In praise of academic jargon

I like coffee

I mean – I REALLY like coffee. I don’t smoke any more and rarely drink. Caffeine is the only vice I have left. People tell me all the time that it’s unhealthy, but as far as I’m concerned you can tear the coffee from my cold dead hands.

IMAG1310I grew up in a lower middle class family of committed tea drinkers. ‘Coffee’ meant a powdered concoction called ‘International Roast’ which is, I think, the sweepings from the coffee house floor. If you got the temperature of the water just right you would sometimes get a slight froth on the surface of your hot beverage. I learned later that this froth was meant to mimic the ‘crema’ at the top of an espresso. I’m not sure what chemical means were used to achieve this faux crema, but I suspect it had something to do with detergent.

When my family wanted to impress a guest they would roll out the ‘Moccona’. This came in a fancy jar and was not a powder, but actual granules. There were glossy ads on TV for Moccona (still are actually) so my mother thought it was Classy. It tasted marginally better that poor old International Roast and until I went to university it was my gold standard in the coffee department.

My middle class university friends introduced me to what we in Australia call a ‘coffee plunger’ (what everyone else in the world calls a ‘coffee press’). Plunger coffee was a revelation. It was almost as easy to make as instant coffee and did not cause stomach aches. I abandoned instant coffee and never looked back. Plunger coffee was just BETTER and allowed more scope for experimentation. I learned that the plunger coffee could be improved by keeping the ground coffee in the fridge or, better still, by buying beans whole and grinding them myself.

I went to university in the 1990s and in that decade the food culture in the city of Melbourne blossomed. Waves of migrants brought their coffee with them and I, like many others, happily explored this strange new caffeinated world. My coffee repertoire expanded further: strong Turkish coffee, Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, tiny aromatic egg cups of spiced Saudi Arabian brew and, of course, the Italian espresso. Each and every one has a special place in my heart.

I’ve learned special words to use when ordering coffee, the most recent one being ‘ristretto’: the first, sweetest tasting half of a shot of espresso. These ‘coffee jargon’ words are useful if you want your coffee to taste exactly the way you like it.

For example, I usually don’t want a strong coffee in the afternoon. At the cafe I used to say “Can I have a half strength shot topped up with water and a splash of skim milk?” and then spend the next couple of minutes answering questions from the barista – how much water? How much milk? Perhaps just a full shot in a bigger cup? Now I just order a ristretto, which is the bit of the coffee I actually want to drink. With a bit of coffee jargon under my belt life got just a little bit simpler.

By now you are probably wondering why I am banging on about coffee, but bear with me because there’s similarities between coffee jargon and academic jargon.

Both involve insider language which takes specialised knowledge, time and experience to understand. Just as using coffee jargon can make you sound like a coffee snob at your old tea drinking grandmother’s house, academic jargon is all about the context. It’s scary easy to over do it and look like a novice just pretending to understand the academic grown ups.

There’s no doubt that academic jargon makes text harder to read and will limit your audience. Some argue that using academic jargon is a way of reinforcing class boundaries and creating an unhealthy distance from ‘ordinary people’. But we need this academic jargon because it makes our texts simultaneously concise and dense with meaning.

For instance, instead of saying:

“Academic jargon is created when we talk to each other about difficult topics and want to create a shared understanding using less words. We therefore create shorter words as ‘placeholders’. Over time, with use, these words become more commonly known and their meaning becomes more ‘stable’. For example, academic teachers share them with students. Books use the terms and spread them from person to person and across national boundaries. The words are used in speech in special places – like classrooms – where people can seek and get clarification on the developing collective meaning of the terms. Gradually, incrementally, the circle of people who understand and can use the shared terms grows”

I could merely say this:

“Academic jargon is  insider language created through a range of discursive practices amongst specialists.”

See? Much easier! If you know what discursive practices are of course.

Each piece of academic jargon is actually a complex bundle of ideas from which the knowlegeable reader can unpack the relevant bit of meaning in relation to the rest of the sentence.

