Jargon: We Love To Hate It

Most people despise it. So why do we use it? And is all jargon bad?

scrabble titles spelling out "JARGON" in wobbly arrangement, against a wine-colored, paper-textured background
Credit: Elah Feder

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Head on over to plainlanguage.gov, and you’ll find a helpful table, dedicated to simplifying and demystifying military jargon. On one side of the table, there’s the jargon term, and on the other, its plain language equivalent. “Arbitrarily deprive of life”? Actually just means “kill people.” “Render nonviable”? Also means “kill people.” “Terminate with extreme prejudice”? “Kill people.”   

This table is just one of many resources on plainlanguage.gov—from checklists to plain language training to thesauruses. The website was created by an unfunded government group of plain language activists who make it their mission to translate government communications into regular old, plain language. 

But jargon isn’t just a government problem. It pops up in nearly every field, and it seems like it annoys most of us. So why do we use it? And is there anything actually good about it?   

This episode was inspired by a question from a listener, Jafar, who asked about the word “recrudescence” and why we tend to use fancy words when simple ones would work just fine. If you have a question about a word or phrase, leave us a voicemail! The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com.  

A transcript of this episode is being processed. It will be available within a week. 

Guests:

Joe Kimble is a plain language advocate and professor emeritus at WMU-Cooley Law School.

David Lipscomb is Director of the Writing Center at Georgetown University, and Vice Chair of the Center for Plain Language.

Alejandro Martínez García is a researcher at the National Research Council in Italy.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

Credits:

This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer and Editor Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer. Special thanks to Jana Goldman, Bill Lutz, and especially Karen Schriver for background information on the plain language movement.


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Meet the Writers

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is a senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produces the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

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