Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Jargon: Watch Your Language

scientific jargonAt one time or other we all have puzzled over a document which was allegedly written in English, yet turned out to be in a foreign language such as legal-ese, medical-ese, or scientific-ese. Such language sneak-attacks can leave us feeling by turns bored, confused, frustrated and intimidated.

Well, science has now proven that bad things happen when we use big words instead of diminutive ones.

The February 12, 2020 edition of The Ohio State News highlighted a recent study, led by Hillary Schulman, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, on the hazards of scientific jargon. Shulman and her team concluded that “The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong. You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”

I complain now and then about jargon. Consider the fact that only warm-blooded animals get to hibernate in winter. Reptiles and amphibians have to admit to their friends that they merely brumate in the cold season, while animals that go dormant in hot weather need to say they estivate, rather than hibernate. I shudder to imagine the humiliation of being labeled a non-hibernating hibernator.

But in reality I am something of a hypocrite, because I secretly love jargon, and it does creep into my writing a bit more than is healthy. It started at Paul Smith’s College in northern NY State when I learned “benthic invertebrates” were the crawly things in the mud and under rocks at the bottom of streams.

Suddenly they became more worthy of study. I was so proud of my term paper, a mock-Environmental Impact Statement wherein I cited things like the Lloyd, Zar and Carr Modification of the Sorenson Coefficient of Species Diversity and Evenness, wherein the term “C” is equal to 3.321928 (please refer to Table B in the Appendix).

My professors knew exactly what I was saying. But the plight of an average citizen who wants to know the potential impact of a mega-development in their home town did not occur to me at the time. Making sense of hundreds or thousands of pages of crap like that in an Environmental Impact Statement is not for the faint of heart.

Then I worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to investigate and clean up soil and groundwater polluted by oil and solvents. Or, in the jargon of the business, L-NAPL and D-NAPL. Those are two kinds of poison apples, I think. Actually they stand for “Light, Non-Aqueous-Phase Liquids” and “Dense, Non-Aqueous-Phase Liquids.” After a few reports full of those terms, along with stuff like “air-sparging through heterogeneic micro-lenses in glacial outwash ormations,” and “seasonal hydrogeological gradient reversals,” my eyes would cross. And those were the papers that I wrote.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s As It Happens host Carol Off the same day Schulman’s report came out, Schulman clarified that “I don’t mean to advocate against jargon. I think there’s a precision and an efficiency with these terms that people in the know understand.” This is a key point.

In example, all the fancy jargon I learned to use at the NYSDEC was essential in talking with consultants and contractors. I found that after I had been immersed in the world of spill remediation a few years, it became second-nature to talk with everyone that way. I had to re-learn how to speak normally to, say, a homeowner with a contaminated well as compared to a consultant who was tasked with designing a filtration system. In all seriousness, we may need translations of technical reports, made by excellent writers with a strong background in respective fields.

As Hillary Schulman told the CBC, “When scientists automatically use these terms they may be alienating their audience more than they realize.” I don’t qualify as a scientist, but I do write about science, so I will endeavor to be less obfuscatory forthwith.

For the full article from Ohio State University, click here.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

11 Responses

  1. adkDreamer says:

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    Law, legal briefs and case law are loaded with Latin. Those that are in the club (BAR) use it to conflate, obscure and confuse because Latin has always been used in legal matters since the early beginnings of law. The use of it preserves their ways and traditions – in the club, inter alia.

    • Boreas says:

      Similar with the medical field, but mostly with nouns.

    • Marc Wanner says:

      I would guess that it has as much to do with preserving their income as with their ways and traditions. It is designed to make people believe that they don’t understand medicine and law and so they have no choice but to turn to “experts.”

      • RC Streb says:

        There are 2 sides to this “coin”. The side that uses trade jargon and the side not schooled in this trade jargon.
        When the specialist forgets to whom they are speaking, it’s up to that person to speak up and ask for English!

  2. SNAPPER PETTA says:

    Let’s not forget about the academic world. I just retired after 46 years of working at a college and I can’t tell you the number of times a colleague would unleash some verbiage at us; leaving many confused and wondering what it was they actually meant. I’ve also thought this was an attempt to inflate their intelligence and make them one of the “cool kids” who know more than you do. If it wasn’t so annoying, it might have been amusing.

  3. Todd Miller says:

    As a hydrogeologist (retired) from the USGS in Ithaca, NY, I had spent my career attempting to write reports in plain English that avoided scientific terms. I preferred presenting my studies to the general public rather to fellow scientists at conferences. because I found it rewarding that the public could understand my jargon so that they could relate to the information, see how affects them, and apply that knowledge for their purposes. With that said, I found that, sometimes, some basic scientific terms are needed, such as aquifer, recharge, and discharge, and if used enough, they gain traction by the public. In my community (Tompkins and Cortland Counties), those terms are now commonly used by planners, town boards, farmers, in newspapers, etc., and that makes my heart soar like eagle.

  4. Ralph Benson says:

    One only need to talk to a bunch of plant and tree people to realize that you found a tribe that speaks a dead language. I understand the classification system quite well. But, calling a shagbark hickory tree Carya ovata after a person asks you is that a shagbark hickory does nothing for your cause. If you want to save the planet fine, but speak to the masses.

  5. Kevin McKiernan says:

    Good stuff Paul. We run into this in residential energy efficiency all the time. When building science geeks try to explain to homeowners how insulating and air-sealing will save them money. They invariably wander into the Laws of Thermodynamics, psychometrics etc and leave the potential customer thinking how nice granite countertops will look in the kitchen!

  6. Stephen E Phelps says:

    “…use big words instead of diminutive ones.” 🙂 Thanks for a small smile on a difficult day.

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