The terminology trap. Is jargon bad for us?

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Other than persuading an audience to act, a copywriter's mission is to deliver clear and concise communication. Writers claim this is an underappreciated art, so it's always useful to examine the ways in which language can be used for the opposite purpose - to conceal truth and mislead readers or listeners.

On a blog appearing on the BBC website this week, a very eloquent man made just this point. But he's not a copywriter, journalist or author - he's a caring and concerned father of a young man with autism and other learning challenges. His name is Mark Neary and his son is Steven.
In his piece, Mark explains why the environment for carers is so difficult and how the care sector tends to be weighted towards senior management, overly directed by monetary concerns and tangled in confused strategy. Above all, he notes that straightforward communication is a rarity, often replaced with euphemistic language and inaccurate terminology.

As funding is reduced, care centres are closing. For Mark and Steven, these facilities are a lifeline as they give respite and professional support, so their withdrawal is not good news. You wouldn't know this from the letters Mark has received though. These missives assure him these closures are actually a positive thing because they 'promote independence'.
Mark has also been told he can now access  something called 'service user choice'. As he points out, on the face of it, this sounds like a  welcome opportunity. But it actually involves Mark being given a budget to buy care for Steven. However, the funds are insufficient to cover the services required. He has been told the shortfall is known as 'a fairer charging policy'. To Mark, it looks more like a bit of a fiddle.   

Obviously, as Mark is the author of the blog, we only have his side of the story. I'm quite sure the local services working with Steven would say this terminology is vital to the smooth-running of their organisations and their professional activities. This may well be so and I don't relate this story as a criticism of policy or the ways in which any department is run. As a writer, I'm more interested in the effect of 'official' language. And I wonder what impact all this jargon is having on Steven.

Of course, this is a broad issue and the public care sector isn't unique in its use of jargon. Indeed,  the advertising industry is very prone to the use of 'insider' language. Words like 'scamps', 'storyboards', 'calls to action' and 'integrated campaigns' crop up on an hourly basis. The same is true of high finance, the law, engineering and hairdressing. All trades and professions have their impenetrable, exclusive vocabulary and any attempt to outlaw it would be naive and ridiculous. But that is no reason to ignore its effect.

We all know politicians are particularly guilty of waffle and obfuscation, and we roll our eyes at their love of spin and deception. Hopefully, when an advertisement mangles language in an effort to make a product or service more appealing, we are equally ready to condemn its clumsiness. But when the lives of vulnerable people become consumed by this modern tendency for gloss and misdirection, the outcome should be cause for real anxiety.

Words are wonderfully powerful. They give us literature, culture, civilization and yes, advertising. So, when we deploy them, in a blog, press release, marketing campaign or letter,  we owe it to the reader to act wisely. Whether we're tackling a project for a client or planning the care of a fellow human, clear, honest and transparent communication is of the utmost importance.

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant.



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