Against jargon
5 min read

Against jargon

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell suggests the following rule:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

I think this is sensible advice. Of course, it’s sometimes useful to introduce new terms into discourse. This is true whenever we encounter a new object or a new concept that is both useful and relatively well defined, but takes too long to express. For example, we couldn’t go around calling gold “that sparkly yellow stuff” or calling limits “the value that this sequence approaches” forever. How useful a new term is will depend on how important the thing it refers to is for the community that is discussing it. Academic fields like economics end up developing certain insider terms like “Pareto efficient” because they are useful for economists, even though they are less useful for the general public. Having succinct terms for these concepts can facilitate work building on them, since they allow a richer class of ideas to be expressed without the complexity of constructions becoming baffling. So the primary benefits of new terms is that they make communication within a group more efficient and allow groups to develop new ideas based on those terms (and when that group is sufficiently large, the term falls into common use).

What, then, is the difference between a new but useful term and a piece of jargon? For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to use “jargon” to refer to a new term whose creation or use is not cost-justified in a given context. This seems consistent with how people use the term jargon: a phrase like “equitable relief” might not be jargon in a conversation between lawyers, but might be jargon if it is used by a politician addressing her constituents.

What are the costs of introducing new terms? I can think of at least six. The first three relate to the fact that new terms are often “insider terms” that are used within an isolated community, and the remaining three are more general:

New terms create an additional barrier to entering a community
If you need to learn the language of a given community in order to meaningfully interact with it, then it’s often going to be more difficult to join that community. Sometimes this cost is justified – e.g. it’s difficult to become a mathematician without learning the language of mathematics – but sometimes it is not, especially if you want your community to grow. (In some cases new terms might make it easier to join a community. If there are certain ideas which are central to the operating in the community, having terms for them makes it easier to recognise that there is something to learn. But this only seems to apply to central concepts.)

New terms are often alienating to people outside of that community
New terms can be used as a way to indicate insider status, and they can seem alienating (and, in some cases just plain weird) to people outside of the community that uses them.

New terms hinder discussion between community members and outsiders
If people from community x and community y use their own vocabularies, this can make people from each field unduly doubt the competence of those in the other community (they didn’t even know what actinic keratosis was!) and can also simply make it more difficult for them to talk with one another (what the hell do half of these terms mean?).

New terms can mask imprecise concepts
The flip side of terms facilitating work building on concepts is that having a term to refer to something gives us a feeling that the underlying concept is concrete and commonly understood. This applies even if the underlying concept is actually imprecise and subject to interpretation. When this happens, it can lead to people talking past one another.

New terms can act like undue linguistic patents
Consider an existing action like “debating issues when one participant is feeling emotional or defensive” and suppose we gave it a label like “glopping”. The idea that we should avoid “glopping” will probably strike us as novel, and so we will avoid saying “don’t debate issues when one participant is feeling emotional or defensive” without referring to the “avoid glopping” idea. But this gives undue ownership over existing concepts by those that construct terms for them, and can impede discussion of those concepts.

New terms can lend undue credibility to ideas
When we give introduce a new term, we are indicating that the underlying concept is so important that it will be useful to have a shorthand for it going forward. Some concepts that are given new terms are simply not important enough to warrant this kind of attention, but can be easy to forget this if the new term gains traction.

We can see that there are perverse incentives for creating new terms (beside the non-perverse incentive of aiding efficient communication within a group). New terms are intellectually satisfying and can be used to indicate insider status or to create a group identity. They also let us patent ideas, increase the credibility of ideas, and can be used to mask imprecision. We should probably bear these perverse incentives in mind before considering whether to create or use a new term.

So how can we tell when the creation or use of a new term is cost-justified? I think the following questions might be helpful guides:

Questions to ask before introducing a new term:

  1. Is this concept sufficiently useful and difficult to convey in a short amount of time that it is worth constructing a new term for it?
  2. Is it likely to be useful to build on this concept?
  3. Have I defined the term precisely in plain English and acknowledged any lingering imprecision in the term?
  4. Is the term that I have introduced as close as possible to a common description of the concept? (e.g. “glopping” is worse by this standard than “emotionally charged debating”: it can be worth sacrificing some succinctness for greater accuracy and comprehensibility.) This is important because having a term which gives essentially the right impression to people who don’t know the precise meaning can capture many of the benefits of a new term while avoiding many of the costs.
  5. Even if my immediate audience consists only of an isolated community, could this new term be costly when the community tries to communicate with a wider audience?

Questions to ask before using such a term:

  1. Am I communicating to a group of people who are all familiar with this term? (If there’s any uncertainty about this, it’s worth checking or saying what you mean by the term.)
  2. Is the underlying concept sufficiently precise that this term is not likely to lead to people talking past one another?
  3. Do I need to use the term or is there some more accessible way to describe the underlying concept?

I think we should aspire to communicate in a way that is as precise, accessible, and efficient as possible. New terms can increase communication efficiency but at the cost of accessibility and sometimes precision. It seems important to bear this in mind before we create new terms, before we decide what new term to use for a given concept or idea, and whether to use those terms when communicating with others both within and outside of a given community.

Thanks to Owen Cotton-Barratt for making substantive contributions to this post.