Jargon: Demarcating Disciplinary Territory

As suggested in earlier posts, the term jargon often indicates the terminology that individuals and institutions within a given area of research use to communicate.  Mastery of a field’s jargon is critical for achieving (and maintaining) standing within a discipline, effectively creating a barrier between disciplines, scholars and the general public.  For example, working within the field of Library and Information Science (LIS), my success in the field depends upon my assimilation and mastery of a whole range of terms and their particular technical specifications.

A few common terms that have special meaning within the LIS field include: Document, documentation, record, bibliography, information, information seeking, information behavior, information need, information retrieval, authority control, thesaurus, ontology, taxonomy, relevance, precision, recall, etc.

In scientific pursuits, terminology could be seen as constituting the linguistic tissue that links observational percepts (measurements) to theoretical concepts (relationships between measurements and phenomena, and higher level understandings of systems of phenomena).  In LIS, a wide variety of phenomena are studied, many variables are operationalized, many methods are employed, and many theories have been developed.  To further complicate matters, LIS has historically maintained an important professional component, which operates under a variety of lexicons of specialized terminology.  For instance, library catalogers utilize a plethora of terms that are not always clear to researchers in other LIS areas.

The boundaries of a discipline, which delimit the region of disciplinary jurisdiction/control (imagine the areas controlled by pieces on a Go board), seem to rely, to some extent, on a specialized language to differentiate between insiders and outsiders.  Which begs the question:  Is jargon truly an instrument for effectively communicating ideas within a discipline, or is its primary purpose that of “bouncer” or “gatekeeper,” preserving the security of the academy from invasion from outsiders and staving off internal assaults from other disciplines?  Like language, more generally speaking, it seems as though jargon functions both as an intellectual instrument and as a mechanism of social cohesion/control.

Mathematical Jargon

Mathematics is a subject in which the jargon is required to be especially rigorous and unified. Like other bloggers this month, I will discuss how jargon, terminology, and other wordly matters play out in mathematics.

A group
of kids [cc]
A group in
mathematics [pd]

One of the first important distinctions in mathematics is that certain words are used as in normal English, while others are used with specific technical meaning. For example, the term group is used in common parlance to denote some specific set of objects, people, etc. that have some common characteristic or purpose. In mathematics, a group is a particular type of mathematical structure. Mathematicians use different words (like set, family, or collection) to refer to groups (in the common English sense) of things that are not endowed with this structure. It is even important to split hairs when using such words. The term set is defined in a specific way in mathematics, but it means precisely what it might mean in English. However, there are restrictions on what a set could be. Russell’s Paradox is one example of how something that could be called a set in English is not a set in mathematics. And so a new word is created to describe this kind of thing – it is not a set, it is a class. Fellow GSNB blogger Michael notes here the confusion that may arise if common English terms collide with technical terms.

Mathematics often borrows or redefines terms from common parlance, from other fields of study, or even from different areas of mathematics. The important consideration is whether a reader would understand – generally erring on the side of caution, defining words and phrases as needed. Mathematical exposition is peppered with definitions in a way others may find only in dictionaries. But if an astronomer were to read about a syzygy in a physics paper that requires some mathematics of that sort, he or she would be confused without having a mathematical definition handy to differentiate this from the astronomical definition of syzygy. It’s hard to fight the urge not to define terms throughout this blog post!

An important quality of mathematical exposition is not just mathematical fluency, but clarity. Terminology should be used judiciously. This is important because the terminology does not just describe or expound the content, it is itself content. Carolyn, another GSNB blogger, discusses here the construction of meaningless strings that may sound very impressive if not read very carefully. This is true in mathematics too, where a randomly-generated paper was recently accepted for publication, albeit to a for-profit journal that seems to lack appropriate peer-review. And, importantly, anyone with mathematical training could have spotted this paper as fraudulent without any particular specialty or knowledge. It’s virtually impossible to “bluff” in this way in mathematics.

