All stories

Corporate jargon: A brief history and the best solution

Think back to the last meeting that felt especially off-putting: Half the team discussing how to achieve alignment around the implementation of yet another value-add. Did someone double-click on a comment? Did the project manager offer to circle back to a previous discussion? Did a well-meaning contributor offer a paradigm shift? Be careful not to roll your eyes too far back or they might get stuck.

This proliferation of jargon in our daily lives is all the result of well-meaning humans grasping at the most available words, wherever they can. We guess that technical words will make us sound more knowledgeable. That big words will make us sound clever. All this has done is bury us in jargon, growing worse and worse until we’re drowning in a pool of corporate cliché.

Writing instructors have been telling us to stop for decades, and yet we haven’t. In 2020, I say enough is enough. We have the means (and the data) to put an end to the never-ending plague of jargon in the workplace.

Someone told us to stop in 1976

In 1976, journalist and writing professor William Zinsser published the first edition of On Writing Well. Since then, it has become a classic, with five expanded editions and even more reprints. Common among all the editions is Zinsser’s rage toward the "growing arsenal of jargon" in the American corporation:

"Beware, then, of the long word that is no better than the short word: 'facilitate' (ease), 'implement' (do), 'sufficient' (enough), 'attempt' (try) ... Beware, too, of all the slippery new fad words for which the language already has equivalents: paradigm and parameter, optimize and maximize, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don't dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don't interface with anybody."

These words, he prescribes, slow the reader down and make the writer seem pretentious. Forty years later, what has happened to these words?

Not what Zinsser would have hoped for.

Escalating the war on jargon

Over the twentieth century, strange words borrowed from military, political, and technical realms compounded and ended up in our emails and everyday conversations.

Graph of proliferation of jargon terms "leverage," align," "escalate"

Graph of proliferation of jargon terms "interface," "implement," "paradigm," interact"

Here are some of the most common jargon that have proliferated in the last fifty years:

  • Implement: In 1950, only five in 10,000 books had the word implement. By the year 2000, two in 1,000 books used it.
  • Escalate: Escalate used to only mean “to move upward,” but it gained metaphorical meaning during the Cold War, during which it expanded to include “to increase rapidly” as Americans reeled under the constant threat of nuclear disaster. Now we use it when a task becomes too big for one person to handle.
  • Paradigm shift: In the 1970s, this phrase moved out of scientific circles to describe anomalies and into business marketing material. Annoying listicles still talk about transformation in terms of paradigm shifts.

How did this happen? How did we come to a point where we talk like computers or politicians instead of regular humans?

These words don’t just show up in Google’s book catalogue. Real people write with them every day. Don’t believe me? Here’s how often these words showed up in the job posts written in Textio in just the last three months.

Bar chart of "Number of time Textio users replaced a common jargon word in the last 3 months" with data for "leverage/leveraging," "escalate/escalations," and "interface with"

In everyday business, thoughtful deliberate writing is a craft most of us don’t have time for. We don’t know how to get people to respond, so why not use leverage? It feels safe, professional, and everyone else uses it.

Putting a writing guide to the data test

Unfortunately for all of us (and probably to the delight of English teachers everywhere), recent language data reveals that Zinsser was right—and largely continues to be, with some important exceptions. The real shame is that no one listened in 1976. Jargon annoyed Zinsser in 1976 (and in 1980, 1985, 1990, and 2006), and continues to put us off today.

Graph plotting "Every time William Zinsser said not to use 'interface' until we finally stopped"

Recent data shows that interface, when used in job posts, slows down the job’s time to fill across the board. So does paradigm shift. Experience implementing is especially off-putting to IT professionals, the very people in charge of technology implementation.

Specific words aside, Zinsser’s key insight was to “never use the long word where the short word would do,” and he was right—again. Here are the alternatives that Textio’s data shows performs better than common corporate clichés:

Suggested phrase replacements from Textio platform for eight common corporate cliches

But Zinsser does get some things quite wrong.

He hates the word prioritize, preferring the word rank instead. But in 2020, the world is different than 1976. Today, prioritize isn’t a weed that smothers writing, it’s actually a real, important skill in our world of information overload. When you use it in your job posts, people are more engaged, and jobs fill faster.

One book cannot capture all the nuances of language in all places. Escalate works against you for most people and regions, but in Texas handle escalated issues helps fill your jobs faster. In Florida, identify and escalate problems works as well.

Even the best individual intuition is fallible.

Good writing in the age of augmented writing

William Zinsser’s book has become a classic because the insights he shares about words spoke to readers 40 years ago, and continue to speak to us today. Zinsser was a “good writer” because he intuited, long before people committed to using corporate jargon, that it alienates readers.

Most of us don’t have that kind of intuition for every bright new word that lands in our lap. And because we don’t know which words work, we hear colleagues we admire call a stimulating chat something inane like a high-bandwidth conversation.

But as much as Zinsser gets things right, his guidebook is a static document. Every subsequent edition has been an attempt to keep it up to date. But a reference document on a bookshelf is of no help to the everyday writer. Language evolves faster than the people who love words can study it. Augmented writing is here to help. With data at our fingertips, let’s break the vicious cycle of corporate jargon forever.

All stories
Get stories like these delivered right to your inbox.