11/27/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2013

In Defense of Jargon

The controversy about the "fiscal cliff" toward which our ship of state seems to be steering recently took an unexpectedly tumultuous turn: In an interview with National Public Radio, David Brooks stirred a tempest in a teapot when he suggested that the partisanship in current national politics is causing "epistemic closure" in the Republican Tea Party. Asked by host Melissa Block to "translate," Brooks explained that "epistemic closure is being in an information cocoon."

"Epistemic closure" is shorthand for a debate that the Cato Institute's Julian Sanchez ignited when he used the term in April 2010 to describe what he saw as the conservative movement's "cognitive failings" of "groupthink" and "confirmation bias." Brooks' use of the phrase encapsulated a significant discussion that has important current implications and far-reaching philosophical roots. But that larger context risked getting obscured by the fact that his phrase derailed the interview; his use of jargon became the focal point, and elicited immediate responses from the blogosphere.

Why does jargon have such power? How does it draw our attention to itself and away from the things it is describing? Why, that is, does jargon itself seem to bring about epistemic closure?

We value accessible writing -- and speaking -- as the backbone of public debate, and good writing is jargon-free. Or so we are taught. For generations of writers trained by Strunk & White's bestseller The Elements of Style (written in 1918), the imperative to "use definite, specific, concrete language" has been the gold standard by which we judge our own and other people's writing. Jargon's big words, compound phrases, multiple meanings, and obscurity seem to violate that rule.

Among stylistic offenses, we find jargon particularly objectionable: we are probably more likely to forgive someone for splitting an infinitive than for writing, in terms specific to the field of linguistics, about how the infinitive developed.

Why is that? Jargon addresses only particular groups and limits who will read specific texts. "Amicus brief," "digital," "carbon dioxide emissions," "cardiovascular": these are words that we grudgingly permit because they are on the border where jargon becomes our common language. But we are quick to question whether there isn't a simpler (and by that we mean better) way of conveying meaning. We just don't think jargon is necessary: we consider it a pretentious way of writing that dresses up simple things in fancy language.

Like the emperor's new clothes, jargon is a rhetorical disguise. Tinged with elitism and posturing, it asks us to suspend our better judgment. Ultimately, we can see through such pretentiousness. We ridicule jargon: the University of Chicago Writing Program website has a "toy" that automatically writes jargon-filled sentences. We get serious and personal about our scorn, the way the "Bad Writing Contest" did from 1995-1999. To my knowledge, nobody has ever complimented anybody else on her exquisite use of jargon.

But jargon doesn't deserve its bad reputation for being exclusive, meaningless, and snooty -- though it can be all these things. At its best, jargon is a meaningful way of communicating important information, building communities, and enjoying the challenges of writing.

Jargon is particularly associated with groups. There are as many different types as there are professional and social groups -- at least if we use the term jargon, as some do, in a larger sense that includes slang. The fact that there are so many different jargons might actually be a hallmark of diversity rather than exclusivity.

Jargon condenses meaning and allows us to share information effectively. Jargon is a tweet; in its original use, the word referred to a twittering sound. That does not make jargon trivial: it is deeply meaningful to the people who use it. And jargon can aid rather than hinder the expression of meaning, and the language itself. We use jargon to add to that meaning rather than detract from it. For example, a sentence in A Foucault Primer condenses most of my article into 16 words: "Foucault is the first major writer to pose the question of power in relation to discourse."

This sentence hits all the marks of "definite, specific, concrete language," even as it uses jargon. "Discourse" itself is jargon for "jargon." But we lose something if we swap out the specialized word for the one with which we are more familiar. "Discourse" condenses into one term the central question in late 20th century philosophy and literary criticism -- namely, whether words are meaningful -- and stakes out a position that affirms writing's social significance. Good writing can contain jargon, and that jargon can be a form of definite, specific, concrete language to those who use it.

As someone who relishes language, I love writing my own jargon and reading jargon in other people's work. When I am writing for fellow academics, I take pleasure in using words and phrases that instantly allow me to enter into a shared conversation. Writing jargon connects me with people I will never meet in person. I love navigating through other scholars' sentences, exploring depths that might be familiar or new, never knowing whether I will encounter an old acquaintance or a new friend. Such jargon is at its best when it is complicated, and when it requires thought and effort to learn its meanings.

Jargon can force us to pause, to ponder, to question. If you have ever studied a new subject, you know the pleasures of picking up its jargon, those moments when something that once was obscure becomes clear. That's why I like more than just the jargon that's specific to my profession: I enjoy stepping outside of my role as an expert and immersing myself as a student in a new subject.

But we should be guarded in our optimism about jargon's benevolent power to instruct and include. When we use jargon, we risk writing for a few, often privileged people. For better and for worse, jargon is a lingua franca. The clergy used Latin in the Middle Ages to write and speak to one another. Latin crossed national borders, and enabled scholars to share a common academic language no matter how different their national tongues. As a "universal" language of this sort, jargon can be a way of communicating complex knowledge to a global community of scholars. Such jargon is tremendously important for creating a context in which people can make informed decisions and develop new ideas.

Yes, jargon can come at the expense of the broader population's ability and willingness to read certain forms of writing. We see this even today when professionals indebted to Latin, such as doctors and lawyers, write in ways we can't decipher about issues that matter deeply to our lives and livelihoods. We have to consider very carefully what jargon tells us about different audiences, and ask whom we are trying to connect with as writers.

Today, there is no single jargon but many jargons. Even a specific jargon has multiple audiences and takes on different meanings. When I am writing for colleagues, I assume that we share the same specialized knowledge, and that we can begin our conversations at an advanced level. That's important: if you want to discuss the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football, you talk to someone who knows the game, not to someone like me who can't remember from one Super Bowl to the next what a Hail Mary pass is.

When I am reading texts with my students, we need to develop a shared understanding of the jargon we encounter. Jargon is initially a hurdle that then becomes a tool for our understanding. If the person sitting next to me on an airplane wants to know what I write about, a different kind of explanation is called for. In casual conversations, we can't just use jargon as shorthand but need to elaborate in broadly accessible language.

This is not a matter of one group learning and being smart and the other being ignorant or
dumb. Jargon makes visible the ways in which we don't all share the same social contexts, interests, and access to learning. We need to be mindful of jargon's negative social impact, yet we also need to make sure that we don't lose sight of the ways in which highly effective, specialized meanings benefit us all.

Jargon's value for the greater public good doesn't lie in any particular jargon or even in the aggregate of all jargons, but in the reactions we have to it. Jargon raises important concerns about elitism and other forms of exclusivity, and forces us to examine where our ever-shifting common ground lies. We care about jargon in ways that we don't always care about grammar. It makes us to think about the power of words, and reminds us that how we write matters.