The UVic Writer's Guide


Jargon


Jargon is unnecessarily technical language which provides polysyllabic replacements for perfectly adequate simple words. Organizations such as the military and the government are renowned for their ability to bury simple statements under a ton of verbiage. The process seems to arise from a fear that official proclamations do not sound official enough.

Jargon is also used to make something unpalatable sound more acceptable. In the 1991 Gulf War, the phrase "collateral damage" was coined by the military to avoid having to admit that even the smartest bomb caused civilian damage; similarly, while the transformation of "garbageman" into "sanitation engineer" removes the sexist connotation of the original, it is also an attempt to cover up the verbal smell of garbage. In both these examples, the initial urge to create the jargon came from the desire to make something unpleasant seem acceptable; many euphemisms of this kind give an impression of insincerity at the same time as generating wordiness: "passed away" for "died," "comfort station" for "toilet," and so on.

Increasing specialization in our society contributes to the spread of jargon, a substantial portion of which is derived from technical vocabulary. Many of these new words are necessary in their original contexts, but they have also begun to creep into areas where they are unappreciated. Computer terms such as "interface" and "output" can be confusing when applied to real life. Literary criticism is a rich source of jargon, and businesses are particularly guilty of creating terms that are meaningless in their generality (e.g. "functional management options").

The one grammatical characteristic of jargon that is readily identifiable is the suffix "-ize." Words such as "systematized" and "priorized" permeate official writing, resulting in the creation of such unnecessary synonyms as "finalize" (for "finish") and the popular "utilize," which appears to be trying to erase "use" from the face of the earth. Avoid the frequent use (not "utilization") of "ize" words; they are pretentious, and there are probably simpler words that accomplish the same task.

Jargon is intended to impress, but it also seems intended to intimidate and confuse. It can also be unintentionally comic, if it is used in a context where it is clearly inappropriate.

But just for fun, consider this witty—and quite deliberately—"jargonizated" version of the Lord's Prayer that pokes fun at the"jargonscenti":

Our father-figure who resides in the upper-echelon domain,
May thy title always be structured to elicit a favourable response.
Reward us today, bread-wise,
And minimize our unfavourable self-concept, resulting from credit over-extension,
As we will strive to practice reciprocal procedures.
And channel us, not into temptation-inducing areas,
But provide us with security from situations not conducive to moral enrichment.
For thine is the position of maximum achievement in the power structure,
Not to mention the prestige-attainment factor that never terminates.

(Tom Dodge, "What If an Educator Had Written 'The Lord's Prayer'", English Journal, January 1971, p.101.)

You might try your own pages of well-known passages. Here is another:

Considering [the] degradation of the verb [in sociological English], I have wondered how one of Julius Caesar's boasts could be translated into Socspeak. What Caesar wrote was "Veni, vidi, vici" -- only three words, all of them verbs. The English translation is in six words: "I came, I saw, I conquered," and three of the words are first-personal pronouns, which the sociologist is taught to avoid. I suspect that he would have to write: "Upon the advent of the investigator, his hegemony became minimally coextensive with the areal unit rendered visible by his successive displacements in space." (Malcolm Cowley, "Sociological Habit Patterns In Linguistic Transmogrification," qtd. in Effective Writing 238)

The effect of jargon, in its own terms, is to "depersonalize" and "desensitize" language. If you intend your writing to express human qualities and to evoke some kind of an emotional response, then you must not allow jargon to overwhelm the reader.


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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated October 3, 2000