In defence of jargon

It might be infuriating but it also has its uses.

by Andre Spicer

Anyone who tried to get their head around the financial crisis of 2008 soon found themselves drowning in an alphabet soup of BEITs, CDOs, CDCs, ETFs and MBS. When British novelist John Lanchester wrote about this world he commented that “you are left wondering whether somebody is trying to con you, or to obfuscate and blather so that you can’t tell what’s being talked about”. He wasn’t wrong.

One recent study shows how people are more likely to use jargon when they feel insecure. Led by psychologist Zachariah Brown, it shows how some groups use jargon specifically to make up for having a low social status.

In one experiment, they looked at 64,000 dissertations from hundreds of universities in the US and found that those written by students from lower-status institutions used more jargon. In another part of the study, they asked participants to pick a pitch for a start-up. When people were put into a lower-status position, they found they were more likely to pick jargon-laden pitches. In a range of other settings they noticed that when people found themselves in a low-status position, they were significantly more likely to reach for jargon.

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