Jargon Words Are the Hallmarks of a Pretentious Ass

As David Ogilvy once said, jargon words “are the hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”

And that’s how I feel when you use handshake as a verb when you mean to say “introduce.” Or a value add.

Too many business types, especially in the tech and social media world, can’t stop sounding like the Dack.com Bullshit Generator. They say things like “disintermediate bleeding-edge paradigms” and “synergize mission-critical infomediaries” without actually knowing what they mean.

(Seriously, go check out the Bullshit Generator and build your own sentence. Pick one term from each of the three columns, and you can generate phrases like “we matrix cross-media web-readiness.”

Here are 10 jargon words that we need to get rid of immediately

  1. A value add: From “value added,” which comes from “valuable.” Don’t make up a noun phrase when there’s a much better word available (see “on a going forward basis”). Like useful, helpful, vital, beneficial, prized, advantageous, and meaningful.
  2. Gill's Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon

    Gill’s Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon

  3. Drinking the Kool-Aid: For one thing, this is horribly offensive, since it refers to the Jonestown Massacre of 918 people in 1978. For another, the people who died in that mass murder-suicide drank Flavor Aid. But mostly you should stop using it since it mocks the deaths of more than 900 people.
  4. Onboarding: Sign up. Register. I hate this word so much that even though my spellchecker is flagging this word right now, I refuse to add it to my user dictionary. So it’s just sitting there, with a little red squiggle under it. This offends my sense of competitive perfection, but “onboarding” offends it even more.
  5. Frictionless: Easy. You know what’s easier to say than “frictionless?” “Easy.” It’s literally one syllable less. And if you ever say you have “a frictionless onboarding experience.” you deserve to be mocked openly by children. Just say “signing up is easy.”
  6. Learnings: They’re just “lessons.” There was nothing wrong with saying “lessons.”
  7. Learners: Students. You mean students — students learn lessons, learners do not learn learnings. If you feel funny calling adults in a conference breakout session students, then call them “participants” or “attendees.” I have never heard of a single example where “learners” was the best option.
  8. Handshake: I heard someone say they were in the business of “handshaking” companies together. At first, I thought she meant meeting new people. When she said it a second time — “we can handshake you to other companies” — I was worried she was having a stroke.
  9. A tweet I wrote about the jargon word "to socialize."

  10. On a going forward basis: From now on. Seriously, “going forward” was bad enough, but someone said, “You know what? That’s not complicated enough. Let’s add more words to it.”
  11. On the go forward. The bastard child of “on a going forward basis.” Seriously, I would rather you said “going forward” than to hear you utter this again.
  12. Socialize: Just say share. You socialize at a party, you don’t “socialize this data.” And if anyone ever says “socialize these learnings,” I’m going to scream.

Very rarely do bullshit words make effective jargon. There are some words that we use that started out as jargon words — Jeep, radar, scuba — but those are words that actually made communication easier. People got tired of saying “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” over and over.

And I understand that we need things like acronyms and acrostics to shorten some industrial terminology, like how emergency responders have to go through “NIMS” training, which refers to National Incident Management Systems. No one wants to say that every time.

But until and unless you can convince me that “on the go forward” is better than “from now on,” keep your bullshit jargon words where they belong: in an iron box that gets rocketed directly into the sun.

Photo credit: Joe Mabel (Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License)

Handshake is NOT a Verb

Turning nouns into verbs for business purposes is the Death Of A Thousand Cuts to writers and people who care about language. It kills us slowly, cut by cut. Blood drop by blood drop.

I recently heard someone say on a podcast, And when they’re really ready, we’ll handshake them to the investor community.

How do you handshake someone to someone else? What does that mean? Is that even a thing?

Yes, it means to introduce someone. They’re going to introduce people to the investor community.

So why don’t you just say “we’ll introduce them to the investor community?”

Uhh, this way sounds cooler?

No. It doesn’t. It sounds awkward. It sounds like someone tried to come up with some other name to mean the same thing they’re actually trying to say, only they want to say it differently.

I understand the sentiment. You want to introduce people to each other. When they are introduced, they will shake hands. So, you “handshake them” to someone else.

But there was nothing wrong with “introduce” in the first place. You’re taking something that was just fine, in perfect working order, and you improved it.

And by “improved it,” I mean “jumped up and down on it until it was a mangled heap, barely recognizable to even its own mother.”

The problem with business jargon is that people who use it just want to sound cool. They come up with some new term to mean something else.

People talk about “onboarding” when they mean “sign up.”

They “ideate” when they mean “come up with ideas,” or even “think.”

And they say “handshake to” when they mean “introduce.”

Hopefully you’ve never done this yourself. Hopefully you’ve never used “handshake” as a verb, at least when you’re introducing two people. (I understand it’s a term used to describe the way two computers communicate — they “handshake” with each other. But that’s the computer world.)

If you have, I won’t judge. I won’t cast aspersions on your character or demean your language abilities.

But I would ask you to stop it.

On a going forward basis.

