Speaking in Tongues

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In last month’s welcome, I set out to describe Boxes and Arrows purpose and goals. On a line by itself I stated this is not a place for jargon. I felt that was important enough to call out. I certainly am being called to task for that.

Jargon is not using a fancy word appropriately, but it is jargon when the fancy word replaces a simpler correct word.

Perhaps I should have stated this will be a place free of jargon. Ridding our writing of jargon is a good goal, but a more complex task than one might think. That said, it’s important to define what jargon is and what jargon isn’t.

Jargon is words used as a gating mechanism. We use jargon when we wish to keep out those who are not like “us” whomever “us” may be. Jargon is when we replace perfectly good accessible English with slang, acronyms and other mangled phraseology. “Monetize” was a dot-com jargon term. It meant, “find a way to make a profit from” and was used partially out of laziness and partially to make people using the word feel like insiders (and perhaps not morons who forgot they had to make a dime on their crazy schemes) 80-20 was a rule for profits—20 percent of your users provide 80 percent of your profit—that became a noun. “Well Joe, the way I see it, it’s an 80-20.“

Jargon is not using a fancy word appropriately, but it is jargon when the fancy word replaces a simpler correct word. Paradigm has often given me fits because it is a perfectly good word… it’s just been abused. People often use it when “model” is probably a better choice. Utilize frequently replaces use when use is the right word. But there is an appropriate time to use utilize… when one means use for profit. We may even choose to utilize jargon if it will serve our sinister purposes in undermining the current design paradigm—but not if there is a better way—a clear, simple ordinary language way.

And jargon is not using a big word that you have to look up. Sometimes when we seek to be precise, we use big words. It happens. A dictionary is a good investment.

Acronyms happen. We have to stay alert for them. One man’s A List Apart is another woman’s American Library Association. ALA means different things depending on what crowd you run with.

New words are born when no word existed previously. It wasn’t that long ago that there was no such thing as an internet, or a CPU, or a handheld. To refuse to use these terms because they might be perceived as jargon would be foolishly handicapping ourselves in the service of communicating.

Finally our authors deserve to be allowed to be eloquent. Adam Greenfield’s style is not Jess McMullin’s, and neither writes like Nathan Shedroff. Nor would we want them to: Boxes and Arrows is composed of people, with a myriad of different voices and different word choices. We will edit to keep their writing accessible, but we will endeavor not to kill the poetry of their language. Writing is a scary and vulnerable activity. An author deserves to have his or her words respected, and editing should enhance and not squash.

So with all these challenges, why try? We try because Boxes and Arrows seeks to be inclusive, not exclusive. We want to cross lines to learn and communicate, and jargon is, as I said, a gating mechanism. So I’ll stick with my earlier statement, though I’ll modify it somewhat:

We will seek to keep this place free of jargon. We will enlist you, the reader to keep us honest. Every article has a discuss link, call us out on the carpet when we say LIS-IA, or directing eyeballs. Definitely bust us when we complain ED is not as good as UX because the CHI’ers are more user-centric in their dev-cycles because of the x-mod they do, while ED is all amusement parks and des9.

In return we’ll do our level best to talk straight.

Christina Wodtke


  1. Clifton wrote:
    “We should all be willing to sacrifice the professional ‘impression’ of jargon”

    I’m not talking about the ‘impression’ of jargon. I’m talking about a professional vocabulary needed to practice the discipline.

    From Dictionary.com
    Jargon: The specialized or technical language of a trade, profession, or similar group.

    I don’t want my doctor to use jargon to communicate with *me*. But if she didn’t know what the duodenum is, or systolic blood pressure, or necrotizing faciitis, then she’s not a good doctor.

    Can an Information Architect be a good IA without know what a sitemap is? A conceptual model? A persona? A scenario? A wireframe? Or the difference between a thesaurus and a controlled vocabulary? They need to know at least some of those terms…in large part they define the practice.

    We don’t need to use those terms when talking to clients. But here at B&A, some of them will be used. And that’s no worse than medical jargon in a medical journal.

  2. The funny thing about the “80-20 rule” is that it’s often used to mean something like “you don’t have to be perfect, just get 80% right”. The actual meaning is more like what Christina says: 20% of a population (the input) usually accounts for 80% of output (whether that’s profits or productivity or page views). Which supports the point she’s making about jargon: that it becomes jargon when used sloppily and/or unnecessarily.

  3. I agree whole-heartedly with the essence of the article, particularly the notionn that avoiding jargon for the sake of jargon does not necessarily mean dumbing down (there’s far too much pandering to the ‘common denominator’ as it is).

    However the description of jargon as a ‘gate mechanism’ has me scratching my head. It’s clearly not a spring-loaded hinge or slot bolt, so what’s a gate mechanism in this instance?

