“Jargon live in the swamps. They feed on attention. If they can’t get that, they’ll settle for fear and confusion.”
From Lauren Ipsem
Jargon drives me nuts, and makes me think of George Orwell. Technical fields are full of jargon and that often scares people. Yes, it’s a short-hand way to talk about things among members of the field, but it’s not a good way to discuss things with beginners. I have been on the receiving end of the poor use of jargon twice in the last few days. In both cases, the phrasing went like this: “Oh you just need a blibberdajibbet.” To which I would respond, “A what?”
In both cases, I knew what the thing was. I knew the definition, but the definition didn’t help me understand the concept. Also, Googling led to simply more definitions. This happens to my students all the time, and in both these cases, I was going to have to explain these concepts to students, so I wanted not only to understand them myself but also to be able to explain them well to my students. I felt sure they’d be hung up in similar ways to me, and perhaps in many more ways.
The first had to do with objects and classes, which I’ve only been using for a while. I was trying to generate a class definition and have as part of the definition a reference to another class. I knew I had done this before but couldn’t remember how–a clear sign that I hadn’t grasped the concept well in the first place–so I asked Mr. Geeky. His response? Well, you need an instance (the thing derived from the class definition, for those following any of this). He may as well have said a blibberdajibbet. I knew what an instance was. I’d created them and used them many times but what he said didn’t make sense to me in my current context. And he just kept saying it like it was obvious. I figured it out the next day when I had access to some code I’d written a month ago. His response makes sense to me now but what I needed was a walk through of what I was doing. He should have said something like, you need to pass in an argument that will be an instance of the other class (an instance you haven’t created yet, but will). The will part was crucial.*
The second episode involved building something for robotics. It involved something called a 4 or 6 bar linkage, which if you google, you need a master’s in engineering or math to understand. I tried to build one without quite knowing what I was doing. Then I Googled some more, where I’d find things like, “A 6 bar linkage is like a 4 bar linkage.” Or “You need to build a 4 bar linkage. It’s easy. Here’s our picture.” That was followed by an indecipherable picture. I finally found a YouTube video with a simple and thorough explanation. And twenty minutes later, I had one built. The video assumed you didn’t know much at all about what you were doing, and it was the only thing I found that made that assumption. Everything else that claimed to be a tutorial really was more about showing off what they knew.
The thing is, while jargon can make things efficient for those in the know, it can serve to shut out those trying to get in. It can be as bad as slamming a door in one’s face. My current field isn’t the only one that’s bad about this. Try reading some literary criticism sometime.
*apologies for the jargon. I could step it back even further and make it non jargony, but I’m tired 🙂