Hege Library & Learning Technologies

Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

The Two Faces of Jargon

Jargon is not always a bad thing. One of its dictionary definitions is "the specialized or technical language of a trade, profession, or similar group." In other words, jargon may enable one to communicate clearly and efficiently if one is using language whose meanings are shared by your audience even though they may not be clear to a general audience.

I expect that if a neurosurgeon is writing to other neurosurgeons about a discovery, s/he is likely to use language that only other neurosurgeons will be able to make sense of easily. To prevent her from doing so would cause an incredible waste of time. (In a different context, think of how many words you would need to describe "downtime" if you were prevented from using this useful instance of computer jargon).

The problem comes when jargon is used toimpress rather than express. Thus the primary dictionary definition of jargon: "nonsensical, incoherent, or meaningless talk" (it comes from medieval gargoun, an imitative word referring to the twittering of birds.) Contemporary synonyms include"mumblespeak" and"technobabble."

Ask yourself if you are writing to be precise and clear--or simply being obscure.

Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, once wrote "A man of true science uses but few hard words, and those only when none other will answer his purpose; whereas the smatterer in science thinks that by mouthing hard words he proves that he understands hard things."

Or try this from the Tao of Pooh: "The Confusionist, Desicated Scholar is one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or to his own small group, writing pompous and pretentious papers that no one else can understand, rather than working for the enlightenment of others."