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Friday, 22 February 2008

kicking dead whales down the beach

This post had it beginnings in the discussions following my earlier post on clobbering the language, "The Language is Under Siege". Jargon was a little outside my self-imposed terms of reference, but is definitely worth a word or two.

The word jargon derives from Middle English and Middle French words for twittering, the chattering of birds.
It has two main definitions: either it is a specialised language used within a clearly defined profession, group or culture, especially when the words are not understood by those outside the group (though there are exceptions to this last, which I will note as I come to them); or it is a pretentious or meaningless language. All that follows has to do with the first definition - though it may not always seem so!

Within each user group the jargon has a particular function and/or effect. Here are some examples:-

Trade and Professional Groups use jargon to improve communication. It develops as shorthand expressions for specialised and/or technical concepts, and at its best achieves a clarity and precision which a long description would find hard to match. A good example would be critical path, meaning a sequence of operations in which an error in any one will prove fatal for the whole. The medical and legal professions are well known for their use of jargon. For health workers it eliminates the need for long descriptions, reduces misunderstandings and crosses normal language barriers. Here, though, it is possible to find many of the best examples of jargon used for deliberate non-communication. A doctor may tell his nurse, not wanting to increase your anxiety with bad news, that you have a "bilateral perorbital haematoma", though why you should not be privy to the fact that you have a black eye is hard to fathom. True, the use of medical jargon to obfuscate belongs more to the medics of the past than those of the present day, but no doubt it still does occur, and anyway, it makes a good example. Here, though, is a technical specification not intended to obfuscate, but unless you are an initiate, I bet it does! You find such specifications in advertisements and user guides, so they are meant for the likes of you and me. To a person trained in electronics, though, each word of jargon would be worth a page or more of description.

The HK 980 is a traditional integrated amplifier with 80W per channel while the flagship HK 990 (pictured) has 2x 150W amplifier, balanced XLR inputs and outputs, coaxial and optical digital inputs, MM and MC phono inputs, USB connectivity, Real-Time Linear Smoothing Technology (RLS IV), dual subwoofer outputs, 2.2-channel EzSet/EQ room optimisation and a High-resolution Synchronisation Link.

An interesting special case is that of airspeak or air traffic control English. After W.W.II. the airline countries of the world decided that henceforth all commercial flying would be conducted using a restricted form of English. It is concise and unambiguous, using no word that sounds like another or has a similar meaning. The rules allow only short episodes of speech between opportunities for the other participant to talk-back. Frequent check-backs are also built into the system to ensure that what is heard is what was said. No words from outside the code may be used and no other subject matter broached. The conversations are monitored and the rules strictly enforced. All pilots are trained in the airspeak before being allowed to fly commercially.

A fragment of airspeak.
control BA six zero six Alfa: squawk ident.
pilot Identing, BA six zero six Alfa.
(ident = identify, identing = identifying, squawk = reveal, make known)

Certain activities acquire their own jargon, often filching them from trade or professional groups. Computer users have generated more jargon than their screens have pixels. Some very familiar ones are: random access memory, read only memory, low-level language and virtual memory, but what about: backwards compatible change (meaning a hardware or software revision that allows older versions to run without crashes or error messages); backward compatibility (meaning the reverse of the above: crashes will occur); blogosphere, (the totality of all the blogs); misbug (an unintended characteristic of a program that logically should have been a bug, but in fact has proved to be a desirable feature); and parent message (meaning whatever it is that a follow-up follows up)? And then what about liveware and bioware? Both of these are facetious references to people - usually the computer user. There are literally hundreds more, but for the moment I will confine myself to two that I find amusing: ambimouseterous (derived from ambidextrous and meaning "able to use the mouse with either hand" - I was going to include this one in my "affronts to the language" category, but, wholly against my better judgement, I rather like it!); and quadruple bucky (denoting the use of four shift keys together whilst typing a fifth - often with the nose! - not much used now, as modern programming has rendered it obsolete).

Because of the computer's ubiquity and importance, many examples of its jargon have found their way into common usage (e.g. "Let me have your input on this." and a bottom-up approach), however, any particularly useful phrase capable of wide applicability, is liable to make it into common parlance no matter from which walk of life it derives.

Another use for jargon is as a badge denoting membership of a group. As such, its use is to consolidate group identity. The professions have been known to use their jargon to bestow an aura of authority and/or "knowingness". Others may use it simply to impress or to keep non-members firmly on the outside - all powerful effects of jargon used for obfuscation. Not just the professions, though: school children, secret societies, religions and others have all used it to keep the outsider at bay.

A former piece of jargon that has made its way into general use and best describes such jargon is Bullshit - unless you prefer the twittering of birds, that is.

