Yet another reason why jargon sucks

Yes, it's useful for communicating within your group, but as soon as you step outside that circle jargon becomes a problem. That's true even for scientists trying to communicate between disciplines and sub-disciplines of a field. At Ars Technica, John Timmer talks about jargon acronyms that look the same, but mean totally different things depending on what science you do. One of his examples: CTL. If you study flies, this can refer to a specific gene. For people who work with mice, it's a reference to curly tails. For immunologists, it's a type of white blood cell — cytotoxic T lymphocyte.


  1. On the most part I’d argue that jargon isn’t used intentionally – it’s born in the same way all language is born.

    Else labs and offices would be full of people saying things like “Put the doohicky in the dooda, over there on the board watzit”.

    And once you know a really concise and efficient way to reference something it’s hard to go back to something broad that lacks context.

    tl;dr: I appreciate that it’s a thing, but I don’t see it as a problem any more than having a broad vocabulary is a problem.

    1. Maybe, but jargon is effectively the opposite of a broad vocabulary: it’s an attempt to reduce wordy, precise terms to a distilled form. When people speak in jargon they’re paring down their broad vocabulary for the sake of bandwidth. 

      1. Maybe we’re thinking of different jargon. Acronyms: In some cases yes. Niche terms: not really. It’s the wordy precise terms that are the jargon in many cases.

        Which reminds me that I haven’t seen a ‘Jargon Buster’ in years!

  2. In the ’90s, I did recruitment advertising for a bunch of high tech companies in Ottawa. Going through some client-supplied files, I kept stumbling on the mysterious initials “TLA”.

    “What’s a TLA?” I asked.
    “It’s a three-letter-acronym for three-letter-acronym.”O_O

    1. TLA is actually a three letter initialism for three letter acronym. 

      Sorry for the smart arse response :)

    1. I remember when I was growing up in the mid 90s in Norway – me and everyone I knew would pronounce “Ctrl” as if it was an English word pronounced “Kah-tarl”.

      I don’t have a clear recollection of when I stopped that one, but I do remember very clearly the a-ha moment when I met a native English speaker who prounounced Alt Gr as “Alt-Graphic”, too. It’s universally pronounced “Alt Grrr”.

      (Of course, my old keyboard for a character-cell terminal – with special-purpose word-processing keys in Swedish – has a “SLUT” button, which I have to admit giggling at.)

  3. Acronyms aren’t jargon. The phrases they encode are jargon. The author is complaining that all terms should be semantically standardized across unrelated disciplines? That’s ridiculous. 

      1. No? Then what’s the problem? To me, this is like saying it sucks that languages use differing lexicons, or dialects happen to be mutually unintelligible. He’s lamenting this fact; i just completed the argument.

    1. Actually, she is arguing that you need to be aware of when you’re using jargon, even from one scientist to another. Using jargon is fine (I said so right there in the post). The problem is that sometimes people never stop using jargon, no matter who they’re trying to communicate with. And that is where it sucks. That’s not remotely the same thing as saying that language should be standardized across all disciplines. 

      1. The “using jargon is fine” intent may not have been clearly communicated by the title “yet another reason why jargon sucks”.

      2. It’s a big problem in the hospital when workers forget to turn off the jargon machine while speaking to the public.  The patient’s husband doesn’t know that PACU means Post Anesthesia Care Unit;  he’ll spend the next two hours thinking that his wife has some horrible new illness, which could have been solved by just calling it the Recovery Room.

        1. Amen to this. We should continually look for simpler, more accessible ways to describe things. Only be as specific as you need to be. It’s a difficult quest sometimes, but it really matters. To my mind this applies right through – journal articles, object and method names in programs, office jargon.

