Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"J" is for Jargon

I was poking around the internets and deciding what to do for my letter "I" for the A-Z Blogging Challenge, when I was hit by the proverbial lightening bolt and decided what my "J" was first.


The terminology specific to a trade, profession, or group.  Thank you, dictionary.com.  You have enabled me once again by relieving me from leaning over and grabbing my real one.

"I object!"
Most people, myself included, hate it when they're talking to someone, be it a friend or a professional (like a lawyer or doctor), and they won't stop using terms you just don't understand when explaining something.  "All right," you say, fighting the urge to go all ragey on their obviously self-important ass, "could you repeat everything you just said...but in plain English, this time?"

In situations like this, jargon is annoying and almost - almost - warrants a facepunch.  Part of me thinks that the person you're talking to is probably so wrapped up in your conversation that they don't realize that they're using unfamiliar terms.  The other part of me thinks they're doing it on purpose.

In writing, jargon can be necessary, but it has to be done correctly.  If jargon is used, it can't lose the reader; the author needs to make sure that the meaning can be deciphered by anyone who picks up their work.  That's not to say that there needs to be a glossary at the end of your medical novel (not that that's a terrible idea), but definitely make what you mean understandable so it doesn't take the reader or viewer out of the story.  Make them think, but not too much.

Example: "His BP is a normal 120/80," the nurse said to Dr. McHotstuff as she removed the blood pressure cuff from the patient's arm.  No, I'm not sure how accurate this encounter would be because I'm not a doctor (but I have watched a lot of Grey's Anatomy and House, so that should count for something).  Though "BP" is considered common jargon, to make the meaning of what the nurse said clear to you lovely readers, I added the bit about what she was doing...removing the blood pressure cuff.  Do most people know what BP means?  Yeah, probably.  Just like most CSI fans know that "GSW" means "gun shot wound," "subdural hematoma" means something about bleeding in the brain, and that when Horatio Caine puts his sunglasses on that usually means he's going to say something that will make me roll my eyes.  Okay, that last one isn't jargon, but for the others, their meanings can be inferred from what the characters are doing (watching an autopsy and poking around the dead body, conversations with the other characters, looking at x-rays) even though most of us aren't trained to know the terms.

Jargon can add to the realism for the reader (or viewer).  Even though I know Hugh Laurie isn't really the brilliant-but-flawed Dr. Gregory House, his dialogue and awesome acting skills convince me.  However, if he was to say something about "that thing on her leg" or "that gross stuff coming out of that guy," when he's being serious and not in one of the character's moments of biting snarkasm, the show would not be as convincing.  In fact, I'd be wondering what the hell Dr. Cuddy was thinking in hiring that guy.

In writing, Michael Crichton always put a lot of effort, time, and research into writing his novels, and was known for using lots of jargon.  Jurassic Park wouldn't have been as intense if the characters didn't use proper terms relating to biology and cloning, and the pirates in Pirate Latitudes wouldn't have been convincing if they didn't know anything relating to sailing.  Hell, even Capt. Jack Sparrow knew nautical terms. 

Creating your own world in your fiction?  Make up your own jargon to use!  What do you think George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry did?  And they created two little somethings called Star Wars and Star Trek.  Lightsabers and warp drives, anyone?

So don't shy away from using jargon, but use it as it's meant to be used.  The best way to get a handle on it is to talk to real people who use it.  Doctors, lawyers, truckers, sailors, IT professionals, military.  You don't want your characters to sound ridiculous, in turn making you sound ridiculous.  Google is also helpful, and you can find glossaries of different terms by profession if you look.

In short, jargon can help make your awesome story even awesomer, but use it realistically or you'll look like an idiot.

xoxo Sarah


  1. Ya know, I hadn't thought about jargon in this way at all, but you're so right. It lends authenticity to whatever it is we're writing. As you said though, we have to be careful not to go overboard and risk losing the reader.

  2. Excellent examples! I do enjoy learning the jargon of different professions---but you've got it exactly right, I've got to be able learn it, not see an unfamiliar acronym and go "Huh?" so a writer has to be clever about jargon use.

  3. Love this post. Your right on the jargon and I never really thought about it. At the same time when there is a book that does not have this used correctly the reader gets lost in the words or the reader can't see the characters as real people or whatever. =)

    Poetry, Quotes and Book Reviews.

  4. Good post! Like salt, a little jargon goes a long way. It's different from BUZZwords, too... I think if I hear another idiot ramble on about maximizing return on investment I'm gonna return a bitchslap to his/her pretentious face.

  5. This is not only terrific advice, I have to admit, I laughed almost from beginning to end. I love your writing style, so engaging and humorous while saying something useful and helpful in the process. I've tweeted this as my favorite J of the day. :-) And I know what you mean about those people who use jargon on purpose and wanting to punch them...coz some of them really do deserve it...speak English, you don't look smart, you just look like a pretentious ass.

  6. Slang is the same way. My brother used to come home from (high) school and use words that were after my time just because he knew I wouldn't know what he was talking about. I often have the same reaction to the internet.

    Of course, I've had people tell me that my normal language (normal being someone with a degree in English) is too much like jargon and to say it again "in plain English." >sigh<

  7. Excellent post! I try to use jargon only when necessary to make the reader feel more like part of the story.

  8. @J.L, Nicki, and Tiger: Thank you! I hadn't really given jargon much thought until I had to write this post on it, but it can really make or break a story.

    @Writing Goddess: I know what you mean. I've worked with investments before, and people complicate it unnecessarily AND use tons of jargon when they can easily explain it in a better manner.

    @Marie: Thank you! I got your tweet, and I appreciate the shout-out! I had a great time writing this one. *hugs*

    @Andrew: You're right, slang would be very similar. And it makes you feel old to hear some of the high school students talk now. Oh man...

    @Kris: Thank you! I agree, jargon can really make the reader feel more like they're a part of things. :-)

  9. This is such a detailed post, with some great examples! Thankyou for sharing!

  10. Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.