Sarah Glazer mulls over the obscurity of techno-jargon

I’ve been thinking about how much our job as writers involves translation—even in our own language.  Recently, an environmentalist friend asked me to write a blog for the general public about what cities are doing to improve their environment and prevent climate change.

As background, he sent me several documents on the topic by environmental advocates. In despair, I found myself lost in a marsh of impenetrable techno-jargon.

But the jargon wasn’t about scientific subjects; it was about the everyday aspects of our lives. It was written in what I’ve come to dub UN-speak—for the language that pollutes all those international documents generated around any international agreement.

Terms like “resources” (don’t you mean “money”?) and “stakeholders” (do you mean “people”--and which ones?) litter these documents, leaving the reader in a haze of vagueness, grasping desperately for a concrete notion.

As a writer, I often find myself playing the role of the naïve reader. “What do you mean by this phrase?” I ask the original writer, who is often surprised to learn that we don't all share this common language.

Idealistic young college graduates learn to use techno-jargon as a way of getting accepted into a community of experts. One young graduate working for this environmental group proudly sent her mother the report she had written about combating climate change--only to be told that her mother couldn’t understand it.

This story reminded me of the best piece of advice I ever got from an editor. It was the summer of 1972, and I had just joined an army of idealistic new college graduates working for Ralph Nader on a project that we hoped would revolutionize Congress in the upcoming election. We wanted our journalistic profiles of incumbent Members of Congress to blow open the doors on secret campaign contributions from lobbyists as well as the candidates' voting records. “Remember,” this editor told us budding young journalists, “you are writing for your sisters and brothers, your mothers and fathers.”

Her advice immediately brought to mind a mental picture of how we might describe these politicians around the dinner table with our siblings and parents, intelligent but not necessarily schooled in the inside-baseball of the Capitol.

Of course, many of the terms that drive me crazy started out with perfectly good concrete meetings. In 1998, The New York Times’ word maven William Safire was already a little puzzled by the frequent use of “stakeholder” in the speeches of Tony Blair, then leader of Britain’s Labor Party. At a reception for journalists in Washington, D.C., Safire asked Blair what we meant by the word.

“That’s from an American expression, I think,” Blair responded. “From your frontier days.”

 True enough, Safire agreed. When Western frontier land was made available to anyone who would cultivate and live on it, a “stake” became a section of land marked off  by stakes and lived on by the farmer.

Safire noted that the term “stakeholder” was morphing into a new usage analogous to a “shareholder” in a company or organization. Apparently, it hadn’t yet started to litter the language as a substitute for describing practically anyone with an interest in a place, idea or movement.

The distinction between these two kinds of language—techno-speak and plain English—came home to me as I was watching the webcast of an international conference in Rio about cities and their most pressing challenges.

I snoozed through a talk by a British academic presenting numerical scores on how different cities’ transport systems rated on “mitigation” or “exacerbation” of social inequity.

But when the angry and impassioned mayor of Bogota got up to the lectern to speak on the same subject, he electrified the room. “Sometimes inequality is right in front of our nose,” Mayor Enrique Penalosa said. “When you see a bus stuck in a traffic jam,” filled with impoverished workers while cars driven by the wealthy zoom along a highway barred to buses, he said, “it’s just as unequal as women not being able to vote” in the 19th century.

Now there’s a quote I can use in my next blog about cities.

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Tags: jargon, language, words

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Comment by Lea Galanter on October 30, 2013 at 8:50am

Hear hear! The U.S. government has been trying to create clearer language -- I'd like to refer people to the Plain Language Guidelines website at www.plainlanguage.gov. Also, writers should adhere to the guidelines of Global English even when not preparing for translation -- the Simplified Technical English site has some free guidelines at www.asd-ste100.org. I deal with technical and marketing jargon every day as a technical editor. It makes my head hurt!

Comment by Alexandra Voorstaan on October 29, 2013 at 5:35pm

This quote is pinned on the bulletin board next to my desk: "Every act of communication is an act of translation."  - Gregory Rabassa (Gabriel Garcia Marquez translator)

Some days just getting the words out of my brain and on to the page seems like translating and I don't have to worry about techno-jargon.

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on October 28, 2013 at 12:40pm

I am so with you Sarah. When I had my brief turn as an entrepreneur, it was mind-boggling trying to keep up with the terminology. Things like "disruptive technologies" and "stickiness" to describe a website. And even when you catch on to some of them, you can look silly using them when others have moved on -- I once got kicked under the table for trotting out a stale term that made me look like an amateur.

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