First I should remark that when I say “accidental purpose” I mean to emphasize that I’m not putting forth a teleological argument. That’s all. I previously wrote that we use jargon as a “mental cache,” borrowing (heavily) an idea from Eliezer Yudkowsky. That explains the useful nature of jargon which from my observations accounts for very little of jargon’s use.

I had a conversation with a coworker today, a fresh hire out of college, and it reminded me of another conversation I had with a different new hire a few months past. Both of them peppered their speech with buzzwords as if they got a prize for doing so. And as senseless as some of these phrases seem to be much of the time, e.g. “best practice,” “leverage,” “leveraging,” they made even less sense when these guys said them. It was if they were grasping for something to say and heard these phrases enough to know that they were bingo words with the Pavlovian effect of causing everyone else in the room to nod knowingly. “Yes, we need to leverage our best practices and become solution oriented.” “Bob, how will that help us fix the projector screen?” “It will create synergy.” “Oh, stupid me, duh!”

So in this case the jargon becomes a Pavlovian trick, or better yet, the boss’s password. The boss’s password is much like the teacher’s password, something on which Yudkowsky blogged a season ago or so. It’s something we all know sounds good, that clients seek, that management authors write about, but beyond that it’s pretty much meaningless. Much like Yudkowsky writes that the high school student can say that light is made of waves, but his conception of what that means is far away from what a physicist understands it to mean. That’s the problem of speaking in code; you have to be sure that everyone is using the exact same key.

And that relates to another purpose of jargon, which is to solidify in-group relationships. We’re all special, we’re all together, and so we speak the same language. A bunch of consultants sitting around a table talking about “deep dives” and “value-adds” are querying each other and affirming that they’re all from the same fold. “I know what I’m talking about, do you? Yes, you do. And you? You too. Good.” And then everyone starts picking lice from his neighbor’s fur. Well they don’t, but they might as well, as its just another form of social grooming. The problem this mutual grooming poses is that it penalizes the member who seeks clarity because unless he can pull other group members with him he’s the odd one out. He has said - quite clearly - I’m not one of you. People, each and every one of us, place far more value on affirmation than we’re willing to admit. Even at the expense of truth.

So jargon can help us by serving as a “cached thought.” It’s also a password, with the Pavlovian effect of causing head nodding. And it’s an in-group definer used for linguistic social grooming. Save for the first purpose, none of these directly serves to advance communication or solve actual business problems.