The Nonsense of Birds and Whispers of Thieves: Reclaiming Jargon

Wading through the nonsense of jargon
Wading through the nonsense of jargon

The Online Etymology Dictionary’s definition of jargon is a far cry from its usage in common academic parlance: “[U]nintelligible talk, gibberish; chattering, jabbering,” the definition begins, derived both from either a cacophony of animal sounds (the gibberish of birds), or the guilded secret language of thieves. To accuse an academic of speaking in a jargoned tongue then is to level upon them the slander of either origin. As academics we are either like animals in a pen honking “nonsense” at one another, or, perhaps even worse, like rogues cloistered in our reclusive sanctuaries, using a shadow language to communicate when pressed to appear in public. If these beginnings can be taken as part of jargon’s connotation, how come neither seems to adequately reflect what I do at my job?

Fortunately, the word seems to have lapsed from its clearly derogatory beginnings. Jargon amongst academics is read as more of an inversion of its historical qualities than a literal recasting. Is the gibberish of the birds nonsense because they are animals, or because we refuse to soar to their heights? Did brigands adopt a shadow language to vex the common-folk, or was it instead a way to identify others within their community (who embodied a shared set of values)? The accusation of jargon smacks of anti-intellectualism. In other words, regardless of our accomplishments, we academics still trade in secrets; jargon suggests that we publish esoteric and oblique papers in obscure journals. Which we do, don’t we?

I think the reality of the situation is closer to cackling of birds, and buzz of thieves than we might realize. When I use jargon, at least, it is because no other word will do. Be it one of Foucault’s dispositifs of surviellance, Deleuze’s rhizomatic formations, or one of Bourdieu’s four-thousand (I joke, I joke…) categories of capital, jargon is the dirt that this little piggy likes to sleep in. Jargon points to a gap in my sense-making intuitions and the all too familiar failing of language to capture and categorize an increasingly complex world. The crutch of jargon reminds me, partly, of how little I know, and it protects me, almost totally, from critics who would attempt to reduce the nuance of my thought.

To be sure, I believe that jargon is neither a blessing nor a curse – instead it is something in-between. And although I do not like the simplistic equating of jargon with haughty ivory tower values, I also appreciate the ways it is, in fact, used as an insider language providing us academics a sense of intellectual freedom. Because there is a barrier to entry, and jargon laden language is frequently hyper-specific, jargon disrupts the posturing of crude argumentative critique by assuming some degree of prior knowledge is essential for healthy discourse. And, unlike the shadow tongues of yesterday, it takes little more than a dictionary to participate in most academic discussion and discourse. Maybe the trick is just to explain things a little better – to make the point that this pig’s dirt is also soil, fertile with ideas.