Is jargon ever a good idea?

Jargon – words that have specific meaning in a specific context – often gets a bad rap in science communications circles. When I ask scientists what they’ve learned from communications workshops, they always say “don’t use jargon.” Why? “It’s a barrier to reaching the audience. So jargon is bad.” 

Jargon can be a barrier. A nearly impenetrable one. 

I have an acquaintance who’s noted that if he’s on a flight and for whatever reason does not want to engage with the person next to him, he is thankful for jargon: Asked “So what do you do?” he will reply matter of factly with all sorts of words that only hold meaning to his direct professional peers.  

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His use of jargon quickly shuts down the conversation.  The other person probably thinks “I don’t know what this guy is talking about, maybe I’ll just read or watch a thing.”

Well that sounds rather mean doesn’t it? Perhaps. In his defense, by using jargon he is able to reply in a polite-sounding manner: he’s not heard to sneer and might even sound excited. Politeness is important after all, especially if it’s a long flight. 

But that’s the thing: he’s consciously using jargon to achieve what it often does when used unconsciously – block out engagement.

If jargon is a barrier why is it useful at all? Because it’s an express lane to those who know how to navigate it. And sometimes an express lane is exactly what is needed.

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If you have ever had the misfortune to be in the emergency room in true medical distress, yourself or with a loved one, jargon flies around you. 

Thank goodness jargon flies when clear meaning is essential. 

A medical professional asks what’s wrong. You tell them – or try to. They attach sensors. Numbers display and beeps beep. Time somersaults. 

Then another medical professional happens along and engages with the first medical professional. Words are exchanged between them. Some of the words are clear. Some seem … familiar. But some are totally meaningless. Foreign, you could say. Their conversation, if it can be called that, comes at a fast clip. Before you know it, they’re done speaking to each other and more tests come. 

I hope very much that this experience of yours ended at least as well as it could have. If it did, jargon played a role. Because in that emergency room, time and accuracy are of the essence. Words and phrases that mean exactly what they mean to the medical professionals, allowing them to interact like two computers exchanging information.

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So jargon can be incredibly useful. Literally life or death useful. 

That is why jargon linguistically evolved: precise words and phrases to mean exactly what they need to mean to those who use those words commonly. Jargon is a dialect – a sort of professional slang. Just like a dialect or slang, to those outside of the know, as I said, it can sound foreign.* 

To answer the title question then: Yes, jargon can be good. Jargon can be great. 

From a [science] communications standpoint though, the question is not “is jargon a good idea?” but rather:

Should you use jargon? It all depends on your audience. 

Do you want to engage other experts like you, to quickly cut to the heart of an intriguing question? Then you should probably use jargon. You can probably say more in less time. If you have a set amount of time, you can therefore do more. These sorts of exchanges are not about building new understandings between cultures of thought: they’re about developing new ideas or methods within the same culture of thought.

But if you want to engage an audience that has no familiarity with your topic, to create new understandings between different groups, do not lead with jargon. 

Build a conversation and learn from each other what words are useful. Maybe create new ones together as ideas and interest develop. There’s nothing wrong with that: after all, discovery is a creative process. 

These thoughts are why I put audiences first when considering science communications.  Or for that matter, any type of communications. 

So ask yourself, what is your goal for this engagement? Knowing that, choose your words accordingly. 

*I leave it to linguists to define whether a collection of different words alone is another language.  Chances are that as they discuss, they’ll use jargon.
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