Jangling Jargon

Whilst searching for a displacement activity yesterday (to postpone writing this blog), I was driven to read my University of Washington alumni bulletin.  Most of the time it lets me know what the football team is doing, but lo, this issue featured an article about the English department.

I nearly derailed at the headline: “Composition Research Team Collaborates to Better Understand Student Writing,” and, no doubt, to boldly go where no man has gone before.  But who among us has not split an infinitive?  I plunged in.  It seems a team of graduate students has decided to study freshman comp inmates to see whether they are applying what they learn about writing to other classes–a logical if depressing subject for research.  Their first chore was “to determine a methodology for finding themes and patterns in the data to better understand how … conversations were preparing students to make connections that lead to knowledge transfer.”  Apparently “the nature of the collaborative exchange … plays an important role in getting students to a point where they are comfortable making connections that are nuanced and complex.”  I gave up.  Why does the jargon of writing teachers have to be as ugly and bloodless as a five-day-old corpse?

My thoughts drifted to jargon–that is, to professional dialects like the one I had just sampled.  Fiction writers make a decision early on as to how they’re going to present spoken language.  Very few these days spell regional dialects phonetically, but most find a way to suggest the patterns of local speech.  Margaret Maron, for instance, has a great ear and conveys the speakers’ North Carolina usage unobtrusively and effectively.  Professional jargon is a more difficult problem.

Cops should sound like cops and doctors like doctors, but all of us dread writing the scene in which the medical examiner tells the detective what killed the victim.  The reader wallows in the gabble of two difference professions.  Since most readers aren’t fluent in either coptalk or medicalese, how much jargon should a writer use?  The logical answer is as much as it takes.  I enjoy Kathy Reichs’s novels when I’m feeling bloodthirsty, but there’s a point in almost all of them where the eager reader bogs down in a swamp of pathology.  Sometimes the swamp is two pages deep.  At the end of it, the reader says, “Oh, she didn’t drown.  He whopped her upside the head,” and either forges on or throws the book at the wall.

Police jargon and medical jargon aren’t the only professional dialects to show up in mysteries.  Legalese looms large in courtroom dramas for obvious reasons.  Dick Francis, whom I read compulsively, used the lingo associated with horse racing, but a great many of his books also use the language of other professions effectively–pilot talk, the jargon of banking, even wine selling.

What are the justifications for using jargon at all?  It exists so the pros can exchange precise information economically.  It’s a badge of membership, proof that the speaker is a doctor or a cop.  It also adds an illusion of realism to the story.  It says “this could really happen.”  Less respectably, it’s a slap in the face to non-professionals, in this case readers, to keep them from asking embarrassing questions like “isn’t that a gross coincidence?”

As a mystery reader, I prefer writers who keep the jargon to a minimum.  As a mystery writer, I envy science fiction writers their subversive inventiveness.  A recent article in Yahoo News pointed out that the term “space shuttle” was first used in an episode of Star Trek and that NASA as well as the media then adopted it to describe the vehicle that carries crew and supplies to the orbital space station.  Nor is “shuttle” the only example of professionals mining science fiction for new jargon.  What a pity we can’t invent our own technobabble for mysteries.


4 Responses

  1. I’m with you about technobabble, Sheila. And the few mystery bits of it I can think of don’t have much place in a story–whodunnit, for instance. (I saw the other day that Word wanted to spell it whodunit, but I just couldn’t.) Still, a modicum of the vocabulary of whatever the people in the book would actually use is just about necessary. In The Nine Tailors, it’s the jargon of bell ringing, which is gobbledygook to me, but absolutely essential to that story. In Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, it’s all about monastic life and Gregorian chant. I have some music in all my books, too, and try to use ordinary words whenever I can. But there are times when only the right word fits. I also referred to the narthex of a church in my new one. Calling that space behind the nave (which I didn’t call the nave) the vestibule just doesn’t work in the head of the widow of a minister. She’d think narthex.

    I love what Margaret Maron does with the vowels of her character’s speech. It’s absolutely right. That’s not jargon. It’s a great ear.

    • You’re absolutely right about the minister’s wife thinking narthex.  I’m interested in church history (all churches), and I’ve noticed that each one has its own jargon.  Who says ‘christened’ and who says ‘baptized,’ for instance.  The writer had darned well better get it right.


  2. Speaking of jargon and technobabble, take a look at Moby Dick and pages filled with detail. I expect Melville’s novel would be reduced to one hundred pages by today’s editor. And yet I love the book. As I do The Nine Taylors, yes, one of my favorites, I love all that description. The same goes for Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and the bellringing how to and how done in that amazing cathedral. I guess it all depends on the expertise of the writer whether we can call the myriad details jargon or gobbledygook.

    • Yes, when it’s done well, as it is in The Nine Taylors, jargon can be great stuff. I’m a fan of Patrick O’Brien–wonderful nautical language. Sheila

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