A column that listens to what is not said End-shutdown


A column in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times exploring the hidden meaning of business jargon.

Browsing through LinkedIn may not seem like the typical way to spend your downtime. But for Lora Kelley, a New York Times business reporter interested in the ways business shapes culture, the platform is a gold mine for reporting ideas.

One afternoon last fall, Ms. Kelley came across a term that left her scratching her head: dogfooding. She had struck gold. It was precisely the kind of business jargon that Shop Talk, a column in The Times’ Sunday Business section, was created last year to define. Ms. Kelley researched the meaning of the term and discovered that it was used by executives at high-tech companies like Meta and Asana to refer to the banal practice of testing products.

“Business jargon has always been around,” said Veronica Majerol, editor of Shop Talk. Journalists, she added, typically edit articles to avoid jargon that is meaningless to readers. In conceiving the column, Ms. Majerol said she, along with other editors, reporters and designers, wondered: “What if jargon could become the story itself?”

Since October, Shop Talk has explored the use of terms like dogfooding, “friendshoring” and “trendjacked” and examined why they’re trending. By revealing how business people talk about business, the team hopes to help readers understand the cultural forces that shape great companies.

The column, which is published biweekly, is open to all reporters who find unusual words and idioms in their topics. Last month, for example, Niraj Chokshi, who covers the airline industry, defined “completion factor” as an industry term for the percentage of flights an airline performs. No Cancel. In the most recent Shop Talk column, Culture reporter Brooks Barnes walked readers through a “quadrant of four,” a film that appeals to young and old, men and women alike.

Jordyn Holman, who covers retail for The Times, said she was constantly translating jargon in her head while reporting. Last fall, Ms. Holman noted the tendency for retailers to call their customers anything but customers. At Target, they were called “guests.” At Sephora, they were “customers.” And at Dick’s Sporting Goods, they were “jocks.”

Why go out of your way to find a new label for a client? To reduce loyalty, he found Mrs. Holman. By calling customers something personal, the retailers thought shoppers would feel special. “As reporters, we want to say, ‘This is what they’re really saying,’” she said.

While decoding sentences, reporters also read between the lines to find out what executives are trying to No say. For example, a high “completion factor” sounds good, but it doesn’t account for flight delays. Ms. Kelley’s jargon radar went off when she read a LinkedIn post written by an executive announcing layoffs at her company. The executive used the term “advance” to describe a specific group of employees. Ms. Kelley understood the euphemism: employees who “advance” were spared layoffs.

“Language can be a tool to keep things opaque to outsiders,” Ms Kelley said. “This column is a way of showing people what happens inside a closed world.”

Business idioms are often invented and codified within a specific industry, and it is challenging to produce a definition of a term that cannot be found in the dictionary. To reach consensus, journalists scan the web, press releases, and company reports for mentions of the word or phrase, as well as interview employees, experts, and academic authorities from various industries.

“We want to find people who use the term in the wild,” Ms Kelley said.

However, decoding jargon is not just a writing effort. Ms. Majerol and Minh Uong, Shop Talk’s art director, work with illustrators to help bring each term to life visually. The illustrations in the column “not only describe the word, but put it in context through a visual situation,” Mr. Uong said.

To illustrate the “completion factor,” Mr. Uong and Ms. Majerol settled on an illustration of a smiley-face stele. After all, any traveler can relate to the joy of a successful flight, Mr. Uong said.

And if you’re caught in a frustrating delay, you know the airline is still counting on it to be completed.

Readers can nominate a word or term by writing to shoptalk@End-shutdown.com.

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