Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say.
Jargon is a useful tool for professionals. Politicians obfuscate to preserve their career, scientists invent words to describe their research and the tech-savvy employ acronyms to describe their craft. Jargon is a tremendously useful tool for groups to communicate, but as professional writers, we need to beware of words that are not part of the common vernacular.
When a client hires me to write for them, I’m faced with two responsibilities. The first is to acquire a working comfort with my client’s industry and its jargon so I won’t come off like a rank amateur. The second is to translate that industry jargon into language my client’s customers will be able to access and easily understand. Only when the gap of knowledge has been successfully bridged with plain language will my client’s customers invest their time and money.
My Introduction to Jargon
I learned all about jargon at a very young age from Dorothy Powell. She was an accomplished writer of books for children and teens, and as luck would have it, she was also my Grandmother and my earliest inspiration to write.
Her lifelong habit of studying people and their behaviors led her to invent a variety of descriptive words and expressions – homemade idioms – to describe them. When someone’s behavior perplexed her, she would label them as an “iya-dot”. She excelled at creating new profanities that delighted my evil, six year old soul! Words like “gnush” escaped her lips when she cut her finger on a piece of paper. My absolute favorite was “shigimidit” – a word that wasn’t abusive, abrasive or offensive, but that still did the trick of leaving someone feeling confused and mildly insulted.
We created new words together every time I came to visit her. Afterwards, she’d launch me back home like a guided missile where I’d explode expressively in front of my parents with complete impunity. After all, what could they do about it? Looking back, I now realize she was using me to pay back her son for being an incredible brat of a child. Not that I mind. We had a blast.
The nonsense words my grandmother and I shared had real meaning for the two of us, but they meant nothing to anyone outside of our small communion. Our words were designed to deliberately close out any participation others - especially my parents - could have in the conversation.
The Darker Side of Jargon
Some forms of jargon resists every effort to be translated into language that can be embraced by anyone outside of a group and it has a dangerous allure.
In her fascinating paper “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals”, Carol Cohn aptly describes how the use of jargon can dramatically shift the way we view the world. The full article is available through this link.
In 1984, Cohn and her colleagues attended a summer camp at a university’s Center of Defence Technology and Arms Control, or simply, The Center. Throughout her summer there, she listened to men describe nuclear warfare as casually as last Sunday’s dinner and recount nuclear strategy with a language heavily imbued with sexual metaphor. She recounts:
“Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft laydowns, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted verses spasm attacks – or as one military advisor to the National Security Council has called ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.’” (From page 165).
These men contemplated scenarios of destruction every day, then went home to their families after work just like everyone else. They were not monsters, they were moral, charming people that she liked. She didn’t know how they could be so disconnected from the horrific realities of actual nuclear war. Her curiosity was aroused, so when offered the chance to stay on for a year, she took it.
Her first task was to immerse herself in the industry’s jargon – its specialized language. She soon noticed terms like “counter value attacks” to sanitarily describe the incineration of cities. “Collateral damage” was a sleek way to address murdering civilians. Slick jargon such as thermonuclear, layered BMD system, Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) were fun to use. Domestic imagery such as silos (nuclear, not wheat), Minuteman missiles RVs (re-entry, not recreational vehicles) and Christmas trees (the section of a Trident submarine where the missiles are lined up) tamed the horrific. What could be more pastoral than silos and Christmas trees?
She discovered the process of mastering the industry jargon conveyed a feeling of power and mastery over forces that are undeniably far from human control. She and her colleagues experienced the thrill of being about to throw around acronyms among the very few who were in the know. The process of learning the jargon so disconnected her from the realities of nuclear holocaust she became less afraid of it. She coined the word “technostrategic” to describe her new language.
To advance her research, she needed to ask questions that, quite frankly, were difficult to frame in the specialized language she had learned. She found it too narrow and confining because it was completely removed from social, psychological or moral considerations. She reverted to regular English in order to speak plainly about the unimaginable human suffering that would result should a nuclear war occur.
That’s when she learned firsthand that the most important function of professional jargon…is exclusion. Jargon denies entrance to those outside of a community and strips them of their voice. She found no matter how well she framed her questions in regular English, the men responded to her as though she was ignorant, simpleminded, or both. With no way to bridge the chasm between worlds of thought, her questions remained unanswered. Worse, a mindset borne out of the technostrategic language designed by and for defence intellectuals remained unchallenged and unperturbed by considerations for the human condition.
Examining Jargon as a Writer
Jargon that causes me the most difficulties are usually specialized words born of my hubris. Humility and respect for my audience help me to overcome it.
Are you unintentionally doing what my grandmother and the defense intellectuals did on purpose?
Jargon, even words we think are easy to understand can become mental roadblocks for our readers. Careful examination of the language we use will ensure we’re not excluding people from the conversation.