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In Defense of Jargon

While sentiments about the need to speak clearly and to say what you mean can hardly be rejected, I insist that we go further in our analysis of language use. We must be wary of what is at stake in the crusade against jargoneering.
Peter Ives

Issue #31, March 1997

Bad Subjects, both the publication and the electronic mailing list, are certainly not alone in decrying the over-use of jargon and problems associated with 'difficult' 'overly intellectual' or 'obscure' language. In these venues, when jargonistic language isn't exposed as a cover-up for stupidity, or vacuousness, it has been labelled elitist and self-defeating. Such concerns about language usage probably weren't new even in 1693, when John Locke criticized what he called the 'abuse of words.' He argued that among other factors, communication often fails because words stand for complex ideas, different people understand words differently, people learn them in various and different ways, and because language is abused. Locke suggested several remedies which would at least curtail these problems, even if they couldn't entirely overcome the weaknesses of language itself. These remedies resemble those offered so often in the intervening three hundred years, including in arguments about Marxists and leftists being out of touch with the general public, being isolated in the 'Ivory Towers' of universities and in general repeating elitism which is in the end defeatist.

While sentiments about the need to speak clearly and to say what you mean can hardly be rejected, I insist that we go further in our analysis of language use. We must be wary of what is at stake in the crusade against jargoneering. We need to realize the need for the Left to create effective jargon that is used by broad sections of society. After all, jargon is only jargon for those who don't use it. For those who use it, it is a language which describes the world in which we live. Those who don't use one particular jargon use other jargons. There are reasons why people use jargon that go well beyond insincerity and pomposity. Of course we should ask how a jargon is developed and how and — more importantly — why some people are forced to learn certain jargons by either coercion or incentive. These are exactly the important questions that normally get trampled in crusades to eliminate jargon. The problems that the Left faces have much more to do with the lack of an influential, effective, prestigious, and — dare I even say — hegemonic jargon. In the atmosphere of platitudes in favor of free speech and ubiquitous liberal individualism, railing against jargon further entrenches the failures of the Left.

Certainly, there are people who hide behind jargon without knowing what the words they use mean. Others use jargon in order to avoid directly addressing difficult issues. But it is naive to think that jargon has the monopoly on insincerity and stupidity. On the contrary, an intimation of some non-jargonistic language contains its own fallacious presumptions and wishful thinking entailing ultimately harmful effects. The invocations 'speak clearly' and 'say what you mean' are two of the most often used ways of exerting pressure to establish norms and conformism. Even telling someone that you don't understand what they say, or asking them to repeat themselves, can effectively impose your way of speaking, your understanding of the world on another.

What happens during such exchanges is entirely dependent upon who is speaking with whom. If your boss, or teacher, or someone who has direct power over you asks you to speak more clearly, or tells you that he (as often is the case) doesn't understand you, the repercussions of you not figuring out how they want you to express yourself can be very evident. But equally powerful can be situations where for whatever reason you feel you want to impress whoever you're talking with. Of course, there are other times when it's not a question of wanting but it's a matter of whether or not you get the job, if you can make a certain environment (whether it be a workplace, a school or social group) bearable enough to remain there.

It is a utopian dream to think that if we all think before we talk, speak clearly and mean what we say, then life will be fine. Moreover, this is not just any utopian dream. It is the liberal individualist dream upon which the 'right' to 'free speech' has become so dependent. The only people who walk through life speaking 'freely' consistently are those privileged few who have great control over the circumstances in which they live. At the other extreme, there are people who have so little control that their actions (including their words) are considered unimportant. Those of us who live between these extremes are constantly negotiating our behaviour in relation to our environments and our abilities to express ourselves. This is why I am always suspicious when I hear someone, normally in such a 'reasonable' manner, ask "What did you mean to say?" or state, "Oh, you mean ..."

I don't mean to suggest that such questions are always bad or unduly coercive. On the contrary, we all learn the languages, styles and jargons that we speak in — from formal bureaucratic- speak when talking to one's boss to computer-speak to casual hanging-out style jargon. We are not born with these different styles of language, we have to learn them. When I was fifteen, I derived great satisfaction being able to walk into a mountaineering store and saying to the sales guy (it was almost always a guy): "Whadya think is better a number four friend or a number three tri-cam?" "If you're leading a 5.11 crack, nothing can replace a friend." The satisfaction I felt was not too different from being able to order a meal in a restaurant in Italy with a little finesse. And I will certainly never forget the elation upon successfully buying a set of bed sheets in Icelandic after I had moved to Reykjavik. I thank all the mountaineering clerks and Icelanders who said to me "What did you mean to say?" or "Ég skil ekki."

