Not all jargon is created equal

I’ve advised against and poked fun at jargon before. But not all jargon is created equal. Andy Hollandbeck’s article “How To Put Business Jargon In Its Place” focuses on business contexts, but the principles also apply in science. He argues that jargon can be exclusionary or inclusive:

Exclusionary jargon is the “bad” jargon. Rarely does it impart more useful information than simpler, plainer speech. Instead, it transmits a message about the speaker: I am a business professional. It’s an easy way to establish one’s qualifications — even for the unqualified. … Inclusive jargon is the “good” jargon, a business shorthand that encompasses complex ideas and multi-step actions. It’s inclusive because it binds people of the group together to discuss complicated issues.

So I argue that some types of jargon are never warranted, because they add no new or special meaning other than the “code” of being “in the club.”

Even the time and place for “good” jargon is limited; you have to be sure your audience knows what it means. When publishing in a very specialized journal, for example, you can get away with it. But if you want your ideas to have a wider impact beyond your micro-field, even the “good” jargon has to go.

After being steeped in a field, it’s hard to remember what’s jargon and what isn’t. So what’s a busy scientist to do when s/he’d rather focus on designing the next experiment than eradicating the jargon from the article s/he just wrote?

Hollandbeck agrees: “hire an editor, preferably someone from outside the company [i.e., your lab], to ‘translate’ your posts, pamphlets or what have you into plain language.” Smart guy.

2 thoughts on “Not all jargon is created equal

  1. Jon Brock

    When it comes to jargon, there are three options:

    1. avoid jargon altogether (check out up goer 5 if you want to see how far that gets you)

    2. use jargon but give a definition (condecension alert)

    3. or you can treat your audience like intelligent people, use new words, but make sure that the meaning is evident from the context in which the word first appears. This, after all, is how we learn the meanings of new words most days of the week.


    1. Science Refinery (Lauren Meyer) Post author

      (The Up Goer Five, for those who don’t know:

      I think the part most people unfortunately miss from your third choice is “make sure that the meaning is evident from the context in which the word first appears.” If that actually happens, though, I’m all for using specialized language! The long version is more like, “don’t use jargon unless it’s crystal clear what it means,” but this usually just gets shortened to “don’t use jargon.”

      Thanks for your contribution, Jon.



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