Americans have gone jargon crazy, addicted to acronyms, profession-specific lingo and texting abbreviations.
Some cases in point:
An item on a recent Durango School District 9-R’s agenda: Operational Expectations Interpretations Acceptance. Say what?
A response from the Environmental Protection Agency after questions were submitted in writing: We are not sampling sediment from the water column; we are however sampling river water that would include suspended solids. Excuse me?
A recent résumé submission: Knowledge of EEOC, HR Practices, ANCSA, CFR, FAR, SBA (8)a, Sarbanes-Oxley, IRS regulations, GAAP ... I’ll have to check with Mr. Google and get back to you on that.
From sum certain (specific amount) to system of impoundments (series of settling ponds), if there’s a complicated way to say something, that seems to be the choice people make these days.
Which leads to some questions. Is it diminishing our ability to understand each other? Does it discourage parents from getting involved in schools or residents from getting involved in the civic process? In the event of a crisis like the Gold King Mine spill, does it add to more suspicion of federal government in the community?
But first, is jargon more prevalent, or does it just feel like it?
“The quick answer is yes, we are definitely using more jargon,” said professor Andrew Cowell, chairman of the linguistics department at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It’s due in part to things like the Internet and globalization. It used to be you lived in your neighborhood and you had to know the offices in your town or your state. Now, you can access organizations across the entire world, which requires more offices, more labels, more titles and more jargon.”
Our world has expanded in many ways, he said.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, you would order coffee and choose between regular and decaf,” Cowell said. “Now, you can order a double mocha triple latte or a thousand other choices. Think of the other product choices that have exploded – bagels, ice cream, yogurt, tea. We’re seeing this explosion trend in lots of fields, like economics and sociology, for example.”
But jargon serves a clear societal function, said Cowell, who studies the social and cultural aspects of language. It allows us to differentiate between we, who understand the jargon, and they, who don’t.
“People are finding their identity through those tastes, being in their own little groups with their own little jargon,” he said. “For example, fans of a certain TV show are talking in chat rooms, texting, with clear insiders and outsiders who don’t know the jargon.”
When it comes to professional lingo, he said, a specific jargon has always been the case.
“Professions that are pretty well-paying have an interest in keeping others without the training out,” Cowell said. “Why do doctors talk the way they do? Why do lawyers talk the way they do? It’s taught in school, and if you don’t know the jargon, you can’t go to court.”
Jargon as an obstacle?
Dan Snowberger, superintendent of School District 9-R, worries about the effects of educational jargon in a number of ways.
“I wouldn’t say we have more jargon in education than we used to have,” he said. “But it’s ever-changing. Just because I’ve been in education for 29 years doesn’t mean I understand everything in current jargon.”
One problem with educational parlance is that it varies from district to district, he said.
“It can be challenging for new staff,” Snowberger said. “They have to adopt new jargon. It’s definitely an issue.”
But it’s most obvious in dealing with parents and community members.
“I think it can be a hindrance to parents,” he said. “It can be very intimidating to say, ‘I really don’t know what you’re talking about.’ We need to slow down, give parents encouragement that it’s OK to ask if they don’t have a clue what we’re referring to.”
One change the district has made to make parents feel more welcome is to have student-led parent-teacher conferences.
“Students are sharing what they are doing, versus having teachers talk and maybe lapse into jargon,” Snowberger said. “Essentially, we’re using our kids as interpreters, and it’s more meaningful for them and their parents as they go through the portfolio of their work.”
He has one fundamental rule about any kind of jargon.
“Regardless of what field you’re in, when you’re talking to people outside the field, you have to use plain talk,” Snowberger said. “Sometimes we get rid of bad jargon and replace it with what we think is better jargon, but it’s still jargon.”
FLC signs MOU with DEC
The world has definitely become acronym-happy, Cowell said.
“It would be interesting to pick any three-letter acronym and see how many things it stands for,” he said.
In fact, an arbitrary – and quick – look at CDE comes up with more than eight definitions, including the Colorado Department of Education; Cornell Dubilier Capacitors; Certification Info, Diabetes Education; Code, Data and Environment; and Common Desktop Environment.
“With texting, there’s this drive to get everything shorter, not just acronyms, but using lol (laughing out loud) and those kinds of things for actual English words,” Cowell said.
He doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
So The Durango Herald will continue using The Associated Press Stylebook. Its entry on acronyms reads: ”In general, avoid alphabet soup. Do not use abbreviations or acronyms that the reader would not quickly recognize.”
And the sentence above? Most locals would recognize Fort Lewis College. It signed a Memo of Understanding with the Durango Education Center.