Introducing the Devspeak Police

Photo by Meg. Some rights reserved.
Photo by Meg. Some rights reserved.

Language is fluid. It shifts and adapts along with culture. Certain words fall out of favor. Others take on slightly different meanings. Sometimes we lose words, despite their beauty and descriptive power. We also borrow from other languages, and bring new words into the lexicon.

At the same time, there are guidelines that are meant to help us continue to understand each other. International development professionals are often guilty of numerous offenses. We misuse words, make up words when there is no need to, use jargon, and generally make it difficult for anyone who is not in the business to understand what we mean.

Language both shapes and reflects reality. So we need to be careful with the words we choose. When we communicate international development stories to other people – even within our own field – we need to make sure we’re including people in the dialogue, not excluding them through our word choice.

That’s why it’s time to bring in the Devspeak Police.

This week’s words to think twice about (or avoid completely) are:

  • Learnings. Rather than talking about lessons learned, people have started to just say ‘learnings.’ Every time I read this, I have to stop, take a breath, and make sure my eyes are not deceiving me. People learn things. There can be lessons learned. You might be learning something new. There might be a learning curve. But you don’t have learnings.
  • Leverage. Used as a verb, it’s a development professional favorite. It’s certainly not the worst offender. But I’ve been in too many meetings where people throw this term around to try to sound authoritative, while hiding the fact that they don’t actually have a plan to fix the problem they face. The word sometimes even evokes images of forcing someone’s hand. When used appropriately, and not too much. But let’s be more careful about how we use this verb before it falls deeper into the pit of potentially meaningless devspeak.
  • Operationalize. I’m usually a fan of using one word to replace multiple words. But not when it means turning a noun into a verb like this (or nominalizing the noun). It’s one of the fastest ways to make your audience fall asleep or lose focus. In grad school, my professors’ favorite question in response to international development theories was, “So how do you operationalize this?” It’s a good question to ask. But when put this way, it stirs up images of top-down development theory that doesn’t bother to include the people we’re trying to help from the beginning.

Let’s work together to try to make sure that our words invite people to participate, rather than leaving them in the dust, scratching their heads.

Stay tuned for more Devspeak Police.

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