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.

 

 

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