Anyone who tried to get their head around the financial crisis of 2008 soon found themselves drowning in an alphabet soup of BEITs, CDOs, CDCs, ETFs and MBS. When British novelist John Lanchester wrote about this world he commented that “you are left wondering whether somebody is trying to con you, or to obfuscate and blather so that you can’t tell what’s being talked about”. He wasn’t wrong.
One recent study shows how people are more likely to use jargon when they feel insecure. Led by psychologist Zachariah Brown, it shows how some groups use jargon specifically to make up for having a low social status.
In one experiment, they looked at 64,000 dissertations from hundreds of universities in the US and found that those written by students from lower-status institutions used more jargon. In another part of the study, they asked participants to pick a pitch for a start-up. When people were put into a lower-status position, they found they were more likely to pick jargon-laden pitches. In a range of other settings they noticed that when people found themselves in a low-status position, they were significantly more likely to reach for jargon.
Clearly, there are pitfalls to jargon. Research shows how it can be a major turnoff in the business world. One study found that knowledgeable investors were unimpressed by investment propositions that were filled with unnecessary jargon. Similarly, jargon can make non-experts see new technologies in a more negative light. Another study found that when new technologies are presented to people using jargon, they tend to see them as much riskier.
Jargon is, by definition, exclusionary. This means it can get in the way of understanding crucial information. One study found that the frequent use of medical jargon by doctors meant their patients didn’t understand about half of what their doctors said to them.
Even between experts, it can be counterproductive. A study of different subfields in ecology, for example, found that key terms would often mean very different things to different experts. This would then trigger heated but ultimately fruitless disagreements.
The upside of jargon
Jargon might be infuriating, but it’s also useful. Jargon sums up complex issues in fewer words. This enables experts to talk precisely to each other about concepts they are familiar with.
Jargon can help remove emotion when tackling difficult topics. Doctors, for example, often dehumanise patients by talking about a person in pain as an interesting case of some specific disease. Research shows that this helps create emotional distance, which allows them to make more reasonable decisions.
But this can also be problematic. In 1984 the US State Department replaced the word “killing” with “unlawful deprivation of life” in its human rights reports to help cover up the unpleasant reality of government-sanctioned killings in countries the US supports.
Jargon is also used to solidify a sense of belonging within groups. Professional wrestlers, for instance, talk about their sport as “business”, getting into the ring as “going to work”, and putting on a convincing performance as “selling”. Similarly, North American truck drivers use expressions like “bobtailing a twin screw jimmy” to purposefully exclude non-truck drivers from their conversations.
Resisting a full ban
The dangers of jargon have spurred frequent calls to ban it altogether. In 2015, the then British prime minister, David Cameron asked civil servants to ensure their communications were jargon free. In 2010, then US president, Barack Obama signed the Plain Language Act which required federal government documents to be written in a “clear, concise manner”. Presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton all signed official orders requiring simple and plain language be used in government.
These world leaders were all following in the footsteps of George Orwell who in 1946 recommended that you “never use a long word where a short one will do”. But Orwell’s advice was preceded by Thomas Sprat, who in 1667 wrote how members of the newly founded Royal Society resolved “to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swelling of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things, almost in an equal number of words”.
Despite these constant calls for plain language, jargon seems to have a habit of returning. Instead of trying to take on the impossible task of creating a jargon-free world, we might narrow our ambitions and just try to cut out what the scholar Russel Hirst calls “bad jargon”.
Some potential indicators of bad jargon are words that look or sound strange, hybrids or terms that are difficult to pronounce. After chasing out the bad jargon, we need to ensure that any specialist terms which are left are “good jargon”. That means they should be economical, precise and as universal as possible. Instead of fighting against all jargon, we should follow Russell Hirst’s advice and become champions of good jargon and its staunchest defenders.