Learning jargon and learning when to ditch it

By DR. Lydia Bienlien | Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Ah, jargon. Make sure you don’t use it. It makes you sound snobby. Or maybe you should use it. It demonstrates your expertise and understanding of a topic. Don’t you want to be taken seriously and speak concisely? Well, it depends on the audience and situation…or does it?

The confusion with jargon beings with the definition itself. The first definition provided by Merriam-Webster, “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group” is a bit broad but hits on some key points of words or phrases and exclusive groups. But the second definition is, hopefully, trying to be a bit ironic. That is, “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.” So, jargon can be uncommon words or phrases used within a specific context that have an agreed upon meaning for those “in the know.”

No doubt, every specialty has jargon. I remember the first time I read the word ubiquitous in an academic paper. Sounds great, but once I looked it up, I discovered it basically just means “found everywhere.” Not very exciting, but sure sounds good. Ubiquitous is used so often in an academic setting, that I don’t usually notice it now. Jargon includes abbreviations and can also be quite technical, like qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction, a common method of measuring DNA). Jargon can be especially difficult to track down when it’s only heard in conversation and pronounced as words, like “Nif-wif” and “Reggie” (defined below).

But the Virginia Sea Grant Commonwealth Coastal & Marine Policy Fellowship has given me the opportunity and reason to learn some more broadly practical jargon — terms in the political and public administration realm. Practical because as a private citizen, these are conversations and topics I should be aware of to inform how I vote or what programs I could support or be a part of. Knowing what these abbreviations stand for makes it easier to look up more information about them. A scientist by training, this vocabulary is not standard to my field.

Knowing what these abbreviations stand for makes it easier to look up more information about them. A scientist by training, this vocabulary is not standard to my field.

I definitely ran into “alphabet soup” when I first started my fellowship, despite having completed a marine policy sub-concentration during my Ph.D. There were some terms and abbreviations that I was already familiar with:

  • BMP – Best Management Practices
  • CWA – Clean Water Act
  • DEI – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion
  • EPA – Environmental Protection Agency
  • EJ – Environmental Justice
  • NGO – Non-Governmental Organization
  • NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • RFP – Request For Proposal
  • SLR – Sea Level Rise
  • TMDL – Total Maximum Daily Load

But then there was a whole slew of context-dependent abbreviations and programs I needed to bring myself up to speed:

  • BFE – Base Flood Elevation 
  • CDBG-MIT/DR – Community Development Block Grant Mitigation/Disaster Recovery
  • CFPF – Community Flood Preparedness Fund
  • CRO – Chief Resilience Officer
  • CRS – Community Rating System
  • DOLI – “Dolly” – Department of Labor and Industry
  • FIRM – Flood Insurance Rate Map
  • FOIA – “Foy-yah” – Freedom Of Information Act
  • HB – House bill
  • HMP – Hazard Mitigation Plan
  • JLUS – “Jay-loose” – Joint Land Use Studies
  • LIS – Legislative Information System
  • NFWF – “Nif-wif” – National Fish and Wildlife Federation
  • PDC – Planning District Commissions
  • PIO – Public Information Officer
  • RAFT – Resilience Adaptation Feasibility Tool
  • RGGI – “Reggie” – Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative
  • SEAS – Shoreline Erosion Advisory Service
  • SWCDs – Soil and Water Conservation Districts
  • TAC – “Tack” – Technical Advisory Committee

Quite a lot to keep track of! Of course, the terms I’ve listed are skewed to the topics and specialties I’m working on for my fellowship. Yet, some people may read this and think “all those terms are obvious” because they use these words every day in their field. Others might not have even heard of them. That why it’s important to provide the definition up front every time you use jargon in a new situation. Or maybe not use jargon at all, except for industry specific occasions.

I’ll admit I might have unintentionally added to the confusion, too. For my fellowship, I’m currently working on a Community Outreach and Engagement Plan and it’s just so much easier to write COEP — so I do. But I try to always define it the first time I use it in any new document or email.

In less than a year, I already find myself easily communicating with the terms I’ve mentioned. Knowing jargon can be helpful. It gives you credence in a field of knowledge and is a passkey into conversations with specialists — conversations that are key as we deal with increasingly complex issues in society. But it can also be a barrier. Making topics seem needlessly difficult can exclude important perspectives and knowledge from the conversation. In the end, I guess I recommend knowing as much jargon as you can, but avoiding using it when possible.

Dr. Lydia Bienlien is a Virginia Sea Grant Commonwealth Coastal & Marine Policy Fellow with the Department of Conservation and Recreation working on coastal resilience. She earned her Ph.D. from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Photos contributed by Lydia Bienlien
Portrait by Aileen Devlin | Virginia Sea Grant
Published July 19, 2022.

In the end, I guess I recommend knowing as much jargon as you can, but avoiding using it when possible.

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