Jargon: A user's guide

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First aired on Babel (20/8/12)


Did you order your grande skinny half-caf breve today? In order to get the java, it helps to speak the jargon. But this lingo can be perplexing. And it's not just coffee orders that are laced with jargon: doctors use it, economists use, real estate agents use it. What's appealing about jargon -- and is it actually helpful? Babel turned to Michael Patrick Adams, a lexicographer and the co-author of How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction, to find out.

According to Adams, jargon is "language that we use in a vocation or avocation, as in a job or a hobby or a sport." And it's not a new phenomenon. "It's been around as long as things for technical people to do [have been around]." And a lot of jargon has entered our everyday vernacular, so we don't see it as jargon. A great example, Adams points out, are terms that surround text: uppercase, lowercase, font and typeface are all terms that have been around since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. But the terms were considered highly technical and didn't enter popular use until the advent of the personal computer. We now use these terms routinely and many people no longer consider them jargon.


We use jargon because it represents expertise and exclusivity. People enjoy being included "in the know" and feeling knowledgeable about things -- and showing off that knowledge. Adams uses the example of a friend who was working towards a tenure-track position in math at a university. An older colleague, who had acquired tenure several years earlier, told her to stick to the terminology because it demonstrates that "she knows what she's talking about." And sometimes, using jargon is the only way to convey an idea. What better term is there to describe a sequence of capitalized letters than "uppercase?"

In today's always connected world, it seems there's more jargon in general use than ever. Not so, according to Adams. Industry jargon has always existed. We just have more access to it, thanks to the advent of the 24-hour news network and social media. "We come into contact with it much more and we talk about some things more." And when big things happen -- like the economy collapsing or a major natural disaster -- we turn to experts to explain what happened and why. And how do they talk about their field of expertise? With jargon. A great example was the recent economic collapse and the subsequent bailout. "Suddenly, everyone wants to know and the only language you've got is the jargon you've been using," Adams said. "It takes a while to unwind what the jargon means for public consumption and develop a common language for that that's used among public speakers."

Adams also says that how jargon infiltrates media and enters public use is a good indicator of what people care about and want to talk about. It's just as significant an indicator of social trends as it is a sign of language changing. "We really don't know what's going on in other people's work and lives and minds until this jargon starts to spill out," he said. "It tells you something about the way people are leading their lives that you wouldn't otherwise know."

Photo: Gavin Llewellyn

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