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March 5, 2000 - Jargon - 2002-02-06

INTRO: Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti seek some common-sense advice on the use of jargon in American English.

MUSIC "Dragnet" theme

AA: Some people call Barbara Wallraff a "word cop." But she considers herself a judge, a judge of the "Word Court." That's the name of the monthly column written by this soft-spoken editor at the Atlantic Monthly magazine.

RS: And, one of her favorite subjects is jargon.

Barbara Wallraff defines such words this way:


"They are specialized terms for specialized purposes."

AA: These could be technical terms or abbreviations used within a particular field, or even expressions used in business. Like "repurposing," which simply means to find a new use for something. Every profession has its own jargon.

RS: Doctors, for instance, like others, use jargon to make it easier to communicate with their colleagues. Barbara Wallraff gives this example from her new book -- which also happens to be called "Word Court."


"I reproduce the title of an article from the magazine `Neurology.' And the title is `Erythropoietin-associated hypertensive posterior leukoenecephalopathy.'"

AA: Now, that's clearly medical jargon.

RS: Loosely translated it has to do with a disease that affects the back of the brain and a drug used to treat it.


BARBARA WALLRAFF: "The jargon version of it, `Erythropoietin-associated hypertensive posterior leukoenecephalopathy' may seem long on first glance, but what it manages to pack into that number of words is an incredible amount of information if you are prepared to take it in. And, that is the valuable use of jargon."

AA: "You go on to say in your book that `Professional jargon thus belongs in the category of things that consenting adults do and say in private. ... And, sometimes they try to dress up mundane ideas as if they were too special for the ordinary person to understand.'"

BARBARA WALLRAFF: "That's when jargon starts getting silly. I think the most important thing to say is that people who use words of any description and don't know what they mean are asking to look foolish, and whether it's jargon or whether it's a regular old word in the dictionary that you are not familiar with."

RS: Barbara Wallraff gives us an example from the field of education.


BARBARA WALLRAFF: "Oh, I don't want to dump on teachers because teachers are very important, but I did get a letter from a copy editor who works on education textbooks complaining that the author used (the expressions) `problem solve' all the time, and they used `transition' as a verb. `How do you transition to your students?' And, these aren't complicated ideas."

RS: "So, translate for us: `problem solve' and `transition.'"

BARBARA WALLRAFF: `If we're talking about `transition to a solution,' I think you would say, 'make the transition to a solution' or just something like, `find a solution.'"

AA: So how would you define "problem solve?"


BARBARA WALLRAFF: "Something like when you work with parents together to solve problems, or when you put your heads together and consider problems. I think that is much more reassuring to people to hear it that way."

RS: "Has jargon crept into our everyday life?"

BARBARA WALLRAFF: "Oh, sure it has. People like to demonstrate their familiarity with particular fields. (For example) Even if you are not a stockbroker you might find yourself talking about I-P-Os.

AA: That's an Initial Public Offering (of shares on the stock market). It has to do with stocks, right?"

BARBARA WALLRAFF: "Yes, it definitely has to do with stocks. (And,) it's interesting to see what kind (of jargon) enters the general language from different fields of jargon, and get a sense that we are now a society a little bit crazy for stock offerings."

AA: If you have access to the Internet, you can learn more about how Barbara Wallraff judges words, at

Wishing Rosanne a happy birthday, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Say What You Mean"/Mike Cross