To complicate matters, academic disciplines do jargon in a way that, strangely, reflects they way they make knowledge. Scientists have short names for processes and compounds and formulas which express the way parts of the natural world relate to each other. Artists use ordinary words like ‘organic’, ‘texture’ and ‘tone’, but these words change their meaning and become poetic, if in a slightly slippery way. Business academics have lots of compound terms that ‘stick’ ideas together and make new ones, like ‘behavioural economics’.

Academics need to make new kinds of jargon all the time or our texts would be extraordinarily long and more ambiguous than they need to be. We’d be constantly asking each other the academic equivalent of ‘how much water? and ‘how much milk?’. This can make academic texts hard to ‘translate’ into plain language. Translation always involves a shift in meaning. A ristretto is not a half shot topped up with water and a splash of milk – it’s a completely different drink.

Recently, on her blog, Pat Thomson pointed out that talking to the ordinary person through ‘engaging with the media’ is not as simple a task as it sounds. She’s so right. Unpacking academic jargon and explaining the ideas in ‘plain language that anyone can understand’ is extremely labourious – and sometimes dangerously reductive. As much as I’m a fan of the three minute thesis, helping students make these scripts is a painful process as they are acutely aware of how much meaning gets lost.

Academic jargon is wonderful, but, like good coffee, it is an acquired taste. Sometimes plain language is good enough to get the heart started. I travel a lot as you will know if you follow me on Instagram. Occasionally I encounter International Roast in the coffee rooms of academia and I always greet it like an old friend. My academic host will invariably apologise for not having a ‘proper’ coffee machine, but I don’t mind. It’s unpretentious stuff which brings back childhood memories and I’m more or less immune to its chemical charms. But, given the choice, I will always drink a ‘real coffee’ when I’m at home because, well – it’s just better.

What about you? Do you find academic jargon too confusing and pretentious? Or do you relish it?

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43 thoughts on “In praise of academic jargon

  1. I appreciate academic jargon when I’ve learned what it means, but sometimes it helps to have option “A” and option “B” next to one another, before I can rely on option “B” next time around and appreciate its flavors better.

  2. It’s funny, I was just talking about this with my mum yesterday. I’d sent my parents a short paper as an example of what I’m doing and she confessed she’d only be able to get two paragraphs in before abandoning it. I entirely understand her response, I have it myself with many of the papers I encounter. I understand academic jargon as a kind of industry shorthand but at the end of the day it is about separation and exclusivity – the few not the all – and increases the distance between us. I’m a big fan of research made accessible, as per The Conversation. Otherwise it’s limited to a handful of the population – and there’s an inequity there as often it’s taxpayer dollars funding the whole show.

    • “… at the end of the day it’s about separation and exclusivity…”

      I disagree with this perspective. My views on writing have been influenced by studying in two areas: consumer marketing (especially marketing psychology) and user centred design (product development / human factors engineering). Both fields teach that every piece of communication we produce has a purpose and intended users (i.e. reader). This suggests the most common form of scholarly communication – the journal article – has a specific purpose (communicate technical aspects of our research work) and likely a small group of intended readers (mostly others in our field). In that context, the jargon is quite important and key to successful communication (not to mention necessary if dealing with strict word limits). Publications such as The Conversation have a very different focus and purpose, and communicate research and findings to a larger, more diverse audience. Posts in The Conversation can, and do, have less jargon because they are written with readers – generally non-academics – in mind. (Having said that, some posts generated very heated debates in the comments section,s in part because of generalisations and lack of precision in wording). I think it’s quite unfair to criticise authors of journal articles for writing to the format and standards expected in their profession literature – when communication to a wider audience was never the intention. Writing for a wider audience takes different communication skills (and time!) and understand the needs etc of the intended audience.

      (As to the notion that taxpayer dollars are “funding the whole show”, it’s worth noting that many – too many – scholarly papers are written, revised, and published long after public funding has ended. Grants may include funds to write a research report (e.g. for funding acquittal) and possibly other communication, but probably won’t include funds / time for writing and managing scholarly papers to publication. In my experience, papers only get published because authors do significant amounts of unpaid work on them, sometimes well after leaving the organisation and moving to other work. This is one reason why the OA movement’s narrow focus on journal articles – and not research reports or other outputs of research – is confusing to me.)

