Clear Talk

Jargon, lingo, slang, gobbledygook – all have one thing in common:  they represent language choices of a particular group of speakers or writers.  While it is true that they also represent different levels of formality, they can also baffle and intimidate listeners or readers, so when the goal of writing is to communicate, they can get in the way.

Some years ago, I developed a speech communication course entitled “Language Choice and Communication Barriers” where students explored how word choices can interfere with making themselves understood or can bring negative reactions.  Jargon was one of the topics the class considered, concluding that it has its place, but it can interfere when listeners and readers are not part of the ingroup that understands that language.  Most people have encountered situations where they struggle to understand what they are reading because the language is so unfamiliar.  It is frustrating and irritating.

Jargon can be the unique language of any specific group, but most often jargon is connected to a particular trade, profession, or academic field.  There are three types of jargon:  specialized language, inflated expressions, and euphemisms.  Many computer terms have become so familiar that almost everyone understands and uses them (i.e. network, folder, download, or browser); however, there is a surplus of specialized terms dealing with computer hardware or computer programming that only people in the field understand.   “Monetary remuneration” (pay) or “learning facilitator” (teacher) are examples of inflated expressions.

Wikipedia lists many terms that are better replaced with plain English terms, such as “close proximity” (near), “elucidate” (explain), or “incumbent upon” (must).  Business jargon is often filled with euphemisms (i.e. terms for firing someone:  dehiring staff, strategic downsizing, or career change opportunity), and politicians use such jargon, often in an attempt to make the ugly more acceptable; for example, “recession” is replaced with “a period of economic growth” or “meaningful statistical downturn”.

The use of acronyms and abbreviations is another form of jargon.  Acronyms such as “PC” (political correctness OR personal computer), “PIN” (personal identification number) and “ATM” (automated teller machine) have invaded common language even though many people can’t tell you what they actually stand for.  The military has an overabundance of acronyms such as “SNAFU” (situation normal all ‘fowled’ up), which is used by many who don’t know the vulgar term included in the exact translation.   PlainLanguage.gov suggests that acronyms should be avoided or limited to two on a page.  They should be spelled out the first time they are used if the audience would not understand them, or an alternative term should be substituted (i.e. “computer memory”, not “RAM”).

Jargon can be useful, but the best writers keep the needs of their audience in the forefront.  Language that excludes readers and listeners is not only ineffective, it is also exasperating.  When a writer must use jargon, it should be for an audience of peers who understand the terms well, or it should be defined if the target audience will probably not understand.    One myth that needs to be dispelled is that defining terms is a way of “dumbing down” language for readers and listeners.  If the audience is a group of Information Technology graduate students or a group of medical doctors, then using technical terms is a type of shorthand for communication; however, if the audience is outside of these groups, then defining terms is not “dumbing down”, it is a means towards clarity.  Some believe that jargon makes them sound knowledgeable or professional, but for many audiences, it just sounds aloof.

There is a movement called the Plain English Campaign which aspires to have audiences understand what they are reading the first time through and without a dictionary in hand.  In 2010 President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act which requires that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use”, which is refreshing and ironic because the government is known for its use of confusing “Government Speak”.   When jargon is used for a knowledgeable audience, when it is defined, or when it is limited, it is effective, but it is important that writers and speakers thoughtfully consider their language choices to prevent barriers to communication.

-Diane Repass

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