Jargon which becomes highly fashionable within the group (Buzz-words) appears to have as its main function the creation of an air of excitement or a sense of being at the cutting edge (the most advanced or ambitious stage of an activity), no less! Power-dressing (a formal style of dressing as a sign of status by women) would belong to this group

The school playground. is a rich source of jargon used to confer membership and to reinforce group identity. If a child cannot talk the playground talk he or she will miss out on the pecking order which children establish for themselves. Cool (O.K., fashionable), fit (of a girl: sexy, fanciable), minge and mingey (noun and adjective: the opposite of fit - from the taboo word for a woman's genitals) and retard (a stupid person) have all been part of the school jargon in my area recently, some very briefly, for it is often very local and very short-lived. Indeed, fit recently provided a splendid illustration of how this can work. Its use was very prevalent among the youngsters at the local schools, but then, almost overnight it dropped out of the vocabulary. A few weeks later one of the King brothers in Emmerdale was using it in the bedworthy sense.

At this point I am becoming conscious of the fact that this blog is ostensibly dedicated to poetry and the visual arts, so I thought maybe I should include something from those areas. That being so, I cannot resist giving you a few scraps from Henry Reed's Judging Distances. It is from his Lessons of War. In this poem he is having some fun with military jargon - and much else.

.......................................but at least you know
How to report on a landscape: the central sector;
The right of arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
And at least you know

That maps are of time, not place....................

The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
And how far away would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.

But what I had intended to give, were some examples of the jargon poets use among themselves, Here are a few: Iambic Pentameters (having five "te, tum" feet to a line); feet, (a term roughly corresponding to bars in music); wrenched rhymes (words forced out of their natural sounds to make them rhyme); envoi, (a short, final stanza); bang, bang, bang, crash. (a phrase sometimes used to describe the alliterative character of Anglo Saxon verse: three alliterated stresses followed by a non-alliterated stress); and alliteration, (the repetition of the same initial sounds in neighbouring words - a great favourite of the school poetry lesson, or was when I was at school. Is it still?) Poets have nearly as much jargon up their sleeves as computer users and Hi Fi enthusiasts.

Clobbering the language. This, basically is where we came in. The following are, in my humble judgment, simply affronts to the language:

Incentivize Giving (usually the peasants) an incentive of some sort.
Disincent The reverse of incentivize.
Commoditize Every tycoon's nightmare: the product loses its status on the high street and becomes just another piece of consumer junk.
Soup to nuts Suppling everything the customer might require.
Disambiguate Deciding on a single meaning for a set of data.
Face time Time spent in face-to-face dialogue.

There remains just the need to explain the title. The expression kicking dead whales down the beach is another that derives from computing. It was first coined as part of a rant about the difficulty of getting things done under an IBM mainframe. It went: Well, you could write a C compiler in COBOL, but it would be like kicking dead whales down the beach. It has come to refer to any slow, difficult and disgusting process. Incidentally, if you had to look up the references using the three links, it will have given some idea of the shortening and simplifying effect of jargon in general - assuming you understand it.


Jim Murdoch said...

Enjoyable post. It reminded me of the time I used to work in the civil service. We used to write internal memos in what I called 'abbreviationese' which was a combination of jargon, form numbers and abbreviations, utterly unintelligible to outsiders.

Conda V. Douglas said...

An excellent reminder, Dave, that our language is a living one--so it's always in flux and changing. My teenage niece text messages all the time and to me, it's another language.

As a magazine editor, I had to buy a brand new dictionary a few weeks ago. And I had to check all the dictionaries for "web blog" "blogosphere" and etc.

Did you know that hyphens are beginning to disappear? Too much work on computer keyboards apparently.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that Jim. Nothing to do with the written word, but my brother and I had our own private speech as kids - I suppose it was his speech really, but I was the only one who could understand it.

Yes, Conda, I did know that the hyphen was disappearing, but did not know the reason.
I always find it fascinating, when a new edition of a dictionary appears, to see which new words are in and which have been dropped.

Dick said...

I've always been fascinated by jargon. More often than not it's the fascination of the car-crash spectator witnessing from the sidelines the demolition of the medium. But I have also been guilty of its use & have found myself contemplating with horrified detachment my own unsettling ease & facility in its usage. As a radio ham I can, when in search of a contact, say without blenching: "CQ, CQ, CQ. This is Golf Zero Echo Uniform Victor looking for X-Ray Victor or X-Ray Hotel DX on 21 megs". And in the event of a link-up I might find myself complimenting my contact on his "5 & 9 copy", which is "rising above the QRMike". All entirely rational when some kind of lingua franca between multiple nationalities is essential for basic communication. But the utterance would be identically phrased in the event of a contact with a fluent English speaker. So clearly the jargon serves a cultural purpose too.

I love the cartoon imagery of kicking a whale down the beach. There’s a fine sense of the folk process at work with such metaphors. Hideous, though, the humourless crudity of converting nouns into verbs in order to eliminate the tiresome labour of placing the customary verb before the subject noun in the conventional manner.

Another thought-provoking post, Dave.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that Dick. I loved the radio ham bit. What I found when I began to think about the subject was how much jargon there is out there, Every walk of life and every conceivable activity seems to have its own. So many times since I posted it I have come across another small pool of it and thought: wish I'd thought of that when I was writing it.