JOHANNA MAYER: In the early '90s a local branch of Veterans Affairs sent out a letter. It was a routine thing, explaining how to collect veterans benefits. And when the letter went out, the phones started ringing. Call after call, hours upon hours of customer service, with frustrated veterans on the line. People who didn't know what it meant to furnish medical evidence, or what the Privacy Act and law 38 U.S.C. 201 (c)(1) had to do with them, a bunch of very confused people just trying to get their benefits. The VA estimates that they got about 1,200 phone calls about this one letter.
But then the next year, the VA tried something different. They sent the letter out again, and this time they got just 200 calls. The difference between those two letters? Jargon, or lack of. They revised the letter, broken into sections, cut out a bunch of minute details. "Furnish medical evidence" became "send us a medical report from your doctor or clinic. " They made it clear, plain. The VA estimates that if every regional VA Office adopted the changes for this one letter, they'd save more than $40,000 per year.
JOE KIMBLE: Now multiply that by every letter, every flyer, every notice, every website, every bulletin that goes out, the public information that we all get every day. And you can start to see how this adds up.
JOHANNA MAYER: Joe Kimble. He's a plain language advocate.
JOE KIMBLE: Poor communication is the great hidden cost of carrying on business and government.
JOHANNA MAYER: Jargon. It comes from the old French "jargon" for the inarticulate utterance of birds. Prattle. Twitter. Chatter. Basically, unintelligible noises. And if you look at dictionaries, one definition of jargon is just "specialized words or phrases used by a group of people," say, mechanical engineers or business consultants. That's the neutral, less judgy definition. But usually jargon has got a negative connotation, too. It's not just specialized words. It's words that are hard to understand, pretentious.
My personal jargon pet peeve is the word "problematic." It's a word that started in academic jargon, and we all learned to use it in college. And now, instead of saying what we really mean, like, that's racist, or that's unfair, we say, that's problematic. Which maybe makes you sound smart or signals that you're woke, but it isn't really saying anything. And yet, I catch myself using this word not infrequently, because jargon is inescapable.
JAFAR HUSSAIN: Hi, my name is Jafar Hussain. I'm a radiology resident in Philadelphia. I'm calling about the word "recrudescence." It's a word I've seen sprinkled throughout radiology terminology to define the recurrence of a specific abnormal pathologic state of being. But I see it used more than a regular post-graduate level of vocabulary, like "recurrent." So is there a historical basis for these sorts of $10-plus words within medicine, when another word would do just fine?
JOHANNA MAYER: Why not just say recurrence or relapse? Why would you choose recrudescence, a word that I cannot spell and would not understand if a doctor said it to me. Me and Jafar, we're not the only two people out there irked by this. I don't think I've met anybody who is actively pro-jargon. We all seem to hate it. So why do we use it? And is there anything actually good about it?
From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer. Today we're talking about recrudescence and jargon and the activists dedicated to getting rid of it.
If you're ever bored at work, I have a fun website to recommend, plainlanguage.gov, run by the Plain Language Action and Information Network. OK, PLAIN. They're sort of a vigilante, unfunded government group that makes it their mission to translate government communications into regular old plain language. They offer plain trainings, checklists to see if your documents and pages are plain enough, links to thesauruses, in case your brain is so full of fancy jargon, you can't even remember what basic words sound like.
And you can tell the PLAIN people were more than a little fed up when they made this website. Listen to this. "Readers see such dressing up of the truth. If you want to hide the truth, don't tell a categorical inaccuracy, a counterfactual proposition, an inoperative statement, a strategic misrepresentation, or a terminological inexactitude. Simply tell a lie."
You mostly find jargon in professional groups, corporate jargon, medical jargon, and, of course, government jargon. If you think government paperwork is bad these days, you should have seen the '40s. Multiple forms asking the same questions, bunch of duplicated information, just an overall pain in the ass for both the people and the government. It was clear we needed to communicate better. So Congress passed something called the Federal Reports Act, which was basically meant to cut back on paperwork. It only kind of worked, but it was really the start of the plain language movement in the US.
And it was actually a Congressman who coined the term gobbledygook. His name was Maury Maverick, and listen to this memo he wrote to his colleagues. Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For Lord's sake, be short and say what you're talking about. Anyone using the words "activation" and "implementation" will be shot. People really hate jargon.
So government was aware of the problem. And over the decades there were attempts to rein it in with laws and executive orders. But the scourge of jargon did not go away. And jargon is not just a government issue. There's a report from a UK doctors association, urging doctors to please speak clearly and make sure patients understand what you're saying, because it really matters. Like, the report mentions this one patient who didn't get a chest X-ray because he was too embarrassed to ask what radiology meant. If you can't understand your doctor, or, say, your mortgage lender, or the letter from Veterans Affairs, that's a problem.
JOE KIMBLE: Demand to understand. If you don't understand some piece of information that you're getting from the government or from a business, let them know about it.
JOHANNA MAYER: Joe Kimble again. He's been a plain language advocate for decades. And he works in a notoriously jargon-heavy field. He's a lawyer.
