December 2008 Archives

Jargon So Bad, I Coined a New Term


When you reach expert levels in a profession or a hobby, you do need to invent more terms to explain specific items, processes, classifications. If you stitch embroidery, you do need to distinguish among the different types of needles, fibers and fabrics out there. Similarly, linguists need a way to quickly identify classes of sounds or an individual sound. Let's face it - velar stop (e.g. /k,g/) is a lot quicker (and more elegant) to say than tongue-on-back-of-roof sound.

On the other hand, there's also a lot of bad jargon. Bad jargon happens when 1) you forget your target audience 2) invent a "special" word in order to sound more "technical/academic/cool" or 3) you invent something which you do not define precisely. So, let's dive into some examples

The Arachnonym

Have you every encountered a term that even your colleagues have trouble defining? You may have encountered what I am now calling the arachnonym here defined as "a word with disputed and potentially contradictory meanings". In etymology it's a combination of the Greek root arachno- 'spider' plus nym, referring to the idea that defining these words is both sticky and can lead in many directions semantically.

Some common arachnonyms in my life include social, distributed, learning object, digital literacy from education; language, dialect from the field of internationalization technology and lenition from the field of linguistics (no one is immune).

But perhaps the best recent arachnonym everyone can understand is Bush Doctrine. Although most people agree that the Bush Doctrine relates to foreign policy, different reporters may have different definitions such as

  1. Waging a military campaign if the President considers that a nation is "dangerous" and will have (or already has) acaquired dangerous weapons technology
  2. Waging a military campaign if the President concludes that a nation is harboring enemies which are especially dangerous for the United States
  3. Withdrawing from international treaties the President consider unfavorable to the United State
  4. Political support for groups/peoples in non-democratic countries who are working for regime change to a democratic system of government.

This term tripped up Governor Palin because she had asked for clarification on this question when the expectation was that she should "know" the answer. In reality though, the White House has never issued a formal statement on what the "Bush Doctrine" is. it was a term coined by various journalists to comment on whatever foreign policy issue was being addressed in that year (and there were many).

Interestingly, some commentators reviewing Palin's performance did admit that there were multiple definitions. Unfortunately for Governor Palin, she remembered the multiple uses, but forget to apply it to the most recent crisis at the time (i.e. Iraq).

What's insidious about arachnonyms is that because there are so many definitions, it can be hard to have a serious intellectual discussion. For instance, if you equate Bush Doctrine with Iraq/Afghanistan, then you always equate it with military action; on the other hand if you allow other options, then the Bush Doctrine does not always imply military action (or even an all-US focus).

For this reason, I prefer to eliminate arachnonyms from my research vocabulary and replace them with multiple items for the different concepts.

Fancy Jargon

My term for jargon which appears to exist only to display the expertise of the speaker. We have plenty of these in linguistics such as apocope (final vowel deletion), syncope (medial vowel deletion) and consuetudinal present (the habitual present). The last is so obscure even our local Indo-European expert didn't know about it. If linguists are comfortable saying "final vowel deletion", do we really need another term?

An interesting variation of these are acronyms like GSW (gunshot wound), ICE (in case of emergency contact) and others. Although many of these make sense for writing because they take up less space they can be a little confusing when spoken. In some cases, such as URL, http and TWAIN, the acronyms exist, but the meaning is almost forgotten completely. When inserted into technical documentation, the non-expert user is more confused because they seem like random letters. After all, what about "TWAIN" makes you think "image scanning technology"?

FYI - TWAIN actually stands for "technology without an interesting name" The programmers must have been tired that day.

What Jargon do I like?

As previously stated, I do like some jargon, especially when it follows these conventions:

  1. There is a precise meaning. If the stitching directions call for 28-count linen, I know it means 1) linen and 2) 28 threads per inch.
  2. The meaning is plausibly transparent. For this I count learned affixes. For instance, if I see a word beginning with paleo- I am confident will refer to something very old.
  3. It fills a vocabulary gap (e.g. velar) or is shorter than what exists. One of the sillier words I know is dyad for "pair". Is there any semantic difference between the two?

So there you have it, my input into the longstanding jargon debate, with a new classification scheme. Will the term arachnonym enter the lexicon? Maybe. Will it increase jargon awareness and facilitate dejargonification? Definitely not.

Postscript on Dyad

I asked why bother using dyad (from educational theory and elsewhere) for a "pair", but "dyad" is one of a series of terms based on Greek numbers referring to different group sizes. These words include triad (3), tetrads (4) up to decads (10) and even monad (1). Interestingly though, I usually ONLY see dyad in the educational literature I read, thus I question if the jargon is actually necessary other than as an occasion to use a Greco-Roman root.