Great piece in The Washington Post by Mary Beth Sheridan about how the Virgina State Police is dropping the copspeak "10 codes" (like 10-4 for "message understood") in favor of Plain English. The article, "Va. State Police Swap '10-4' For 'Message Understood,'" discusses the problems emergency services have had stemming from the confusing codes.
Everyone who has ever watched television knows what 10-4 means, or that 10-20 (or more often, "What's your -20?" refers to your location. But some of the more obscure codes mean different things to different police forces. Mary Beth reports:
To Arlington police, "10-13" means "officer in trouble." To Montgomery County police, the same code means "request wrecker." Even everyday police commands can get lost in translation: In Alexandria, "10-54" refers to an alcohol sensor. For Virginia State Police, it's livestock on the highway.
And that's the problem with jargon: its users like to think it makes their communications more precise. Instead, it tends to do the opposite. In response to this problem, the Virginia government decided to replace the 10 codes with Plain English. (Of course, they called it "common language protocol." Old habits die hard.)
This met with some resistance:
But getting rid of 10 codes has met considerable resistance from some officers. At stake are efficiency, safety and professionalism. Not to mention cool.
"The jargon is one of the things that sets the cops apart," said Tim Dees, a former police officer who is editor of Officer.com, a Web site run out of Beltsville. Not that police officers are alone, he noted: As shown by numerous TV shows, doctors and lawyers also love to snap out their jargon.
"It adds," he said, "a certain mystique."
It's not just the men and women in blue. Lawyers are among the worst offenders when it comes to hiding behind jargon — the ponderous, blubbery pseudolanguage known as "legalese". As with cops, lawyers think their jargon is cool and clubby, setting us apart from so-called "nonlawyers." In fact it does set us apart — but not in a good way.
Corporate and HR people are just as guilty as police and lawyers when it comes to jargon. When people start talking about "desiloing" and "knowledge acquisition," they're doing the same thing — hiding behind trendy jargon that makes their message harder to understand.
For a couple of good articles on corporatespeak run amok, check out Carol Hymowitz's "A Guide to the Latest Batch Of Corporate Buzzwords" and Jared Sandberg's "The Jargon Jumble: Kids Have 'Skeds,' Colleagues, 'Needs'" — both from The Wall Street Journal (subscription apparently not required). (Full disclosure: I went to high school with Jared, although I haven't talked to him since. He writes the always-excellent "Cubicle Culture" column in the Journal.)
Jargon is not more precise. When naval personnel say that an incoming aircraft is "CBDR" — meaning "Constant Bearing Decreasing Range" — that is no more precise than saying, "That freakin' plane's gonna hit us!" And the latter statement probably takes a few less milliseconds for our brains to process. Plain English gets your message across faster, and makes it more easily understood.
Now if only cops would stop talking about pursuing vehicles at a high rate of speed ...