In this edition

Jargon – just add respect

Recognise your own jargon

Is jargon ever acceptable?


Quote of the month

“Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.”

— William Safire


Welcome to our April 2015 newsletter: Jargon

Jargon is a big part of the reason we science communicators exist. We translate jargon into plain language for people who don’t speak the ‘sub-language’ or we explain it to people so that they begin to expand their vocabulary in that sub-language.

Some people love some of the jargon all of the time. Others can’t tolerate it under any circumstances.

Which camp are you in?

As always, we’d love your feedback via Facebook, Twitter or email.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam:

Jargon – just add respect

By Mary O’Callaghan

In A call to arms: let’s get rid of all the jargon!, Monash University lecturer Baden Eunson claims that jargon “does little more than confuse the listener”.

He says that jargon “can go over to the dark side when it is so dense that ‘outsiders’ have difficulty understanding it”.

I take a different view.

To me, jargon is a useful time-saving communication tool as long as everyone in the conversation understands it i.e. it is never intended for “outsiders”.

Imagine discussing a cricket match without using jargon.

Out for a duck? LBW? Silly mid on?

Even after 25 years in Australia, I still don’t fully understand the game but, through prolonged exposure and mild curiosity (who’s winning?, what time will the game be over?), I now have a smattering of the lingo, enough to pass myself off as an Aussie.

Stand at silly mid on and you are likely to get hit by the ball.
Photo: Jim Barry Wines


With jargon, it all boils down to thisWho am I communicating with and do they speak my ‘language’?

If I’m a fire ecologist (jargon!) talking to a news journalist about a recent bushfire, and I truly want to make myself understood, instead of saying ‘above-ground tree biomass’ I will say ‘leaves, branches and bark’. Instead of ‘fuel array’ I will say ‘the type of fuel and how it is arranged, three-dimensionally’.

And when I’m asked what I mean by ‘fuel’, I will say ‘combustible biomass’—oops, ‘any plant material that is dry enough to burn’.

Yes, jargon excludes people but as communicators we have choices.

We can avoid using jargon altogether and spell everything out in plain language. You can’t go wrong with this approach.

Or, if we truly want to invite the ‘outsiders’ in, we can explain the jargon to them. I would choose this option if there was some benefit in having them understand the jargon.

And I would give the plain-language explanation first and then introduce the jargon, rather than the other way round. This way, people are not scared off or turned off by encountering a word or phrase they don’t understand.

This approach shows your respect for the reader/listener, I believe.

[The Bush Fire Front has a handy glossary of bushfire terms.

For more on cricket jargon, read Two short legs and a silly point.] .


Recognise your own jargon

By Robbie Mitchell

Jargon is an intrinsic part of our language, particularly in the workplace. It’s hard to understand it and equally hard not to use it.

Last month, Alison and I travelled to Adelaide to run our Talking science with the media workshop for a group of researchers from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.

As usual, we had three working journalists come along—one each from print, radio and TV—to give the researchers some experience of being interviewed by the media.

First up, the journalists enlightened the researchers on the demands of being a journalist and what they look for in a story.

Then they explained how researchers can help them and their audience to understand technical topics. The one thing all three journalists asked the researchers for was ‘no jargon.’

This made me chuckle because only five minutes earlier, the journalists had used their own jargon to explain their jobs—b-roll footage, analogue, digital, wire service.

The first step to using less jargon is to recognise the jargon you use.

Here are 3 tips to help you recognise the jargon you use:

  • Read body language – Communicating is as much about body language as it is words. If you notice that the person you are speaking to looks confused or uninterested, most likely it’s because they are not understanding what you are saying.
  • Explain it to your mum – I find that if my mum can’t understand what I’m saying, the chances are I’m using jargon. My mum and grandma are great for helping me clarify technical terms because they give me honest feedback.
  • Run it through a spellchecker – Your spellchecker dictionary may not contain words that are rarely used. So if you’re sure you spelt the word correctly a red squiggly underline can be a clue that the word is jargon.


Your spellchecker’s red squiggly line may be a clue that a word is jargon.
Source: Good jargon and bad jargon


Is jargon ever acceptable?

By Alison Binney

In our Talking science with the media workshops, where we help researchers overcome any concerns or fears they have about communicating their work to the media, we emphasise the importance of keeping the messages free from jargon.

Now, after a lengthy discussion with a workshop participant last month, I am questioning whether our stance on jargon is too black and white.

This researcher was bewildered as to why we considered the term ‘indigenous capabilities’ to be organisational jargon.

They were using the word indigenous in the context of local, or Australian, capabilities, as opposed to Australia’s Indigenous people.

When I first heard the term ‘indigenous capabilities’, I immediately classified it as organisational jargon. I also thought its meaning was ambiguous. Why not say ‘local skills’ instead?

It raised an interesting discussion about word choice and how words that are easy to understand on their own can become jargon simply by how they are put together with other words.

The corporate world seems to love this type of jargon—customer relationship management, human resources, buy-in, core values, value add.

By the end of the workshop, we hadn’t resolved whether the researcher’s organisation should refrain from saying ‘indigenous capabilities’ in its public statements.

My take on the whole thing is neatly articulated by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (in The Friends of Voltaire):

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.