What could the many synonyms in the English language possibly have to do with social disconnection? And what does jargon, a kind of language that nobody likes but can’t stop, won’t stop using, have to do with manipulating meaning?
Perhaps nothing at all… or perhaps they can be stark reminders that words aren’t all created equal. The language choices we make can have profound repercussions for how we engage with the world, and the world with us.
How Language Reflects Life
Recent research tells us that the very technologies designed to connect people, such as social media, often end up disconnecting us from experiencing the simple pleasures of being human in the natural world. Modern life online can be lonely. Language sometimes reflect this.
As life grows increasingly more complex, it requires an ever-evolving, specialized language, another kind of social technology, to explain all the shadowy online things on which we spend our precious time, social interactions that are virtually real, yet somehow not quite real. Language naturally changes, and yet many of the trends of words, catchphrases, sound bytes that are produced and promoted over others can also give us a niggling sense of disconnection, or even of being played, where the emotional impact of meaning itself can also seem virtually real, yet not quite real. Through language, trivial things can be made to seem more important than they are, while more significant things can be overlooked—or deliberately obscured.
Consider the wild debate over how the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children removed infrequently used nature terms like “chestnut,” “lark,” “buttercup,” and “clover,” and replaced them with seemingly more relevant contemporary technical jargon, such as “block-graph,” “analogue,” “chatroom,” and “mp3 player,” thereby prizing an “interior, solitary childhood” over one spent playing outside in the woods and fields.
Does it matter? Why be up in arms about this news at all, as many prominent writers and readers were? In general there’s nothing wrong with new words entering the language. This decision was made based on usage studies from largely children’s texts and corpora, so shouldn’t we all move with the times and trust in an objective science? Or could data be biased?
As the uproar shows, in some vague, indescribable way, we feel something when we see the first group of words that we may not with regards to the second. Is it just cultural, poetic, or linguistic prejudice that makes us like a some words, and not others? Or is there some other story behind why some words seem to alienate us?
The English Language’s Split Personality
It may have something to do with the strange bipolar nature of English, lexically torn between two languages. The English language is at its heart a Germanic language. And yet, after the Norman Conquest, Norman French became the language of the elite ruling class. This caused a huge influx of Latinate words to enter the language at high levels of society, such as government, law, education and business. French was the language of power.
This had a profound effect on the emerging Modern English language. As a result, English has this split personality of two opposing lexicons—one from the Germanic/Anglo-Saxon side of the family tree and the other from the French/Greco-Latinate interloper—existing side by side (and uncomfortably glaring at each other at family reunions).
Because of this, English probably has more synonyms than any other language, with many redundant pairs that mean essentially the same thing, like flood/inundation, snake/serpent, inside/interior, friendly/amiable, bloom/flower, answer/respond, cow/bovine, gift/present to name just a few. But words are not all about meaning. Though they may mean the same things, the ways and the contexts in which they’re used are very different, as well as the assumptions we implicitly make when one is used and not the other.
Germanic origin words tend to be the short words, usually describing simple human needs, nature, life and relationships (births, deaths, love, sun, moon, earth, water), while Latinate words are all the big long ones—more polysyllabic, abstract, formal, and fancy. It’s thanks to both linguistic strands, as well as other borrowings, that English has such a richness of vocabulary, with clear jobs for both classes of words.
Together with conventional Latin and Greek scientific usage, Latinate forms by now make up a majority of English vocabulary… and that number might be increasing, thanks to jargon.
Where Jargon Fits In
Originally used in more formal, intellectual and abstract contexts, Latinate words have held onto their prestige and their power. So when we coin new words to describe new things (and old things), especially if we want to sound smart, precise, and scientific, we overwhelmingly reach for a Latinate form, not a Germanic one. Instead of just talking, we now also have dialoguing (even if we wish we didn’t). Some studies have shown that though users of this more formal language might be seen as competent, listeners often view them as distant and unapproachable, while speakers that use more Germanic forms are often seen as flexible and might be more likely to “help you out of a jam.”
This is perhaps because most of the words we absorb as babies and first learn as children are still the little Germanic words, and they also happen to be the ones that are still most commonly used. So we develop this long-lived, deep-rooted familiarity with their meanings and their senses in a way that we don’t with Latinate words, which can often seem detached and disconnected from any emotional reaction to a word’s meaning. While we worry about disastrous “flood” warnings, our French friends might have the same kind of emotional panic about imminent “inundations.” English has borrowed the same word but it certainly doesn’t feel the same. Likewise, snakes might give you the shivers, while serpents don’t threaten you in quite the same way. Short, Germanic origin words can have a significant impact on how we react to information.