      • I occasionally reminisce about the days when abbreviations and initialisms were less common. But they have been a part of computing from the earliest days.

        I have been in conversations where we refused to use them; try those same conversations while spelling out everything in full. Neither is great.

        Whenever I feel like someone is trying to impress or bamboozle me with jargon, I slip into one or more of my other dialects. Using biological metaphors with legal reasoning to explain how end-to-end encryption works is a lot of fun 🙂

  3. I love your Blog and tell all of our Research Students about it during their induction course. This post is fantastic – just last week I was talking about ‘academic jargon’ during a literature review course. Oh and I’m a coffee lover 😀

  4. It’s really interesting to see your take on this, and I can see why shorthand can be useful. However, I find a lot of academic jargon gets in the way of research conversations in interdisciplinary fields. I research in law and technology, which requires reading in technology, law and the social sciences. I’m a lawyer, and don’t have a technical background. I can understand why the technical literature has a lot of words I need to look up – most people don’t engage with the guts of technology from day to day so unfamiliarity with the terms used for every bit of gear that makes up a communications network is to be expected. However what gets me is the inaccessibility of the social sciences literature: much of it is supposed to be about common lived experience and yet the message is drowned in language only a very few use or understand. And you can’t “look it up” like you can the word “motherboard”. Maybe it’s because the ideas are really that complex: however I’m somewhat skeptical because that argument has also been used in the legal discipline, and I have enough experience in that area to know that jargon in that area is very often unwarranted, or at least very much overused.

    • You hit the nail on the head with “…what gets me is the inaccessibility of the social sciences literature….” I think Bryan Garner, a brilliant authority on English langauge usage, summed up much of academic English quite well:

      “[T]he obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer’s own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an AE sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak (“revenue enhancement,” “downsizing,” pre-owned,” “proactive resource-allocation restructuring”) that it’s tempting to think AE’s real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear.”

      And, as a lawyer, you’ll appreciate this from the lawyer and author Charles Rembar:

      “The law has not the need of special language most laymen think it has. The law has not the need, but lawyers tend to act as though it did. This is in part incompetence – it is easier to repeat a baggy formula than find words that really fit – and in part exploitation of man’s liability to magic. For centuries our lawyers, a priestly caste, used a mysterious tongue, composed of Latin, French, English, incantation and a bit of mumbling. These continue, more or less, to the present day – Latin less, English more, French absorbed, incantation down a bit, mumbling steady.”

  5. Inger, I sympathise with you only to a certain extent. I understand the removal of ‘vices’ but I now term them inefficient biological agents. Substances that have a less than efficacious activity on my outcomes. Also the idea of powdered coffee never raised it’s head in my family. We always had arguments about roasts, providence and methods. My mother won, mainly because she bought and made the coffee, but now I am able to have these arguments with whoever wants to pick this fight. Thankfully I still live in Melbourne where this is a sane conversation to have and not frowned upon.

  6. Very good. In my world of encryption and digital signatures in IT I long for any word, academic jargon or otherwise. Anything to replace the endless list of acronyms and abbreviations that proliferate everyday, as every practitioner without substance attempts to bluff their way through…..and pretend they are no way related to the security breaches that become increasingly common.

  7. As researchers, I think we have to inhabit both worlds – the International Roast world and the Ristretto world. When I explain what I am doing to the people I interview for data, I have to present it at an International Roast level, as I do when I speak to friends and family who are polite enough to ask. When I speak to other researchers and academics, I can slip into Ristretto and know I will be understood. To speak International Roast to them would make me look International Roast, and in that company, I aim for Ristretto, so I fit in. Maybe that is one of the skills of being a good researcher – being fluent in both.

  8. Can’t agree with this. The real issue for me is that modern science suffers from a distinct lack on interdisciplinary work. Academic jargon acts as a serious barrier for folks that want to step outside of their comfort zone.

    • This is where a specialist generalist fits into diverse research work 🙂

      I have backgrounds in law, tech, education, business, and science. I can speak several dialects of jargon, and am quite comfortable moving between them. I have less specific foci in any one domain than typical subject matter experts; but my expertise is in translation and collaboration between domains.

