Talking the talk

My mother started me down the road to polysyllaby. I say of her that she taught me never to say “enough” where “sufficient” would do. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t enjoy words – playing with them, learning new ones, finding out about shades of meaning. I got my first thesaurus at thirteen and I’ve never looked back.

I particularly love jargon, the inside talk of a profession or craft. When I read a story in which I get an insight into an occupation with which I wasn’t familiar, and in which I learn a new word or three, I’m delighted. “Diaphoretic” means “sweaty”, and not from hard work, but from the physiological effects of a heart attack or some such. Cool!

It may seem odd that, dedicated word nerd that I am, I’m also dedicated to the idea of plain speech. I’m frustrated by bafflegab and new-age speak (which I call “newage”; rhymes with “sewage”). When the rep from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses told me that the CFIB had “produced significant reduction in compliance issues” for small businesses, I wanted to smack him up the back of the head. I’m a well-educated person with a great vocabulary, and I hadn’t any idea what he meant.

“What the hell does that mean?” I asked. Oops, not tactful, Elizabeth. Never mind, the CFIB wanted three hundred dollars of my money for a membership. I didn’t need to be tactful. He needed to be clear.

“It means we reduced government paperwork for small businesses,” he said.
“Then say that,” I told him. To his credit, he now speaks plain language to me.

Jargon is, by definition, almost certainly incomprehensible to outsiders. It’s fine to use it inside the profession, but those who know jargon also need to know how to translate. I had an object lesson in this myself when I said “point-of-view shift” to a beginning writer. She didn’t know the term, and everything I said about it went right over her head. Fortunately, she told me she didn’t understand what I’d said, and I was able to clarify. If she hadn’t told me, I’d have looked as pompous and inconsiderate as the CFIB rep did to me.

Bill Bryson, in his Dictionary for Writers and Editors, distinguishes between words which sound enough the same to confuse the unwary user, pairs like “meritorious” and “meretricious”, “immanent” and “imminent”. Several times he says “use a different word and save your reader a trip to the dictionary”.

I don’t mind a trip to the dictionary, but I know I’m in the minority here. (My home town boyfriend, to whom I wrote when I was away at university, objected to having to consult the dictionary while reading my letters.)

Unless you can write jargon in a way that makes it comprehensible to the reader, even if only by implication, I’d agree with Bill Bryson; it’s probably best simply to use a different word.

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