and to make a handsome living! I was not shocked to learn in British historian Peter Green’s marvelous accounts of Alexander the Great that the Macedonian king kept a fleet of P.R. flacks on retainer, singing his praises while leaking breaking news-like updates while young Alexander carved a victorious path through Persia and much of the Ancient World.

The scary thing is, when people speak in meaningless jargon they actually think they are being articulate and profound, and perhaps even furthering the public discourse. Take the idiomatic phrase, “It is what it is.” A favorite of life coaches, motivational speakers and middle managers everywhere, this silly phrase has acquired an almost Zen-like, mystical quality. Indeed, the term can be traced back to the Persian 13th Century Sufi mystic writer Rumi. And yet, I’m pretty certain most people who use this expression are not imparting Rumi-like wisdom. Mostly, it’s used in a prosaic sort of way of stating the obvious:

“Man, it’s cold outside.”

“It is what it is.”

 “Gee, thanks! Now I get it.”

Shouldn’t that expression be saved for something of major import?

“I have a difficult time accepting that the Higgs boson ‘God Particle’ theory may be responsible for all the mass in the universe.”

“It is what it is.”

Better yet, it should not be used at all!

There is, of course, a place for jargon, which is the language of professionals. But often jargon escapes from these highly technical fields into the general population and becomes a substitute for real thinking.

Fortunately, jargon words and phrases fall out of favor. Many useless words and phrases have, thankfully, passed their expiration date like old milk and have been relegated to the dung heap of verbiage history. We can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that none of us are synergistic anymore and, unless I’m mistaken, there haven’t been that many paradigm shifts as of late. Sadly, though, there are still many among us still recuperating from the trauma of reverse engineering.

As surely as day follows night, there will always be a new crop of jargon words and phrases reaching for their moment in the sun, such as re-imagining, that will be foisted upon an unsuspecting public like a virus.

And while I’m on the subject of useless jargon, I’d like to take a moment to mention the bastard child of jargon: unnecessary superlatives. I once went to a Blockbuster video store - remember those? - and the clerk asked, “Did you find everything okay?” When I answered in the affirmative, he responded in an enthusiastic: “Awesome!”  

Unless I missed something, there was nothing particularly awesome about that experience. I’m not sure what is awesome these days - perhaps watching a Space Shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral or the birth of your first-born son? But surely not a routine visit to a now-defunct video store chain.

But for many, at the end of the day, moving forward, when all is said and done, spouting useless jargon and unnecessary superlatives is, apparently, wicked awesome and all good.

Essayist Kipp Friedman’s work has appeared online at Smith Magazine and the Huffington Post.  He’ll read from his memoir, Barracuda in the Attic, this Friday afternoon at the Chai Point Senior Living facility in downtown Milwaukee.