14 irritating jargon phrases, and awesome new cliches you should use instead

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[Image description: An emu, with two red eyes. We only see its head and part of its long neck. The background, out-of-focus, is green and yellow, suggesting trees and other plants. Image obtained from pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. I’m trying to focus more on positive or just lighter stuff on this blog for the next few weeks, but people really need help in Mexico and Puerto Rico, so please click on those links and donate. 

We’ve examined irritating jargon in two previous posts (“21 irritating jargon phrases…” and “17 irritating jargon phrases…”), but when all the rhubarb is harvested, there are still more. So here’s some more jargon, and new clichés to replace them with. Thanks to the NAF Facebook community and other colleagues for the suggestions, some of which are jargon, some just cliches. We’ll save for last the most annoying jargon we all use, but otherwise, these are in no particular order.

  1. On the same page. No one reads books anymore, except for a few nerds who think they’re better than everyone and are too good for Netflix. So why are we still using this expression? Let’s update it to be more current: On the same app. You know how annoying it is when some people are using WhatsApp and others are using Viber or Signal or whatever. “Can we meet before the presentation so we’re all on the same app?”
  2. Nuggets. One of the most cringe-inducing words ever, up there with “moist” and “overhead.” “There’s some great nuggets of wisdom in that article.” Shudder. The only time that you should say “nuggets” is when you’re talking about gold or food. Otherwise, replace it with droppings. As in, “There were a lot of useful droppings in that presentation.”
  3. Silos. We’ve been using silos a lot. I do it all the time. It’s lost meaning. Let’s replace silos with hammocks. Hammocks are one of the best things ever invented, along with Veggie Straws and the internet. But they are to be used alone. They are perfect for one person; anymore and gravity would squish people together into an uncomfortable mass. Even romantic ones that can hold two people can do so only for up to three minutes before divorce papers start getting filed. “We all need to get out of our hammocks and collaborate more! The hammocking has gone too far!”

    [Image description: A picture of a wombat. It is grey, on the ground made up of brown leaves and twigs. Image obtained from pixabay.com]

  4. On that side of the table. “I’ve worked for a small organization before, so I know what it’s like on that side of that table.” We use this expression a lot; it’s time for a new saying: ends of a wombat. It’s a travesty that we don’t have more expressions with wombats. “I’ve worked for a small organization before, so I know what it’s like on that end of the wombat.” See how much better that sounds? Or “I’ve been a grantmaker as well as a grant applicant, so I am familiar with both ends of the wombat.”
  5. Thought leader. Ugh. Thought leader. Thought leader. There’s something weird about this term, though I can’t put my finger on it. Let’s replace it with something cooler. Precogs. From one of the best movies ever, Minority Report, the precogs are these three psychic mutants who predict crimes before they happen, allowing the police to arrest people before they commit the crimes. From Wikipedia: “The precogs are strapped into machines, nonsensically babbling as a computer listens and converts this gibberish into predictions of the future.” Yup, that sounds like a lot of thought leaders! “The precogs on that panel on equity were amazing! Good-looking too.”
  6. Put one’s finger on it. Gross! How about we refrain from putting fingers on anything, OK? Fingers are some of the germiest appendages. Let’s replace this expression with gauge one’s gaggletack. A gaggletack is a magical item in Troll Hunters, an awesome show you can watch on Netflix right now. It allows you to identify whether someone is a human or a scary changeling. “I can’t gauge my gaggletack, but I think people hate our idea of interpretive dancing as a teambuilder.”
  7. Drink the Kool-Aid. I think this is a reference to being in a cult and drinking some poisoned Kool-Aid. That’s terrible. Let’s change it to eat the flax crackers. Crackers made out of flax have the same edibility as garden mulch, but with worse texture. But some people still consume them for some reason. “Dude, you totally ate the flax crackers on overhead ratios.”
  8. Skin in the game. Dog in the fight. These two similar expressions are both horrible,

    [Image description: A single tadpole, or polliwog, inside an oval drop of water. The tadpole appears dark grey or black, with a long tail. The droplet appears to be sitting on a great leaf. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

    conjuring images of painful abrasions or animal cruelty. I recommend we use polliwog in the pond. “We charge all attendees a small amount so that they’ll have some polliwogs in the pond.” Or “I don’t have a polliwog in this pond, but I think your boss may be the Anti-Christ.”
  9. Sacred cows. This expression is not only overused, but it’s also culturally insensitive, as there are communities where cows are sacred. So, let’s stop using this expression and instead use protected pterodactyls. For example, “Overhead and sustainability are two protected pterodactyls we need to release into the wilderness.” (Psst, it’s OK if it takes you a while to spell pterodactyl correctly. It’s tricky.)
  10. Shifting the paradigm. Paradigm sounds so serious yet so silly, like a pretentious clown or some board members. Colleague Lynda recommends replacing it with four nickels. Get it? Four nickels?! Best. Joke. EVER! I would add “flipping” to it, as in, “We need to flip the four nickels on funder-grantee relationships to start with trust and not suspicion.” Ahaha. Four nickels…
  11. Kick the can down the road. I do like this expression, since it’s very evocative. You can almost hear the can rattling down this empty road, a forlorn, despondent image that reflects on the futility of existence. But it’s overused. Let’s replace it with grouting the bath tiles, which is an annoying chore that often must be done again later as the grout gets grey and moldy. “Are we going to vote our sexist board chair out at the next meeting, or are we grouting the bath tiles again?”
  12. Half-baked. Fully baked. What’s with the baking of intangible things? “That idea was half-baked.” Let’s replace it with partially chewed. Nothing good comes from things that are not fully chewed. “Did you say my idea to do a golf tournament in the snow is half-chewed? Well, your FACE is going to be half-chewed in a moment.” 
  13. Wear a lot of hats. If there’s one thing we all do, it’s doing a whole bunch of things. That’s what this expression means. But it’s ridiculous. No one wears hats, except the Queen. I propose we say ride a lot of emus. Emus are these giant birds. Some people ride them. It never looks graceful, and can’t be fun for the birds. So to ride a lot of emus means you’re doing a whole bunch of stuff that you probably shouldn’t be doing. “We’re a little understaffed at the moment, so everyone will have to ride several emus until we hire more people.”
  14. Unpack. This is arguably the most overused and—currently—the most irritating jargon of all. I hear it several times a week. “let’s unpack this concept;” “we need to unpack our feelings;” “can we take a moment to unpack the responses to the survey.” A colleague has been using excavate instead, which I really like. But I recommend defibrillate. “That donor meeting was really weird. Can we defibrillate what happened?” Use what works for you. 

