Current Awareness Strategy Blog

Can jargon be a force for good, or is it a necessary evil?

Jargon is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand".

Many years ago I wrote about the difficulties of jargon in the world of information and knowledge management, and concluded that ‘language can be both a barrier and a means of effective communication’. I asked guest blogger Sarah to revisit this topic. 

Sarah McLaughlin MPSI studied at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, and has been a practicing pharmacist for 10 years. She is dedicated to ensuring the general public has access to the information they need to understand personal healthcare issues. Here, she discusses the power of language when it separates us, but also its ability to unite.


Can jargon can make a bad situation worse?

Law and medicine have their own specialist language and the definition of jargon above highlights that fact that it can be difficult, if not intimidating for the layperson to digest. This can be unhelpful if you’re already facing illness, injury or injustice and you’re desperately seeking clarity, understanding and perhaps comfort.

Jargon in this scenario will produce an enhanced state of confusion and despair. The vulnerability that often comes with seeking medical and/or legal advice from professionals creates a student-teacher dynamic. In panic, people might be tempted to untangle the jargon using Google which can compound the problem.

Find out if you're making the most of Google


Jargon and the power of perception

In the course of my medical training, I studied Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) -  a study of brain psychology and communication. [editor’s note - not this NLP] Although a controversial topic, the ideas discussed opened my eyes to the fact that individuals have unique points of perception.

Each of us filter information through our own lens. We have different past experiences, emotional worlds, and banks of knowledge which form our own individual "fingerprint" or stand point. We experience the same situation in different ways, for example words are exchanged and one person laughs, whilst another is offended. Different perceptions mean different responses.


Jargon as a blocker to communication

A friend recently told me about a new job horror story caused by jargon related communication. As a newly qualified library assistant, a lawyer asked her to find the 1914 aliens legislation. Not wanting to be too obviously thrown by a such a strange request, she went away to do some more research.

My friend uncovered a new meaning of "alien" in the context of immigration law. The lawyer was so familiar with this contextual terminology he didn't stop to imagine the new information person would perceive it in a different - extraterrestrial - way. The key takeaway here was, if in doubt as to understanding, ask for further clarification because it will save you time.

How can you become the power behind the search engine?


Jargon can bring us together

My studies took me to a foreign country which could have potentially been alienating. A few weeks in I was in the lab with fellow students and our professors. Terms like "microbe", "hypertension", "OTC meds", "polymorphism" were echoing back and forth in a room filled with people dressed in white coats and protective goggles.

Unlike my friend’s experience in a new role, our group spoke a common language from the start. Our nationalities, experience and backgrounds may have differed but I felt excited; we felt united. This led to a feeling of efficiency, inclusion, and a safe learning environment. These were my professional colleagues and we were communicating effectively.


Jargon can separate us but only if we allow it

You can feel like an alien - an outsider, a foreigner - because of confusing jargon swirling around you. In contrast to my inclusive, positive experience above, my evening job in catering was a perfect example of jargon gone awry.

"Grab some bev naps from back of house and stock up the bar lass!"

"Nuke those plates and offer more drinks to the campers at nine"

Like my librarian friend faced with her legal jargon misunderstanding, for a while I was in confusion. Dishes of delightfully presented food rested on the serving bay, and references to campers left me confused and under pressure. I may not have had access to research facilities, but thankfully my compassionate colleagues filled in my knowledge gaps.

Sarah McLaughlin

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In the same way a legal information professional might arrive with little legal knowledge but a world of practical skills, with guidance they start to feel comfortable in a new environment. When you have a knowledge of the organisation, processes, culture, we can communicate with work colleagues, united in efficiency.

Language has the power to connect us and create common ground but also has the power to divide, exclude and isolate us as fellow human beings. Jargon: never assume people understand what you're talking about.

What’s the strangest jargon you’ve had to explain? What the worst example of jargon you’ve come across recently?


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