I came across a post on social media recently talking about the negative aspects of business jargon, and it got me thinking. I remembered an online comic creator who spoke against a video game because he did not like the terminology unique to that game – something I would describe as jargon. So what is jargon? Is it good or bad?
So to begin, what is the definition of jargon? I searched for it on Dictionary.com and here are the definitions I found:
1. the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group: medical jargon.
2. unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish.
3. any talk or writing that one does not understand.
5. language that is characterized by uncommon or pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax and is often vague in meaning.
Now before I start analyzing those definitions, what the eff is pidgin?! I’d never seen that word before and had to look it up. It means:
1. an auxiliary language that has come into existence through the attempts by the speakers of two different languages to communicate and that is primarily a simplified form of one of the languages, with a reduced vocabulary and grammatical structure and considerable variation in pronunciation.
2. (loosely) any simplified or broken form of a language, especially when used for communication between speakers of different languages.
Huh, so that’s neat. Taking that into consideration, how would I define jargon?
- Jargon is language specific to a group or trade.
- Jargon is simplified language meant to facilitate quick communication.
- Jargon is nonsensical language meant to obfuscate meaning in order to bolster a perceived respectability of the speaker.
Now, one of those definitions doesn’t seem like it belongs with the others, does it? I’ll address that shortly. But as for the first two definitions…
Firstly, jargon is used to define things specific to a situation that may not be relevant outside of that set of circumstances. And I think many communities have jargon. In my opening paragraph, I mentioned someone disliking jargon associated with a video game. Gaming in general has a lot of jargon: tank-and-spank, instance, DKP, deeps, kite, peel, ranged ADC… Each of those words or phrases has a precise meaning that people who’ve those played games would understand. But to anyone else? Non-gamers might not understand a single term on that list. Gamers who have not played games with those terms would not understand them either. But everything on that list means something. And when someone says that in a game, they do it sometimes not only because it is the “official” term, but because that term is used to shorten a long explanation to a much shorter one.
Gaming is not the only community that uses jargon, merely one with which I have frequently interacted. I remember reading an online article talking about the jargon of airport tower controllers. I’m sure the medical field has a great deal of jargon. I’m sure most fields and communities have at least some jargon. And in all those instances, it means something. It fulfills the basic requirement of language: communication, the conveyance of meaning. Even if we personally do not understand what that meaning is, it does not mean that meaning is absent.
But that only addresses the first two of my three personal definitions. What of the third? My third definition postulates jargon as something that we not only do not understand, but as something that may not have a meaning at all. It does not facilitate communication – at least, not in a positive way. That kind of jargon does not help us understand how to insert Tab A into Slot B. That kind of jargon expresses only one point: listen to me, think well of me, love me… It is language meant to express a desire for affection, but also to hide the speaker’s motive. It is language that is not language. It communicates that it does not want to really communicate. It tells us what, but cannot bear to let us know why.
So, to return to my original question, is jargon good or bad?
Language is the means by which we communicate, and jargon that enables us to do so cannot be bad. Even if we do not understand, that does not mean the words are bad. It just means that our world has not yet encountered sailors from those strange shores. Or if we have, then we have not yet shared enough drinks with them to begin to untwist their wild tongue.
But what about language that does not help us understand each other? I cannot believe that that is a good thing. Even if I manage to understand that someone is using that kind of jargon on me, even if I understand that they just want me to think well of them, how can I respect someone who will not speak honestly? How can I respect their desperation, their feelings of inadequacy?
If you want to talk to me, ask. If you want me to think well of you, tell me your story. If you want me to respect you, be able to tell me what something you said means. If you cannot do that because what you said and what you feel are not synonymous , don’t lie to me. Don’t deceive me. I can take it. Honestly, I can. So just…talk to me. Talk with me. Don’t babel, speak.
Is jargon good or bad? That depends on us. Our intentions decide that. Language is not good or bad. But the human heart? The heart is a place where good or bad can thrive. And it is our hearts that flavor the words spilling from our lips – and that is as true of jargon as it is for anything else.