In praise of academic jargon



I like coffee

I mean – I REALLY like coffee. I don’t smoke any more and rarely drink. Caffeine is the only vice I have left. People tell me all the time that it’s unhealthy, but as far as I’m concerned you can tear the coffee from my cold dead hands.

I grew up in a lower middle class family of committed tea drinkers. ‘Coffee’ meant a powdered concoction called ‘International Roast’ which is, I think, the sweepings from the coffee house floor. If you got the temperature of the water just right you would sometimes get a slight froth on the surface of your hot beverage. I learned later that this froth was meant to mimic the ‘crema’ at the top of an espresso. I’m not sure what chemical means were used to achieve this faux crema, but I suspect it had something to do with detergent.

When my family wanted to impress a guest they would roll out the ‘Moccona’. This came in a fancy jar and was not a powder, but actual granules. There were glossy ads on TV for Moccona (still are actually) so my mother thought it was Classy. It tasted marginally better that poor old International Roast and until I went to university it was my gold standard in the coffee department.

My middle class university friends introduced me to what we in Australia call a ‘coffee plunger’ (what everyone else in the world calls a ‘coffee press’). Plunger coffee was a revelation. It was almost as easy to make as instant coffee and did not cause stomach aches. I abandoned instant coffee and never looked back. Plunger coffee was just BETTER and allowed more scope for experimentation. I learned that the plunger coffee could be improved by keeping the ground coffee in the fridge or, better still, by buying beans whole and grinding them myself.

I went to university in the 1990s and in that decade the food culture in the city of Melbourne blossomed. Waves of migrants brought their coffee with them and I, like many others, happily explored this strange new caffeinated world. My coffee repertoire expanded further: strong Turkish coffee, Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, tiny aromatic egg cups of spiced Saudi Arabian brew and, of course, the Italian espresso. Each and every one has a special place in my heart.

I’ve learned special words to use when ordering coffee, the most recent one being ‘ristretto’: the first, sweetest tasting half of a shot of espresso. These ‘coffee jargon’ words are useful if you want your coffee to taste exactly the way you like it.

For example, I usually don’t want a strong coffee in the afternoon. At the cafe I used to say “Can I have a half strength shot topped up with water and a splash of skim milk?” and then spend the next couple of minutes answering questions from the barista – how much water? How much milk? Perhaps just a full shot in a bigger cup? Now I just order a ristretto, which is the bit of the coffee I actually want to drink. With a bit of coffee jargon under my belt life got just a little bit simpler.

By now you are probably wondering why I am banging on about coffee, but bear with me because there’s similarities between coffee jargon and academic jargon.

Both involve insider language which takes specialised knowledge, time and experience to understand. Just as using coffee jargon can make you sound like a coffee snob at your old tea drinking grandmother’s house, academic jargon is all about the context. It’s scary easy to over do it and look like a novice just pretending to understand the academic grown ups.

There’s no doubt that academic jargon makes text harder to read and will limit your audience. Some argue that using academic jargon is a way of reinforcing class boundaries and creating an unhealthy distance from ‘ordinary people’. But we need this academic jargon because it makes our texts simultaneously concise and dense with meaning.

For instance, instead of saying:

“Academic jargon is created when we talk to each other about difficult topics and want to create a shared understanding using less words. We therefore create shorter words as ‘placeholders’. Over time, with use, these words become more commonly known and their meaning becomes more ‘stable’. For example, academic teachers share them with students. Books use the terms and spread them from person to person and across national boundaries. The words are used in speech in special places – like classrooms – where people can seek and get clarification on the developing collective meaning of the terms. Gradually, incrementally, the circle of people who understand and can use the shared terms grows”

I could merely say this:

“Academic jargon is  insider language created through a range of discursive practices amongst specialists.”

See? Much easier! If you know what discursive practices are of course.

Each piece of academic jargon is actually a complex bundle of ideas from which the knowlegeable reader can unpack the relevant bit of meaning in relation to the rest of the sentence.

To complicate matters, academic disciplines do jargon in a way that, strangely, reflects they way they make knowledge. Scientists have short names for processes and compounds and formulas which express the way parts of the natural world relate to each other. Artists use ordinary words like ‘organic’, ‘texture’ and ‘tone’, but these words change their meaning and become poetic, if in a slightly slippery way. Business academics have lots of compound terms that ‘stick’ ideas together and make new ones, like ‘behavioural economics’.

Academics need to make new kinds of jargon all the time or our texts would be extraordinarily long and more ambiguous than they need to be. We’d be constantly asking each other the academic equivalent of ‘how much water? and ‘how much milk?’. This can make academic texts hard to ‘translate’ into plain language. Translation always involves a shift in meaning. A ristretto is not a half shot topped up with water and a splash of milk – it’s a completely different drink.

Recently, on her blog, Pat Thomson pointed out that talking to the ordinary person through ‘engaging with the media’ is not as simple a task as it sounds. She’s so right. Unpacking academic jargon and explaining the ideas in ‘plain language that anyone can understand’ is extremely labourious – and sometimes dangerously reductive. As much as I’m a fan of the three minute thesis, helping students make these scripts is a painful process as they are acutely aware of how much meaning gets lost.

Academic jargon is wonderful, but, like good coffee, it is an acquired taste. Sometimes plain language is good enough to get the heart started. I travel a lot as you will know if you follow me on Instagram. Occasionally I encounter International Roast in the coffee rooms of academia and I always greet it like an old friend. My academic host will invariably apologise for not having a ‘proper’ coffee machine, but I don’t mind. It’s unpretentious stuff which brings back childhood memories and I’m more or less immune to its chemical charms. But, given the choice, I will always drink a ‘real coffee’ when I’m at home because, well – it’s just better.

What about you? Do you find academic jargon too confusing and pretentious? Or do you relish it?