Let’s Talk About Jargon

Written by Lauren Carter | Last updated:

I hope you’ve been having a beautiful week so far. Today I want to talk to you about jargon. Specifically, I want to share what it is, why it’s problematic sometimes, and how to limit it in your own communication when necessary.

What exactly is jargon and what’s the problem with it?

Google actually has two definitions for “jargon”.

  1. “Noun: special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.”
  2. “Noun: a translucent, colourless, or smoky gem variety of zircon.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t come here to read about zircon and other types of minerals, so I want to focus on the first sense of the word. (Funnily enough, I had to look up what “zircon” meant because I’m not a geologist. So, does that mean that the definition for jargon (sense 2) has jargon (sense 1) in it? How ironic! ๐Ÿ˜‰)

Okay, so the word jargon is just a fancy word for words that are used by a group of people with specific knowledge or technical know-how about something. Here are some examples:

  • Linguistics: syntax, phonology, morphology, markedness, creole, pidgin, and allophone.
  • Graphic design: CMYK, RGB, golden ratio, hex, kerning, raster, and serif.
  • IT: RAM, LAN, UX, HTML, CSS, Java, and Python.

Without me explaining the above terms, how many of them do you know? If you don’t have any background knowledge in linguistics, graphic design, or IT, then your answer might be zero. And that’s completely okay. That’s the point of jargon.

When we use jargon, it shows the people we’re communicating with which “group” we belong to. We’re either the “in-group” who know what’s going on or the “out-group” who don’t. Jargon isn’t necessarily bad though โ€” sometimes it’s needed.

If you’re talking with a group of people with the same shared knowledge, then jargon is fine to use. And we use it all the time. Whether you realise it or not, most workplaces have their own set of jargon.

From my experience, most workplace jargons are acronyms or abbreviations. This works well in emails and when speaking with colleagues because you’re all on the same page, and jargon allows you to convey a precise idea without having to give a lengthy explanation. If you can use one specific word to explain a concept then of course you’d do it, right?

Well, yes. In the above context it’s definitely appropriate. But in other contexts, it’s not so great to use jargon.

Why? Because it excludes those who aren’t in the “in-group”. It also makes information difficult to understand because the “out-group” don’t have the background knowledge to understand the jargon you’re using.

And, sure. You can use this to your advantage. Got someone who always wriggles their way into a conversation even though you don’t want them to? Just use jargon and don’t explain yourself. See how long they stick around for. Don’t worry, you can thank me later! ๐Ÿ˜‰

How to identify and limit jargon

There’s nothing inherently wrong with jargon, but you just have to pick your moments when it’s appropriate to use. Here’s how to do just that:

  1. Think of your audience
  2. Determine what background knowledge they have
  3. Adjust your text accordingly

Let’s dive into each step more.

The number one factor when working out how to communicate effectively is thinking about your audience. Who are they? Depending on your situation, you might want to think about your audience’s age, education level, English proficiency, native language, and any learning barriers they have.

Next, you want to think about the knowledge they already have about a certain topic or industry. Read through your text (or think about your speech) and ask yourself: if my audience read (or heard) this, would they understand all the terms used?

And finally, you want to change your text to accommodate your audience’s background knowledge and language needs. Now, if your audience are professionals in a certain industry and you are 100% certain that every single person reading your text or listening to you speak would understand all the terminology you’re using, then sure, keep your jargon. But, if you’re only 99% sure and you think even one person might not understand you if you use a specific jargon term or acronym, then don’t use it. Or explain it first before you start using it if it’s absolutely necessary.

For example, if I’m talking with education professionals from the Australian TAFE sector, I can freely use the acronym ACSF without explaining myself. On the other hand, if I’m talking to my husband, who doesn’t have knowledge of the TAFE industry, I’d have to explain what ACSF is before talking to him about it.

And look, sometimes there might be times where there is literally no other way to say something other than using a jargon term. I’m no engineer for NASA, but I’m sure there are some specific things that have specific names and they can’t be changed or explained easily. And that’s completely fine, but only if it aligns with your audience. Do what’s best for your audience. Have them in mind and in heart when writing or speaking and you’ll have no trouble at all.

This Week’s Challenge

So my friend, my challenge for you this week is to think about your audience before you write or speak. Go through the above steps before sending an email, making a presentation, or teaching your students.

Ask yourself whether they would understand the terminology you want to use. If you think they have the background knowledge and would understand, that’s great! Keep doing what you’re doing. But if not, think about changing it.

I encourage you to be curious and look for jargon terms whenever you’re reading or listening to something. Once you’ve identified the jargon, think about how you could change it or explain it to make it easier to understand. Through doing this and being curious about language, you’ll start to develop the necessary skills to communicate more effectively with others โ€” and that’s what you’re here for, right? (Well, I’d like to think so! ๐Ÿ˜‰)