The Ubiquitous Overuse of Jargon

By Michael Kaufman

A recent column in the Times Herald-Record took educators to task for allegedly using too much confusing jargon and too many unfamiliar acronyms befuddling to most other people. The writer, who covers education for the paper, cited “proficiency” as an example of confusing jargon. I don’t agree. I think most people know what proficiency means without having to turn to a dictionary. As for the acronyms, however, I concur, although her complaint applies to many fields of endeavor. It strikes me as a tad unfair to single out for criticism the beleaguered and too-often maligned people whose job is to oversee the education of children in our public schools.

Nevertheless, the column evoked more than a few memories that brought some smiles (and a scowl or two) to my face: I recalled the first meeting I attended after getting hired to write copy for a medical advertising agency. When they all started arguing about whether to use a “BRC” in a direct mail piece, I interrupted to ask what BRC stood for. …and was met by silence and bemused stares until someone finally explained that BRC is short for “business reply card.” Doh.

At another agency my first assignment was to work with a project manager who told me she needed a quick turnaround on some copy for a “chit card.” She was appalled when I asked her what a chit card is. I don’t remember the answer; only that it didn’t require  many words and she was happy with how it turned out. So if anyone reading this needs a quick turnaround on copy for a chit card…. I’m your man.

When I worked for a company that published news periodicals for medical professionals we had a “velox” machine that produced copies of photos and other illustrations. The “veloxes” were pasted with wax on to “boards” (actually cardboard sheets) along with the galleys of copy when the pages were laid out before being sent to the printer. (One time my assistant editor on Dermatology News put the boards on the radiator in our office and all of the veloxes and galleys peeled off. Another time he spilled his coffee on the boards.) In those days we would also talk a lot about PMS with the art director. (Not that PMS; this had to do with the color of ink used on pages that contained color.) We used a lot of PMS blue because that was what we used in the masthead (or maybe it was the flag) and it was cheaper to use the same color on other pages if they went on press on the same sheet.

We had a managing editor who liked to assert his authority by ordering us to add or delete hyphens willy-nilly (or is it willy nilly) even when our publications were in “blues” and making changes became more expensive so we were only supposed to make important ones. He ordered me to change a headline once when we were in blues: I had used the acronym EB instead of writing out Epideromolysis Bullosa above an article on the front page.  It was a one-column headline and the change would have meant cutting copy and remaking two pages because the story jumped to another page. But he insisted, “Nobody will know what EB means. They might think it means East Boston.”

I said dermatologists would know and even if someone didn’t they would soon find out because it was spelled out in the lead.”

“Change it.”

“Now, when we’re in blues? Why didn’t you ask for this before when you reviewed the Xeroxes of the pages?”

“Change it!”

“You’re a bully!” I said. When he didn’t blink I told him he was an AH and walked away.

You don’t have to be acronym proficient  to get the idea.

Michael can be reached at

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