Where does the word ‘jargon’ come from?

Rough and ready transcription of episode 148 of The Writing Guy podcast:

Hi there and welcome to episode 148 of The Writing Guy podcast. I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words.

The Writing Guy luxuriates in birdsong

On the weekend, as I mentioned on yesterday’s podcast 147, on Saturday, I had two or three delightful hours at Stonehenge. World Heritage Site, obviously, and a site of deep spiritual, historic and astrological significance. Very, very beautiful. It was a stunning day: if you were in the UK on the Saturday, 12th of June, it was beautiful…and very, very hot. It got so hot that I had to find the shade of a tree.

About 200 metres away from Stonehenge I just lay down in the grass in the shade of this tree, watching the clouds going by and listening to the birdsong. It was very, very beautiful and very relaxing. Not sure if this is giving you insight into how The Writing Guy spends his weekends! I certainly don’t do this every weekend. But even if I did, so what? it was just beautiful to have the time and leisure to be able to do that.

And so I lay there in the shade of this tree because it was really baking hot and I just became aware of this wonderful birdsong going on around me, which as I learned later is mainly skylarks. But there was a lot of activity: flies and bees buzzing around me, and particularly the bird song was, was very impressive and that got me thinking about the word ‘jargon’, because I read many years ago that ‘jargon’ is from Old French [in the podcast I mistakenly said ‘Old English’. Ed] meaning ‘birdsong’. At least according to the online etymology dictionary.

Jargonising your writing (ugh!) won’t make your words sound like birdsong

The word ‘jargon’ comes from the mid-14th century, meaning ‘unintelligible talk, gibberish, chattering or jabbering’, and it’s from the old French jargon. A chattering of birds. So you know, when you are using technical terms or kind of business jargon, you may think, ooh I’m being very artistic by using birdsong, but actually it’s more like unintelligible talk! Nonsense. Hot air.

And it was only from the 1650s that the word ‘jargon’ gained the additional meaning of words or language or phraseology peculiar to a sect, profession, discipline or subject, as in ‘technical jargon’, technical terms, ie ‘technical jargon’. And that’s fine as long as your reader is a member of that particular sect or profession and understands those terms (also known, by the way, as ‘terms of art’, ie a term that has a specialised meaning in a particular field or profession. So if you’re a lawyer than the word ‘tort’ would count as a term of art. Or if you’re in financial services you might use the phrase ‘collateralized debt obligation’. That will have a particular meaning for people in that professional industry. The temptation or the risk if you like is if you overuse that kind of language, it’s just going to de-humanise it and make it hard even for a technical reader who’s familiar with that terminology to read.

And just going back to ‘jargon’, I also read in the dictionary that Middle English has it as a verb, jargounen, to chatter, which is originally from the French.

The bottom line of jargon

So, yeah, what’s the bottom line from this? How did I get from listening to beautiful birdsong in Stonehenge to the origin of ‘jargon’? And what does that mean for us as writers?

I guess what that means is that if you are 100% sure that 100% of your readership belong to the same sect, discipline or specialised subject area, then you can safely use technical jargon. But in my experience that’s very rare to have 100% of your readership coming from the same industry, the same specialist industry. There may be occasions where there really is no substitute or no alternative to using a piece of technical jargon. But often, often there is. And I think we as writers need to — for the sake of the reader and readability — we need to strike that balance between using technical jargon and using what I would call plain English, which is simple, middle register, more conversational, more human sounding language.

There you go, that’s it for today. Hope that was useful and I will see you tomorrow for episode 149, Thanks for listening. Bye now.

 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai