December 07, 2010

The Sociology of Jargon

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

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.


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I agree with this completely. I have always noticed how people use big words to make themselves seem more important. Whenever I go somewhere that I'm not familiar with and hear people speaking with words that almost sound foreign to me, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I have caught myself doing the same thing before, though. It's easy for us to want to impress everyone that is around us, and so we do and say whatever we can to sound smart. I think that jargon is sometimes almost like a second nature to us. We're so subconsciously concerned with our appearance and reputation that we say things that might not even make sense to us so that we sound better.

I agree, people want to sound more sophisticated when around people who are important so to make themselves sound more intelligent they use bigger words that they may not know.

I would also have to agree. People try to impress other people by using words that they do not even understand. It may be because those people are self concious about what other people think and they want to come off more intelligent.

I always enjoy watching people use big words and phrases to try to fit in. It just shows that people adapt to the group they're in. Everyone wants to feel like they belong so...when in Rome do as the romans do. People part of a group and acting accordingly is just our human nature.

I agree with this completely. When many people here big words or jargon, they feel uncomfortable or they try to use jargon also to fit in, even if they don't understand or don't know what they are actually saying.

This article reveal a lot about how important language is to the ever-budding cultures in society. My family calls me The No Man, for my simple way of refusing request for things. Slang has blast on the seen in many ways from product marketing to use of texting for the young trying to conceal to the adult trying to send something personal with little repercussions. Jargon is alive and well

I agree with this 100%. I have always noticed that people use bigger words when they want to sound more important. Whenever I go to unfamiliar places and hear people using fancy words it makes me feel uncomfortable. Although I have caught myself doing it. It's easy to want to impress the people around us, and so we do and say things to sound a certain. I think that jargon is sometimes almost like a second nature to us. We are so concerned with our appearance and reputation that we say things that might not even make sense so that we might sound smarter or more important.

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