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Junking Jargon

As the popularity of buzzwords has grown, so has criticism of the use of ill-defined terminology in a sector that makes tall claims of transparency and accountability. Development communications must purge meaningless jargon used to gloss over, qualify, or even glorify outcomes.

Moin Qazi |

You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere. ~ Lee Iacocca 


We live in an age where noisy posturing often substitutes reasoned debate and brash opinion trumps hard facts. The thread of logic often disappears in a blizzard of gee-whiz statistics, too many fancy acronyms, and catchphrases that are liberally sprinkled by our contemporary crop of intellectuals. It is virtually impossible nowadays to avoid the torrent of clichés and buzzwords, which time and time again keep assailing our ears in professional as well as personal interactions. The provenance of both is easily discernible. For example, in science: “A window of opportunity” (from NASA’s reference to a launch window). Or, in sports: “Step up to the plate” (to move near a baseball plate to strike the pitched ball). 

These glib talkers believe they can outsmart audiences with complex vocabulary. We live in times when pressing problems are assailing us every minute. In such challenging times, we need smart action, not smart talk. We need to motivate people with concrete ideas. We need less jargon and more plain words for real impact. It is only then that we can expect a clear understanding of issues and solutions; this is necessary for decisive action to take place. 

Smart talk doesn’t guarantee meaningful communication or necessarily lead to effective action. By using ambiguous buzz- words without making their particular application clear, the speakers waste time and effort for both themselves and the audience. Nobody wants to check your elocution skills. You may sound confident and articulate, but the ambiguous language makes things appear unnecessarily complicated. The talk may sound impressive but doesn’t give a clear understanding of the problem and serves no useful purpose. Smart talk and unnecessary jargon often lead to confusion resulting in inaction, inefficiency, and failed projects. 

Bureaucratic language concentrates on defining a poverty line. Here the terminology is abstract, technical, and almost neutral. For the poor, poverty is not a matter of definition. It is the harsh reality of daily life. Moralizing language makes a judgment about the behaviour of the poor, depicting them either as dangerous, irresponsible, lacking in motivation, or as innocent, unfortunate, and needy. 

A variety of eggheads and starry-eyed academics in their ivory towers spray jargon like confetti in their theories. The inventiveness and popularity of new buzzwords lie in their vagueness and how they conceal more than they reveal. Some of them cloak the whole issue in an aura of “it needs no further questioning.” But much of this bloating swirl of executive flourish is empty rhetoric. All the appealing metaphors on websites and in academic works which are so heavily dropped in conclaves ~ “the poverty trap”, “the ladder of development” and “ground-breaking innovation” ~ go limp under the magnifying glass. 

Repeating tired platitudes and bumper-sticker slogans might win you a few “cool points” in social media circles, but they will only take you so far if you’re truly striving to bring about change. People loathe hearing the same old ideas over and over again. What stops the world from intervening is perhaps the reality that specialist languages are almost entirely illogical to ’lay people’ ~ because they are designed to be exclusionary. 

Once you are locked into language, all you do is just keep shuffling a set pack of a few thousand words that have become fatigued on account of overuse and have also spawned a variety of meanings. In a way, things were more perfect when you couldn’t describe anything. Your emotional gestures and formal expression made a better communication medium. 

The human condition is fundamentally one of constant translation ~ of thoughts and ideas into words ~ for the sole purpose of sharing understanding with others. All writing, all language, is, therefore, a process of translation of our perceptions of the world, of images, floating inside of our heads, of our desires and our fears into words and then again, in turn, from words into perceptions and fears and desires of others, ad infinitum, a never-ending cycle of translation. Between our ideas and our audience, we are impaired by the same pack of words Buzzwords are normally a refuge of the Western-educated elite. Capacity-building, inclusive growth, environmental sustainability, poverty eradication, community-driven action, collaboration, participatory action, and anti-oppression are just some examples of terms thrown around by professionals. Like a tribe obsessed with buzz-words, elitists beguile themselves and their audience with clichés like neo-colonialism, academic- imperialism and other resonant phrases. They have to be intensely wrung for meaning. When words are hung to dry out of context, they become fair game for anyone who wants to fill in meaning to create mischief. Buzzwords are a by-product of a new intellectual culture where conferences are substitutes for work, paperwork is substituted for action and perquisites are the substitute for truly earned rewards. Donors simply use the jargon of participatory development for political or public relations purposes while continuing to operate in a top-down manner. 

