In Other Words: A plea for plain speaking in foundations by Tony Proscio

Picking up a book that is clearly going to be a diatribe against the use of jargon, one naturally hopes to find all one’s own particular bêtes noires roundly condemned. Reading of the ‘diabolical birth’ of the verb ‘to impact’ and the adjective ‘impactful’ is comfortable and reassuring. Seeing words we use all the time similarly condemned is less comfortable: strategic, proactive, capacity, empowering.

So what is jargon? How does it come about? And does it really matter? These are the questions Tony Proscio addresses in this witty and sometime worrying booklet.

All fields have their own jargon, but foundations use it more than most because they tend to absorb the jargon from all the different fields they work in. Words then start to appear everywhere, a required proof of seriousness. Foundation jargon is also particularly contagious: grantseekers not unnaturally use the buzzwords they feel grantmakers are looking for.

What’s wrong with a sentence like this one anyway: ‘Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a returns-on-investment rationale that can be modeled, drawing from existing practice.’ Even assuming that foundation professionals find this sort of thing easy to understand, using ‘insider lingo’ undoubtedly undermines what Proscio calls ‘the inherently public nature of the issues under discussion’. Ordinary people should be able to join in the discussion of the social issues that foundations address.

In Other Words contains a fascinating account of how jargon comes into existence. Often drawn from the technical vocabularies of fields such as mathematics, economics and science, words’ once-precise meanings get watered down by trendy misuse. ‘Strategy’ clearly has military origins, but it is of much less use once the distinction between strategy and tactics becomes blurred and then altogether lost.

What can be done? It’s not realistic to think that we will be able to eliminate all offending words from our writing, but Proscio offers some useful tips. Reading this booklet has certainly made me stop and think before using certain words – ‘analysis’ is one that I’ve been struggling to keep out of this review.

In Other Words: A plea for plain speaking in foundations

Tony Proscio Edna McConnell Clark Foundation

For a copy, while available, contact the Communications Department, Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
Fax +1 212 986 4558

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