Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Tower of Babel and Jargon

In Genesis, there is a story in which man tries to build a tower high enough to reach God. In punishment for such hubris, the Lord creates a proliferation of language among the peoples of Earth, such that they are divided and unable to muster such organizational capacity again (see wikipedia entry). I don't know if the story is literally true or intended allegorically, but it doesn't affect what I have to say.

Every professional field has their own language, consisting of various acronyms and words used with sometimes vastly different meanings than the norm. Economists talk of "declining marginal utility", the military has FUBAR and "five-by-five", businessman have "core competencies" and "shareholder value", engineering has "system-of-systems" and "modeling and simulation environment". Take each individual word from these terms, find its meaning, and you will find that it is at best tangentially related to the underlying meaning of the relevant term. Why is this? Why do these obscure terms exist? What drives the need to create technical jargon that often obfuscates as much as it elucidates? Why did I just use such big words?

I submit that it all goes back, conceptually, to the Tower of Babel. Apocryphal or not, it cannot be denied that there exists an enormous number of languages. Communication, and therefore cooperation, would be much easier for disparate peoples if all spoke a single language. With such manifest advantages, there must be a good reason why different tongues exist, beyond mere accident.

Language serves two purposes beyond its primary one of communication. The first is as a means of inclusion. Language is an identifier of what group an individual is a member. The second is the converse, as a means of exclusion. To define a group, there must be both members and outsiders, or else the distinction is meaningless. This directly relates to the biblical story, in that the abundance of languages is presented as a means of division and disorganization.

In every field, the use of jargon has two purposes. The first of these is communication. The use of specialized language allows often complicated ideas to be more efficiently presented than if each nuance was perfectly explained. This is the ostensible reason for jargon usage; because it facilitates communication among those who understand the terms. The problem with this is that often the meaning of technical jargon is at best imperfectly understood. There often don't exist clear, well-established meanings for technical terms. This can cause often painful miscommunication when two parties disagree on a terms meaning, especially when the difference is not explicitly addressed.

The second purpose, which I've been alluding to since the introduction, is to define membership in some group. Membership in some group helps to establish credibility to reinforce the trust of the hearer in the speaker's argument (see this column by Arnold Kling on trust cues). So while technical jargon can often seem to be irritating and unnecessary, it actually has an important role to play in both stating a position and in getting another person to believe in that position.