Monday, April 12, 2010

Good jargon and bad jargon

There’s good jargon and there’s bad jargon. The good kind is a “specialized or technical language of a trade, profession, or similar group.” Insiders use this language as a form of shorthand.

For example, suppose a physicist is speaking before a group of fellow physicists. The speaker utters the phrase “Schrödinger’s cat.” The phrase refers to a well-known (to physicists) “thought experiment [that] serves to illustrate the bizarreness of quantum mechanics and the mathematics necessary to describe quantum states.”

The physicists in the audience will immediately recognize the phrase and will immediately grasp the familiar (to physicists) concepts behind them. So, in two words, the speaker has expressed perhaps two thousand words of background and has saved a lot of time. This is a good use of jargon.

Keep in mind, this kind of jargon is good only when all the members of the target audience are insiders. If some are not, the speaker or writer is talking over the outsiders’ heads – which is thoughtless and counterproductive.

Bad types of jargon

And there are bad types of jargon. That is, they are bad regardless of the audience. These bad types of jargon include:

Speech or writing having unusual or pretentious vocabulary, convoluted phrasing, and vague meaning.


Nonsensical, incoherent, or meaningless talk.

For example, here’s the opening paragraph from an email solicitation recently sent to business executives in the United States:

“we [sic] are contacting you regarding an international research project that is conducted by the RWTH Aachen University (Germany). The purpose of this research is to investigate how companies can maximize their innovation orientation by aligning their organizational structures to external situations.” (Boldface added.)

On the first page of the survey, the researchers state that they “want to analyze how firms achieve superior innovation orientation [and] if and how a focus on innovation needs helps managers to improve performance outcomes.” (Boldface added.)

The passages in boldface are certainly pretentious and vague. They may also be nonsensical, incoherent or meaningless; we can’t be certain without asking the authors what they were trying to say.

The Takeaway: Feel free to use insider technical jargon when all the members of your audience are members of your trade, profession, specialty or other in-group. With any audience, try to avoid jargon that is pretentious, convoluted, vague, nonsensical, incoherent or meaningless.

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