A to Z Day 10: Jargon

Click for A-Z blog list.

Click for A-Z blog list.

Jargon is specialized language, usually either of the technical or academic varieties. It serves a very important purpose: it allowsspecialists to communicate among themselves with a high degree of precision. The problem with jargon, though, is that it’s so precise, and includes so many terms, it sounds like a foreign language to people who don’t know all the concepts. There just aren’t that many specialists in any given field. So you want to stay away from it if you’re attempting to communicate clearly with a large audience.

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, famously suggested that scientists from different disciplines need translators just as much as people who speak different languages. This problem is compounded more by the fact that people sometimes use jargon for the following reasons:

  • Just to seem smart.
  • To prove they are actually as educated as their credentials indicate.
  • Because they’ve forgotten that people outside their field find that sort of talk incomprehensible.
  • As a cynical ploy to win an argument by confusing everyone else into agreeing (specialists who are also politicians are especially good at this one).

I am fluent in several of these specialized languages. I was once asked in a job interview “do you speak nerd?” And I said “yes, yes I do.” Because I know what SSL stands for and what Fortran was. I have a reading knowledge of theology, philosophy, geography, history, and economics; am conversant in the language of literary criticism and rhetoric/composition; and am fluent in the grand dialect of the social sciences.

If just want to bust out with some writing that makes perfect sense to people who understand technology and four academic disciplines, and  is completely incomprehensible to everyone else, I can do that. But really, what’s the point? I’ve never met a theologian/programmer/literary critic/sociologist. Not even once.

My point with all this goes back to day 1. Think about who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to people who aren’t specialists, and you’re fortunate enough to have specialized training, don’t use jargon. Put it in plain, everyday language.

Jargon does have some artistic uses, though. If you can get a good enough handle on some technical language to use it in dialogue, you can use it to make a character seem like a know-it-all, to reveal personal insecurities, to show that they don’t have very good social skills, and to do lots of other things.

There’s even a sub-field of guerilla academics devoted to publishing computer-generated papers just to be funny and call attention to low acceptance standards.



11 thoughts on “A to Z Day 10: Jargon

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by. I agree, it just didn’t occur to me while I was writing this.

      In my day job, I tutor academic writers and train tutors. I talk quite a bit about non-standard grammar and colloquial language as status markers with colleagues. That’s one of the reasons I include this paragraph in my writing philosophy:

      “I truly believe that almost anyone can become a competent writer. What I mean by “competent” is that you can learn to communicate in text in such a way that you say what you mean and you will not be socially disadvantaged by the way you use the language.”

      I think jargon can also be a status marker.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I once, in a job interview, was asked if I were good with computers. I answered yes, and it was a rental car agency, so I figured my yes would go a long way. I knew enough of the jargon, the techniques, these things.

    I got the job, but little did I know I would be using a MS-DOS based system, tabbing through on a black-and-green screen. In the era of DOS, I had been using an Apple computer instead. It was entirely new to me.

    Different job interview: I have a degree in library science, and when I hear talk about databases, I think one thing. Academic databases, journal databases. JSTOR, Ebsco. However, for the Data Analyst position I was applying for – and which administered a test during the interview – I didn’t fully understand the language difference we were dealing with. I’m pretty sure they were using the jargon precisely to figure out if I were fluent. Problem was in me knowing the terms in a different jargon language.

    So I guess all of this is to say… jargon can be interesting. If you don’t know enough, you end up asking a far-too-broad question like “are you good with computers?” Know too much, and your conversations can become a test for people. Which you can use intentionally or, more likely, unintentionally.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I use jargon sparingly (I hope) to make a conversation between experts seem more realistic. I’ve also hidden a joke or two that people who know the jargon might snicker at but most readers are neither better nor worse off for missing.


    • That’s a good use of it, I think, and I love a good inside joke.

      As long as what you’re saying is still intelligible to people who don’t know the jargon at all, i think that can work.


  3. Too much jargon turns me off of most sci fi books by the third page however I often get into arguments with people about the words “myth” and “romantic” and “fairy tale”. Because I read too much old literature and forget that other people haven’t and because I don’t always know how to say what I mean without using those words how I am used to hearing (reading?) them used.
    There may be a level of semantics involved in jargon.
    Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, jargon is a semantic thing, first and foremost, I think.

      It’s easy for people to talk past one another. Just because both of us are using the same word, doesn’t mean we’re saying the same thing when we use it.

      This is one of the things that makes arguments get heated when they don’t necessarily have to be – people rarely slow down and try to agree on a definition before it’s too late to do any good.

      (I hope that made sense).

      Thanks for stopping by!


  4. It took me ages to actually start writing the sci-fi I wanted to write, because I was so nervous about trying to understand technical jargon. I finally decided if space travel concepts would actually work then we’d be travelling in space, so it really doesn’t matter if I just make crap up. I am making an effort to get conversant with the relevant jargon, though, mostly because my protagonist likes all that sort of thing and would know what it is.


  5. Pingback: A to Z Day 20: Tone | The Writing Catalog

  6. Pingback: Things I know now that I didn’t know on April 1: An A to Z Reflection | The Writing Catalog

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