Should We Worry About Gobbledygook?

Photo by AlaskanLlibrarian (Flickr)Are the myriad gobbledygook terms that so many B2B writers warn against really just “imaginary bogeyman punching bags”? Is compiling a list of words that are overused and vague akin to burning books? Do the people who make those lists simply want to look smarter than everyone else?

In an article that is long on indignation and short on specifics, Steven Parker this week made just those claims. Writing on, he argued that “one person’s gobbledygook is another person’s precise, and often technical or professional term.” Moreover, he said, the people who speak out against jargon are driven not by a desire for better writing, but by elitism and political correctness: “while people are forgiving of imprecise terms if they are current slang or very popular, they’re unforgiving if the words are politically incorrect, not socially ‘cool’ or out of favor. They want to ‘ban’ them, or whine about them.”

Oddly, Parker never specifies a single word incorrectly labeled as gobbledygook, and only indirectly suggests what list makers he is targeting.

Clearly the most prominent of such list makers in the B2B world is David Meerman Scott, who published The Gobbledygook Manifesto in 2006. As ranked by frequency of use in press releases, his top-ten offenders that year (he’s since updated it) included  the terms next generation, flexible, robust, world class, scalable, easy to use, cutting edge, well positioned, mission critical, and market leading. A rebuttal to Scott’s view that these words are marred by overuse and imprecision might be possible, but Parker never attempts it.

More oddly still, after trashing lists of gobbledygook, Parker comes up with his own—the “real gobbledygook”. So perhaps his objection is not so much to the making of gobbledygook lists as it is to the particular words included. His list is OK, apparently, but the others constitute an “uppity, homogenized sniff test.”

I think we can be more generous. Whether or not you agree with the judgments of a list maker, you can still learn from them. Even if people like Scott did want to ban objectionable words (a claim Parker never substantiates), it wouldn’t matter. The value lies not in the judgments, but in making us think about our writing and about the specific words we use.

Even on this point, however, Parker demurs. He concludes his post by asking whether you should worry at all about using slang or jargon. No, he answers: “You should not waste one minute thinking about it.”

Though I don’t find his argument compelling or convincing, let alone supported by evidence, I’m glad that he made it. He got me to think yet again about the words I use and the ones I avoid, and why. And for that, I’m grateful.