Session 7: Reducing Jargon

Jargon is a word or phrase that has a special meaning when used in a particular technical field, industry, group, or situation. Jargon can be useful shorthand, so long as you’re sure everyone you’re talking to or writing knows and understands the precise meaning.

People often think jargon must sound technical or exotic. Legal maxims spouted in Latin are often what folks point to when asked to define jargon. The Latin phrase res ipsa loquitur, for example, is exotic-sounding jargon a lawyer might use when talking about evidence. (The phrase basically means something speaks for itself.)

But, what many folks don’t realize is that common words can be jargon too. Take a simple word like “sheet” – depending on the context, it can be jargon. How, you ask? If someone says, “pass me that sheet”, they might be referring to one of (at least) four different things:

  • a piece of paper
  • a bed covering
  • a piece of glass
  • a rope

The last example comes from the sailing world, where certain ropes are “sheets”. Indeed, learning to sail isn’t just about learning to handle a boat – it’s also about learning a new language. So long as everyone on board speaks sailing, using sailing jargon saves time and reduces the chance something might go wrong!

Why do people use jargon?

As noted, jargon can function as shorthand that can save time, which can be crucial in emergency situations. Some professionals use jargon specifically to differentiate themselves or to exclude others. And yes, that often means professionals judge peers and colleagues based on whether they’re fluent with the jargon of their field.

Problems with jargon

Using jargon can create a variety of problems, however. The most obvious problem is when you use jargon and the person hearing it (or reading it) doesn’t understand it. (Using res ipsa loquitur in a non-legal document is an example.) Of course, by taking the time to define the jargon for your audience you can solve part of the communication problem. But, simply defining the term doesn’t address another problem: using jargon often alienates folks, which is never a good communication outcome.

Another problem with using jargon is that the same word or phrase can mean different things to different people. Of course, in many situations, there are other clues that help minimize the confusion. If you’re standing near a photocopy machine when someone says “pass me the sheet”, you’d realize they’re not talking about a rope. But making assumptions based on circumstances is always dangerous.

A separate, but related problem can occur with jargon when someone doesn’t appreciate the technical sense the speaker/writer intends. This is more likely to happen when the jargon you are using involves common words.

Another problem with jargon that many fail to appreciate is that jargon can be confusing even among members of the same profession. Take, for example, a situation where a tax attorney was making a presentation at a tax conference. One of her key arguments was that a particular transaction was favourable because of the capital gains treatment. She didn’t realize, however, that some lawyers in the audience were from countries where the capital gains treatment was very different. It never occurred to her to explain how she calculated the capital gain because she assumed all the lawyers were on the same page. The end result was that some considered her analysis flawed because they were mentally applying their country’s capital gains calculation.

Dealing with Jargon

Given the name of today’s boot camp session, I believe the best way to avoid confusion is to not use jargon. Of course, in certain situations and at certain times, you may decide using jargon is fine, or even preferred. In those situations, ask yourself the following:

  • Will everyone understand the term is jargon?
  • Will everyone understand the meaning I intend?

If the answer to either question is no – or even “maybe not” – then take the time to define for the audience what you mean. (If you don’t want to break up the flow, consider providing the definition in a footnote or glossary.) I promise you, no one will object to you setting out your meaning and you’ll enhance your reputation as a clear communicator.

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