The Sociology of Jargon
What’s the first thing most people do when studying for an exam, especially one with multiple choice questions? They will probably try and memorize the new terms they have learned, translating them back to define words they already know. In short, they attempt to learn the jargon used in their class.
Although I try and avoid too much jargon in my classes and in my writing, there is no way to completely eliminate jargon from our lives. Social groups create special language—like jargon —in part to make communication short cuts, but mostly to clearly delineate who is a member and who is not. Members understand the lingo and learn to speak it fluently.
Sociology has its fair share of jargon; in order for any discipline to define itself as unique and important, it must come up with a list of terms that only insiders know. Of course sociology and the social sciences are not alone in this: lawyers, bankers, and other professions all have their jargon too and that makes it hard for the rest of us to know what they are talking about. Physicians might use terms like “Rhinorrhea” and “Sternutation” instead of the more commonly used “runny nose” and “sneeze” in part to heighten their sense of expertise. They know words we don’t, therefore they are experts.
I learned this my first semester of graduate school. Classmates would sometimes make impassioned statements so filled with jargon, and much of what they said made no sense to me. I started observing the same thing at conferences, and more often than not it was graduate students rather than professors who used as much jargon as possible.
At one conference, a fellow grad student leaned over to me and sheepishly asked for translation. “I have no idea what she just said,” I admitted. “But I bet she didn’t know either.” Using a lot of jargon in a presentation was a common tactic new sociologists used to try and prove they belonged.
Exclusive professions and academia are easy targets to pick on for their ubiquitous use of jargon, but they are not alone. I once worked in an office where workers used a great deal of jargon not part of the wider industry, but unique to that office environment. The words were basically shortcuts used to make communication faster. Because the work was rather repetitive, it required the same tasks to be done over and over. Proofing. Rewriting. Rerunning numbers. Spinning the meaning of the numbers to please clients.
Unique words also served as euphemisms, particularly for the last task. No one overtly said we would be bending the truth, but if one was told to “finrep it” (or finesse the report) we knew exactly what that meant.
Jargon’s close cousin is slang. While jargon is considered so formal that most people wouldn’t recognize it, a slang expression may be widely recognized but not considered a formal word within the language. So ironically, the word few people know reflects higher status, and the word that many (if not most) people know and use regularly has a lower status in the language.
Slang is common within different subcultures, and may or may not be known to outsiders. Sometimes adopting the slang of a subculture—just like learning the jargon of a profession—becomes a way for people to attempt at least partial membership or awareness of a group. Marketers sometimes even borrow slang to make their product seem cool and linked with a desirable group.
Your family might also have its own unique slang. Years of inside jokes in my family has led to new meanings of words that others might not pick up on without a lengthy back story. Children sometimes come up with new meanings for words that the adults around them reuse but may be nonsensical to outsiders.
The truth is, we all use some form of jargon or slang in our daily lives that reflects our professional, group, or family memberships. That may not make memorizing it for a test any more fun, but it might make it easier to know why jargon exists in the first place.