Lesson Four

Reducing Jargon

Never fear to use little words. Big, long words name little things. All big things have little names, such as life and death, war and peace, dawn, day, night, hope, love, and home. Learn to use little words in a big way. -Anonymous

In the previous unit, Trimming Fat, you learned to make “fatty” words and phrases into lean ones. Economy of expression is always appreciated in business, industry, and government–so long as it does not reduce accuracy.

Jargon, however, is not the same as “fat.” Whereas sentence fat is always bad, jargon is sometimes bad and sometimes good. Dump the bad. Hold to the good. Use the words best suited for your purpose and audience. This unit will help.

“Jargon” is the specialized or technical language of any trade, fellowship, organization, class, profession, or even hobby. “Etiolate,” “reticuloendothelial,” “ethology,” and “oneiromancy” are jargon words–though they seem everyday fare to botanists, microbiologists, animal behaviorists, and those who study dream divination.

The problem is, it’s so often necessary for professionals, members of organizations, hobbyists, etc. to communicate with folks outside their specialties–and very often, they fail to adjust their technical language to those different audiences. In fact, if they are not using jargon indiscriminately, they may even be using it deliberately, trying to impress or intimidate non specialists. But are they wise to do so?

Note your reaction to the following sentence. Do you feel impressed by the author’s grasp of language? Grateful that the author is so clear and accurate? Intimidated by the tone of legality? Or maybe just plain exasperated at the author’s pretentious, stuffy language?

If any provision of this act or the application thereof is held invalid, that invalidity shall not affect concomitant provisions or applications of the act which will be given plenary effect without the invalid provision or application, and to this end they may not be regarded as indissoluble but are provisionally severable.

You’ve probably heard many words and terms that define one or another kind of jargon. See how many of them you can define:

Long stretches of pretentious, often unintelligible words; reminds one of the gobbling and “gook”-ing and pretentious strutting of a turkey.

Informal, casual, often playful words. Typically, short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect.

Sometimes used synonymously with “jargon” and “slang,” but more often referring to hypocritical affectation, “humbug”–or to solemn speech, insincere talk, hypocrisy. Can refer to the secret language–or whining manner of speech–of tramps, thieves, or beggars.

Secret language used by criminals; criminal cant.

Obscure, deceptive, inhumane, or propagandistic language–especially such language with pernicious social or political consequences.

Tech Speak
As defined by Edward Tenner in his book Tech Speak, or How to Talk High Tech: “Tech Speak is a postcolloquial discourse modulation protocol for user status enhancement. It’s a referential system for functional-structural, microscopically specific macroscopic-object redesignation. It’s a universal semantic transformation procedure. It’s a holophrastic technocratic sociolect. It’s a meta-semiotic mode for task specific nomenclature.” Get the idea?

The Tech Speak of computer geeks. “He was running OS/2 SE 1.0 on an AT/099 with an ST251-1.”

An important-sounding word or phrase connected with a specialized field or group that is used primarily to impress laypersons: “‘Sensitivity’ is he buzzword in the beauty industry this fall.”

Alphabet soup
Language laced with acronyms. “An RFP was issued by DOE; ORNL responded for the ORR.”

The inflated, euphemistic, official-sounding language of government–often dripping with alphabet soup!

Military jargon. “After the damage assessment study, our weapons systems revisited the site to further suppress enemy assets; we achieved effective attrition, but unfortunately, we had collateral damage due to incontinent ordnance.”

“Politically Correct” speech; language that goes to absurd lengths trying to avoid offending various classes of people. “The anthropology professor lectured on Neanderthal Person.”

Despite the negative sense of most of these definitions, jargon is often indispensable and, when used properly, an intelligent stylistic choice. Jargon words and phrases are vital to professions because they are a streamlined way of referring to various (often complex) concepts; a great part of one’s education in a profession consists precisely in learning the jargon of the profession. If a physicist, in her own thought and her communication with other physicists about physics, were obliged to use nothing but layman’s terms and long explanations, physical science would not be as advanced as it is today.

The first guideline for using (or avoiding) jargon, then, is this: use the level of “technical language” that will most effectively communicate with your audience. If you are an entomologist, don’t hesitate to say in a lecture to fellow bug lovers:

“Coleoptra hydrophilidae reproduce most prolifically in densely byrophic environments.”

If you’re speaking to non-specialists, you may want to say, “Water beetles thrive in thick moss.”

Are you satisfied with that translation? No? Perhaps you noticed that I changed “reproduce most prolifically” to “thrive,” which is not precisely the same thing. If this loss of precision is significant, fine: let your translation read:

“Water beetles reproduce most abundantly in thick moss.” (I still can’t bring myself to use the word “prolifically.”)

You have still come up with a sentence that conveys the same information as the original but is better suited to a lay audience.

Remember: jargon should be used only between people thoroughly familiar with the jargon. If you choose to use much jargon, be sure your audience is comfortable with it. Think about your secondary as well as your primary audience, the level of technical language your communications can bear, and the tone you want to project. If your primary audience is non-technical, reduce jargon drastically. Define jargon words the first time they appear–or provide a glossary.

The most important point about jargon that I want to make, though, is that much of it really is unnecessary and annoying. Even in technical/professional communication. When you edit your own prose, or someone else’s, be on the lookout for unnecessary jargon and dump it. My favorite speakers at professional conferences are the “straight shooters.” I love to listen to fellow communication experts who really know how to communicate–simply, directly, honestly, helpfully. I steer clear of the jargonauts, even if they are supposed to be big name people.

Remember, though: when you are reducing jargon, you must not damage accuracy. For example, if you were to substitute “burnable” for “flammable,” you could be doing readers a great disservice; “flammable” has a specific meaning. A flammable substance (such as gasoline) is not merely burnable; it is very easily ignited, will ignite if a flame or spark merely touches its fumes, and it burns with great intensity.

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