236. Jargon

Many lines of work are peppered with words that outsiders don’t know. Outsiders may actually be quite familiar with the concepts these words represent, but the insiders are often unwilling to recognize that fact. If you’ve spent a long time and lots of energy becoming experienced and knowledgeable within a certain field, you don’t want some Tom, Dick, or Harry off the street, who hasn’t paid those dues, to come in and walk on your turf. And so you have jargon.
Teachers have it. It’s called “Educationese.” When teachers say a child has difficulty with fine motor control, they usually mean the child has trouble controlling his/her fingers. Those are the only small muscles I know of that we really use much in school; we can get by all right without wiggling our toes or wrinkling our noses. But it sounds so much more professional to refer to “fine motor control” than “finger control.” And the “formal operations” stage of development has nothing to do with performing surgery while wearing a tuxedo. It has to do with being able to think abstractly.
I was once at a meeting of The People’s Music Network. We were discussing our by-laws. The first paragraph of the by-laws began, “Whereas the membership of the People’s Music Network…” Fred Small, a songwriter and performer I admire, is also a former lawyer. He raised his hand and suggested that we change the phrase to “Because we…” He knew how jargon can separate style from substance, and he wanted no part of that separation. He got a round of applause for his suggestion; we realized that we had fallen into the jargon trap.
Sometimes, within a group, there is a good reason to use words and phrases that are unfamiliar to people who are not part of that group. Familiar words may not convey intended meaning with enough precision, and precision may be important to effective communication. I know, as a writer, that I can’t always go for the lowest common denominator. I want my words to speak to as many people as possible, but I want to make sure they say what I mean. Sometimes that may shut out a few people who are intimidated or otherwise turned off by phrases like “may not convey intended meaning with enough precision.” But I try to make sure I’m using language as a precision tool, not a weapon.
It’s important to check ourselves once in a while, and make sure that we’re not using polysyllabic verbiage (long words) to impress people, or exclude them. We’ve got to keep in mind that the purpose of language is supposed to be communication. If we want as many people as possible to understand what we’re saying, we’ve got to avoid using jargon just for the sake of using jargon.

Comments are closed.