A Taxonomy of Jargon

I’ve noticed a consistent difficulty that my ESL students have, which is comprehending words that are particular to a certain academic field, analytic lens, or article/book, especially as distinct from homonymous words in the dictionary. My classes often read Duhigg’s The Power of Habit as their main text, which features a unique definition of habit, among many other words. For example, Duhigg defines cue, routine, and reward thus:

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future... (19)

and later specifies further that a reward “can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation” (Duhigg 25)

Clearly, a reward to Duhigg is something fairly intuitive and immediate, like the taste of a delicious food or relief from an itch, as he later illustrates with examples of rats and monkeys in behaviorist, stimulus-response-type experiments. Yet I consistently find in my students’ papers that they define reward much more similarly to their dictionaries, something like a biweekly paycheck or a college degree, often abstract and far off. This resetting of the definition of the academic jargon we’ve been learning back to its lay version happens with great regularity.

The issue seems to be that students will default to the dictionary definitions of those words when dictionary definitions are available, even if we’ve been talking about the newly learned definitions for weeks. That is, although we’ve been trying to hang a new concept on an old hook, students reaching for the old hook reliably come up with the old concept instead.

This got me thinking of how the jargon (Merriam-Webster: “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”) that students encounter throughout their academic careers varies, and how the differences between types of jargon can lead to easier or harder experiences of mastering them as words and as concepts. And though the word “jargon” can have a bit of a negative connotation, here I’m not at all interested in castigating academics for using the terminology particular to their field (even to the point of alienating non-experts) or even for coining new and potentially confusing terms, just identifying some characteristics that could make academic jargon more transparent or less transparent for English learners.

What follows is a preliminary attempt to categorize types of jargon according to overlap with other words and concepts.

Pure jargon (new words)

Perhaps the easiest jargon to identify is that which is clearly a new word, a term completely unique to its field, and though rare, one that probably occurs in the dictionary and exists in the students’ L1 with almost the same definition. Some examples of this type of jargon might be:

  • gluon, a type of subatomic particle
  • aphasia, a language disorder
  • semaphore, a way of organizing multiple processes in a computer
  • molality, something having to do with chemistry
  • palantir, a magical stone used for seeing

The most common issue with words like these in my experience is that students may translate them into the L1, recognize the translation, and then feel as if because they recognized (as opposed to understood) the translation, they therefore know the word. Obviously, someone who hasn’t studied chemistry in any language (like me) won’t really know what molality is.

But in general, these words’ properties as words aren’t what cause confusion, and what difficulties students have in grasping them are likely to be difficulties in grasping the concepts themselves.

Compound jargon

A step up in opacity is novel compound words, words whose components are known but when used in combination refer to a new concept. Some examples might be:

  • the Honeymoon Stage, one of Kalervo Oberg’s 4 stages of culture shock
  • the New Deal, a group of government programs during the Great Depression
  • the Great Depression, since I brought it up
  • nature-identity, one of Gee’s 4 identities (see references)
  • call-out (or cancel) culture, a straw man of conservatives on the Internet
  • blue book, either the publication containing a used car’s estimated value or the value itself

The superficial familiarity of everyday words like “great” and “depression” can yield a false sense of familiarity with the referent of the term “Great Depression”. In my experience though, most problems with understanding these terms come from incorrect parsing of their grammar: many students seem to read “Great Depression”, ignoring its capital letters and interpreting it simply as an adjective followed by a noun, as any depression which is large or severe.

Interpreting compound nouns, or adjective-noun pairs meant as proper nouns, can dovetail with understanding the role of lexical chunks. I have no evidence of this, but ability to comprehend compound jargon may correlate with ability to parse language as chunks rather than strictly as words and grammar.

Homonymous jargon

This class of jargon, sharing spelling and pronunciation with a lay term, is what I was talking about in the introduction, and to me, the type of jargon most likely to cause confusion. I have broken down this group into a few sub-categories:

Homonymous and conceptually similar

The most difficult jargon to distinguish from its vernacular equivalent is jargon which shares a form with a non-jargon word and refers to almost the same thing, but is defined more specifically or to fit within a particular framework. Some examples might be:

  • Cue-Routine-Reward, the three parts of the habit loop as defined by Duhigg
  • Mindset, either growth or fixed as defined by Dweck
  • Grit, perseverence in pursuit of a goal as defined by Duckworth
  • Health, an integer subject to increase with sleep or decrease with physical damage as defined by the Final Fantasy series

Again, the errors seem to stem most commonly from substituting in the lay version of a word’s definition when the technical one was called for.

Homonymous but conceptually different

Some homonymous jargon extends the meaning of a lay term to the point that the connection may not be clear to outsiders. Consider terms like “sweeten” in production, which means adding effects like a laugh track to make a final product more palatable, much like sugar does to tea.

Mitch Hedberg quote: We're gonna have to sweeten some of these ...

Other jargon which is not particularly close in meaning to its lay equivalent might be:

  • Whale, a high-stakes gambler
  • Remainder, to dispose of unsold books (also tricky for morphological reasons; the lay term “remainder” is a noun while the jargon is a verb)
  • Sleeve, the body into which a digitally stored consciousness is inserted (see also “Shell“)

I have never encountered an instance of a student accidentally reverting to the lay definition of a term like this in writing, perhaps because the definitions are so different as to preclude confusion. No one is going to write about a whale visiting a casino and suggest that he may have been disappointed to find the buffet out of krill.

Homonymous and “technically correct”

Within the type of jargon that is a homonym for its lay counterpart are many words whose definitions are distinct but which are taken as the “true” definitions of those words. That is, the technical definition is thought to be what people “really mean” when they use the word in other, non-technical contexts. Some examples might be:

  • Depression (I have a hypothesis that part of what makes psychology so difficult is that so much of its jargon are homonyms of everyday words like “self” and “positive”)
  • DNA, a stand-in for “heritage” in popular discourse but not in biology
  • Myth, a story with particular cultural power, interpreted in popular discourse as “a falsehood”
  • Million, liable to be corrected even when clearly meant as a synonym for “a lot” and not exactly 1,000,000 of something

To illustrate the difference between this type of jargon and the other homonymous jargon above, consider that someone who uses “DNA” in a sentence like “I love BBQ. It’s in my DNA” may be “corrected” and forced to rephrase, while someone who uses “whale” to refer to an aquatic mammal will never be reproached for sloppy, non-technical language use, nor will someone who uses “grit” to refer to general hardworkingness be shamed for not using Duckworth’s specific definition.

What to do

Some consciousness-raising work on just how common academic jargon is in university classes and the flexibility of words’ meanings is probably a good idea.

Part of this really should be a thorough introduction not just to the idea that dictionaries (bilingual or monolongual) or translation are not reliable ways to understand course content, but many illustrations of why, including showing a list of the possible translations of “grit” (for example) and invitating students to compare any of them to the specific definition that the course uses.

Perhaps jargon can be interpreted not as a stumbling block to success but as an opportunity to raise consciousness as to the relationships of words to the concepts that they refer to.

Works Cited

Gee, James Paul. “Chapter 3: Identity as an analytic lens for research in education.” Review of research in education 25.1 (2000): 99-125.

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change. Random House, 2013.