Daring to drop the jargon

Words matter. Not a new thought, but it has to be said again and again. The words we choose can make something clear, or make it mysterious. They can help people understand, or confuse them more than ever. Words can invite the reader or listener ‘in’, or they can keep them ‘out’.

Words aren’t just about what they help us understand, but how they make us feel. They can make us feel fully involved in what happens to us, or they can make us feel uninformed and unimportant. I discuss this with NCAG's Sally Percival in a short podcast on social care jargon and why language matters

Take a sentence like this: ‘Amy should participate in eating and drinking activities at her maximum potential through modification of mealtime environment and implementation of guidelines as outlined in the risk management plan.’

This is a real sentence from the first draft of a disabled child’s education, health and care plan. If we read it carefully and think about it hard, we can deduce that Amy might need some help to have her lunch.

Her parents and the people who work with her know this. But seeing it written down in this way tells no-one anything very meaningful about Amy, or who she is, what her strengths are and what support she might need to help her take part in daily activities at school. Amy becomes a tricky problem, with all that modification and risk management going on, rather than a person who needs some help with her day.

So why, if something can be explained in simple terms, does language get used that complicates it? Isn’t it easier and quicker to say exactly what we mean?

It isn’t hard to get people to agree that jargon is unhelpful and plain English is better. Yet jargon – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult to others to understand’ – keeps finding its way into things.

And not just ‘special words’: the problem also lies with unclear, clumsy language (like the sentence in Amy’s EHC plan, above) that leaves us scratching our heads about what something really means and how we should respond to it.

The care and support system is riddled with jargon and clumsy wording. That’s why TLAP's Care and Support Jargon Buster was created: to help make the system more understandable and accessible to people who are expected to find their way around it and make decisions about their own care and support, or that of a relative or friend.

And also, less directly, to encourage the professionals who use jargon and un-straightforward language to think about how they express themselves, and whether they could make things simpler and clearer.

Some of the words and phrases that we attempt to demystify in the jargon buster are specific to social care or the NHS: things like ‘care package’, ‘co-production’ or ‘mixed budget’. Other definitions aren’t necessarily specific to social care or health but often crop up in this context, such as ‘best practice’, ‘entitlement’ or ‘mainstream services’.

The question of whether we should exclude from the jargon buster terms that many people who use care and support services dislike – or whether we should acknowledge all the words and phrases that are in use in order to help people understand what they mean – rmains the subject of lively debate.

A good example of this is the term ‘service users’. Care professionals use this routinely. But many of the people who the term aims to describe dislike it intensely. (Not least because people who need services don’t always have access to them, so they are not necessarily ‘using’ anything at all, while their need remains unmet.) People generally prefer to be described as ‘people who use (or need) services’. The point is that we are all people first and foremost, and language should reflect this.

 Ultimately, the way we use language reflects the way we think about the people we are referring to, the concepts we are describing and the job we are doing. If we understand what we are describing and have confidence in it as the right thing to do, we shouldn’t be afraid to express it as clearly as possible.

Genuine partnership and meaningful conversations rely on words that everyone understands. Let’s get rid of words that get in the way.

See also See me as a person, blog from carer and co-production chair, Sally Percival


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