A tale of jargon and the World’s Worst Press Release

It’s always good to see a new front opened up in the war against jargon. This month a couple of new books have taken up the theme – each of which contains some good reminders of the types of clichés and weasel words many of us have slipped into, but should probably try hard to slip back out of. This is particularly relevant for anyone speaking to journalists, or appearing on radio and TV who may not realise how easy it is to resort to gruesome work jargon, or try over-hard to sound relevant and contemporary.

The charmingly-titled How Not to Talk Like an Arse by Richard Wilson laments the everyday buzzwords and phrases that have long since lost the power to amuse or impress, – ‘comfort zone’, ‘action’ (as a verb), ‘back in the day’, ‘end of’, ‘I’m good’ and of course the notorious ‘going forward’. Tim Phillips’ Talk Normal, which arose from his witty blog of the same name, takes a more analytical approach, plotting graphically the rise and fall in usage of particular phrases in UK newspapers. For example – how, when speaking to reporters, politicians and business leaders have tended to abandon ‘problem’ for ‘issue’, ‘used’ for ‘utilised’, and stuff words with unnecessary syllables, creating absurd inventions such as ‘operationalise’.

I had thought a lot of this was an American thing, but Mr Phillips, a former newspaper sub-editor, informs us that British journalists tend to weed out far less jargon lifted straight from corporate press releases than their US counterparts. In fact press releases are probably the worst repositories of junk phrases, with technology companies worst of all – ‘end-user’, ‘cutting edge’, ‘scalability’ and the rest. Mr P reckons a 2006 Lucent press release was what he calls the ‘high-watermark in the tsunami of twaddle we experienced in the noughties’. It announced: ‘Six New European Value Added Distributors Contract to Resell Lucent’s Security Portfolio’. PR agencies please note: do try harder to persuade your clients to use plain English. Journalists please note: when they fail, please do the job yourself.