when do precision and complex vocabulary become jargon?

Spoiler alert. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to have an answer for this one.

Week one of the Graduate Writing Institute hosted by the Writing Skills Improvement Program at the University of Arizona is just over, and someone stated at the end of my presentation on style that she really liked complex, multisyllabic words. I do, too.

I had just read Helen Sword’s “Zombie Nouns,” in which she states the following:

At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity and interpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter – or at least appear to be – than those who don’t.

There’s a lot I applaud in this paragraph: Sword’s attention to a continuum–that nominalizations can both facilitate and obstruct communication–and her concern that academic elitism can derail students.

But I take umbrage at Sword’s dismissal of “heteronormativity” and “interpellation” as zombie nouns. As for heteronormativity–there’s no other word that works here. If you want to talk about how culture normalizes heterosexuality and marginalizes LGBTQ folk, that’s heteronormativity. A complex concept in one word. And if you’re a scholar in gender or queer studies, you better be able to say this word in your sleep.

As for interpellation, just browse through the web for some explanation, and you won’t find an easy one. That’s because interpellation describes complex social moments involving ideology. Think 20th-century French philosophers. Think theorists of power and culture. Think film studies. Better yet, check out the blog posting on interpellation at The Chicago School of Media Theory for a non-jargony and careful discussion. And if you’re a scholar in cultural studies, or film studies, or contemporary continental philosophers, you will need to cultivate an explanation for interpellation that pirouettes off your tongue.

The point is, academics must learn and employ specialized vocabulary. Are they going to go to a neighbor’s house for dinner and proffer a mini-lecture on their scholarly passions? Likely not. At least not using the specialized vocabulary required in seminars and in their disciplines’ publications.

Words do work. Long words often do a lot of work. Just because an academic writer uses those long words does not mean his or her writing obfuscates. I think it’s all the stuff around those long words that makes the difference between clarity and jargon.


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