Everyone seems to hate jargon: all our clients profess to loathing it, knowing just how much their clients, end-investors, find it unhelpful. Yet oblique financial terms continue to plague investment products’ marketing materials.
Why does this keep happening?
Jargon is peculiar in that it can easily hide in plain sight. When a reader encounters a term they know and understand, rarely do they consider it jargon at all; the words all make sense.
But when we come across an unfamiliar term, the text can instantly become illegible. At that exact moment, jargon is as incomprehensible to us as a foreign language.
Thinking of financial jargon as a foreign language – one specifically used to talk about money – got me wondering: what can we learn about how people think about money from how they talk about it in different languages?
It’s an intriguing premise, though admittedly, not a new one. Keith Chen, a behavioural economist, researches whether the language we speak affects our ability to save money. Turns out it does, and he discusses his findings in a rather popular TED talk.
Of course, English already has some mystifying money-speak of its own. Just like with any other kind of jargon, certain odd terms have become so ubiquitous we don’t give them a second thought.
For example, bucks, the American slang for dollars, is thought to reference deer skins, formerly used for trading. Here in Britain, the now-defunct sixpence was nicknamed bender, a term dating back to the 1800s, when people would bite and bend the coin – then made of silver – to verify authenticity.
Nowadays, particularly in central London, deer skins are thin on the ground and biting into your change is a major faux-pas. Therefore, in venturing to explore foreign languages’ money-talk, I was equally wary of esoteric idioms and proverbs. Instead, I specifically sought out modern everyday expressions.
I had no idea what this type of research might unearth. To my surprise, three clear themes quickly emerged:
1. Food and money are universally linked
We’re lucky that food scarcity is no longer a problem. But our languages still reflect earlier eras, when having money was, first and foremost, about filling the belly. In English, Americans still nickname money bread and dough, and on both sides of the Atlantic people refer to making a living as bringing home the bacon.
This link between food and money transcends linguistic barriers, and food-based expressions kept cropping up.
For example, to say that something costs next to nothing, the French say it’s pour une bouchée de pain, or like a mouthful of bread.
More abundantly, the Dutch describe cheap purchases with iets voor een appel en een ei kopen – literally, buying something for an apple and an egg. In a nod to their shared linguistic roots, German has a very similar phrase of its own.
2. Fear of loss is deeply ingrained
Just as everyone craves money to meet basic needs, we all worry about not having enough, and fear losing what we’ve got. The Portuguese, for example, say a única coisa fácil sobre o dinheiro e perdê-lo, meaning the only easy thing about money is losing it.
Russians are also deeply concerned about how quickly money can vanish. To go bankrupt (ВЫЛЕТЕТЬ В ТРУБУ) is literally to fly through the chimney, rather like Santa Claus in reverse.
Given how important it is to manage money with care, different languages have colourful descriptions of those watchful of their spending.
The Bulgarians, for example, take a pragmatic approach, advising not to overtax a friend’s generosity by saying friendship is friendship, but cheese costs money.
But the Welsh frown upon cheapskates: speaking of a tight-fisted person they’ll say mae e’n cadw draenog yn ei boced, meaning he keeps a hedgehog in his pocket.
3. Money and morality go hand in hand
Even when our basic needs are met, we still care a lot about money. We link it not just with livelihood, but also with social status and power. What people do with their money quickly becomes a moral issue.
This is summed up nicely in Mandarin, where it is said that money is like dirt whereas face is worth a thousand pieces of gold. (‘Face’ meaning – very broadly – how a person is perceived publicly.)
And just as important as whether you have money is how you came by it, and how you spend it. Once again, food is never too far away.
The Japanese describe a non-working layabout as Kuidaore, literally meaning to go bankrupt after having spent all your money on food and drink.
And the Swedes turn their nose up at people who didn’t have to work too hard to advance in life, saying that they att glida in på en räkmacka, meaning they slid in on a shrimp sandwich.
Sandwich-surfing aside, there’s something wonderfully uplifting in the fact that all these expressions, once translated, are instantly relatable. Rather than reinforcing the language barrier, they strike the chord of shared experiences.
That our understanding of money-speak transcends linguistic barriers suggests jargon isn’t just confusing, but that it fundamentally misses the point:
People don’t want to talk about finance in complicated terms. Time and time again, when people want to talk business, they end up turning to words we already knew when we were four.