Jargon

eric raymond

Jargon [jahr-guhn], or term of art, is ‘the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.’ The word ‘jargon’ is French and is believed to have been derived from the Latin ‘gaggire,’ meaning ‘to chatter,’ which was used to describe something in which the speaker did not understand.

An ‘industry term’ is jargon that is associated with one particular industry. Jargon is similar to slang, both are non-standard definitions often created by and for subcultures. It is also common for each generation to create their own jargon. Whether this is because they want to identify with each other and thus create a language of their own, or conversely, if they deliberately do not want to be understood by anybody else (e.g. texting slang used by teens to communicate messages their parents won’t be able to translate).

Philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac observed in 1782 that ‘every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas.’ As a rationalist member of the Enlightenment he thought, ‘It seems that one ought to begin by composing this language, but people begin by speaking and writing, and the language remains to be composed.’ Within each field, terms have one or more specific meanings that are not necessarily the same as those in common use. In earlier times, the term jargon would refer to trade languages used by people who spoke different native tongues to communicate, such as the Chinook Jargon, a pidgin (a simplified language) that developed among traders in the Pacific Northwest.

Like slang, it can develop as a kind of shorthand, to express ideas that are frequently discussed between members of a group, though it can also be developed deliberately using chosen terms. A standard term may be given a more precise or unique usage among practitioners of a field. In many cases this causes a barrier to communication with those not familiar with the language of the field. In this way, jargon can be argot (secret language) and can provide an ingroup with shibboleths (codewords to verify membership with the group). On the other hand, jargon that once was obscure outside a small ingroup can become generally known over time. For example, the terms ‘bit’ and ‘byte’ originated among computer scientists but have spread to the vernacular.

Precise technical terms and their definitions are formally recognized, documented, and taught by educators in the field. Other terms are more colloquial, coined and used by practitioners, and are similar to slang. The boundaries between formal and slang jargon, as in general English, are quite fluid. This is especially true in the rapidly developing world of computers and networking. For instance, the term ‘firewall’ (in the sense of a device used to filter network traffic) was at first technical slang. As these devices became more widespread and the term became widely understood, the word was adopted as formal terminology. Technical terminology evolves due to the need for experts in a field to communicate with precision and brevity, but often has the effect of excluding those who are unfamiliar with the particular specialized language of the group. This can cause difficulties as, for example, when a patient is unable to follow the discussions of medical practitioners, and thus cannot understand his own condition and treatment. Differences in jargon also cause difficulties where professionals in related fields use different terms for the same phenomena.

With the rise of the self-advocacy movement within the disability movement, jargonized language has been much objected to by advocates and self-advocates. Jargon is largely present in every day language, in newspapers, government documents and official forms. Several advocacy organizations work on influencing public agents to offer accessible information in different formats. One accessible format that offers an alternative to jargonized language is ‘Easy Read,’ which consists of a combination of plain English and images. Another alternative is a ‘jargon buster’ (jargon glossary), incorporated in technical documents. There is a balance to be struck – excessive removal of technical terminology from a document leads to an equally undesirable outcome – dumbing down.

George Orwell, a socialist, leftist, and Marxist, believed in the modern style of language, deeming that good writing is clear and simple. In his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language,’ he states the following arguments: technical language is nothing but an oratorical trick, simple language is required to clarify difficult concepts, while complex language is needed to explain simple concepts, and lastly, political language is structured to make lies seem like the truth. In short, Orwell is articulating that specialized language is not essential. American philosopher Judith Butler offered several postmodernist rebuttals to Orwell’s arguments. She argued that difficult concepts need to be expressed with specialized vocabulary, or jargon. She quoted German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who believed that if people could use plain language to describe something, they would. She was attempting to prove that jargon is natural and necessary. She also made the case that ‘language conditions thought,’ meaning that the words we use shape the way we think. Literary scholar Stephen K. Roney countered that if language fully conditioned thought, we would not be able to think about language.

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