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February 5, 2016 / jpschimel

Jargon in the Natural Sciences vs. the Social Sciences and Humanities: A Hypothesis.

For decades, natural scientists have been castigated for talking in jargon. But all fields have their own technical terms that to others are “jargon.” So why do scientists catch so much flack over it? Several of my graduate students recently were taking an interdisciplinary seminar class and were criticized by social science and humanities students for using jargon—but those criticisms were leveled in language my students didn’t understand. Those other students were using language just as deeply “jargonish” yet they had a hard time perceiving it that way. Why?, I wondered.

Certainly, this was partially a classic “Curse of Knowledge” problem: we know what we know, and it’s hard to realize that others don’t. That is what launched the discussion—my students used language that was so intuitive for them, they didn’t realize their words would be jargon to others. But I think the disciplinary jargon divide might also have roots in how our disciplines create technical terms. My distinction between “technical term” and “jargon” (from Writing Science, pg. 147) is:


  • A term that refers to a schema the reader does not hold.
  • A term where there is an adequate plain language equivalent

Technical term:

  • A term that refers to a schema the reader does
  • A term where either there is no plain language equivalent, or where using it would be confusing.

In the natural sciences, we often create new terms, but when we do, we have historically reached for Latin and Greek to provide roots for those terms:


When we use such terms, no one is ever going to mistake those for “plain language.” When a doctor told me “You have a defect in the cartilage of your lateral patellar facet” there was no mistaking that this was doctor-speak. Scientists deliberately developed the tradition of relying on Latin and Greek so that our terminology would be the same across languages and so when the orthopedist explained why my knee hurt it would be the same whether we were discussing “my knee,” “mon genou,” or “mi rodilla.”

But my impression is that scholars in the Social Sciences and the Humanities more commonly develop technical concepts, not by borrowing from Latin or Greek, but from English. Thus, it may be less likely that even the person using the word will recognize that it may be “jargon.” Consider a statement like:

“Parentheticals increase the spatial and textile volume of your prose, opening the breathing space for the reader and enlarging the referential sphere of your engagement with the material”1

 Here every single term draws from common English, but many have a somewhat different meaning in English and in “Humanities.” What is the “textile volume of prose” or the “referential sphere”?

Natural scientists certainly face this same problem—and we have some doozies. Think about the misunderstanding of the word “theory.” Many non-scientists use the word as anywhere from a reasonable suggestion to a complete wild-assed guess. None of the common uses are anywhere remotely near how it is used within the deep conservatism of Philosophy of Science: an idea that has stood up over decades to every sling and arrow of outrageous testing. Thus, a biologist accepts the “Theory of Evolution” as established fact that, only for lack of a time machine to go back and specifically observe past history, is not called a “Law” up there with “Newton’s Laws.” Yet a creationist in Kansas can look at the “Theory of Evolution” and argue, “It’s only a theory!”

When fields develop technical terms by borrowing words from common language, it may make them more immediately tractable and offer easier engagement—“invasive species” is fairly intuitive, but carries meaning that may mislead a new reader to its ecological nuances. It may also make it more difficult for someone to separate the common word from their field-specific technical term.

So back to the seminar my students were talking about. Because social scientists and humanists often borrow their discipline-speak terms from English, they may have a harder time recognizing that they are actually being just as jargon-laden as when the doctor told me about my patellar facet.


1 Hayot, E. The Elements of Academic Style: writing for the humanities. Columbia University Press. Pg. 180.
Please note—I really admire Hayot’s book. Some sections are inspired, notably Chapter 3 “Eight Strategies for Getting Writing Done,” which is the best I have ever read on the subject and by itself justifies buying the book. In fact, his discussion in that chapter of “virtuous procrastination” was probably worth the $20. But Hayot is a humanist writing for humanists—his language reflects that.


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