A Column That Listens for What’s Not Being Said

/Shop Talk/

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

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

One evening last fall, Ms. Kelley came across a term that left her scratching her head: dogfooding. She had found gold. It was precisely the type of business jargon that Shop Talk, a column in The Times’s Sunday Business section, was created last year to define. Ms. Kelley pursued the meaning of the term and learned that it was used by business executives at high-power tech firms such as Meta and Asana to refer to the banal practice of product testing.

“Business jargon has always existed,” said Veronica Majerol, the editor of Shop Talk. Journalists, she added, typically edit articles to avoid jargon that doesn’t elicit meaning to readers. In conceiving of the column, Ms. Majerol said she, along with other editors, reporters and designers, wondered, “What if the jargon could become the story itself?”

Since October, Shop Talk has explored the usage of terms like dogfooding, “friendshoring” and “trendjacked,” and examined why they catch on. By revealing how the people in business talk about business, the team hopes to help readers understand the cultural forces that shape large companies.

The column, which runs every two weeks, is open to all reporters who encounter unusual words and idioms on their beats. 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 does not cancel. In the most recent Shop Talk column, the Culture reporter Brooks Barnes walked readers through a “four quadrant,” a movie 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 noticed the trend of retailers dubbing their customers anything but customers. At Target, they were called “guests.” At Sephora, they were “clients.” And at Dick’s Sporting Goods, they were “athletes.”

Why go to such great lengths to find a new label for a customer? To engender loyalty, Ms. Holman found. By calling customers something personal, retailers thought shoppers would feel special. “As reporters we want to say: ‘This is what they’re actually saying,’ ” she said.

While decoding phrases, reporters are also reading between the lines to find what executives are trying not to say. For example, a high “completion factor” sounds nice, but it doesn’t account for flight delays. Ms. Kelley’s jargon radar sounded when she read a LinkedIn post written by an executive announcing layoffs at her company. The executive used the term “go forward” to describe a specific pool of employees. Ms. Kelley understood the euphemism: the employees “going forward” were spared from layoffs.

“Language can be a tool for keeping things opaque to outsiders,” Ms. Kelley said. “This column is one way to show people what’s going on inside a closed off world.”

Business idioms are often made up and coded within a specific industry, and it’s a challenge to produce a definition of a term that can’t be found in the dictionary. To arrive at a consensus, journalists scan the web, news releases and company reports for mentions of the word or phrase, as well as interview employees, experts and academic authorities on various industries.

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

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

To illustrate “completion factor,” Mr. Uong and Ms. Majerol decided on an illustration of a contrail shaped like a smiley face. After all, any traveler can relate to the joy of a flight gone right, Mr. Uong said.

And if you’re stuck in a frustrating delay, you’ll know that the airline is still counting on a completion.

Readers can nominate a word or term by writing to [email protected]