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Verbal Energy

Architects redux and the case for jargon

The Monitor’s language columnist surprises herself by making the case for jargon.

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Like a fascinating conversation overheard at a restaurant, the response to Archdaily.com’s list of “150 Weird Words That Only Architects Use” has rumbled along in the blogosphere.

One commenter opines that classicist jargon tends to be precise terminology for certain building elements (e.g., column and pilaster are not interchangeable); whereas modernist jargon tends to reflect fuzzy thinking. Like many in this discussion, he uses the word “obfuscation,” which, in the case of modernists, can become positively “toxic.” Hmm, can you tell which side he’s on?

Another architect suggests compiling vocabulary lists and then sorting them into three groups: those apparently meant to obfuscate, those apparently meant to be self-explanatory, and finally, terms that simply make communication more efficient – or at least do so, I would add, when all parties know a pilaster from a column.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for jargon dates to 1900. The word itself came into English from Old French; Chaucer used it in his “Merchant’s Tale,” circa 1386. Oxford’s first definition is “The inarticulate utterance of birds, or a vocal sound resembling it; twittering, chattering.” This definition went obsolete in the 15th century but “has been revived in modern literature,” that of the 19th century. A quote from Longfellow follows: “With beast and bird the forest rings, Each in his jargon cries or sings.”

When you hear birds twittering in the trees as you walk through the park, it doesn’t matter that you can’t follow their “conversation.” More recently, though, jargon has been used in its sense of “special words and phrases that are only understood by people who do the same kind of work” (Macmillan). Such specialized lingo is often completely (and intentionally?) opaque to outsiders.

A third commenter on “weird words” invited attention to what we might call an expression of anti-jargonism: cartoonist Randall Munroe’s new book, “Thing Explainer.” It’s a collection of detailed annotated large-format diagrams of interesting objects. And the titles, labels, and descriptions of the book are all written “using only the thousand most common English words,” Mr. Munroe says.

He continues, “The diagrams in Thing Explainer cover all kinds of neat stuff – including computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the stuff you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you’re made of (cells).”

It sounds like a great idea. 

And yet ... part of learning about something is learning the vocabulary that goes with it. Yes, OK, maybe people who play the piano by ear don’t need to know the bass clef from the treble, and there are dancers who can just get out on the floor and move.

But if you’re going to engage with others in the field or activity you’re learning something about – whether as a student of computer science or geology or whatever – you need to know the lingo.

There: I’ve surprised myself by making the case for jargon.

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