      In my perhaps not so humble experience, there are increasing pressures on otherwise very competent people to do a lot more than the things they have put a lot of time into being very good at doing. It has taken me 25 years to accumulate the experience and expertise I can bring to projects as a specialist across domains.

      I see a lot of pressure on people who are far more competent than I am in any one domain to match how comfortable I am at working in less familiar fields. Being able to express oneself clearly to different audiences is an important skill, and one that has been valued far more as an aspiration than in concrete education. It’s a skill that ought to be encouraged, and explicitly fostered, throughout our education – rather than tacked on after we’ve spent years getting to grips with specific dialects of jargon.

      The way we fund scientific research only compounds disciplinarity. Narrow, discipline-based research is easier to explain, and to evaluate, than interdisciplinary work.

      My science background sits across several biological/biomedical fields (I have always found it hard to stick inside the lines). My research had to be explicitly practical and in-the-box; (I’m inclined to theoretical/meta-analytical thinking). I had an idea I wanted to test against the literature at the time, but not with more lab work. The discipline gatekeepers refused to countenance theoretical work.

      I left biology to take up computer science. My idea was eventually proven by a mathematician a decade later, and theoretical/computational biology is a forefront discipline now.

      Specialisation has some clear benefits, but also strong cultural history. We are beginning to see more cross-disciplinary work, and academics and practitioners who specialise across old boundaries: many are older, and can use their accumulated prestige to carry the flag for more opportunities for younger people (some of whom are trail-blazing in their own right).

      • it’s all about context – the communication work is never ‘done’. We constantly have to adjust to the situation we find ourselves in. Sometimes jargon is appropriate and necessary – at other times it isn’t – or shouldn’t be.

  9. Pitching ones communication to ones audience is a crucial component of good communication.

    Sadly, it’s not often well taught, and rarely well practised. It is well worth encouraging both.

  10. Great post. Your trajectory of International Roast (IR) through Moccona to Real Coffee was eerily familiar! I agree with the comment about needed both IR and Ristretto: being able to communicate in an accessible way both to a lay audience as well as to your disciplinary community. I think the danger with academic jargon is that it can become so abstracted that it takes on a life of its own that seems to have little to do with reality – with the problem it is supposedly addressing. I try to, as a critical reflective practice (in social sciences), regularly link back to the problem that inspired the writing, to anchor my thought process. I’m thinking of a balloon: unless you keep it firmly on a string it floats away on the wind.

  11. Hi. I hate it. It means we lock ourselves away from the world. How often are articles published that have no purpose, that do not advance knowledge, but no-one knows because they can’t understand the things! Let’s no perpetuate it!

    The celebrated and recently retired political scientist Pat Weller wrote this (insert gender-neutral language where necessary):

    ‘We should write for the everyman in language they can understand because it makes sense. There is little validity in the claim that our writing should be obtuse because it is only intended for an inner circle talking to itself. We write about politics, not chemistry; we write about what people do in institutions. Yet the growing private language of the discipline, a sign, it seems to be argued, of professionalism, makes our meaning and findings obscure. If we want to be taken seriously by those who do make policy and by no means all political scientists either want to or can, then we need to write to be understood. We cannot write in our own impenetrable jargon and complain when we are ignored.’ (cited in Davis and Rhodes 2014: 258)

    He speaks for moi 🙂

    Sean

  12. I do wonder if we need to be more self-critical about jargon. Most postmodernist research is utterly inpenetrable to all but a few initiates, which is daft, it is as important as they would like us to think. On the other hand, you have certain parts of Business or Translation Studies, where many terms are brought across wholesale from the professional world, so at least professionals can read research on their own work.

    I definitely agree that we need to be conversant in both worlds but this probably has to mean that the same level of reflection we all go on about when it comes to engaging with the wider public is needed in work written for specialists.

