Jargon – how to understand it

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Understanding jargon – definition

understanding jargon Jargon is ‘the technical vocabulary of a profession or group’.

redbtn The word is used as a form of criticism when such terms are used unnecessarily for communication outside a group.

legal probate, conveyance, intestate
computers download, Megabyte, serial port
engineering sprocket, crankshaft, centrifuge
gardening mulch, perennial, phlox


redbtn Jargon can be a useful form of communication between members of the same group. It acts as a ‘shorthand’ which eliminates the need for lengthy explanations.

redbtn The most important thing about jargon is that it should only be used when communicating with people in the same group.

redbtn Some items of jargon eventually pass into common use because they seem to fill a need. Terms such as own-goal [from football] or repression [from psycho-analysis] were once jargon.

redbtn NB! There is often a very fine line between jargon [salary] and pretentious nonsense [personal remuneration package].

redbtn There is nothing wrong when jargon is used amongst members of the same group. It often acts as a sort of ‘shorthand’, which eliminates the need for lengthy explanations.

redbtn For instance, the foreman in a garage does not need to write on a mechanic’s worksheet:

‘Please regulate the device which provides a constant supply of petrol to the inlet manifold of the engine.’

redbtn He writes ‘Adjust the carbuettor’ — or even ‘Fix the carb’.

redbtn However, when you are communicating with people outside a group, you should use jargon as little as possible.

redbtn The term jargon in its most negative sense describes the use of technical or obscure terms when addressing a general audience.

For instance, what follows is a sentence in a letter from the Inland Revenue. It is addressed to ordinary members of the public.

The basis of assessment for Schedule D Case I and II, other than
commencement and cessation, is what is termed a previous year

redbtn This is an example of bad manners and poor communication. [Would you know what a ‘previous year basis’ means?]

redbtn Academic study has its own jargon too, depending upon the subject in question. Terms such as hegemony (political philosophy) discourse analysis (linguistics) and objective correlative (literary studies) would not be recognisable by an everyday reader, though they might be understood by someone studying the same subject.

redbtn Whatever the jargon of your own discipline, it should be used with precision, accuracy, and above all restraint.

redbtn Eric Partridge quotes the following example to illustrate the difference between a statement made in technical and non-technical form:

‘Chlorophyll makes food by photosynthesis.’

‘Green leaves build up food with the aid of light.’

redbtn Only use the specialised terms of your subject if you are quite sure of their meaning. Never use jargon to show off or ‘impress’ your reader. It is likely to create the opposite effect.

redbtn Do not use a jargon term where perfectly ordinary terms will be just as effective. There is not much virtue in using terms such as aerated beverages instead of fizzy drinks. These simply cause disruptions in
tone and create a weak style.

redbtn Here is an even more pretentious example, spotted recently:

“Enjoy your free sample of our moisturising cleansing bar”

redbtn …in other words – our soap.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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