Ban Jargon

“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 🙂

5 Replies to “Ban Jargon”

  1. I really became comfortable with classes and instances when I took edx.org/600x. It just started up again this week and you will learn a lot from it. It’s hard, but not impossible. I think you are at the right level to learn a great deal from it.

    The lecture is interrupted with finger exercises so you can play around with the code and see what he is talking about. After you do the homework, you’ll really understand it. The textbook is sold at cost from MIT < $20 with the class discount.

  2. I HATE JARGON, but love technology…..and it’s a vicious cycle – the more technology we have, the more jargon that is developed. Jargon IS incredibly intimidating and I feel it is creating a bigger and bigger separation between those who ‘know’ technology and those who don’t. It’s like discrimination of vocabulary (instead of race, etc.) or like a secret pass to an exclusive club. Having complained about all of this, I don’t know what the answer is……

  3. I completely agree that jargon is no help in the learning process. I experienced many similar situations to your “instance” problem during my first programming class. Life would be so much easier if every profession/ hobby thats members use jargon came with a universal book of explanations. On the other hand, it feels so cool once you get past the stage of needing help understanding the jargon. Since it doesn’t seem like jargon will ever disappear the best we can do is find teachers who remember what it’s like to start out in the field… or good YouTube videos. Thank goodness for the internet… can you imagine trying to decipher jargon before Google or YouTube?

  4. The great thing about Jargon is that it precisely divides what a thing is from what it is not. The bad thing about Jargon is that it also precisely divides those who understand it from those who don’t.

    Knowledge is transmitted by showing the relations between things, how something you don’t know is similar to something you do. But knowledge is literally (well, figuratively) refined by *removing* that overlap, by deliberately putting things into very clear separate buckets, labeled by very clear separate words.

    Like any tool, each has their time and place. 🙂

  5. Instances are an artificial thing. I’m pretty sure they weren’t a part of Kay’s original notions. But if you develop the separate notion of a class, how are you going to call it? If not “instance”, what other name will you use? Is our whole language “a jargon” because we have names for things?

    “Life would be so much easier if every profession/ hobby thats members use jargon came with a universal book of explanations. ”

    I believe these books are called “textbooks” and “dictionaries”.

    “Jargon IS incredibly intimidating and I feel it is creating a bigger and bigger separation between those who ‘know’ technology and those who don’t. It’s like discrimination of vocabulary (instead of race, etc.) or like a secret pass to an exclusive club.”

    There’s nothing secret about it. You learns names for things hand-in-hand with learning the concepts. A mathematician is not distinguished by being able to say “differentiable function” but rather by understanding what concept lies behind it. But without names for things, any FURTHER reference to the concept in the conversation of the people already knowledgeable about the concept would involve splicing the definition into the point of reference. That would defeat the whole point of having a language with words for things.

    There’s also neither a reason why terminology should be intimidating, nor a reason why being intimidated for whatever reason should prevent anyone from digging into a subject.

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