Adept at wordplay, some “experts” obscure real concerns behind a fog of jargon and euphemism. As the legendary philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche puts it: “All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” Experts live on a planet of their own ~ usually in total disconnect with the average citizen and their common issues ~ dominated by summits, conclaves and conferences. Each one is considered an important saloon for designing some unique and/or path-breaking solutions. Laptop-wielding mentors serenade and strut with their stuff on the conference stage releasing epigrams like white doves. If we want to move the needle on tough problems, recycling jargon and reusing the same old frameworks will never be good enough. It is easy to dish out lectures but it is harder to put into practice solution-based models and still harder to practice what you think. Any debate about an economic policy that also takes care of the poor, for example, is usually tortuous, long-winded and insular. There is a tendency to stay away from the common ground for common goals. Promises of prosperity are wrapped in populist platitudes. Most participants avoid speaking their minds. Speeches are littered with the same old boring epithets ~ “long-term economic plan” and the groans which accompany it. Say- ing we need a strong economy isn’t enough, so the new marker for economic success is “inclusive” growth. The word development itself, Gilbert Rist observes, has become a “modern shibboleth, an unavoidable password”, which comes to be used “to convey the idea that tomorrow things will be better, or that more is necessarily better”. 

However, he goes on to note the very taken-for-granted quality of “development” and many of the words used in the development discourse leave much of what is done in its name unquestioned. Development policy-makers keep using the word “holistic” the way environmentalists use the word “sustainable”. 

Meanwhile, Presidents, Prime Ministers, plutocrats, puppets, dictators, heads of scientific bodies and development organisations and barons of finance parade in their pinstriped suits, labour in their ivory towers and ride in their jets even as poor people continue to suffer the pangs of struggle. The world is facing a dearth of revolutionary ideas. A great deal of the dialogue is as lengthy and stilted as those of the self-imposed predicaments of the pious, along with their self-pitying solipsism. The glitz of advertisements, posters, brochures, campaigns, publicity material and fancy talks overflow with verbiage and rhetorical grandeur that give an impression of a mountain going into labour. And what we get at the end is just a mouse. 

Buzzwords normally gain their purchase and power through their vague and euphemistic qualities, their capacity to embrace a multitude of possible meanings and their normative resonance. 

It is very tempting to coin new terms, by casting aside old ones. The complex terminology of social scientists, with its multitude of definitions and approaches, is the despair of politicians. Meanwhile, those directly concerned with the issues being ad- dressed fail to recognise themselves in the welter of conflicting jargon. We use corporate “jibber-jabber” to make something obvious sound more complicated and smarter than it is. Worst of all, we see widespread use of such pretentious jargon as “attitudinal judgmentalism”, “degasification”, “symbiotic linkage” and “splinterisation”. We use them to make the obvious and straightforward sound cerebral and exciting. Bureaucrats who write poverty-reduction frameworks outrank individuals who reduce poverty. They favour doctrinaire abstractions such as “market-friendly policies,” “good investment climate,” and “pro-poor globalization” over the freedom of individuals. Meetings have now degenerated into a quagmire of nonsensical verbal piffle. Popular phrases such as “think outside the box”, which date back to the early ‘70s or “I may have a window for you”, are the most worn-out and fatigued phrases. They can at best provide a periodic gust of corporate hot air in chilled boardrooms. 

The buzzword lexicon contains several codewords that have an encumbered nuance and are barely intelligible to those beyond the borders of subject specialists. It captures one of the qualities of buzzwords: to sound “intellectual and scientific”, beyond the understanding of the layperson. 

Some have their meanings transformed as they are put to the service of dialogue and debate. Among them, social capital and gender are examples, with applications far distant from the theoretical debates with which they were originally associated. Similarly, empowerment is a term that has perhaps the most expansive semantic bandwidth. 

Very often, development seminars resonate with buzzwords like participation, sustainability and marginalisation and end in copious policy statements. As the popularity of some of them has grown, so has criticism of the use of ill-defined terminology in a sector that makes tall claims of transparency and accountability. Development communications must purge meaningless jargon used to gloss over, qualify or even glorify outcomes. Johann Wolf- gang von Goethe has summed it up very pithily: “When ideas fail, words come in very handy.” 

Discussions and seminars on poverty, hunger and starvation are organised at swanky hotels. Much disservice has been done to the cause of rural development on account of the verbose fog that envelopes such conferences. The entire development sector needs “rightsizing” so that we do away with these revenue guzzlers; it will ensure that projects become “sustainable” and “scalable” and can have a real “impact”. 

The least we can do is examine the vocabulary we use and seek to speak plainly and honestly. As Primo Levi reckons in The Drowned and the Saved: “Without a profound simplification, the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions… We are compelled to reduce the knowable to a schema.”