JOE KIMBLE: Legalese has brought centuries of, literally, centuries of ridicule on our profession, my profession. And I would like to do something about it. And I've been trying to do something about it for a long time.
JOHANNA MAYER: Law is actually one of the few areas where I'm a bit more sympathetic about jargon. Like, you just have to be super specific, highly accurate. And if you had to rewrite every instance of, say, "appeal" with "when the losing party in a trial asks for a higher court to review that decision and decide whether it's correct," legal documents would be even longer.
On the other hand, the law, pretty important, and affects all of us in big ways. And if legal documents are so full of jargon that we just don't understand what we're signing, that's a problem.
JOE KIMBLE: Here's the thing. It doesn't need to be that way. And lawyers have to stop thinking that it must be that way. There are two ingredients to make a change. One is the will to do it, overcoming inertia, and the other is the skill to do it.
JOHANNA MAYER: Joe has written several books on jargon and legalese and how to sift through it. And he's not just writing for adults. He has a children's book, too, called Mr. Mouthful Learns His Lesson, about a fancy-talking guy nobody can understand.
JOE KIMBLE: He has a cane. He has a gold-plated cane and a big top hat, which he, of course, calls his "chapeau" rather than his hat. He calls his cane a "strolling companion" or a "walking piece. "
JOHANNA MAYER: Like when a kid comes barreling down the street on his bike, instead of yelling, "watch out," Mr. Mouthful says, "Please be advised. You proceed at too rapid a speed. You should engage your brakes." The kid crashes into a wall. But in the end, when he's faced with the true emergency, a kid who can't swim, who's fallen into a river, Mr. Mouthful cuts right to the chase and yells, simply, "Help" Plain talk to the rescue.
When I hear bits of jargon from a group that I'm not a part of, it's like my synapses just aren't connecting or something, like my brain has to jump over three hurdles and make two left turns before arriving at whatever I need to do. On the other hand, concrete words, it is like a one-way ticket straight to action.
DAVID LIPSCOMB: When I say the word "kick," like everybody in your audience right now actually experiences kicking in some way in their brain.
JOHANNA MAYER: David Lipscomb. He's not a cognitive psychologist, but a writing professor who uses cognitive psychology in his teaching. He's referring to a study that was done on action words.
DAVID LIPSCOMB: So what I mean by that is that the word "kick" activates the sensory motor areas of your brain. So the motor area is involved in actually moving your foot. It's not the same thing as actually kicking, but your brain comes alive in a way that it doesn't if, you know, I say the word "movement."
JOHANNA MAYER: We didn't find any studies looking at how jargon stimulates the brain or doesn't. So we can't actually make any comparisons here. I'm sure it would depend on the specific jargon word and how familiar a person was with it. But my problem with a lot of jargon is that it's just unnecessarily abstract. Not all of it, but words "problematic," or business buzzwords like "innovate," "engage," or "leverage." They just take a couple of steps away from the concrete world into a foggier place. And a few studies have found that we remember concrete words better than abstract ones, which to me just makes intuitive sense.
David is a member of the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit that issues these kind of report cards to federal agencies. And, yeah, there are some agencies that basically flunk every year.
DAVID LIPSCOMB: I'm afraid so. That is true. And I will have to call out the Department of Transportation on that one.
JOHANNA MAYER: The Transportation Department isn't the only one flailing. Department of Homeland Security got a C-plus in 2019 and a D the year before. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ds, three years in a row. Health and Human Services, on the other hand, killing it, solid A in 2020. Those are all grades for writing quality. Each organization also gets a second grade.
DAVID LIPSCOMB: The first time since 2015 we had 3/4 of our agencies earned an A on what we call, a kind of jargon, organizational compliance, which is-- yeah, we should probably change that.
JOHANNA MAYER: Organizational compliance, basically just means, how well they're following the Plain Writing Act.
DAVID LIPSCOMB: One of the interesting things is, the plain language community has its own jargon. And if I were talking to somebody within academia or within the plain language community, I would talk about nominalizations and things like that, which is, no, itself is a bit of jargon.
JOHANNA MAYER: Nominalization. It means turning a verb into a noun, like "kick" into movement. So instead of saying "she kicked the ball," something like, "she created movement against the ball." "Nominalization" is a word that I will probably never use again after this episode. But plain language activists use it all the time. And even for a plain language devotees, it's a useful shorthand.
SPEAKER 3: It'd be tiring to spell it out in plain language every single time.
JOHANNA MAYER: And that's something every single person I talked to for this story said. Jargon is not inherently bad. Sometimes as our technology and knowledge become more refined, we need more refined language to describe it. Because it all depends on who you're talking to.
With jargon you can pack a ton of information into a quick phrase. Like, remember in March 2020, when we all learned what it meant to "flatten the curve?" And that became part of public messaging around COVID, stay home to flatten the curve. Rolls off the tongue a lot more easily than "stay home to prevent spread and keep the number of hospitalizations below capacity so that the staff don't become overwhelmed and be forced to make hard choices about who to treat." That is a very useful piece of jargon.