This graph has many potatoes[c]

Abbreviations, wordplay, and figurative terminology are all useful in mathematics, but provide further barriers to understanding. The term “subadditive” describes a function where f(x+y)≤f(x)+f(y). The “sub” gives you ≤ and the “additive” gives you the + sign. It’s a definition one can parse from the word itself, given experience with mathematical terminology. But if this were abbreviated, it would lose that meaning. For example, a directed acyclic graph becomes a DAG; a partially ordered set, a poset; a universal Turing machine, a UTM. A separable completely metrizable topological space is called a Polish space (because they were first studied by Poles). Similarly, a ring without an identity element is called a rng (the i is removed, since there is no identity). And if acronyms and wordplay were not enough, terms like “potatoes” and “squiggles” can be used to describe something with a more precise meaning in an informal context. Mathematicians describe structures as “well behaved” or “badly behaved,” and even the term “almost always” has a precise, technical meaning. There is no snake involved in the snake lemma.

In the end, mathematical terminology is important because these terms, ideas, structures, etc. make up the building blocks of the theory. But they should be explained clearly, concisely, and precisely, and so with the audience in mind. Technical language should be an accessory to normal language, allowing us to make more refined and meaningful statements. Mathematical jargon allows us to use technical (and even non-technical) language to make progress, not to obfuscate it.

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Educational Jargon

As I have moved through my career as an educator and student of education, I have encountered numerous terms that, though unfamiliar at first, are now a part of my everyday vocabulary. Unlike terms associated with specific scientific disciplines, or even with other areas in the social sciences, educational jargon is present, at some point, in all of our lives. However, it is rarely explained and educators often forget that these are terms that they once did not know either.

When I teach Introduction to Education, I am constantly reminded that many educational terms are specific to the discipline rather than universal. One of the most commonly used terms is “pedagogy”, which I often explain as fancy way of saying “teaching style”, although it also involves a person’s philosophical beliefs about education and how children learn. In recent years, many terms related to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) have entered into everyday educational talk. For example, educators regularly refer to the ability of a school to make AYP, or adequate yearly progress. This refers to whether or not the required percentage of students in a given school have passed the state exams. It also refers to whether the correct number of students in each subgroup have passed the exams. This term “subgroup” is another piece of the jargon and refers varius groups present in schools, including racial/ethnic groups, English Language Learners, students with IEPs (individualized educational plans), and economically disadvantaged students. Whether or not a school meets AYP has an immense impact on how schools are run and the funding they receive, and it is often used without explanation. Other commonly used terms, like “tracking” and “inclusion”, refer to specific practices that are often debated in education. In order to make sense of what is written and said about education in the United States today, it is important to understand these terms.

In writing this post, I found two useful websites that give an overview of some common educational jargon. The Dictionary of Educational Jargon (http://www.teachervision.fen.com/pro-dev/new-teacher/48466.html) provides two pages of commonly-used terms defined for those entering the educational profession. The Glossary of Educational Terms (http://www.schoolwisepress.com/smart/dict/dict.html) provides a more extensive list of educational terms defined to assist parents in navigating the educational world. Both sites are useful if you would like to learn more about educational jargon, or, like many of us, simply understand what everyone is talking about!

A new language to learn

It is often difficult to recognize jargon in the everyday life of a graduate student. In lab all day, the terms polymerase chain reaction (PCR), nanodrop, and reverse transcription (RT) seem like mundane words used in a classroom. However, it is most difficult when you try to explain what you do to friends and family members outside the sciences. I first encountered this when attempting to explain what I hope to accomplish in my dissertation to a friend. What could be explained in one simple sentence to a science student took me twenty minutes to explain. Most of this explanation came not from not understanding the topics, but rather in explaining the terms.

It gets harder when you have to explain this in a different language. I am a Taiwanese-American. I speak Mandarin Chinese to my parents, but I don’t know how to read and write the language. When they ask me about the concepts I am interested in, it becomes a day long expedition. I say a word such as nanodrop and I just get blank stares. Then begins my explanation—and when you learn all these scientific terms in English, you realize how difficult it is to translate them (or even to attempt to explain them) in Chinese. It is difficult. It is like learning a new Chinese language.

And so it hit home. Jargon can be something great, but it can also be a huge hazard, for people outside your field, in understanding concepts. It is like learning a new language—it is not something that can be done in a day. Rather, it requires practice, reading, and even more reading.

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.

Breaking through the Jargon Barrier

While recently reading an article in an education journal [1], the word “frame” kept jumping out at me.  The author, a sociologist, kept using this normally unremarkable word in a way that I found unusual and confusing.  Soon, though, I realized that “frame” was probably a piece of jargon with a specific meaning within sociology, distinct from its everyday use in English.

