After Hours

Jargon good. Buzzwords bad.

I've heard it said before that Jargon is bad. People talk about how jargon makes it difficult for the layperson to understand what you're saying. Sure, I understand that. You need to be able to communicate with people. Jargon is just a tool, not a weapon — and you shouldn't use it as a way to assert your dominance as the Alpha Geek. It's just not a good idea. Only putzes do that, people unworthy of the terms they use.

Jargon, however, is not a collection of buzzwords. I occasionally see people confuse the two terms. "Actionable" isn't jargon; it's a buzzword. Eliminating buzzwords from your vocabulary, except for ironic use, is generally a good idea. Eliminating jargon just makes you less effective. In a high tech field, it can make you entirely ineffective.

Jargon's primary purpose is as a specialized language of expertise. It is used to convey concepts common to a field of expertise quickly and expressively. It serves as a means of facilitating communication. It is, in that respect, the complete opposite of a buzzword.

Buzzwords obfuscate. They are the language of marketing and propaganda. Their purpose is to convey whatever you want to hear. Buzzwords are used not to make the truth clear, but to make you think it is.

Jargon is the language of experts. Buzzwords are the language of salesmen. Please don't confuse the two.

Let's try an exercise. I'll provide two sentences: one will be filled with buzzwords, the other with jargon. I'll even identify the buzzwords and jargon terms for you. All you have to do is restate the sentence using words that are not buzzwords or jargon, and make the sentences as clear as possible. Let's see how that works.

buzzwords: This is a componentized, next generation enterprise turnkey solution for empowering your holistic outfrastructure.

jargon: I need you to mount the root filesystem from the slave drive in the home directory so we can create a backup.

The buzzwords are:

  • componentized
  • next generation
  • enterprise
  • turnkey
  • solution
  • empowering
  • holistic
  • outfrastructure


The jargon terms are:

  • mount
  • root
  • filesystem
  • slave
  • drive
  • home
  • directory
  • backup


I'm impatient to see some amusing translations of the buzzword sentence. That could be amusing. I'm just not sure it's translatable into real, honest English, so I'm not holding my breath. I know for a fact that there's no way to recreate the jargon sentence without jargon unless you create a sentence of such complexity that the average layperson would get lost, at best, halfway through — no matter how common the words you use.

In case you're curious, you get no points for answers to the problem that break up one sentence into two or more sentences.

Historical note: I've used the jargon sentence, pretty much word-for-word, before. I've never quite heard the buzzword sentence, though that's mostly because I've never heard "holistic" and "outfrastructure" in the same breath. I don't see why that couldn't happen, though, considering some of the other newspeak buzzword-compliant drek I've run across.

Technical note: Jargon also serves a secondary purpose of helping experts identify one another. Some hiring managers, who cannot tell the difference between buzzwords and jargon, will attempt to use buzzwords as a metric for the skill of a prospective employee. That's one of the most obnoxious uses of buzzwords I've ever run across — despite the fact that I can BS my way through such an interview with the best of them. The only upside is telling the interviewer that I don't want the job after I've dazzled him with his own nonsense.


Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

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