Stop Using These Business Jargon Terms. You Sound Pretentious.

Some of the smartest people I know can be quite obtuse when it comes to language. Not because they use small words to express small ideas. No, rather they use really big, useless words to express small ideas.

“We create a frictionless user onboarding experience.”

Whenever you say “frictionless user onboarding,” a kitten dies.

GAAH! I just want to punch somebody in the neck when I see that. And I see it a lot.

(Update: Sean Molin pointed out that this particular gem was not created by 500px, but rather by Dan Leveille of Quora, who is not affiliated with 500 px.)

In fact, when I Googled the words “frictionless user onboarding process,” there were 112,000 results. In other words, 112,000 people thought this was a perfectly acceptable phrase to use.

As opposed to “Signing up is easy.”

Here are five other words you need to stop saying, because they make you sound like a pretentious snot.

  1. Leverage. It’s not a verb, it’s a noun. “Leverage” has become the 21st century’s “utilize,” with many of the same results: people hate it. Try an experiment the next time you want to say “leverage”: say “use” instead. “We are going to leverage use our customer database for a direct mail campaign.” Did it change the meaning? Of course not. So quit it.
  2. On a going forward basis. Seriously? The phrase “going forward” wasn’t bad enough? You had to go make it worse by adding three more words to it? Come on, man! The word you want is “later” or “from now on.” As in “we’ll start locking the door from now on.” Now, you’ve taken a two word turd of a phrase and added three more words, to mean exactly the same thing. But with more words.
  3. Brand. Yeah, yeah, I’m the personal branding guy. So why is this on the list? Because people are using it to mean “company.” They say “brand” instead of “company,” because apparently that’s what all the cool kids say. When did this happen? It used to be that “branding” referred to marketing collateral, logo, corporate colors, that kind of thing. It became, as Kyle Lacy and I mentioned in Branding Yourself “an emotional response people have to a company and logo, or a person and their reputation.” It should not be the company itself. It may be two more syllables, but go back to saying “company.” The other thing makes you sound vapid.
  4. Learner/Learnings. I was talking with a teacher one time, and she used the phrase “our learners.” “What are learners? I asked. She said “the students.” Then why don’t you call them students? I asked. “Because they’re learning and we’re educating. They’re learners and we’re educators.” Why can’t you call them students and teachers? “Well, it means the same thing.” If it means the same thing, then why can’t you just say the old thing? She didn’t have a good answer to that, and the conversation did not improve from there. Needless to say, I was not the first parent my daughter’s teacher wanted to talk to on Parent-Teacher night. And if I ever hear anyone use the word “learnings,” we are going to have a similar awkward conversation. It’s not “learnings,” it’s “lessons” or “material” or “information.” Learnings is not a noun.
  5. Frictionless. I already mentioned it, but I hate this word so much, I wanted to repeat it. (Hey, if any of this article hits home, you’re already used to people repeating things needlessly, so this won’t take up too much of your time.) Nothing is frictionless. Nothing, except the black Haggunenon ship from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And if you didn’t get that, then this joke wasn’t frictionless either. Say “easy,” “simple,” or “not that hard.”

The point of jargon is to make hard words easier to understand and say. But with the exception of substituting the three-syllable “company” with the single syllable “brand,” none of these jargony terms make life easier. If anything, they make it more difficult.

Although they give everyone else something to make fun of you for.

I think we’re supposed to call that “humorate” now.

Fastest Way to Stop Using Business Jargon? Stop Using Adjectives and Adverbs

You can always spot the new/bad writer — they’re the ones who fervently believe if they use dramatic, purple prose, with lots of flowery adjectives and fancy-schmancy words that end in -ly, the enthralled reader will be captivated by their breath-taking abilities.

No, it just makes me want to puke.

Similarly, you can tell the new/bad marketer, because they’re the ones who spew business jargon like a baby eating a cracker.

They also make me want to puke.

I found a slide deck on 15 marketing buzzwords (see below) we need to quit using now. I’m happy to say I don’t use 14 of them. (I still like to say “content marketing,” but now I feel guilty about it.)

But I also know that a lot of people create a lot of bullshit terms (check out the Dack.com bullshit generator here), and I realized what the problem was.

It’s adverbs and adjectives.

No, seriously!

Think about it. Ernest Hemingway is considered one of the greatest writers of our time, and it was a rare adjective that made its way into his prose. Same goes for adverbs. Why describe a verb, when you can just use a better verb?

And yet we do that with a lot of our marketing jargon as well.

  • Best-of-breed
  • Cutting edge
  • Value-added
  • Revolutionary
  • Scalable
  • Epic

And so on.

Sadly, this won’t eliminate all of the business jargon, but I’m hoping that just by limiting yourself to nouns and verbs — “I love this coffee” instead of “This is epic coffee!” — it may jar your brain enough to start speaking like a normal person again.

If you could even do this with your writing, you’ll find it’s much easier to read and understand.

(And yes, I realize “easier” is an adverb. But then again, I’m not Ernest Hemingway.)