In some ways, these everyday situations of learning languages and jargons are not too much different from learning what 'reification' means. One of the reasons for the proliferation of jargon at universities is due to students and faculty feeling good about creating languages that describe not their daily lives (even if they study popular culture or contemporary sociology) but their new analyses of their daily lives having spent years studying them. This is at the heart of the original Bad Subjects manifesto that called for a balance between writing in language accessible to a wide audience and using complex concepts to articulate the difficult circumstances of our contemporary capitalist societies.

The advocacy of 'accessible language,' to which Bad Subjects and a host of other Leftists subscribe, seems to beg the question of what is 'accessible' and who gets to decide this. Is it a purely democratic notion? Reaching the widest audience, the greatest raw number of people, is the measure of 'accessibility'? If so, start practicing those Chinese characters. We could, of course, arbitrarily limit this logic of 'accessible to the greatest number' by starting from the (nationalistic?) presupposition that the English language is our terrain (which in itself can help to increase the number of people who speak English). But as Joel Schalit and Charlie Bertsch argue in their article in Bad Subjects number 26, if you have a critique of society, especially a society filled with the contradictions of capitalism, this notion of 'accessibility' has its drawbacks.

Schalit and Bertsch make considerable headway in describing how such a balance can be maintained. They advocate the use of figurative language and metaphors to get at complex ideas. In effect, by using metaphors that most people who speak English understand, it is possible to by-pass the jargon that developed in more restricted circles. This excellent idea of using metaphors needs to be pushed further. In a sense, all language is metaphorical, whether or not we remember or are aware of the original metaphor. We can use the phrase 'beyond the pale' with no knowledge that the 'pale' was the area that encircled Dublin under English writ and jurisdiction during the process of the colonization of Ireland. This phrase becomes a metaphor for the limit between what is legitimate and what is indecent.

On a more general level, we talk about feeling 'low' or 'elated' which are basically metaphors. Of course, the terms Left-wing and Right-wing are metaphors derived from the seating arrangement in the French Assembly. That this arrangement has structured our view of political perspectives is of crucial importance. Due to the change in its metaphorical usage, being 'gay' no longer means being happy. And 'coming out' is hardly an event to which you might invite your relatives from the southern states of the US. As has been pointed out by some feminists, a 'penetrating' analysis has some specifically gendered overtones. We can trace the etymology of words like 'determine,' meaning putting an end or a limit on something, and see how it comes to mean 'to decide' -and then in many cases it means 'to cause.' Some of the basic questions about whether human behaviour is 'determined' by biology or culture transform as 'determine' takes on different meanings.

There are also more overtly political changes in our language usage. It has become common parlance to talk of Ford Motor Company 'providing' or 'making' jobs for a community as opposed to workers working 'for' Ford. How can a job be 'made'? imag Jobs are not things, like products that are fabricated. They are activities. But we have come to think of them as objects. This is a metaphorical usage that changes how we conceive wage labour. The 'market' itself is used more often metaphorically than to refer to an actual place where trading takes place. Now it is an abstract concept. Businesses have coined the term 'downsizing' so that they don't have to 'lay' masses of people off. Business terminology is akin to the military changing 'death tolls' to 'body counts' to 'co-lateral damage' and now we have 'friendly fire.' The political jargon of the deficit and debt are certainly as complex as 'reification' and 'ideology.'

I cringe everytime someone says 'politically correct' because it symbolizes the failure of progressive people losing ground to conservative forces of the Right. Rhetorically, 'politically correct' functions brilliantly to throw a whole host of incredibly different struggles from the women's movement, to Civil Rights struggles and class-based politics into one bag and then criticize it for being inconsistent. To take just one example, throughout the seventies and eighties, there were huge debates and tensions between the women's movement and Marxist and socialist movements. Vast amounts of anger were vented and forests of paper used trying to figure out how an analysis of society based on concepts of gender could or could not be reconciled with one that looks at society starting from divisions of class based on what jobs people work and how they got their money. Add to these two basic approaches to analyzing society issues of race, and you get a huge number of problems and struggles. But, progress was made in the Civil Rights movement and then the Women's Movement and the New Left despite all these problems.

