I think Wandsworth is pretty good at avoiding ‘jargon’ in its communications, so don’t expect to be too embarrassed by The Local Government Association‘s (LGA) attack on jargon in councils. Indeed, generally I support the LGA in its stance. If councils can’t communicate with their residents, then you have to wonder who can. But I cannot help but feel they have got it slightly wrong.
Let’s nail the idea that jargon is necessarily bad straight away. It isn’t. Jargon is essential in virtually every business or trade. People use the word ‘jargon’ in a derogoratory way to simply refer to phrases they do not understand. But to people dealing with the particular concepts, ideas or tools jargon is essential, it’s a verbal short-hand. You will probably have some in your line of work that I would not understand. And for some reason we seem to accuse some jobs and professions more than others. We rarely hear doctors accused of using jargon, do we? But council staff? All the time, and I worry that actually reflects an inherent bias in our culture that values council staff less than doctors.
Jargon becomes inappropriate when it is used outside that trade. A lot of the words they use I would never consider using even when talking to other councillors or council officers. But some of them I do, because they have become that convenient short-hand that allows us to communicate efficiently, it takes a lot longer to describe a local area agreement without jargon than it does to refer to the LAA. But I wouldn’t expect the average person to know what an LAA is, or even, for that matter understand or care if it was explained to them. Most people want to know public services work, not how they work.
Where I have to depart company from the LGA when they start condemning perfectly good English words.
There is something disturbingly Orwellian about trying to chop words out of the language. I have two concerns about this. First, is that language is incredibly powerful, we use it every day but rarely acknowledge how much it shapes our world. One of the most striking successes of the 1997-2007 Labour governments was that they were incredibly good at adapting the political vocabulary, this effectively meant the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were reduced to arguing on Labour’s ground – they had defined the political territory and created the words and concepts to describe it. The opposition parties became tourists in a foreign land, reduced to speaking loudly and slowly in the hope of getting their message across.
Second, is that at best we are patronising people by using ‘simple’ language, and at worst conniving in the dumbing down of a population. The LGA has done a fantastic job of promoting their view, and they have picked up on some fine examples of where councils have reduced communication to meaningless jumbles of words and letters. But in doing so they’ve targeted some perfectly fine words; which will presumably become tragic victims of friendly fire in a noble cause. The most tragic, I think, is coterminous.
Coterminous is perfectly fine word. It has a defined meaning. It is used outside of local councils and is a word I knew long before I set foot in a council meeting (I’m guessing from maths at school). The LGA are suggesting that ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ is a suitable alternative, but unfortunately that’s not quite the same thing, in fact, nothing like the same thing. I even Tweeted my support of coterminous to the LGA yesterday (see here and here) but sadly it was not enough and they proceeded with their unprovoked attack on the defenceless word.
But like any good cause I am not alone, a chap called Ben Proctor has written a blog post in defence of this fine word. Hemming, publishers of The MJ, have also noted that not everyone is joining the LGA’s angry mob and picked up on some of the dissent. It will not be an easy fight but it will be a worthy one; coterminous is firmly in my top three words (along with ineffable and defenestrate) and I, for one, pledge to use it as often as possible. When it’s appropriate.