So to our listener Jafar and his question about "recrudescence."
JAFAR HUSSAIN: Is there a historical basis for these sorts of $10-plus words within medicine when another word would do just fine?
JOHANNA MAYER: Part of it could be that radiologists talking to radiologists, they just need shorthands. Or it could be that they're trying to sound smart, or impressive, or exclusive, trying to signal, "I'm part of this group. I speak this language, and you don't."
But it's not always ill-intentioned. Sometimes it's about trying to reclaim a little bit of power, make your own way through a tricky workplace. One study showed that people who felt like they were at the bottom of the heap tended to use more jargon. And I catch myself doing this sometimes. If I'm feeling a little insecure, I'll reach for something that makes me seem like I know what I'm talking about, like, I can speak the same language as my bosses.
So as much as we all hate jargon, it's not intrinsically good or bad. It's about how you use it, who you use it with, and why. A lawyer talking to another lawyer about contract details, that's one thing. But a lawyer talking to a client about contract details, or a doctor talking to a patient, very different story. But even when you're talking to someone else in your field, jargon can still cause problems.
ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ GARCIA: I really like the language and the many uses that become these words.
JOHANNA MAYER: Alejandro Martinez Garcia. He's a researcher at the National Research Council in Italy. And he and a colleague did a study looking at the language researchers used to talk about caves.
ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ GARCIA: And since the beginning of my career, I've had this love and hate relationship with the words that people used to communicate their research. Because it's a field that is very proud to coin new terms, and some of them are ridiculously, ridiculously specialized now.
JOHANNA MAYER: There is a lot of jargon in cave research, like, a lot, because a bunch of different fields come together in the cave. There's anthropologists, there's geologists, ecologists, each bringing their own set of jargon.
ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ GARCIA: It's a mess, actually, of words.
JOHANNA MAYER: Alejandro decided to look at citations. When you're a scientist, citations are a really big deal. The more your study gets cited by other studies, the more important your study is considered to be. And Alejandro wondered, how does jargon affect citations? I could see this going a couple of different ways. On the one hand, if you use a lot of jargon in your paper, you sound like an expert. Maybe people will be impressed and cite your paper more. On the other hand, the jargon can make your paper confusing and hard to read, and people will cite it less. So Alejandro and his team rounded up over 20,000 papers from the field and combed through them for jargon. And they found that more jargon meant fewer citations. Under the most cited papers in the bunch, fewer than 1% of the words were jargon.
ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ GARCIA: What we actually wanted to do is bring up all the discussion. Like maybe we should try to use a more simple language, so we can actually address deeper questions. Because I have the impression that if we focus our discussion on the words, we need to achieve the point, which is nature itself.
JOHANNA MAYER: Jargon, no question, has gone too far. In government, in academia, and business, pretty much nobody is disputing that. But scrolling through plainlanguage.gov, I got super self-conscious looking at it. Like, they have this blacklist of words, and a lot of them make sense. "Utilize," "remuneration," "implement." They suggest "use," "pay," and "carry out" instead. Those words work just as well in most cases, and they don't sound fancy.
But others seem pretty OK to me, like "advise," that's on the blacklist. You're supposed to say "recommend" or "tell" instead. Also, "desire," they want you to say "want" or "wish." I wouldn't really call "desire" or "advise" $10 words, at most, maybe like $6 words.
So it's a slippery slope when it comes to plain language. You start with the noble goal, to make language clear so people can understand. But soon you've gone from helpful edits to full-blown language policing. You are on a holy mission to eradicate jargon. You want to find people $10 for every $10-word, $20 for every "utilize," $500 for every "leverage," $5,000 for every "problematic."
And so we need to ask, have the PLAIN people gone too far? Well after dedicating a significant amount of mental bandwidth to interrogating this question, I've concluded that the culture changes implemented by the PLAIN people have both moved the needle in redundancy elimination and offered relevant learnings that are scalable and aligned with my value system.
For the aforementioned reasons, I, therefore, support a full pivot to plain language. And I look forward to utilizing PLAIN principles for years to come. AKA, nah, they haven't gone too far.
Thanks again to Jafar for calling in and asking about recrudescence and $10 words. If you have a question about a word or phrase, leave us a voicemail. The number is 929-499-WORD or 929-499-9673. This episode was produced by me and our Senior Producer and Editor,
ELAH FEDER: Me, Elah Feder.
JOHANNA MAYER: Our composer is
DANIEL PETERSCHMIDT: Me, Daniel Peterschmidt.
JOHANNA MAYER: Special Thanks to Bill Lutz, Jana Goldman, and especially Karen Schriver for background information on the plain language movement. We had fact-checking help from Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oerdelt is our Chief Content Officer. And recently she hired a personal trainer, and she can tell she is just in great hands.
JOE KIMBLE: He has a cane, he has a gold-plated cane, and a big top hat and which he, of course, calls it his "chapeau."
JOHANNA MAYER: See you in three weeks.