The case for jargon

Jargon is defined as “special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand”.

Jargon has negative connotations, but it’s not unequivocally a bad thing.

Now you might be surprised to find me - content designer, plain language proponent, and inclusion advocate - arguing the case for jargon, but hear me out.

Jargon can support belonging and solidarity

Jargon is exclusionary to those not familiar with it, but for those who have learned its meaning, it can create an important sense of solidarity and belonging.

When I consider this, I often think about Eric Bailey’s article on the term a11y - a numeronym used primarily by disabled people and disability rights advocates as a shorthand for the word “accessibility”.

Although people new to the term might not understand it on first encounter, it’s become an important way for the web accessibility community to signal solidarity, understanding and allyship.

Searching the #a11y hashtag on social media lets people quickly connect with a community of disabled people, and others who are interested in making things more accessible.

The term “accessibility” has fairly broad connotations, while a11y allows people to signify something more specific, and in doing so it creates a sense of solidarity and belonging for those who use and understand it.

Jargon can be efficient

Let’s think about how Twitter uses jargon. If you’re familiar with Twitter, the following terms won’t feel like jargon at all, but there’s a high chance that someone who doesn’t use the platform wouldn’t accurately understand me if I mentioned:

  • Tweets
  • Retweets
  • Quote Tweets
  • Fleets (god rest their soul)
  • DMs- Handles- Mentions
  • Blue ticks (though it seems as though Twitter itself is still figuring that one out)

Using these terms on the platform allows us to communicate efficiently with each other.

Imagine if every time we wanted to ask our follows to retweet something, we had to say “would you mind opening the post I’ve just written, and sharing the post to your followers by clicking or pressing the icon with the two arrows?”. What a faff.

Most of us who use Twitter, even moderately, use it regularly enough that the initial language learning barrier has paid for itself many times over with the speed those terms now afford us.

That initial jargon-induced learning barrier still existed once, for all of us, but it’s passed.

The overhead of learning jargon is transient

As I write this, many people are flocking to Mastodon and - myself included - commenting on the initial impenetrability of the platform’s language conventions:

  • “what’s a Fediverse?”
  • “so… Tweets are called Toots over here?!”
  • “why is sharing someone’s post called reblogging and not retooting? That doesn’t make any sense!”

If Mastodon becomes, as some are predicting, the main replacement for Twitter, this discourse will die down. The platform-specific terminology will quickly become part of our language systems and turn into helpful shorthands that we use unconsciously.

All jargon is not equal: use it responsibly

I’ve talked about some under-discussed benefits of jargon here, but of course I - a content designer, plain language proponent, and inclusion advocate - do not condone its widespread and unquestioned use.

Jargon always gives power to those who understand it, and takes power from those who don’t. It’s really important that we recognise this and think about who we’re empowering and disempowering when we use jargon.

For example, briefly disempowering new users in exchange for a much more efficient experience for regular users, in a service designed for regular use is OK in my books.

And using jargon when it empowers a marginalised community and its allies to communicate with each other is also a wonderful thing.

Jargon that creates friction with little-to-no tradeoff, or simply empowers the already privileged needs rethinking.

In summary - jargon is inherently neutral. It’s what we do with it that counts.