ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Science-Speak Goes Oulipo

Jargon, the cognoscenti's verbal equivalent of a secret handshake, is the bane of the science writer (SW). Confronted with the opacity of this linguistic shortcut, the mournful SW has two choices: ignore it or learn it; the former untenable, the latter distasteful, given the risk of becoming part of the problem. Hopefully, every nascent SW opts for the only honorable choice, on the grounds of knowing thine enemy. But the impossibility of really knowing jargon soon reveals itself. Irritatingly

Steve Bunk

Jargon, the cognoscenti's verbal equivalent of a secret handshake, is the bane of the science writer (SW). Confronted with the opacity of this linguistic shortcut, the mournful SW has two choices: ignore it or learn it; the former untenable, the latter distasteful, given the risk of becoming part of the problem. Hopefully, every nascent SW opts for the only honorable choice, on the grounds of knowing thine enemy. But the impossibility of really knowing jargon soon reveals itself. Irritatingly, this weird lexicon turns out to be an often-legitimate shorthand for layers of meaning, and the outsider can hope to penetrate no further than the conceptual surface.

That realization awakens the problem-solver in the SW, who mutters, "If I can't master the jargon, I'll change it." Tentatively at first, a few acronyms are eliminated and arcane words replaced with plain ones, in the eager expectation that this will contribute to clarity....

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?
ADVERTISEMENT