Jargon is a type of scientific or technical slang, known in more intolerant circles as technobabble. One definition is "terminology that is characteristic of a particular subject, often specialized or technical." The Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, gives "technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group."
Jargon is similar to buzzwords, acronyms, and initialisms, but is sometimes harder to recognize than these other informal types of language. Acronyms and initialisms are easy to spot because of their capital letters, and most of us are aware that they should be defined. By the same token, buzzwords are easier to spot than jargon since they are more universally used and are not usually scientific or technical in nature. Jargon is especially hard to recognize by writers of scientific and technical material. Through frequent, daily use, the jargon used in technical fields becomes ingrained and functions as a shorthand for those in the know. Though useful to closely cooperating scientific and technical groups, jargon can slow down readers of scientific and technical literature, cause them to lose interest, and in the worst cases, mislead them.
Names of rigs and processes that are used by a specific group are not necessarily jargon, but they do need to be defined. If a word or phrase is not defined in scientific or general dictionaries or is being used to mean something other than the meanings given for it in dictionaries, it's probably jargon. Consider these examples:
For those in the computer field, these probably seem easy to understand.
There are many aspects to good writing, some of which we've addressed in earlier Word of the Week articles. Word usage level is one more aspect. The authors of The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage list four levels of word usage that should be considered by careful writers: formal, standard, informal, and substandard.1 These levels refer to the intended audience for the writing. NASA technical reports (such as NASA TM's, CP's, and CR's), journal articles, and society presentations fall into the formal category, which is "language used in government, legal, scholarly, and other similarly 'official' contexts; it often uses technical terms and stylized forms of expression."1 Some NASA publications (such as brochures and other materials intended to make the public aware of NASA's mission and accomplishments) aim to reach a standard readership as well, which "is characteristic of educated people."1
We want as much of our writing as possible to be useful to people outside our narrow fields of expertise--those who might want to partner with us and those who might be able to contribute to positive public opinion. Although most of our technical reports are not intended for wide, nonscientific readership, consider that some jargon may be specific to just one research group at Lewis, to just Lewis, or to just NASA. In addition, avoiding jargon helps interested researchers whose first language is not English.
Some examples of teenage slang, or jargon, follow. Reading them may help illustrate the effect that jargon can have on a reader.
Translated into more formal and universally understood writing, these sentences read:
Another type of jargon evolves from a shortening of an adjective-noun combination. For example, a two-tiered beam or a honeycomb-styled plate might eventually become a two-tier or a honeycomb. Even someone in a closely allied field might not understand, and the literal interpretations of these two phrases are far from the reality. If you must use jargon, at least define it after the first use in each document.
The authors of The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage caution that "jargon may be appropriate in technical or specialized writing, where it is useful in conveying specific shared meanings, but rarely in writing published for more general audiences . . . experts who use jargon, whether out of carelessness or a desire to impress, will fail to communicate and lose their readers."1
1The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage. A.J. Sutcliffe, ed., HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, 1994.
Responsible NASA Official: Natalie L. Henrich,
Glenn Technical Publications Manager
Web Curator: Caroline A. Rist (Wyle)
Last updated: 4/22/2011