With the clever manipulation of the term 'politically correct,' the Right has managed to get many people on the Left to tacitly accept its logic. The only thing that all the perspectives that are slandered with the term 'politically correct' have in common is that conservatives are against them. It is only from a conservative perspective that a concept of 'politically correct' as a derogatory epithet makes sense. In the past, the fact that these diverse struggles have common enemies has been used positively to build alliances. But for the past decade, partially due to successful use of jargon, conservatives have used this one attribute to slag a host of progressive movements and pit them against one another. This overtly political perspective has been smuggled into everyone's minds and language including not only the mainstream of society, but also Left, progressive people. Without thinking about it, we strengthen the worldview that we oppose by using its language. But we can also learn from this example how a well-placed phrase can do so much work in changing how people view the world. We need to take heed of this example, and follow it for our own purposes.

Far from attempting to avoid jargon, we should be trying to develop a jargon that gets accepted, used and extended. We have to get people talking our language. That might mean not using words that are difficult to explain like 'reification.' Or words like 'ideology,' which I think has too many meanings to be of great value in many situations. Even using metaphors to brilliantly portray these complex ideas through 'user-friendly' images, while being of value, does not approach the problems of why leftists are not listened to. We need to create an effective language that describes the contradictions of capitalism as we live them in our daily lives.

While the right-wing purveyors of jargon seem to have the resources at their hands for diffusing their jargons, I chose the 'politically correct' example precisely because it took off like wildfire, made its way into all sorts of discourses, but it was not propelled by specific institutional forces such as the military or business elite. Unlike 'friendly fire' and 'restructuring' which are terms bolstered by military budgets and those wonderful corporations that 'create' all those jobs for us, 'politically correct' is jargon thought caught on without such explicit institutional help. 'Politically correct' was a term that seemed to fill a vacuum, or a need. Now we have a difficult time imagining a time when the term didn't exist. We almost wonder how people could have talked about the advancement of feminism, of the civil rights movements, of the gay and lesbian movements, without this term. Of course, this need only appears in hindsight. The need for the phrase 'politically correct' was only created because people accepted the logic of 'politically correct' as a cohesive category that makes sense, that is actually referring to something, when it obviously doesn't.

So we know that creating a Left jargon that is diffused throughout society as a whole is not solely dependent upon forcing jargon down people's throats. One major difference between the jargon that has been accepted in everyday usage and many other jargons that are deemed elitist or self-defeating is that the social forces that create these jargons have the power to get everyone talking their language. But in order to create and give strength to our own social forces we have to use left languages and jargons. This is true for actual institutions such as newspapers, universities or collective projects (where we have at least some influence in how they operate), and also for social forces that are more abstract (such as prevailing trends in society or shifts in voting behaviour). We do not have to submit to the methods of cramming jargon down people's throats, as 'downsizing' has been jammed down ours. Instead, we need to think and act creatively to create jargon that other people adopt, adapt and develop because it makes sense of our worlds.

I'll give a very simple example. Words like 'chairperson' and 'letter carrier' seemingly awkward twenty years ago started as conscious changes in English made for feminist reasons. They have now been adopted by almost everyone partially because it seems awkward to call a woman 'chairman' or 'mailman.' There's another example that might not work that well in the US. But in Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico and non-US 'America' in general, the term 'Americans' creates problems. A friend of mine told me that his community in Puerto Rico, they use (in English) 'United Staters.' It sounds a bit awkward, but it fills a need at the same time that it redresses a linguistic symptom of US imperialism. It might not catch on, but let's hope it does and work towards making it catch on.

Of course, the creation of such progressive and effective jargons is a huge project requiring various different strategies and the coordination of many different groups of people involved in an array of political struggles. They must be developed from the particularities of people's lives, their specific geographical locations and social situations. While some of these jargons will seem obscure and perhaps arcane to people in different circumstances, many of them can take less particularistic roles precisely because many of the struggles we confront have significant similarities. Presumably the political importance of 'everyday life' is rooted precisely in this need to develop languages to describe our lives, analyze them, and see the injustice and contradictions in them. I can't provide the solution for doing this, but arguing against jargonistic language is certainly not part of that solution.

Peter Ives was born and raised in the US but now lives and works in Toronto. He is a Ph.D candidate in the Programme of Social and Political Thought at York University writing a dissertaion entitled "Vernacular Materialism: Antonio Gramsci and the Theory of Language." You can reach him at

Copyright © 1997 by Peter Ives. All rights reserved.