Word! The Language Column
Watch Out for Jargon!

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Verbal communication should be used for the purpose of making oneself understood, argues Hasnain Kazim, who lambastes various forms of jargon. Sometimes only one thing helps: to translate it into plain, readily intelligible language.

By Hasnain Kazim

I’m a fan of linguistic diversity. I like dialects and vernaculars, regionalisms and localisms. I actually collect them and relish the stories behind them. Besides, language is a creative material. You can make things out of it and use it in all sorts of different ways, to express moods and feelings, to present or conceal yourself. Language is to a writer what colour is to a painter.
But I’m less enthusiastic about technical jargon. Like when the doctor tells me, “We have a distortion, a supination trauma in the right distal radioulnar articulation,” I feel the pain not only in my twisted right elbow, but also in my ears on account of that excruciating medicalese. True, not all doctors express themselves like that. But some do. And I’ve no idea why.

Insider jargon

Sure, technical terms are used to convey information efficiently and precisely. But I don’t see anything efficient or precise about it. What I see is a problem. It’s a matter of courtesy, respect and decency towards others to choose your words in such a way as to make yourself understood. But some doctors seem to forget every now and again that most folks aren’t doctors. Then again, you need only ask for a translation and they’ll usually oblige: “We should treat your hyperkeratosis, in other words your clavus durus, with keratolytics as soon as possible.” – I beg your pardon? – “Here, put this plaster on your corn.”
Why keep it simple if you can make it complicated? This seems to be their ethos – and it’s one I know all too well myself: I was in the navy for several years. The German armed forces and especially the navy have a language all their own. Only the ignorant, the uninitiated, would call a Seil (rope) a Seil on a German naval ship, for example: the word is Tampen (rope end)!

Navalese is a blend of military and nautical speak, which makes it the epitome of technical jargon. In the German navy, you don't say, “Vorsicht!” (“Careful!”) or “Achtung!” (“Look out!”) to warn someone, you say, “Wahrschau!” So the friendly way to warn someone not to trip over a rope is: “Wahrschau Tampen!” (“Watch out for rope ends!”).  At first I kept wondering why they kept hollering the name of the Polish capital [Wahrschau is pronounced exactly like Warschau, German for Warsaw]. But it stems from the Middle Low German warschuwinge meaning “warning”. I don't know how the first “h” in Wahrschau got there, but it’s supposed to be there – I looked it up.
My shipmates and I spoke navalese every chance we got, to set ourselves apart from everyone else. Like teen slang and all other forms of groupspeak in general, technical lingo also serves to inculcate a sense of togetherness and team spirit. I get you, bro’! We’re on the same wavelength, sis’! And with our elaborate language code we show everyone else how in-the-know, cool and superior we really are!

Enough already with “conflicting priorities”!

The use of jargon was particularly rampant at university, in my case in political science. How artificially inflated language can be! The most banal facts, the simplest subject-matter was so dressed up in arcane lingo that you had to spend ninety per cent of your time trying to figure out what was meant. Sounding clever was at least as important as writing clever papers. If your writing was underwhelming, you could at least dazzle with abstruse verbiage. Which was considered “scientific” – as opposed to a “journalistic” prose style, i.e. language comprehensible to the hoi polloi, which you weren’t allowed to use in academic papers under any circumstances! “Talking the talk” was clearly an expression of belonging to academia, in this case to the caste of academically trained political scientists.
Among other things, I learnt that you could squeeze just about any topic in the world into a title using the formula “X Between the Conflicting Priorities of Y and Z”, e.g. “NATO Between the Conflicting Priorities of Defensive Alliance and Collective Security”, “The German Government Between the Conflicting Priorities of Western Ties and Eastern European Integration”, “Idiotic Circumlocutions Between the Conflicting Priorities of Pseudo-Intellectualism and Wannabe Scholarship”. Try it yourself – it always fits the bill!
N.B. You can also underscore your belonging to the intellectual class by quoting obscure authors and acting as though everyone ought to know who they are: “Craig Moraciewicz recently wrote that...” “Reto Burschlihammer concurs that ...” Or you sprinkle in the names of intellectual giants so a little of their light will shine on your own intellectualism. Whenever Hannah Arendt gets mentioned, for example – with all due respect to the late great Arendt! - I always get suspicious.

Put it in plain German

So far, so harmless. But technical jargon really becomes a nuisance when civil servants, lawyers, business people and politicians use it to be deliberately incomprehensible. On official forms and in dealings with notaries, in the fine print in contracts and even some political speeches, I sometimes have the impression the wordings are expressly chosen to keep me from understanding them. And to get me to sign, buy or vote for something I would never have signed, bought or voted for had I actually understood what it was. This kind of jargon gives me the impression that they’re trying to trick me.
Consequently, I’ve got into the habit of always translating jargon right away. “So what you mean to say is ...?” I say. Most of the time, people realize they'd better put it in plain German. Or I root around in documents and, like a German teacher, rewrite incomprehensible phrases – or send papers back with the note: “Please express yourself intelligibly!” Sometimes they call me afterwards to explain exactly what they meant. “Then why don't you write it the way you’ve just said it?” Dead silence.
I maintain that expressing ourselves simply and intelligibly almost never detracts from the beauty of the language. “The subterranean tuber crop yield is inversely proportional to the agricultural economist’s intellectual capacity” may sound brainy and polished. But a much finer and readily comprehensible way of putting that is: “The dumber the farmer, the bigger his potatoes.”


Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.