The author likely failed to clearly explain this usage (he parenthetically defines it later in the article, unfortunately not immediately after the first instance) because he was so accustomed to speaking sociology’s language of jargon that he forgot the double meaning of this word: its standard English usage, and its sociology usage.  Certainly this is an easy mistake to make for any scholar, but it poses a barrier to effective communication of ideas to a larger audience.

I think there are generally two classes of jargon which (in the spirit of creating even more jargon) I will define as class I and class II.  Class I consists of words that are unique to a particular field of knowledge, with no meaning in standard English.  We have lots of excellent examples of these in physics: “fermion,” “quasar,” or more infamously, “boojum” [2].  While these terms tend to be the scariest for a non-technical audience, in some sense they are also safer from a communication standpoint: “fermion” has no meaning outside of physics, so while lots of folks won’t know what you’re talking about if you say it, they will never confuse it with something else.

Class II is sneakier.  It consists of words that DO have a common, everyday meaning, but also have a very specific technical meaning within a field, like the aforementioned example of “frame.”  Ref. [3], which discusses the challenge of communicating climate science to the public, provides several fascinating examples of such words.  The most notorious of these words is probably “theory.”  To a scientist, theories are the most established and complete scientific ideas, typically referring to whole frameworks for understanding a wide range of phenomena that have been rigorously validated by experiments and observations over decades.  Good examples include Newton’s law of gravity, quantum mechanics, and evolution.  To the layperson, however, a theory is what a scientist would call a “hypothesis” or “claim”: an educated guess that hasn’t been verified or fully understood yet (e.g., “conspiracy theory”).  Obviously, you can see why biologists cringe every time someone derides Darwinian evolution as a mere “theory”!

So while we tend to focus most of our attention on class I jargon words when communicating to a wider audience, we should pay greater attention to class II words.  They have much more potential to mislead.  This was demonstrated especially in the recent “Climategate” ordeal, in which e-mails of climate science researchers were made public.  One point of contention for climate science deniers was the scientists’ use of the term “trick” in analyzing data.  Most scientists recognize this usage as referring to a legitimate but clever method for solving a technical problem (e.g., “I solved the equation using Fourier’s trick”).  But in ordinary English, “trick” usually refers to an intentional act of deception, which is obviously what climate science deniers were hoping to find in the e-mails.  Awareness of these class II terms in our respective disciplines, and an alert eye for them while reading about other disciplines, would serve us all well.

[1]  Wilson WJ.  (2011)  “Being Poor, Black, and American: The Impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces.”  American Educator, Spring: 10.
[2]  Mermin ND.  (1981)  “E Pluribus Boojum: the physicist as neologist.”  Phys. Today 34: 46.
[3]  Somerville RCJ, Hassol SJ.  (2011)  “Communicating the science of climate change.”  Phys. Today 64: 48.

The art(ifice) of Language

For whatever reason, when I hear the word “jargon” I imagine an intricate set of gears inside a handheld pocket watch. I think this is because I often think of disciplinary jargon as complex and difficult to wrap your head around (though I know there must be some kind of logic to it).

As a general rule, I try to stay away from jargon in my own writing. Instead, there is a certain level of discipline-specific language I think allows us to get at difficult ideas — and this I prefer to think of as a discipline’s vocabulary. In Comparative Literature, we are constantly told not to try to write like the theorists we find hardest to understand, but to find models of clarity to follow. After all, if our goal is to share our knowledge with others, we should strive to write in a way that is accessible to those who are both within and outside our field, and I feel very passionately about the importance of making sure as academics we share our knowledge with as many people as we can. Instead of relying on jargon, then, I try to think about the clearest way I can get my ideas across, bolstering my thought with terms that clarify rather than muddy the waters of my writing.

That being said, I really do get a kick out of websites like UChicago’s Academic Sentence Generator, which lets you chose among a set of academic discourses and pumps out a long (but still intelligible… to lit students anyway) sentence you’re likely to find in certain theory-heavy journals.

What I like most about that site is that it pokes fun at academic jargon, even while finding in those kinds of sentences an opportunity to explore language and argument construction. So, although I certainly try not to write like that, I find it useful to be able to parse through those bits of text, if only to marvel at how much I’ve learned to translate academic words into everyday language.