Thursday, May 20, 2010

Enter The Jargon!!

Whenever I am teaching a course on the philosophy and techniques of writing using Plain Language, or a Controlled language, such as Simplified Technical English, one of the "rules" that I most often quote and emphasize is:

"Avoid the use of industry jargon."

It seems a logical and obvious piece of advice, and not one I'd given much additional thought to, until asked the question, "what do you mean by jargon?" My immediate answer was "terms used exclusively within your industry that wouldn't be understood by people outside of it."

But over the last few weeks I've begun to question my own answer.

Webster's dictionary defines jargon as " the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group," which seems to fit with my original answer. But how do you define that group, and where are its boundaries? When does jargon become acceptable?

Think about the number of technical terms that are now part of everyday conversation - 'download,' 'upgrade,' etc. Do they still count as computer industry jargon?

What started me down this line of thought was working on my current book project about Wikis. While at the recent STC Summit in Dallas I used the word "wiki" without a second thought. It's a word well understood in that community, and I guess it could be considered industry jargon.

But outside of that group I find that when I talk about my book to a much broader audience there is a high percentage of people who know what a wiki is and can explain it quite succinctly. There are also still a sizable proportion who give me a blank stare until I say 'Wikipedia." A few days ago a writer friend of mine posted on his blog that he had being doing some research on "the wiki." He, of course, meant he had been using Wikipedia, just one (extreme) example of a wiki implementation.

But his use of a generic term for the technology made me wonder, is the word wiki moving away from jargon to becoming mainstream. If it is - what does this mean for professional communicators trying to avoid the use of jargon. Is what we consider jargon a label that is only proportional to the size of the community that accepts and understands a specific definition of a word? The smaller the community, the higher a word's potential "jargon" rating?


Margaret said...

"Is what we consider jargon a label that is only proportional to the size of the community that accepts and understands a specific definition of a word?"

That's it exactly. When a term slips out of its specialist compound into newspapers and magazines intended for a gereral (not specialized) audience, and into general TV and online news, and gets added to general dictionaries, it has spread its wings into the general body of the language, and is no longer considered "jargon".

Gina Fevrier said...

There are still IT professionals who don't believe a "closed" wiki is a real wiki (like Confluence or MindTouch where you can set up permissions), and that a real wiki is like Wikipedia where anyone can edit. For now, I have to keep referring to ours as a "closed wiki".