For that reason, style guides, plain language advocates, and teachers often follow George Orwell’s dictum to “never use a long word where a short one will do.” Despite advising students to avoid using Latinate forms, a study showed that many instructors often unwittingly violate their own rules, and are swayed by writing that contains more Latinate forms, possibly because of the assumption of this type of language being more educated, precise (e.g. spotty vs occasional mean the same thing but one seems more definitive), and prestigious (a chamber is a lot grander than a room). So while the familiar, shorter words are viewed positively, we may assume the longer words are more important, intellectual, and possibly convey a lot more meaning than we can really grasp. A nature term like the flower forget-me-not directly borrowed from German Vergissmeinnicht is more easily remembered and absorbed than its mysterious scientific name myosotis (from the Greek for the just as picturesque mouse ear).
This matters, because Latinate words can seem more distant and a little unreal. Ultimately, their meanings can be more easily manipulated and abused without us understanding instinctively what’s happened—such as when jargon is used in euphemisms or doublespeak (when it’s designed to deliberately mislead) or other circumlocutions. This happens all too frequently in politics, government, bureaucracy, the military, and corporate life—all areas of concentrated social power.
Take these poor, unloved, deliberately evasive and confusing examples of jargon from the U.S. government’s own site on plain language:
|arbitrarily deprive of life
|terminate with extreme prejudice
It’s easy to see how the shorter, plainer version may pack more of an emotional punch, something a government bureaucrat or military spokesperson might want to avoid.
How Jargon Can Exclude and Obscure
It turns out that, far from being objective, jargon—outwardly a sober, professional kind of talk for experts from different occupational fields—has always carried with it some very human impulses, placing power and prestige over knowledge. A doctor, for example, might inappropriately use jargon in explaining a diagnosis to a patient, which prevents the patient from participating in their own care. This quality of jargon attracts those that might want to obscure biases, beef up simplistic ideas, or even hide social or political embarrassments behind a slick veneer of seemingly objective, “scientific” language without being challenged.
Latinate forms happen to lend themselves well to new terminology like this, especially technical jargon, for those very perceptions of precision and prestige, as well as detachment. But this detachment comes with a price. The alienness and incomprehensibility of new jargon words we’re unfamiliar with might sometimes make us a mite uncomfortable. It can sound inauthentic, compared to other innovative language change, from slang to secret languages. There are all kinds of innovative speech used by certain groups not just to share information easily, or to talk about new ideas, but also to show belonging and identity—and to keep outsiders out.
It’s one of the reasons people hate jargon with a passion and have been railing against it for years, centuries even. H. W. Fowler called it “talk that is considered both ugly-sounding and hard to understand.” L.E. Sissman is a little more subtle. Sissman defines jargon as “all of these debased and isolable forms of the mother tongue that attempt to paper over an unpalatable truth and/or to advance the career of the speaker (or the issue, cause or product he is agent for) by a kind of verbal sleight of hand, a one-upmanship of which the reader or listener is victim.”
Jargon, as useful as it is in the right contexts, can end up being socially problematic and divisive when it hides and manipulates meanings from those who need to receive the information. This negative reception hasn’t stopped jargon that apes scientific language from being widely produced, by economists, academics, entrepreneurs, journalists… and probably even poets. Jargon has now become the devil’s corporate middle management’s language, making information harder to share and receive. It has seeped into almost every facet of a complex modern life, giving us new buzzwords not even a mother could love, with terms like self-actualization, monetize, incentivize, imagineering, onboarding, synergize, and the like. And there’s so much more where that came from.
When Jargon Becomes Dangerous
William D. Lutz talks about how jargon and doublespeak can often be carefully designed to cover up embarrassing or secret information. For example, a commercial airline that had a 727 crash, killing three passengers, was able to pass off the resulting three million dollar insurance profit on its books as “the involuntary conversion of a 727,” which was unlikely to be questioned by confused shareholders whose eyes would probably have glazed over from the cumbersome legal jargon.
Words aren’t equal just because they mean the same thing, especially when the stakes are high. It’s not simply a matter of knowing or not knowing the meaning of these words, or if they accurately describe facts, but what Sally McConnell-Ginet calls the conceptual or cultural baggage, the hidden background assumptions the language carries with them, the ‘ologies and ‘isms that pretend to be something they’re not. Most recently in politics, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings showed how deftly legal terminology can be wielded to avoid or plausibly deny or confuse clear facts. For example, denying knowledge of stolen documents is literally not a lie if you steadfastly assume they aren’t stolen, despite textual evidence to the contrary. The statement “I am not sure that all legal scholars refer to Roe as the settled law of the land” literally defers to a fact, the meaning of which is true. The conceptual baggage the statement carries with it, however, strongly suggests the writer does not disagree with the opinion.
Linguist Dwight Bolinger suggests that this is exactly the kind of heinous abuse of meaning that makes linguistic activism critical, shining a spotlight on these egregious cases where lies are hidden by omission or avoidance of the truth in jargon, euphemism, doublespeak, and other linguistic trickery.