Definition of Jargon

Jargon is a specialized set of terms and language that is used in a particular context and setting. It is especially common to find jargon in an industry, such as in law, medicine, academia, or an art or sport. People who are not a part of this industry or group may not be able to understand the jargon used, as the words are either obscure terms or have different definitions than the regular usage of the word. Jargon is used to provide more efficient communication between members of a certain group, though at times it can also be used to exclude others who are not part of the group or to show one’s own belonging to the group. Some jargon that is used enough in a group can become more widely understood and adopted into common usage, such as technological terms like “byte” and “RAM,” or nautical phrases like “anchor’s aweigh” and “all hands on deck.”

The word jargon originally comes from the Latin term gaggire, which means “to chatter.” Chatter was language which the listener didn’t understand, like the chatter of birds. This term was adopted into French and then Middle English, in which there was a verb, jargounen, with the same meaning as the Latin. Thus, the definition of jargon comes from a sense of the listener being unable to understand the meaning behind the noise.

Difference Between Jargon, Slang, and Colloquialism

There are similarities between the definitions of jargon, slang, and colloquialism, as they are all terms referring to specified language only used by certain groups. Colloquialisms are specific terms and phrases that are informal and often idiomatic. Colloquialisms are often bounded by a geographical region, like the variation in the United States of where the words “soda,” “pop,” “soft drink,” and “Coke” are used. Colloquialisms are not bounded by age or class. Slang, while also being informal language, is generally used in social groups such as by teenagers. Thus, slang is bounded by geography, age, and class as well.

Jargon, on the other hand, can be understood by anyone who is part of an industry, and thus the individual often makes a choice of whether or not he or she is a part of that group. Jargon is limited not by region, class, or age, but instead by the choices that a person makes to join a sport, participate in a certain art form, or take on a certain career.

Common Examples of Jargon

There are many different industries and groups which have their own jargon. Here are just a few examples of jargon from different groups:

Architecture Jargon

  • Chimera: A fantastical or grotesque figure used for decorative purposes in a building.
  • Molding: Decorative finishing strip at transitions between surfaces.
  • Narthex: A passage between the main entrance and main body of a church.

Mathematical Jargon

  • Q.E.D: Quod erat demonstrandum in Latin, meaning “which was to be demonstrated,” and placed at the end of mathematical proofs.
  • Vanish: To take on the value of 0.
  • Deep vs. elementary: A proof is deep if it requires concepts more advanced than the original concept to explain that original concept, while it is elementary if the proof only needs fundamental concepts to explain something.

Musical Jargon

  • Allegro: Cheerful or brisk tempo.
  • Coda: Ending section of music.
  • Piano vs. forte: Quiet vs. loud.

Football Jargon

  • Safety: A slightly rarer form of scoring points, in which an offensive player is tackled in his own end zone while holding the football; worth 2 points.
  • Facemask: A penalty of gripping an opponent’s protective mask over his mouth; worth 15 yards.
  • Wide receiver: A player on the offense who generally runs downfield to catch the football.

Poker Jargon

  • River: The final card dealt in a poker hand (in Texas hold ‘em style, this is the fifth card placed in the center of the table).
  • Call: To match a bet from another player.
  • Big blind: The larger of two set amounts of betting.

Significance of Jargon in Literature

An author might choose to use jargon in a work of literature to show that a character is truly a part of the profession that he or she is supposed to have. Jargon can lend an air of credibility, and help readers suspend their disbelief.

Examples of Jargon in Literature

Example #1

Why doth he pause? take thy forfeiture.
Give me my principal, and let me go.
I have it ready for thee; here it is.
He hath refused it in the open court:
He shall have merely justice and his bond.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

In this example of jargon, William Shakespeare sets a very important scene in a courtroom. Several characters use different legal terms in this short excerpt, including “forfeiture,” “principal,” and “bond.” All of these terms are specific to the act of lending and borrowing and carry specific legal meaning.

Example #2

The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.

(1984 by George Orwell)

George Orwell created some interesting examples of jargon in his dystopian novel 1984. In this quote from the novel, Orwell shows how the jargon both obfuscates the real purpose of each ministry and how their abbreviations can further make them incomprehensible to regular people.

Example #3

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among
the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives,heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots—2.1 pounds—and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot.

(“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien)

Tim O’Brien is a Vietnam War veteran, and brilliantly uses jargon examples in this famous short story, “The Things They Carried.” O’Brien alternates between the very specific items that only war veterans would really understand, such as “P-38 can openers,” “Military Payment Certificates,” and “SOP,” and ordinary items that everyone can comprehend, like chewing gum and dental floss. In this way, he both makes the war seem relatable and completely foreign to the average reader.

Test Your Knowledge of Jargon

1. Which of the following statements is the best jargon definition?
A. Language that is used as a shorthand for people in a certain industry.
B. Language that is used by people of certain age group or social class.
C. Language that is used by people in a specific geographical region.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following quotes from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains an example of jargon?
A. SHYLOCK: A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!
O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!
B. PORTIA: Why, this bond is forfeit.
C. ANTONIO: [I] stand indebted, over and above,
In love and service to you evermore.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following quote from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”:

In certain heavily mined AOs, where the land was dense with Toe Poppers and Bouncing Betties, they took turns humping a 28-pound mine detector. With its
headphones and big sensing plate, the equipment was a stress on the lower back and shoulders, awkward to handle, often useless because of the shrapnel in the earth, but they carried it anyway, partly for safety, partly for the illusion of safety.

Which of the following words is a jargon example?
A. Humping
B. Headphones
C. Shrapnel

Answer to Question #3 Show


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