  4. “Jargon is words used as a gating mechanism. We use jargon when we wish to keep out those who are not like “us” whomever “us” may be.”

    Jargon is a way to erract a permeable barrier between in the insiders and outsiders. Using the correct jargon becomes the password to open the gate in that barrier. So saying “hey, 80-20” then shrugging in a business meeting might tell the people you meet with — I know what side your bread is buttered on, I’m in, I’m ONE OF YOU.

  5. Great article… especially the parts about investing in a good dictionary and that each contributor has a unique writing style. I constantly find myself looking up the meanings of words I’m not familiar with, whether it’s this site or the Washingoton Post. And that’s a good thing. Vocabulary is a beautiful tool, and the more you know, the clearer and more eloquent your communications can be. And hopefully then, jargon can be avoided.

  6. Bravo! I have just emailed this article to my team of Web writers, who sometimes get browbeaten into quoting the jargon spoken by the technical people they interview. Jargon is about intimidation and exclusion, and contrary to the democratic nature of the Web. Keep up the good fight, Christina!

  7. Well said. I have a personal pet peeve around jargon and acronyms and their use. I accept that language will evolve over time but our technological revolution has enabled a lazy and often irreverant use of language skills and punctuation.

  8. Another take on jargon: the vocabulary of a profession or practice. How much would you trust your doctor if she *didn’t* know any medical jargon? A profession is largely defined through its vocabulary, which in turn outlines and defines the concepts and relationships within the profession’s body of knowledge. Information architecture and other user experience disciplines are no different.

    At the same time, that professional vocabulary has to be mapped to the real world – there needs to be translation between jargon and language common to all the parties in the conversation if that conversation is going to be anything other than an exercise in intimidation and frustration(hence the need to gear down the jargon here on B&A, so that the people in the conversation can all participate).



  9. Jargon has its (limited) place in the world — but isn’t this really a discussion of knowing your audience and the language they respond to? I agree that good, plain writing will never let you down, but that attention to your audience will allow you to add the flourishes in context that go beyond an initial engagement of their attention.

    If you’re already a decent writer but get stumped occasionally, the best book I’ve found to help in sticky wording situations is A Dictionary of Modern American Usage ($25), by Bryan Garner. The book is good at parsing jargon and missed-it-by-a-hair wording, and giving alternate wordings as well as contextual examples (of the right and wrong ways to use a phrase/word).

    Here’s the Amazon link:


    Another great book I use frequently is The Craft of Research ($11), by Booth, Colomb, and Williams. The book deals with writing on a broader level but is really about the mental process of crafting arguments — critical thinking, which can be applied to documents of any size and medium.

    Amazon link:


    To put my recommendations in context: I’ve written for CNN (the good old CNN, not the enervated wreck it is now), magazines, and a zillion copy instances for umpteen online and offline publications. I also taught technical writing and communications for 3 years at Georgia Tech, where my students were not allowed to use the words “umpteen” or “zillion.”

  10. George Bernard Shaw said “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.” I think we can safely extend that and say All professional language and jargon is a conspiracy against the laity.”

  11. With regards to this topic, let me quote at length one of my favorite writers, Stephen Jay Gould (the words come from the prologue to “Bully for Brontosaurus”, his fourth essays book):

    “We must pledge ourselves to recovering accesible science as an honorable intellectual tradition. The rules are simple: no compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in ordinary English)”.

    There are more ideas like this in other prologues and introductions of Gould’s books, but the idea remains the same: take out the jargon, but not at the price of being shallow, and don’t confuse depth with obscurity: you can be deep yet clear. And this idea comes from someone labelled as one of the finest essay writers in English alive.

  12. So for all of the folks here decrying jargon (as conspiracy or elitist or unneeded)

    What do you call a wireframe? What is the ‘non-jargon’ alternative?

    IMNSHO, if I was writing about wireframes, I might explain that “the team created wireframes – prototypes that just block out different functional areas of the screen, without significant visual design. (see Figure 1)” Then I can use ‘wireframe’ later, and *not be exclusionary* but still have a shorthand for ‘prototypes that block out functional areas of the screen’ (which I personally don’t want to write every time I would write ‘wireframe’)

    The question isn’t whether jargon should exist – it will. It is *how jargon is used* that distinguishes professional narcissism from necessary neologism.

    [which, ‘jargon-free’, could read:
    The question isn’t whether a specialized technical vocabulary of the trade should exist – it will. It is how that specialized vocabulary is used that separates professional self-centered use from needed new words arising to describe new concepts.]

  13. Bravo, Horacio.

    Let the commonsense elegance with which the good Professor Gould expresses the sometimes-complicated matter at hand serve as a model to us all.

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