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The Al Jazeera news network described its recently announced layoffs as "a workforce optimisation initiative," trying to smooth over the sting with fancy-sounding words.

Language Matters in Life and Business: Plain Language Matters

A federal judge handed MetLife a victory yesterday, rescinding the government’s designation of the nation’s largest life insurer as a “systemically important financial institution” (SIFI) – in common parlance, a finance company that’s too big to fail.

A company bearing the SIFI label is scrutinized more closely and must put aside more capital against the hard times that somehow always seem to come. Now GE has asked for its SITI designation to be dropped too.

The phrase “systemically important financial institution” is an awkward Latinate mouthful. If you know that “systemic” means something that affects an entire system rather than just one or some of its parts, you can take the meaning – provided you also take the necessary moment to wrap your brain around all those syllables.

huh jargonIt certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue like “too big to fail,” the neat, compact Anglo-Saxon phrase that became ubiquitous after the financial crisis of 2008.

Business remains mired in jargon and other obfuscatory language. The Al Jazeera news network described its recently announced layoffs as “a workforce optimisation initiative,” trying to smooth over the sting with fancy-sounding words. Boeing, which yesterday acknowledged it plans to cut some 4,550 jobs, simultaneously squeezed out this contradictory awfulness: “There is no employment reduction target. The more we can control costs as a whole, the less impact there will be to employment.”

And then there’s jargon. Just do an internet search for “business jargon” and you’ll find a whole ecosystem of jargon dictionaries, complaints, lists, articles, and websites bemoaning the preeminence of meaningless or deceptive buzzwords and phrases. Forbes has a whole slideshow of its choices for “most annoying business jargon.” (Prime examples: “core competency” and “best practice.”)

I was blindsided by a bizarre word choice at a company where I used to work, when a top executive replaced the already annoyingly jargony new noun “takeaway” with the noun “learn.” That’s right, “learn” as a noun. As in, “What are our learns from the outcome of this project?”

I also had to compile lists of “best practices” and pay lip service to the philosophy of “continuous improvement” bequeathed to the business world by Toyota. Thanks, Toyota.

Perhaps surprisingly, governments have tried harder than businesses to clarify their language. A “plain language” initiative begun during Bill Clinton’s administration was codified in federal Plain Language Guidelines in 2011. I haven’t heard any news on that front in years, though.

Businesses aren’t making much of an effort to clear things up for customers. Ever try to read an entire Terms of Service agreement before you click the box saying you’ve read it?)

The Center for Plain Language is on the case, giving awards for clear language and calling out bad writing. The Canada-based Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN) “brings together plain language supporters and practitioners from around the world” and “promotes clear communication in any language.”

In England, land of the Mother Tongue, the Plain English Campaign bestows Golden Bull Awards on the most obfuscatory language it can find. Here’s a 2015 Golden Bull winner, received from the West Hampshire Clinical Commissioning Group in response to a customer’s question about National Health Service Continuing Healthcare:

In deciding whether a person has a primary health need the representatives will consider whether the nursing or other services required by that person are:

a) where the person is, or will be, accommodated in a care home, more than incidental or ancillary to the provision of accommodation which a Local Authority is, or would be, but for a person’s means, under a duty to provide; or

b) of a nature beyond which a Local Authority whose primary responsibility is to provide social services could be expected to provide

and if it decides that the nursing or other health services required do, when considered in their totality, fall within paragraph (a) or (b), it must decide that the person has a primary health need.

Got that? Good. Because the health of you or your loved one may depend on it.


About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.