World in Brief: Jargonbuster

Reckless drivers, multiple pile-ups

The World Today
1 minute READ

An ‘analyst’ at a ‘wealth manager’ was quoted in a newspaper the other day saying that ‘the growth in the trust’s net asset value is likely to be the biggest driver of returns over the long term’. Which, given that he couldn’t really say, ‘You will make a profit if the value of your investments goes up,’ was about all that he could say.

But ‘drivers’ are increasingly escaping academia – social science is probably responsible, the thinking being that engineering analogies make the humanities sound rigorous – and invading business life. Lord Coe, athlete, politician and Olympics supremo, is now ‘Vitality Ambassador’ for PruHealth, in which capacity he speaks fluent jargon: ‘One of the top drivers of employee engagement is senior management demonstrating an interest in employee well-being.’

From business, this language has invaded the public sector, where there is now something wrong with you if you do not start a meeting by setting out the main drivers of change over the coming period.

‘Drivers’ is one of an expanding family of scientific-sounding words used to lend an air of precision to unformed, abstract ideas. ‘The space’ is another: ‘In the community action space,’ for example, means almost nothing, but carries what must have seemed to its early adopters a pleasing association with measuring area or volume and determining how much community action might fit into it. That may also be why ‘parameters’ is so popular. A parameter is, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, a ‘factor forming one of a set that defines a system or sets the conditions of its operation’. Nowadays it is usually used in the plural to mean boundaries, presumably because it sounds like ‘perimeters’. And that may be why so many things follow a ‘trajectory’, because it gives the impression that a sales target has been plotted on squared paper by people in white coats.

One such usage that has been gaining ground is ‘multiple’, instead of ‘many’, ‘lots of’ or ‘several’. Presumably people think it sounds more sophisticated – after all, it is sort of mathematical, isn’t it? – than plain English. It has recently spread to multiple media.