Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine took a job at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, a New York-based organization that works on behalf of poor communities. To introduce me to his new world, he sent me a little book the foundation had published. It wasn't about philanthropy or poverty or fundraising; it was about jargon--specifically, the buzzwords and lingo endemic to foundation communications. With wit and concision, the book (titled In Other Words) flayed such foundational favorites as proactive ("This phony word, a creature of the 1970s..."), utilize ("...actually has a meaning of its own, different from 'use'"), and strategy ("...needs to be treated with the greatest distrust").
In Other Words is still on my bookshelf, but I hadn't thought about it in a while. Then I stumbled upon a post in The Artful Manager, a blog by Andrew Taylor about the business of arts and culture, that led me back to Edna McConnell Clark and to In Other Words. To my delight, I learned that the little book's author, Tony Proscio, has since written two more, and equally excellent, volumes, Bad Words for Good and When Words Fail. All three books are available for free download here. The site also includes an alphabetical jargon finder--from "access" through "windtunnel." (The latter bit of jargon was new to me; it's used in foundations to mean any kind of test, not just the one involving wind resistance.)
Making fun of jargon is good snarky fun, but Tony Proscio's intent is serious. In his introduction to In Other Words he writes:
The mere fact that words are obscure does not make them bad. But when any occupation's cognoscenti write to one another (and not, in the main, to anyone else) day after year after decade, they come to express themselves, like feral children, in unlovely grunts and wheezes that no one else can understand, and that in some cases lose their usefulness even within the discipline. ... Eventually, to the hapless, uninitiated citizen trying to pry some understanding out of all of this verbiage, the phrases cease to have any meaning at all. At that point, real public discussion ceases. Substance is lost, and only form remains.
Sage advice for anyone who swims in jargon-infested seas--and these days, that means most of us.