There you go. We have a lot more annoying jargon to content with, so I’m already working on part 4 of this series. It will include cliches like “herding cats,” “sweet spot,” “connect the dots,” “reinvent the wheel,” “leverage,” etc. Feel free to add your own, but read the previous two installments first (part 1 and part 2). 

Meanwhile, try to use some of these new expressions today in your meetings and written communications. You get two points every time you use a new expression and no one questions it, and you get one point each time you use one and someone asks what the heck you’re talking about.

Or just use the same old jargon everyone else has been using. I don’t care. I don’t have a polliwog in this pond. 

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  • Karen Firestone

    Being from Australia, I feel as though I am always riding the emu. But I don’t know what it’s like on that end of the wombat.

  • AnnFeeney

    This is wonderful precogging. The especially delightful aspect of the wombat expression is that they produce square-shaped poop, so it’s thinking inside a whole new box. Talk about riding a lot of emus!

  • David Tucker

    Always great to start the week with a smile! Thanks!!!

  • Sheila Simpson

    How about adding “Taking a Deep Dive”?

  • Brenda_P_SoPo

    I don’t get the “four nickels” joke 🙂

    • Laura Laxton

      paradigm = pair of dimes = 20 cents = four nickels

      • Brenda_P_SoPo

        Haha! Thank you! Evidently “four nickel” is slang for a 45 mm handgun and I was having trouble connecting the dots!

    • Emily Coleman

      So glad it wasn’t just me 🙂

  • bettybarcode

    “Nuance.” Can someone do a take-down on “nuance?” It is everyone’s favorite new buzzword.

    • Andrea Rundell

      Ombre: the technique of fading/blending one color into another. currently popular for hair. “I need time to think about her presentation because it was very nuanced.” => “She was talking some serious pink to red ombre in that meeting.”

  • Beth Seetch

    #5, #5, yes, yes, please! Over here back east, we hear robust way too much; please make a joke of it!

  • Love this! I can’t wait for part four. Let’s find some alternatives for leverage and incentivize.

  • Sharon Kayne

    Love this list, but I have to point out one problem. “Kicking the can down the road” is really about procrastination, while “grouting the bath tiles” is more about repetition. How about “waiting for Godot”? As in “Are we going to vote our sexist board chair out at the next meeting, or are we waiting for Godot to do it for us?” It’s really a two-fer since you also get a reference about really weird existential (OK, meaningless?) theater in there as well!

  • Becky Levine

    Thanks for the laughs (and the links). I am waiting with baited breath to see what you come up with that’s actually better than “herding cats.”

    • Karen

      I work at a cat shelter, so we get “herding cats” a LOT!

    • Kelly

      Not be picky – but it’s “bated”
      (“Baited” always makes me think of worms!)

      Bate:
      to reduce the force or intensity of : restrain
      : to take away : deduct
      : to lower especially in amount or estimation

      And thanks a lot, Vu – I didn’t use “nit pick” b/c it’s about lice… using words with thought is complicated!

  • Michelle Pitot

    “Amplify”. If I have to hear one more time about how our current efforts will “amplify” our previous efforts I will throw the wombat into the dog fight.

  • Debra Burrell

    Best “Thought Leader” talk ever! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZBKX-6Gz6A

  • Whitney Allen

    Can we also do away with donor “touches”? How in the world did that ever become an acceptable replacement for “communication” or “mail”….icky. I don’t want to touch my donors multiple times leading up to the year end appeal.

  • Kelly

    Thank you for addressing “drink the Kool-Aid” Vu – it comes from the devasting mass suicide / murder of over 900 of cult leader Jim Jones’ followers / victims in Guyana in 1978.

    How it became a casual reference is beyond me – it’s like saying “We’ll get 9/11’d by our customers if we do that” – even Pearl Harbor isn’t used that casually, and that was 75 years ago!

  • Mark Hendrickson

    A coworker forwarded this blog to me, and now I’m GAF (Giggly as…er, And Friends). I didn’t make it past #6 before giggles gave way to guffaws (which I hope still means tinkling lightly in one’s drawers when one is GAF). As a result, I’ve subscribed – but please don’t use that as motivation to write more, since I have a limited clothing budget as a result of also being PAF. Thanks for the spot on (no pun nintendo’d) humor. Cheers!

  • Terri Forman

    love this! Why oh why have we adopted so many military terms to describe humanitarian work?