What is in a name? Recently, I have observed a push back against jargon in specialized professions. For example, The Center for Plain Language began as a group of advocates for plain and clear language in government communications and has spread to advocate clear communications in many different disciplines. This came to my attention via an article posted on my news feed that was a few years old, published in The Atlantic and written by Victoria Clayton, “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing“. I found the message important, timely, necessary and agreed with much of the article. Some papers I read are boring and strife with needless jargon while others are well-written, engaging, and fun to read. However, I was disturbed by two items that came up in the article. First, the idea that academicians should write for an audience other than their peers. In fact, the target audience for our published works is our peers. Second, the idea that academicians’ use of jargon is elitist, a ploy to exclude those outside of our specific discipline. Perhaps some academicians do this, but most use very exact language for very exact purposes, to convey concise and accurate results from our research and scholarship. Each word has meaning.
Daddy Long Legs. For example, entomologists, those who study insects, use the scientific jargon of Latin names and classification systems to communicate explicit information on specific taxa. I have decades of experience in teaching what a species is, what a taxon is, what a classification system is, what binomial nomenclature means, all to students who do not want to know this information. At all. Why is this all so important? Well, each term and concept listed above conveys a wealth of information to entomologists. The application of this information is important, it allows us to calculate biodiversity, analyze patterns in nature, and tell one species that vectors a deadly disease from another that does not. We may be tempted to use language such as common names so that non-experts understand this research. But common names are misleading. Take the example of daddy long legs. The common name has been applied to daddy long leg spiders, daddy long leg spiders (again), and daddy long legs flies. In one case, daddy long legs are a group otherwise known as cellar spiders in the family Pholcidae, in the other case, daddy long leg spiders are not spiders, but another type of arachnid called Opiliones. The daddy long legs fly also goes by the common names crane flies and mosquito hawks, all of which are flies in the family Tipulidae. Common names are misleading and use of scientific nomenclature is clear for those in the discipline and who understand the terms.
Slippery slope. That is not to say that we don’t have room for improvement. But people outside of our discipline are not the ones to provide it. Especially in a world where once commonplace words and phrases are no longer understood. I first realized this problem when I began teaching twenty years ago. Students indicated that I used too much jargon. However, in class I explained all the scientific terms in great detail, provided resources and lists with definitions (You know, kind of the idea of teaching). So, what were the students writing about in my evaluations? It turns out they were upset with my use of non-scientific words. For example, I used the word inundate (see below). This is a word I learned as a teenager while reading some pulp science fiction book. Inundate means to fill to over flowing. I had used the word in my plain speech for so long that it did not occur to me to define it. These were college students after all. Today the problem is much greater. Some students do not know what is meant when they are asked to perform simple tasks such as summarize or paraphrase. At what point does plain speech become ineffective speech? And sometimes even common word substitutes for jargon are not understood.
Solutions. Admittedly, an impenetrable realm of academia exists, protected by obscure words, obtuse language. Sure, those of us in this realm spend an immense amount of time and energy getting into the realm and then must feed the jargon dragon to get published so we can remain. The problem is that our work is losing relevance in the world outside our realm. This creates a real danger, the loss of our realm and all that it produces such as space shuttles, 3-D printed hearts, and biodiversity estimates, methods in logic and reason. Perhaps the greatest output from our realm is reason. So, how do we solve this conundrum? We need discipline-specific jargon to communicate effectively, but we need to effectively communicate with non-experts. Well, the solution is simple. We need a new world of experts who work directly on communications with the public. These are people who are trained as the historians, philosophers, lawyers, literary critics, and scientists but who are devoted to translating the works of the disciplines they love for lay audiences. Although the field of translational communications is growing, it needs much more support, more positions within and outside the academy. Given the over production of academics relative to the declining number of jobs, perhaps departments, schools, colleges, and universities need to invest in the growth of this relatively new area of outreach for the good of us all.