Hearts of Gold, Tongues of Lead

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At-risk: Headed for trouble for reasons we’d rather not mention. This mystifying expression owes its popularity to one embarrassing fact: The phrase almost always designates a category of people of whom it is awkward to speak honestly. Almost every branch of charity or human service uses at-risk to describe the people whom its practitioners are …well, worried about.

At-risk becomes simply the polite euphemism for “headed into trouble.” But in today’s etiquette of upbeat and respectful neutrality, it would be considered grotesquely prejudicial, not to say hostile, to describe people that way. At-risk, however, is regarded as abstract enough to be polite, even in mixed company.

Yet if those who use this word are honest, they must admit to being perfectly comfortable classifying people according to a vast realm of unspecified problems that those people do not even have yet.

In some cases, of course, the writer genuinely may not know what a person’s real risk is. That is a sad fact–not about writers, or about jargon, but about life. Often, people really are simply headed into trouble, and we can’t say exactly what that trouble might be. Would that it were different. But when it’s not, perhaps at-risk truly is the best we can do.

Community: a coral for keeping people together in your mind.

Few words irritate careful writers and editors more than this one, which has become a catchall term for any group of people with practically anything in common. Its etymology (literally “unity together,” with the original Latin meaning of “fellowship”) would seem to make this word apply only to a deeply close-knit group that shares some fundamental, spiritual connection. But there is no justification for insisting on such a narrow definition. In English, community has applied for centuries to practically any association among people, whether profound or superficial. The almost boundless vagueness of this word is therefore not a new invention, an affectation, or a subterfuge. Jargon it’s not. But vague it is, and therefore an invitation to mental sloppiness.

In some recent expressions like “community development” or “community organizing,” the word started off as real jargon–trendy and obscure, with multiple meanings–but it has gained a certain practiced precision, built up over time. community now means, in these contexts, a group of people living near one another who share, by reason of their common residence, some political interests. In this sense, the word can actually be preferable over more precise words like “neighborhood,” because some such communities aren’t urban enough to be clustered into neighborhoods.

But more often, in phrases like “the intelligence community,” “the arts community,” or “the child-welfare community,” the word drops a deliberate scrim in front of a bunch of shadowy people whom no one is expected to identify. Most of the time, those who use such phrases really mean to say “people in these fields whom I consider important, but can’t or won’t name.” Used that way, the word falsely pretends to give information, while actually blotting out important details.

Worse, that use of community is sometimes deliberately misleading. It implies a unanimity among members that rarely occurs in reality. These communities that speak so conveniently in unison may suit the polemical purposes of some writers, but not without seeming a little fraudulent. When “the Harlem community” supports or opposes a new shopping center, it is a near certainty that a group of individuals, and not all the residents of Harlem, share one view of the development. Used this way, the word may be just the result of careless diction, but it exposes the writer to suspicions of dishonesty.

Empowerment: used literally, it shows you care.

Here is an example of that most pernicious of all forms of jargon: the ideological shibboleth. To establish one’s bona fides as a person concerned about the poor, the disenfranchised, or even ordinary people in general, it is essential in every setting to use empowerment–as early (and, in some cases, as often) as possible.

The coiners of empowerment invested it with only the broadest meaning, perhaps to make it usable in nearly every context–or anyway, that has been the effect. Foundations now must be careful to empower grantees, communities, voluntary and civic associations, the poor, those who help the poor, and even those who do not help the poor, but who would if they were empowered. Scarcely a grant is made anymore without someone or something being solemnly empowered, normally with a timely infusion of money.

The word is a synonym, says the American Heritage Dictionary, for “authorize,” but you wouldn’t guess it from the way empower is used. People are not “authorized” by community development organizations, but they are apparently “empowered” in the hundreds of thousands. No one is “authorized” by public opinion polls, the Internet, charter schools, community policing, a Patient’s Bill of Rights, civilian review boards, tax cuts, after-school programs, competition in the telecommunications industry, or community colleges. Yet every one of these things, and many more besides, has been described in recent public-policy or foundation writing as “empowering” people.

Try this exercise, which we might call an empower-outage: Find five or six instances of empower among recent memos and papers, and mentally blot them out. Then re-read the paper, with the empower switched off. Most times, the meaning won’t have changed a whit. But the paper may grow shorter.

Funding: a lot more tasteful than cold hard cash.

Ask any “development” consultant (itself a genteelism for “fundraising”) and not one of them will tell you that she or he does anything so crass as raise money. They seek funding. Nonprofit organizations, because they pursue only the loftiest ideals, do not spend money. They apply funding, or they fund. One good exercise for any foundation writer would be to pick up some paper at random from the shelf, strike out every instance of funding, and substitute the phrase “worldly lucre.” This would do no service to either clarity or good taste, but it would be a profoundly therapeutic exercise. It would illustrate, by contrast, that the word “money” is actually a perfectly neutral way to describe what makes the philanthropic world go around. Avoiding it, especially in favor of the puffed-up funding, is evasive and unnecessary.

Targeting: sounds long and military, like a guided missile.

To those who nowadays consider the verb to target indispensable in all contexts, it will come as some surprise that the current sense of the verb did not exist until the 1970s, the decade that also gave us Debbie Boone and the energy crisis. The 1969 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary lists “target” solely as a noun. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s 1971 edition lists only the antiquated meanings of “shielded” or “marked for execution.” Then sometime in the Nixon and Carter years, targeting blasted out of the Pentagon like a runaway rocket and landed smack in the fad-making salons of Madison Avenue. It’s been ubiquitous ever since.

Targeting illustrates a kind of Gresham’s Law of jargon: Bad words drive good words out of circulation. The popularity of targeting has all but obliterated the nice old-fashioned Saxon word “aiming,” largely because the newer word sounds more complicated (and, not incidentally, more military). Those who like their writing to seem tough and imposing will always prefer three bellicose syllables over two quiet ones. Thus the cumbersome neologism nudges out the plain, easy word every time.

Yet apart from its pseudo-military cachet, targeting offers hardly any improvement over “aiming.” It does, admittedly, lend itself to the adjective targeted–as in the many “targeted populations” who have become metaphorical bull’s-eyes for the guided missiles of modern philanthropy. But targeted is an inherently ambiguous word: When you aim a sharp projectile at someone (your “target population,” you might say), which one has been targeted? The projectile or the intended victim? The fact is, the word is sloppy enough to mean both things at once.

Capacity: an empty word with a comfortably wide girth.

Foundations, to their great credit, have lately taken a more deliberate interest in the management, staffing, structure, and operating methods of the organizations they support. The unassailable premise of this interest is that good works do not accomplish themselves, but are carried out by organizations that may be managed well or ill, may perform their tasks efficiently or wastefully, and may need to change their methods as circumstances dictate. Making grants and providing expert advice to help these organizations run better is a profoundly philanthropic mission, and smart besides.

The problem is that capacity is not content to halt demurely at the border between generalities and specifics. Even when a writer is trying to describe specific characteristics of organization, capacity often shows up as if it were denoting something in particular.

Often, the writer who uses capacity genuinely doesn’t know what an organization’s problem really is. In a proposal to examine the problems and make recommendations, for example, it is more than reasonable to admit that fact. But when it appears to imply something specific (an act of imposture of which the word is constantly guilty), it ought to be deleted and replaced with honest, old-fashioned terms like “staffing,” “record-keeping,” “management” or something on that order.

In Other Words is available from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. One copy per person, please.