The mortifying reason we will never give up office jargon

Pilita Clark: We like to use it to show off, especially when we feel insecure

If the BBC’s Line of Duty flounders, it won’t be because of the jargon in it. Photograph: Steffan Hill

Last weekend the BBC issued an unexpected clarification.

“CHIS, if you’re wondering, is a covert human intelligence source,” said an announcer at the end of the first episode of the new Line of Duty police drama series.

This was good to hear. Nearly 10 million people had watched the show and judging from Twitter a lot were, like me, baffled by the remorseless jargon its characters had spouted, especially the many mentions of what sounded like “chizz” or possibly “jizz”.

“Sorry to ruin your evening boss,” said one copper 40 seconds in, but there had just been “a call from a CHIS-handler submitting information”. “We can keep it on the DL,” said another, “only if we have got a CHIS inside MIT”.


Even for Brits, a nation of pub-quizzing trainspotters that gave the world the jigsaw, this was all a puzzle too far.

“Mother of God. So many acronyms!” tweeted one viewer. “Like wading through cold alphabet soup,” snorted a TV critic.

But here is a prediction: if Line of Duty flounders, it won’t be because of the jargon. Tedious plot lines and miscast actors, maybe. But now that we viewers know a CHIS is a snitch and an MIT is a murder investigation team, we have crossed a crucial line that explains why office jargon manages to be both insufferable and unstoppable. We have become insiders and frankly, we like it.

Academic research has been saying as much for years, pointing out that work jargon can make us feel closer to each other and easier to understand – eventually.

When I first joined the Financial Times, I was flummoxed by the way people spoke. “That’s going on second front but we could also put it in the cat flap,” an editor might say.

Cat flap

Translated, that means a mini version of a story going on the front page of the companies section inside the newspaper can be put on the bottom left-hand side of page one, with a picture, to let readers know it exists.

The cat flap was not to be confused with the “birdcage”, another version of the same thing on the upper right-hand side of page one, above the list of “briefs” – abbreviated mentions of stories inside. And both are different to the “skyline”, an information panel on the top of page one telling readers about other stuff in the paper to tempt them to buy it, and the “splash”, the main story on the front page.

Once you get to grips with all this, you can tell someone something faster and more accurately than if you try to do it without the in-house shorthand. I’m sure the same applies at times inside the police force, the military and other infamous repositories of jargon. The trouble comes when mindless jargon is deliberately used to obscure meaning. “We’re right sizing support roles” may sound better than “we’re sacking the office assistants”, but it inspires neither trust nor respect.

Yet a recent study suggests there is another, more embarrassing reason that jargon persists: we like to use it to show off, especially when we feel insecure. Researchers in the US found this after asking a bunch of MBA students to imagine they were entrepreneurs competing against other start-up founders for venture capital funding.

Deadening buzzwords

The students were given two descriptions of their company. Both documents had the same basic information but one was crammed with deadening business buzzwords such as “disintermediating” and “leveraging” and the other was not.

Can you guess which one the students chose when they were told they were pitching against successful MBA graduates, rather than lowly undergrads? Indeed they were far more likely to pick the jargon-jammed pitch when they thought they had less status than their rivals. Worse, when the researchers analysed 64,000 dissertations, they found authors from lower-ranked universities were more likely to shove acronyms and jargon into their titles than those from fancier colleges.

The conclusion, I fear, is obvious. No matter what we say, we will never give up jargon. And anyone who thinks otherwise should start leveraging some buy-in for a paradigm shift around the thought leadership space straight away.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021