Editorials ~ Sonoma Sun


The creeping dominance of jargon

Posted on February 23, 2024 by Sonoma Sun

We don’t know precisely when human language developed, but given our inclination to communicate it probably emerged quite early in our social development. How grunts, whistles, and moans became names, words, and gained meaning is one of those mysteries of mental development we’ll never know for sure. Was it hunting that drove the development of language, or sex, or even love?

Linguists estimate that many thousands of individual languages were once spoken, a number that’s been sharply reduced as travel and communication technology has progressed. Tribal societies each employed their own, often unique, languages that were communicated to successive generations through oral traditions. 

Undoubtedly, specialized language developed for specialized purposes, and certain words or phrases may well have been restricted to individuals vested with permission or knowledge that allowed their use. Today, the use of common speech and language is generally available to everyone, although some restrictions remain. Notably, some words and phrases are deemed obscene, and their use limited. 

And then there’s jargon.

Jargon may be as old as language itself, i.e.: the creation and use of certain words that are often difficult for others to understand. (Maybe that’s the point). Used as shorthand for complex descriptions of people or situations or as acronyms inserted into everyday speech, jargon substitutes for plain speaking. 

Discussions and explanations become more opaque, words get discarded, the difficulty of dialogue increases, and a monopoly-of-knowledge enables a select few to dominate social narrative and policy development. In this circumstance, plain speaking signifies ignorance; those in-the-know use jargon.

Many professions have become bastions of jargon, effectively cutting themselves off from the mainstream of thought. Accounting, probably the origin of mathematics used to monitor numbers of cattle, sheep, or bundles of grain, is now inextricably tied to tax law and innumerable jargonistic permutations. The law and government are so filled with jargon that only specialists with professional degrees can be relied upon to understand it. So too the medical profession, not only scattered with scientific terminology, but now littered with so much jargon as to be indecipherable to the ordinary person. 

Use of jargon – silo, displaced populations, micro-aggression, sustainable, virtue signaling, to name a few – serve to indicate social status and are used to bestow plain language to the ill-informed. 

In this way jargon becomes a calling card, permitting entrance to powerbrokers otherwise off limits. 

Specialized words have their use, of course. In medicine and science, the differentiation of unique structures and systems is essential in describing illness and the observation of unique patterns. Specialists often need to communicate with each other in ways that facilitate the rapid exchange of information. That said, when government jargon obscures rather than enhances the exchange of information, differentials of power are created. 

Jargon creates monopolies-of-knowledge, facilitating a coded, secretive language that elevates one group over another. Acronyms are now so widely used as to often make conversation between government and the general public clumsy and difficult. 

 If the goal truly is to communicate, not  obfuscate, ditch the jargon for plain speaking.

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA