December 31, 2015

Substitute for thought

What most jargon seeks to achieve is exclusivity and a promotion of the notion that the user of a language few understand is somehow more efficient or more professional than the rest of us. Never mind that we see through the game; never mind that jargon is usually pretentious, inaccurate and jarring to the ears. The cute acronyms and the sonorous phrase is meant to awe and impress those not in the inner circle; that is its main function.

Shipping- the birthplace of the wonderfully imaginative language of the lascars- has reduced itself today to stealing jargon from wherever it can find it. Managers love to ‘introduce’- usually at seminars where hostage seamen have no option but to listen- some ‘new concept’ under a suitably impressive sounding name and pretend it is their invention. That it is usually copied and pasted from other professions- often general management or, with safety, the airlines industry- is beside the point. What is not is that this jargon- like all others- misleads, substitutes style for substance and tries, consciously and otherwise, to make a fool of us all.

The jargon shipping likes to steal is also often plain incorrect and is sometimes intended to be so. Take the term ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,’ applied particularly in the last few years to seamen pirate hostages. To me, PTSD is simply shell shock, but by giving it a softer, less urgent sounding acronym, the industry- like the many armies who have substituted the term PTSD for shell shock- downplays the debilitating nature of the problem and pretends it is not urgent. The softer sounding PTSD allows everybody to postpone treatment or ignore the problem altogether. They may actually have to do something about it if they called it what is actually is- shell shock.

Another one I always find wistfully amusing is ‘Near Miss’ because it always brings up the image of a pretty girl walking by so close that I can smell her perfume. That, folks, is a near miss. Two ships almost colliding in the middle of the Pacific is not a near miss. It is a near hit and should be called so. I will bet that, if you called it a Near Hit, everybody- including the people on the ship- would take the incident much more seriously. (Besides, how can you nearly miss? That is like saying somebody is nearly pregnant.)

Don’t forget the stolen management jargon! Don’t get me started on the meaningless, annoying words that we love to steal from those business executives who are busy justifying their existence and who our managers love to copy. Even the word ‘management’ is quite useless- everybody who works manages something or the other- but it is still less galling than many others that shipping loves to ape. Phrases like ‘pushing the envelope’, ‘paradigm shift’, ‘leverage’, ‘core competency,’ ‘CSR activities,’ ‘empowerment’, ‘our corporate values’ (Ha Ha) and ‘Best Practices’ are (sorry, Shakespeare) “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

My favourite, however, is ‘take it to the next level’. (Maybe they should just take it away instead and be done with it.)

I suppose all jargon is, in the end, a deficit of imagination. But that would still okay; the problem becomes when jargon is used, intentionally or otherwise, to mask real meaning. And the problem is that jargon is too often used- in shipping and elsewhere- as a substitute for thought. 



AnujSahai88 said...

hi Manu, this is not fair - it took me so long to learn all these jargon and now with ne blog and you have undone it all...

having said, that i actually got sick of it myself and gave up trying to sound like a very well read guy and now enjoy time playing second fiddle in the salvage world - to me real good salvors are real good sailors too.. they do not have much time for small talks and go about doing what they like quietly and religiously.

been a long time since we communicated - would like my next india trip b=via Bangaluru and catch up with you...


manu said...

Hi Anuj,

Long time. Do I understand that you are sailing now? If so, congratulations!

Coincidentally, on my part I seem to have got fed up of shipping altogether, and am not writing about it any longer.

I have your old lr email id. If you send me your current one here (I won't publish it) we can communicate more easily.