Are you drowning in jargon?

Are you drowning in jargon?
Spoof on Jargon
Spoof on jargon

My son’s voicemail said: “Hi, Mom. I’m in Minnie, on my way to Indy. I passed my FO. Call me after 7; up to then, I’ll be in the box.” Hello??? One short message, four uses of airline jargon.

This message certainly was concise, but it wasn’t clear to me and therefore not complete. Bruce was talking to me as part of his inner circle of pilots, dispatchers, and air traffic controllers. That’s the point of jargon: It’s a vocabulary of a specific trade, profession, or group. In other words, it’s “shorthand” between experts.

Three functions of jargon (also known as buzzwords)

Buzzwords can be figurative, creating a picture that may not be literally true. For example, the “box” Bruce referred to is the flight simulator (which is actually a box up on hydraulics.The inside looks and moves exactly like the cockpit of a specific airplane.)

Buzzwords are often creative. Prosecutors speak efficiently but disparagingly of “perps lawyering up” (defendants obtaining counsel). One of my clients puts their medical device through many heating and vibration cycles, referred to internally as “shake and bake.” They shouldn’t use this jargon in an FDA document, however.

Buzzwords can abbreviate language. I recognized the word “Indy” in Bruce’s message because of the popular “Indy 500.” I had to translate the other concise forms into language that I could understand: “FO” is an acronym for “First Officer” (the pilot who sits in the right seat) and “Minnie” is short for “Minneapolis.” Funny—although I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota at the time, I had never heard “Minnie” used to refer to that other city.

Jargon’s dark side

Some suggest that buzzwords are a harmless effort to make language concise and useful within a certain community of practitioners. But that’s the problem–unless both parties to the communication know the same terminology, the recipient of the communication will probably not understand the sender’s message. Recently, a customer service representative told me he would “RMA my defective modem.” He may have thought he was saving time, but when he finally had to define RMA for me (“return merchandise authorization),” it was clear that defaulting to the acronym wasted time for both of us.

Sometimes, jargon is meant to disguise meaning to protect the message from being understood by outsiders. If that’s your purpose, I can’t help you. However, if you are actually intending to connect with your reader, then decode the jargon for them. This isn’t “dumbing down,” but rather, translating your special language for the outsider. After all, as Bruce’s Mom, I will always try to figure out what he’s trying to say to me. Will your reader be as motivated?

Just say “no” to jargon

  • Start today to identify the slang or jargon you unconsciously use with your peers.
  • Become conscious of when you speak or write slang or jargon to a wider audience.
  • Prepare and use translations or definitions of your terms so a general audience can understand your communication.

These tips will help you avoid unnecessary use of jargon in your technical writing so that you can create complete, consistent, clear, concise, and correct communication.

Enjoy these links:

Some great examples of jargon

Buzzword watch from Wired Magazine

Buzzword Bingo games that you can print out to take to meetings

Computer buzzwords explained

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