29 October 2012

The jargon test

On the weekend, Kelly Weinersmith tweeted:

Deciding on whether or not to use scientific jargon. The general public knows “scavenger”, right? Or should I say “eats dead things”?

I propose the following test for whether whether or not you can expect someone outside of science to know a word.

If a word has been used in the title of a movie or a television series, it’s not jargon.

This is a variant of advice I’ve mentioned before from Martin Palmer:

We never use a word unless you can show us a poem in which it’s been used. Because if people don’t love it enough to include it in a poem, it probably means it means nothing to them.

This is a good start, but even poems may be a little too esoteric. Film and television are better tests because they are mass market media. Filmmakers cannot afford to confuse or alienate audience members. Even book titles may be too much of a niche market, although I might be persuaded that if you have a word in a best-seller, that’d pass the jargon test. More generally, a word that you can find in the title of anything that is pure, unabashed, popular culture will pass the jargon test.

In Kelly’s case, we have the movie Scavenger Hunt, Scavenger and the forthcoming Scavenger Killers.

DNA has been used as the title of several TV series. RNA? Nope.

A final word of warning, though. The test I am proposing here is not the only reason to rule out using a word or a phrase. For instance, a lot of words that pass my jargon test can be found on Carl Zimmer’s list of banned words for science writers. “Holy grail,” for instance; people know what it means, but it’s still overused.

1 comment:

Neuroskeptic said...

I completely agree!

On that note, a little known fact is that Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall' was originally titled 'Anhedonia', but that word was thought to be unmarketable.