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What’s in a name?

July 5, 2010

Recently I have been writing about the work of the artist Martin Bush. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of working outside my comfort zone, but the work has made me think a lot about the language we use. As with any work I do for a client, I make sure I do research to better understand what they need from me. So I started reading Artist Statement’s at exhibitions and articles in magazines. There is a certain style to what I read; I could understand (most of) it, but somehow it made me feel like I wasn’t in with the in crowd, I was an outsider.

I am sure that none of the artists, critics and journalists wanted to make me feel this way, and would probably be horrified to think that their efforts to communicate had done this. This set me to thinking about how I could effectively communicate about Martin’s work without falling into the same traps (and I hope I’ve managed to do that – publication of an article in a major journal will soon give me an idea!).

But then I also started to think about this blog, and that left me scratching my head. One of the things I am likely to blog about is the work of charities, community groups, and social enterprises. As this blog isn’t targeted specifically at people who work in these organisations I’ve been thinking about the language I should use. As I’ve already described, the trouble with jargon, acronyms and insider and/or politically correct language is that leaves others unsure, or made to feel excluded – and that is something I don’t want to do.

Now for years I’ve been working on the inside. I am fluent in the jargon. There is terminology I recognise as I helped to promote its use. Now, taking a step back and looking at it from the outside I’m not sure that we have helped ourselves. The language we used as shorthand amongst ourselves is now used to describe who we are and what we do to a wider audience. What is worse, it has been adopted by politicians who are trying to taking control.

So, if I follow the latest, politically correct, trend I will talk about Civil Society Organisations (as ordained by the Prime Minister) – but, for most people, what’s one of those? I could talk about the Third Sector – but that term was banned by the Prime Minister in favour of CSOs (whoops – jargon alert…) and I’m not sure that is particularly accessible as a term either. For that matter, Voluntary and Community Sector doesn’t seem to me to be much better although it is probably more descriptive.

I think the problem with all of these terms is that they are trying to create a generic term for an enormous number of diverse types of organisations doing fantastic work. They might be easier for government to understand (though I remain to be convinced that this is the case), and might therefore make it easier for Civil Society Organisations’ umbrella bodies (these would probably be known as trade associations in the commercial world) to quickly describe the organisations they represent – but to me they have no heart and soul.

I think language matters – I believe it should be accessible. As such I think that names matter. I think they need to have meaning to those who use them, and to those who hear them. So I’ve made a decision. I’m not going to be politically correct, and I’m not going to use the in crowd language. When I blog about charities, that’s what I’ll call them. If I talk about community groups, that is how they will be described. Social enterprises will be exactly that. And if I want to talk about more than one type of organisation, I’ll use a list. I think those are terms that most people will understand, and will make sense within the context of what I have to say.

And, if I use jargon – please tell me. I’ll correct it!

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