Jargon in Public Communication

By Elaine Orr


Every field has its specialized vocabulary, and public administration is no exception.  There is value to this shorthand, commonly referred to as jargon.  We can communicate more efficiently and readily identify kindred spirits.

The disadvantages seep in when we use professional jargon for public consumption.  When specialized language is used in articles or speeches written for a broad readership (or listenership), it can lead to confusion or annoyance.

ImageGenerally, politicians are quite good at not lapsing into bureaucratese or geek speak (two great examples of jargon).  They know voters might be turned off and opponents would love to quote anything that makes an incumbent seem out of touch with constituents.

For managers and academics, jargon is more likely to creep into conversation.  When public administrators write for professional journals, it’s expected.  Phrases such as entrepreneurial management paradigm seem to roll off the tongue more readily than explaining that there is a belief that private sector techniques would improve public management.

However, using the phrase at a county commissioner meeting could get the speaker a one-way ticket to a single term commissioner’s seat.

Jargon is not limited to public administration or even the public sector.  For example, how much would you pay to never be told to “think outside the box” or “push the envelope”?

On the other hand, the term “helicopter parents” succinctly conveys the parents who hover over a child’s every activity, generally insisting that their cherub can do no wrong.  And it sounds nicer to refer to someone as a “helicopter parent” rather than as an over-involved interferer.

“Sandwich generation” is useful shorthand for mid-lifers dealing with young children and aging parents.

Occasionally language choices appear to be employed because users think it makes them look more knowledgeable.  For example, you can “say” something or “articulate” it, and the message should be the same.

An action can “make a difference” or be “impactful.”  The latter is such a new word that spell check does not recognize it, so there may be hope that it can leave the lexicon (otherwise known as the dictionary).

The neat thing about English is that we are more open than other languages to introduce new words, and quick to move a catchy phrase to general use or…jargon.  Spyware does not refer to espionage clothing, and you have to think for a second or you will mix up a couch potato with its more recent cousin, the mouse potato.  Each of these phrases conveys something specific in clear shorthand form.

ImageThe ultimate jargon has become texting abbreviations.  I can remember what email I was reading and who sent it when I finally figured out that btw was not an abbreviation for between.  Having said that, IMHO, we r done here. CU FTF at the ASPA mtg!


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