• Jennifer Scheuerell

Just say no to jargon

I imagine every data professional has, in the process of needing to name things, created new jargon. I know I am guilty. But over time I have learned to see jargon differently and I now do everything I can to avoid using or creating jargon.

The Wikipedia page on jargon does a good job explaining both what jargon is and how it impacts communication:

The main trait that distinguishes jargon from the rest of a language is special vocabulary—including some words specific to it and often different senses or meanings of words, that outgroups would tend to take in another sense—therefore misunderstanding that communication attempt.

That one sentence gets quickly to my main beef with jargon, which is that it excludes some listeners and prevents anyone who isn't in on the jargon from understanding what is being said. While it can feel good to share jargon with an ingroup, by the nature of doing so you create an outgroup that is excluded.

For example, years ago a colleague used TLA in a work conversation and I didn't know what it meant. So I asked, and they responded "Oh, that's a Three Letter Acronym. You know, a TLA." It was funny in the moment, but reflecting on it I realized that having and using jargon that's only purpose is to talk about other jargon seems like a sign that things are getting out of hand.

My view of jargon really evolved when I read the book Lauren Ipsum by Carlos Bueno with my daughters a few years ago. We all loved the book, and the story's clever handling of jargon has stuck with me. In the story, jargon are animals and after Lauren's first encounter with them she asks "What's a Jargon?" and the Wandering Salesman's response is priceless. "Jargon live in the swamps. They feed on attention. If they can't get that, they will settle for fear and confusion." Later in the story Lauren and Xor are talking and she makes up a word and says it aloud, and a jargon (the animal) pops into existence in front of her. Xor explains "It's [the word Lauren made up] a name that only means something to you. That's what a Jargon is. You made it, it's yours."

We'd probably all be a lot more mindful about creating jargon if animals popped into existence and started running around each time we do it. And while there are times and places where using jargon can be productive, I find that avoiding jargon and choosing to use words that are accessible to all listeners feels even better.

Recently I've been enjoying taking the opportunity with My Data Chameleon to mindfully replace jargon with plain language that includes all readers. I have found that it feels empowering and inclusive, and while I'm still practicing the art, I'm hooked. As wise Xor says in Lauren Ipsum, "You have to be careful with names. They have a power all their own."