Engine Room column


Jargon – is it a good or a bad thing?

Illustration: Marika Maijala

When is the use of professional language in science and art justified? Ulla Tuomarla, CEO of Kone Foundation, discusses why jargon irritates many people – especially when humanities professionals use the terminology of their own fields.

Paula Eerola, President of the Academy of Finland, points out in the latest issue of Acatiimi magazine (5/2023, p. 27) that research cannot be judged by titles or summaries alone. From the point of view of academic freedom, the current discussion on the usefulness or uselessness of research projects on social media is, she says, questionable. I couldn’t agree more.

To prevent researchers from being harassed on social media, the Academy of Finland is increasingly instructing researchers to use language that, when describing their projects, is understandable by the general public, Eerola says.

In other words, academic jargon irritates people and feeds mockery towards research. This begs the question: When is it acceptable to use jargon? Are we giving in to populism if we stop using the terminology of our own fields in our project descriptions?

On social media, I have come across the argument that a grant application for Kone Foundation should be written in “the language of Kone Foundation” in order to be successful. I of course dispute the veracity of such a claim, although I can guess what is meant by it.

As a linguist, I am interested in our relationship with language and its use for special purposes. The target group for this type of language is made up of specialists in their respective fields. By using the terms and concepts of their discipline, a researcher aims to communicate their research topic as precisely as possible. At the same time, the assumed target audience for their message is also made up of other experts in the field.

This is the case, at least in a loosely defined sense, in the peer-review process of grant applications, for example. The benefit of using professional terminology is that the terms are well defined and have more precise meaning than more common language. Moreover, they often serve as theoretical anchors: certain concepts are linked to specific theories and theorists. Of course, not all people who encounter information about new grants are insiders from the field. As a researcher, I think this is normal and, to a certain extent, acceptable.

We certainly do not expect a medical researcher to use general language in a funding application that is being assessed by a medical expert. Although in some other contexts, I think we should expect all researchers to be able to communicate their research in language that is accessible to the general public.

Is the populist trend against research gaining ground, and is there growing and increasingly widespread irritation with scientific jargon?

My own impression is that there are differences between disciplines on this issue. It is perhaps easier for us to accept that a doctor or a nuclear physicist speaks in more complex terms, using the special terminology of their own field, than, say, a humanist. Why, though? Do we really think that medicine is a science that can only be communicated in a special language, using the difficult terms of the field? Research in the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, is supposed to be open to all, and anyone can comment on its relevance.

I looked through this year’s list of awardees from Kone Foundation’s general grant call, searching for jargon. The list contains 350 research topics, project titles, and ideas for artistic work. Did I find the “language of Kone Foundation”? Not really, nor did I find a large amount of specialised vocabulary. The ones I did find were so few that they can be listed: ecosystem-level synthesis of greenhouse gas fluxes, BIPOC actors, transcultural, segregation, emancipation, inclusivity, monogamy, ecofeminism, queer loneliness, figuration, and post-fossilization. Many of these are so common that I would perhaps no longer count them as specialised terms, as you often come across them even in newspaper articles.

What about art jargon? I was listening to the radio programme Kulttuuriykkönen (YLE, published on 29 Nov.), which was about the “inwardness” of contemporary dance. In the episode, the journalist remarks that contemporary dance is perceived as being difficult to approach. One of the things that annoys the general public, according to the journalist, is the fact that the choreography and programmes of dance performances often use jargon that is difficult to grasp, thus creating the impression of a “bubble of insiders”. Kirsi Monni, professor of choreography at the University of the Arts, asks why was it acceptable to use jargon in music criticism, for example, but not in contemporary dance. Is our general knowledge of dance so weak that a piece cannot be contextualised in the programme using the most relevant vocabulary?

On the other hand, Monni points out that all artists want to reach an audience and communicate with their art. However, reaching out to the general audience is not possible by using jargon that is difficult to decipher. On the other hand, if the audience for contemporary dance has become even smaller since the coronavirus pandemic, I would assume that there is a fairly significant proportion of dance enthusiasts and dancers in the audience, for whom, again, “spelling it out” may seem overly popularising and simplistic. One size rarely fits all…

What is the best solution, then?

I call for the acceptance of the use of jargon in the contexts in which it belongs. Including in the humanities! Let us adjust our attitude and not decide on the uselessness of funded projects on the basis of only having read the title. Researchers and artists, let us distinguish between different contexts, and let us practice speaking in different registers, alternating between general terms and academic terms. At best, both registers can, and should, appear in the same text.