A Journey Through Jungles of Jargon
Have you ever found yourself lost in a conversation about a specific industry? Sometimes, people use so much lingo and technical vocabulary that it feels like they are speaking another language! Be it legalese (legal jargon), medicalese (medical jargon), journalese (journalistic jargon), or just a set of particularly esoteric corporate buzzwords, jargon comes in many forms. In this instalment of Language Matters, we take a closer look at industry-specific language, why it develops and when to use (or avoid) it.
What is jargon?
Before we get started, we’d like to make a quick usage note. This is how Antidote’s dictionaries define jargon:
often NEGATIVE: language used by members of a particular profession or group that is not easily understood by the general population.
Notice that this word is often used with a negative connotation. This is due to the perceived problem of excessive jargon use—a risk we will be discussing later. Overall, though, we will use the term jargon more neutrally here, since specialized terms are useful tools in the proper place.
Jargon tends to develop whenever a group of people with specialized knowledge need to communicate about a very particular topic. If you’ve read previous Language Matters instalments such as The Slang Slingshot or Loanword or Word on Loan?, you may be familiar with the term speech community. Although this term commonly refers to speakers of certain dialects or sociolects (forms of language associated with a social group), any group of speakers can form their own speech community. Speech communities centred around particular professions or fields of study develop characteristic ways of speaking. In some such cases, words born as jargon can be incorporated into standard English. For example, deadline originally referred to the border of an American Civil War prison, but it was adapted into American journalese in the early 20th century1. Today, this word is used in all kinds of contexts.
Why use jargon?
Why do people use jargon? Sometimes, specialized subject matter requires the use of specialized terminology. Employees in a brewery may be hard-pressed to talk to each other about their work without mentioning grist (milled grains used in a brew), a hogshead (a 243-litre cask) or IBUs (the International Bitterness Units used to classify beers based on their taste). If they paraphrased these terms for the sake of using plain English, it would take a lot longer to get their ideas across. This is how jargon enters people’s vocabularies. Using industry terminology unfamiliar to the public is sometimes necessary to communicate efficiently with speakers who share specialized knowledge of a subject.
However, the use of jargon is not always strictly practical. Like any other language variety, jargon can serve to identify its users as members of a particular group. If you use a lot of journalistic terminology, people will assume that you are part of the journalism world. If you use a lot of legal jargon, it implies an understanding of the legal system and all its complexities. In short, industry terminology identifies a speaker as being “in the know”. This can be useful for establishing credibility or demonstrating one’s expertise on a topic. However, one should proceed with caution—using too much jargon can have a negative impact.
The pitfalls of using too much jargon
One of the biggest concerns with using too much jargon is the risk of becoming unintelligible. Overusing specialized terminology in front of people who are less familiar with a given industry can create something of a language barrier. Jargon is often cited as a barrier to science communication2, for example, preventing members of the public from understanding new technological advancements that could benefit from public support. Even specialists coming from related but distinct fields may be confused by the excessive use of jargon. Language barriers between fields have been cited as a significant obstacle to interdisciplinary research3. For example, the terminology used by researchers in behavioural science may not be readily accessible to all the psychologists who need to apply this research to their practice.
Even if your audience understands all the technical terminology in your given field, overusing jargon can have a negative impact on the way your language is perceived. In one study of different groups exposed to investment jargon, even the people with advanced knowledge of investing had mixed attitudes towards the use of jargon, and drew distinctions between productive uses and pretentious uses of jargon. These findings underline the importance of the points made here about technical language. On the one hand, a command of industry-specific language can streamline conversations about a specialized topic, and can identify the speaker as a credible member of a given speech community. On the other hand, highly specialized language can be difficult to understand, and overusing technical terms can be perceived as ostentatious, as if to obscure the fact that the author has nothing important to say. This “edubbable generator” pokes fun at the excessive use of jargon in academia by creating sentences that sound smart but don’t actually mean much of anything4.
Things to consider
Does all of this mean that technical terminology should be avoided at all costs? Of course not! As we saw with our brewery example, technical terminology is sometimes necessary in communicating clearly and concisely. But although the use of specialized terminology may help simplify communication within a given industry, it’s important not to sacrifice clarity in the process. Not only can the use of esoteric jargon make speech unintelligible to a more general audience, it can be seen as pretentious. It’s important to strike a balance between plain language and specialized terminology, and there is no hard-and-fast rule dictating when you should and shouldn’t use jargon. Here are some things to consider, then, when choosing your words:
- Who is my audience? How much knowledge do they have of the industry in question and of its terminology? If the goal is to be understood by a more general audience, it is probably best to avoid using overly technical terminology and industry buzzwords when possible. Often, specialized words appear in dictionaries with a domain label. Sometimes, jargon doesn’t appear in dictionaries at all—this is another clue that a word is too technical for a general audience.
- Is there a way to say this without jargon or specialized terminology? If so, are there any disadvantages to doing so? Sometimes a plain-English equivalent may require wordy paraphrases or explanations (which, depending on the audience, may seem needlessly pedantic). If a specialized word or expression is widely used and understood by a given audience, it may be the better option. If not, you could provide a short explanation the first time you use it to ensure accessibility.
- If the use of jargon is not required for clear and effective communication, could it be perceived as ostentatious? Although using specialized terminology to make a good impression may be tempting, it may have the opposite effect if it’s used excessively or improperly. It’s best to consider how certain types of speech may be perceived by an audience.
Try to be aware of the jargon you are using and think about how your audience might respond to it. Although technical terminology can be a great tool, in some contexts it may be better to rephrase using plain language. As always, it is useful to keep your audience in mind in order to communicate articulately and effectively.
Bullock, Olivia and Daniel Colon Amill, Hillary Schulman and Graham Dixon. (2019). Jargon as a barrier to effective science communication Public Understanding of Science. 28/7. (2019). 096366251986568. 10.1177/0963662519865687. ↩
Pellmar, Terry and Leon Eisengerg, Eds. Bridging Disciplines in the Brain, Behavioral and Clinical Sciences.“Barriers to Interdisciplinary Research and Training” National Academies Press. 2000. ↩
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