using jargon

Technical terminology is often called jargon. The dictionary definition of jargon is “special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand”. Sounds OK eh. Nothing to worry about.

But the word jargon is often used very negatively. It either means that someone is talking a load of nonsense, or they are deliberately using technical language in order to appear important, or they don’t know how to speak in plain English, or they are attempting to make themselves appear more knowledgeable than others. Here the negative use of the term jargon is about – another dictionary definition – confused unintelligible language, a strange outlandish or barbarous dialect or obscure and pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.

The problem in academic communication is that people often assume that the first definition – “special words used by a profession or group” is the latter – “unintelligible and pretentious language”.

But it’s also obvious that people outside a profession or group would find it hard to understand conversation or writing conducted entirely in insider language. And that they could feel resentful that the speaker or writer hasn’t allowed them to participate, but has condemned them to sit on the outside, grasping a bit of what is being said, now and then. And then they turn off or get grumpy about what is being said, and mutter rude things about the speaker/writer.

So what do we academic writers and speakers do to avoid being classified as pretentious know-it-alls? The answer is not to abandon the use of technical terminology altogether. The answer lies in thinking about your readers. If your goal is to engage your readers or listeners, and communicate your message to them, or strike up a conversation, then you want to make what you have to say accessible to your listeners. You want them to understand you without making enormous efforts.

Your use of insider terms depends on your audience. if you are speaking with your disciplinary community, they will expect you to be familiar with the specific lexicon used within it. And not only be familiar with it, but use it. That disciplinary lexicon has grown up over a long time and its terms are generally a shorthand for complex ideas. Some of the terms are quite specific but, if there are differences in meaning and usage, you will have to explain your particular interpretation.

Of course even within disciplines, you can over use technical terms. Too many multi-syllabled abstract nouns in one sentence or one breath is hard for anyone to unpack, even insiders.

But if you are speaking with people outside your discipline then you have to think carefully about what bits of your disciplinary lexicon you absolutely can’t do without. You may be able to say what you want without resorting to any discipline specific language. This means that when you read back what you have written, or look at your slides, you can ask yourself if you can say what you need to say without the term(s) in question. And as the old saying goes, if in doubt leave it out, rather than put it in.

But chances are, there will be a few terms that you think are crucially important and /or helpful for people to know. And you don’t want people opening their dictionaries in order to work out what you are saying, or turn off. So what do you do?

Once you have selected your must-have-terms, then you can use one of the four most common term-unpacking strategies:

  • Explain the term the first time you use it. 
  • Don’t use the term, but explain in plain language and then say, in brackets, that within the discipline this goes by the term x.
  • Make a glossary of all of the technical terms you are using. You may be able to italicise or bold the word the first time it is used to show that it is in the glossary.
  • Give an example to show how the concept works or is applied. This can be in the text or added as a footnote. 

You see, it’s not impossible to introduce people to insider terms. If they can understand them, then the vast majority of people won’t see you as trying to show how clever you are, but rather they’ll appreciate you opening up your disciplinary world to them.

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in audience, communication, jargon, reader, readership and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to using jargon

  1. Hermione Paddle says:

    Hi Pat,
    One way to we try to avoid the negative connotations surrounding jargon in my high school English class, is to think about jargon that we (as in the students individually) all know. So some students know basketball jargon (I won’t try to poorly capture it here) or the jargon of online coding. Students will all be part of sub-cultures with particular languages that they know that certainly I (as the teacher) and possibly their peers, do not. This helps the students realise that they all know some jargon and that it is only confronting when you’re not part of that specialised group.
    In addition, the only point I might add to your list of unpacking strategies is to avoid acronyms. Oh the hated acronym. They can really be a turn-off for readers unfamiliar with the jargon, especially if they’re not explained. So writers shouldn’t assume their readers know their context and that they are familiar with the acronyms. I’d say, better still, avoid them altogether.


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