    1. Given the exciting quality of the hardware and software sold for the purpose; the first generally implies the second…

    1. That’s the one that gets me. I’ve studied psychology for years, but even now, every time I hear CBT, I giggle.

    2. The Norwegian word for “plate” – as in the stuff you put food on, but can also mean “meal” – is “tallerken”.

      Once a year I visit an event where the local burger shop offers a cheeseburger meal. The burger is terrible and hideously overpriced, but it’s a bit of fun getting the cashier to yell into the kitchen for some CBT.

  4. While I have no doubt that we could pull up plenty of cases where somebody really could have been clearer, and is using jargon out of habit when they should be keeping the audience in mind, or attempting to fuzz the audience, or similar, this seems like a more or less fundamentally insoluble problem…

    If you have to talk about something a lot, brevity is a virtue. However, if you want to avoid confusion, uniqueness is a virtue. 

    Since ‘uniqueness’ only has to hold within your context(collisions that you aren’t aware of, or that are obviously irrelevant to your universe of discourse aren’t a problem) a group of people with a shared context are pretty likely to exploit many of the good TLAs for their own purposes, subject only to internal uniqueness tests.

    It doesn’t help, of course, that the subject matter of the sciences is absurdly larger than perhaps anything else natural languages have to deal with. In something like chemistry alone, the systematic names get so ridiculous so fast as the molecules get larger that any ones you actually want to talk about are going to end up with common names or abbreviations of some sort. 

  5. So, in Transit Company A “bus” is a thing with wheels that people ride around in.  In Transit Company B that’s a “vehicle”; a “bus” is a slot on a timetable such as “the 3 o’clock bus”.  In Transit Company B a “vehicle” remains the same “bus” until it (external timetable) changes the route or direction on a route that it’s on but in Transit Company C it (internal timetable) stays the same “bus” until a different driver gets in.  So in Transit Company B the set of  “buses” that a “vehicle” becomes during a day is a “route-run” but in Transit Company C a “route-run” is the set of public timetable slots that a particular driver tries to fulfil  during a shift.  “Route-runs” are usually identified by a pair of numbers displayed in a little box in the lower right-hand side of the front of the “vehicle|bus”.  In Transit Company C the set of  “buses” that a “vehicle” becomes during a day is a “trip” but in Transit Company B that’s a set of driver activities.  Of course, things go wrong and you might have to replace drivers or vehicles part way through their schedules.    This may or may not change route-runs or trips and you may or may not make distinctions between “drivers”, the schedule for one employee during a shift, and “employees”.  This gives us jargons D to G and that’s just scratching the surface.  No Transit Company employees are aware that any jargons other than their own exist.

    In IBM world you “browse the elements of a dataset on your terminal”.  Outside IBM world you “read the records of a file on your screen”: a phrase completely unintelligible within IBM.

    1. In the lighting industry, a “lamp” is a light bulb.  That thing on your end table is a luminaire.

    2. I really really love the way that some particular terms reveal a great deal about nerds’ background. Like when you hear someone talking about buying a DASD, or complaining that their Windows box takes too long to IPL. :)

  6. Namespaces are common in computing.  Just need to add a section to papers: Mice:CTL Immune:CTL… easy enough in parentheticals.   

    “And so we turn our discussion to Mouse Chromasome 4 , curly tail-like (MOUSE:CTL; CTL)”

    one little ref in a parenthetical, followed by how you will be mentioning it in the paper.  even put a footnote on “MOUSE” to point to the official namespace registry. 

    1. Couldn’t you use a dot system? That would work well spoken also.

      CTL.mouse vs CTL.immune vs

      this way everything has a unique address/identity such as; . . .

      1. In latin-based dialects, we have a neat construct called an “adjective”. It performs the dual functions of namespacing and decorating. It prefixes and object, and uses a space (” “) joining syntax.

    2. Namespacing causes the same problem in programming too. In the height of Java-style namespace thinking, it was common to have a namespaced class be 30 characters long or more. That is cumbersome for the programmer to read and parse, and even more cumbersome to type. I agree it does have the benefit of being specific.