  13. I agree with Sean. I work across archaeology and documentary filmmaking, and both have the same difficulties: tiny sub-fields that don’t bother understanding each other, jargon which is specific to not only each sub-field, but for archaeology also each era and geographical region. One experts isotopic analysis is all ancient Greek to another. It’s a huge problem even within one department, or even one archaeological site, and people loose interest quickly, and can’t robustly critique each others work, when they don’t understand the abbreviations, lingo and techniques. Likewise in documentary the filmmakers and the film studies experts speak different languages to each other, there appears little crossover or understanding of each other, or even interest. So for me, because I fuse the two fields in my research I’m constantly having to backtrack and spell out the simplest of technologies, ideas and concepts that I take for granted. Personally however, I’m a big fan of reading being enjoyable, I want people to want to read my thesis, so I borrow a lot more from my script writing training than my academic writing, I write for wide audiences, and so far have received only relief and compliments from my peer reviewers.

    I should also say, archaeology also has a terrible history of deliberately using jargon to exclude public understanding, to keep a kind of ownership and control of the past, especially in Australian Indigenous archaeology. There’s a nice quote in the documentary Message From Mungo by Tanya Charles about this:

    ‘We’re working a lot better. The scientific group’s got a better understanding. They seem to know where we’re coming from, and we’re getting a better understanding and we’re learning all their scientific words, so there’s nothing they can say now and hide from us, because we’re learning all that.’

  14. I agree that academic jargon is a concise way for people in the same field to converse. However, jargon makes it difficult for a scientist in one field to understand science of another. For instance, I’m a wet lab scientist studying mosquitoes and disease and can’t understand a word of modeling articles even if they’re about malaria or mosquito population distribution, for instance. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for a non-scientist to try and understand jargon.

  15. Most of my academic writing is purposefully accessible to a lay audience, in no small part because I want to avoid the exclusionary jargon prevalent in several disciplines that my interdisciplinary research encompasses.

    I think this type is separate from the kind of shorthand jargon (including acronyms) that allow communication of common, shared concepts within groups – as a nurse, saying “history of MELAS Syndrome” is far more useful, especially in an emergency, than “history of mitochondrial encephalopathy with stroke-like symptoms”!

    The problem for me is when, having incorporating jargon and discipline-specific into my cognitive framework, I use a word with a specific technical meaning in discipline X in writing for a different audience – like the Masters thesis where I used the phrase “a good” (which in philosophy can be used as shorthand for ‘an objectively good thing from an ethical perspective’) without explaining it, which made the sentence incoherent to most readers, as well as losing the meaning I intended.

  16. Sounds like the difference between “being concise” or “wordy”. Perhaps, at times, there is a need for both.

  17. In science, jargon is necessary. How else do you communicate your ideas concisely to other specialists? As my boss says, “We are scientists. We have precise words for precise ideas, and we should use them”. I just wrote a four-page paper with jargon loaded into every sentence. Who knows how long it would have been without the jargon? And the journal’s limit is four pages, and they don’t accept sloppily-written, wordy papers intended to be “accessible” to someone who’s never heard of reductive amination. You want to know about this work? Sorry, it’s difficult and relies on years of advanced knowledge. There are no free tickets. You have to get educated.

    If we had to explain catalysis every time we talked about it, we’d never get anything done.

  18. A very valid point regarding interdisciplinary work, and one that I can relate to. My research spans anthropology, linguistics and policy studies, although I am formally trained in only one of these disciplines. It can be very tiring battling with an academic article from one of the other two fields. While I get the need for a certain amount of jargon in order for writing to be succinct, I find much academic writing is very far from succinct. In fact I often feel that academic writing is rather self indulgent in this way! I’m with Orwell when it comes to clear concise writing 😉

  19. When I was doing the research for a book on textbooks, I noticed how many good textbook authors often used a phenomenon that I call parallelism: they alternate sentences in academic jargon with sentences in plain English, saying much the same thing. That way the reader both (a) understands and (b) acquires the jargon.

  20. “‘Academic jargon is insider language created through a range of discursive practices amongst specialists.’

    See? Much easier!”

    —-

    Condensation of language, often to reflect a newly invented layer of abstraction is NOT easier; it is harder… but it is more EFFICIENT.

    It is more POWERFUL (Mathematicans sometimes call a particularly well-made or intuitive new way of writing mathematical ideas in a way that condenses their meaning into a few characters “powerful notation”.), because you can pack more meaning into fewer bits, basically.

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