Kathy Sierra, who blogs at Creating Passionate Users, has written a rambling and fascinating defense of jargon in which she says that "talking to other experts is more stimulating than talking to newbies" because "you get to use domain-specific jargon."
She has a point. At its best, jargon is to ordinary language what a bouillon cube is to chicken soup: an intense linguistic nugget that flavors the entire conversation. Jargon often summons up a vivid image, as when a diner waitress yells out an order for "Adam and Eve on a raft" (two poached eggs on toast), or a cynical doctor proclaims that a patient is manifesting "the Q sign" (unresponsive, with tongue hanging out), or a taxi driver says he's heading for the "dog pound" (the Greyhound Bus station).
Kathy distinguishes between jargon (good) and buzzwords (bad) this way:
Where buzzwords are used to impress or mislead, jargon is used to communicate more efficiently and interestingly with others who share a similar level of knowledge and skills in a specific area.
Having an "insider" lexicon is part of the benefit of being "into" something, she writes.
It's not about elitism--it's about efficiency. It's not about impressing others--it's about a shared understanding of specific concepts. It's about being able to talk about ideas or processes or even parts with fewer words and (potentially) greater meaning.
I part company with Kathy over the example that gets her started down this path: "Web 2.0." Is it a buzzword? Is it marketing hype? Or, as Kathy claims, is it a legitimate bit of jargon that functions as a secret handshake among the cognoscenti?
Here's my take: any term that's coined in a brainstorming session, as "Web 2.0" was, doesn't have the same linguistic status as "gumbo" (horse racing slang for a muddy track), "passholes" (stand-up-comic-speak for freebie audiences), or even "newbie." Real jargon is populist; its origins are anonymous and mysterious, but it always refers to something tangible and specific. You may not understand it at first, but once you hear the definition, it's as clear as day. By contrast, no two people seem to agree on the meaning of "Web 2.0." Kathy wants this not to matter:
"Web 2.0" may be the least understood phrase in the history of the world, but that still doesn't make it meaningless.
Maybe not, but it doesn't make it jargon, either.
The most entertaining part of Kathy's post, however, is at the end, where she offers up fourteen word triplets, all of them lingo belonging to one profession or hobby or another. See how many you can decipher before you read the comments (Kathy has knowledgeable smart readers!). For extra credit, try these:
Ditzy, bridge, essemmellex
Foley, cucaloris, whirly
Brite, reefer, thirty
Post a comment and tell me (a) where each set of words comes from and (b) what they mean.
By the way, I got some of my jargon references from a dandy book, Idiom Savant: Slang As It Is Slung, by Jerry Dunn. It's apparently out of print, but you can buy it used for as little as sixty cents.