      And so program architecture becomes just the same struggle as normal language. You try to write your namespaces to be succinct and brief but convey enough context not to be confused with other things. You want anyone, potentially from a different language background and almost certainly someone who doesn’t understand your domain, to be able to understand and use your code easily and quickly.

      In programming just as in normal language, it takes a great deal of effort to use language that looks simple and is quick to understand.

  7. Ugh. I have to agree with the masses: this is a bit of a weak article, primarily because acronyms ≠ jargon. Though Acronyms-As-Jargon are indeed an enormous problem, because of the huge amount of overlap in three-letter acronyms.

    I have to say that as an IT professional, I’ve been accused of using “jargon” when using real terms, found in the dictionary, that are neither acronyms nor slang. I’m very wary of the word “jargon” in general, because I find intelligentsia often use it as a stand-in for: “I’m very smart, but I don’t understand the words you’re using because I’m not familiar with your particular discipline. Therefore, I’m going to accuse you of using obfuscated language.” This is a fallacy.

    Lastly, I feel the value of jargon is best (and most hilariously) pointed out using XKCD’s classic “Up-Goer Five” comic. :D

    1. I fundamentally disagree with this. People from any domain need to interact with people from another domain at some point, and especially when writing things down – you have no idea who could be reading it. It is ridiculously helpful for anyone in any domain to practice communicating in the most generally understandable terms. IT professionals and developers (I’m a developer) are notoriously bad for this – and it hurts us all. People from all sorts of domains use our services, and being able to explain in simple terms the problem we’re solving or how we’re solving it is essential in finding efficient solutions that actually meet the needs of real people.

      And my take on that XKCD comic is the complete opposite – look how easy it was for him to explain and for you to now understand how a rocket works? And I don’t think it was significantly more verbose than a technical explanation might have been.

  8. “Jargon?” What is that, some sort of parlance for a neologism? Shoptalk for “lingo?” Lexicon for buzzwords?

  9. It’s like math markup.

    To a math guy, ∫f(X’ . Y)dx means something. But it means something different to every single mathematician, because most of the symbols mean arbitrary things that they don’t agree on. Are we talking the dot product of two… eh.”integralOf(userDefinedFunction(horizontalAcceleration * verticalDistance))” is considerably more specific. So programmers almost never use single-letter variable names, and deprecate overloading of operators except in exceptional circumstances.

  10. Don’t make me  post the video on the Turbo Entabulator! So help me, I’ll spin this thread around and take us right back to where we started! You know I mean it.

  11. Should you ever ask for a ‘finger wave,’ make sure you know whether you’re talking to a hairstylist or a prison guard…

  12. “A comparison of the ‘contact’ school of thought with other branches of Solarist studies, in which specialization had rapidly developed, especially during the last quarter of a century, made it clear that a Solarist-cybernetician had difficulty in making himself understood to a Solarist-symmetriadologist.”

  13. Jargon I think does help within an industry when it’s a common language. But, people tend to assume others know all the jargon they do, and that’s when it gets to be a problem. 

    I’m a tech writer and I usually work directly with the engineers and software developers who are working on a new project. These guys and gals are usually really knowledgeable about their field, and as you can imagine, there are a lot of specialized tech terms that get thrown around.

    I generally do try to find out how technical the audience I am writing to is and what the very common tech terms are. Writing to people in the industry as if they are totally clueless about technology makes professional people feel talked down to. On the other hand, frequently it turns out a lot of the stuff I am hearing in the lab is so specialized that the field technicians may have heard it but not understand it. Usually I write more plain English than I would imagine at first, but there are always a few terms that are useful to include.

  14. All of these (mostly) insightful comments, and no one has yet made reference to the parable of the Tower of Babel yet? I mean, isn’t this as old as language itself if there are fables in Antiquity that try to explain the phenomena and blame it on supernatural forces?

    I like the reference to computer languages and variable namespaces. Human language is only a little more muddled due to fuzzy blending of scope, but the concept is the same.

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