Avoiding Jargon Confusion

Pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion on jar­gon:

If you’re propos­ing a new jar­gon term that is highly spe­cial­ized, and you don’t want peo­ple to mi­suse it…

...it’s im­por­tant to also dis­cuss more com­mon con­cepts that peo­ple are likely to want to re­fer to a lot, and make sure to give those con­cepts their own jar­gon term (or re­fer to an ex­ist­ing one).

Pe­ri­od­i­cally I see peo­ple in­tro­duce a new con­cept, only to find that:

  • Peo­ple are mo­ti­vated to use fancy words to sound smart.

  • Peo­ple are mo­ti­vated to use words to ex­ag­ger­ate, for rhetor­i­cal punch or poli­ti­cal gain.

  • Peo­ple just have mul­ti­ple nearby con­cepts that they want to re­fer to, that they don’t have a word for.

Jar­gon is use­ful be­cause it lets you cache out com­plex ideas into sim­ple words, which then be­come a build­ing block for higher level con­ver­sa­tion. It’s less use­ful if the words get diluted over time.


Schel­ling Point

The mo­ti­vat­ing ex­am­ple was “Schel­ling Point”, origi­nally in­tended to mean “a place or thing peo­ple could agree on and co­or­di­nate around with­out com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

Then I ob­served peo­ple start­ing to use “Schel­ling Point” to mean “any place they wanted to co­or­di­nate to meet at.” Ini­tially this was a joke, or it referred to a lo­ca­tion that prob­a­bly would have been a real Schel­ling Point if you hadn’t com­mu­ni­cated (i.e. if you want to meet later at a park, say­ing ’The cen­tral foun­tain is the schel­ling point”. It’s true that the foun­tain would have been the nat­u­ral place to meet if you hadn’t been able to co­or­di­nate in ad­vance)

And then peo­ple started just us­ing it to mean any ran­dom thing, and it got harder to tell who ac­tu­ally knew what “Schel­ling Point” meant.

Affor­dances and Signifiers

The De­sign of Every­day Things is a book, origi­nally pub­lished in 1988, which in­tro­duced a term “af­for­dance”, mean­ing ba­si­cally “an ac­tion a de­sign al­lows you to take.” For ex­am­ple, a lightweight chair can be sat it, or moved around. A heavy chair gives less af­for­dance for lift­ing.

But the au­thor found that de­sign­ers were mi­sus­ing “af­for­dance”, and so in the 2013 edi­tion of the book he in­tro­duced a sec­ond term, “sig­nifier.”

Affor­dances ex­ist even if they are not visi­ble. For de­sign­ers, their visi­bil­ity is crit­i­cal: visi­ble af­for­dances provide strong clues to the op­er­a­tions of things. A flat plate mounted on a door af­fords push­ing. Knobs af­ford turn­ing, push­ing, and pul­ling. Slots are for in­sert­ing things into. Balls are for throw­ing or bounc­ing. Per­ceived af­for­dances help peo­ple figure out what ac­tions are pos­si­ble with­out the need for la­bels or in­struc­tions. I call the sig­nal­ing com­po­nent of af­for­dances sig­nifiers.
De­sign­ers have prac­ti­cal prob­lems. They need to know how to de­sign things to make them un­der­stand­able. They soon dis­cov­ered that when work­ing with the graph­i­cal de­signs for elec­tronic dis­plays, they needed a way to des­ig­nate which parts could be touched, slid up­ward, down­ward, or side­ways, or tapped upon. The ac­tions could be done with a mouse, sty­lus, or fingers. Some sys­tems re­sponded to body mo­tions, ges­tures, and spo­ken words, with no touch­ing of any phys­i­cal de­vice. How could de­sign­ers de­scribe what they were do­ing? There was no word that fit, so they took the clos­est ex­ist­ing word—af­for­dance. Soon de­sign­ers were say­ing such things as, “I put an af­for­dance there,” to de­scribe why they dis­played a cir­cle on a screen to in­di­cate where the per­son should touch, whether by mouse or by finger. “No,” I said, “that is not an af­for­dance. That is a way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing where the touch should be.
You are com­mu­ni­cat­ing where to do the touch­ing: the af­for­dance of touch­ing ex­ists on the en­tire screen: you are try­ing to sig­nify where the touch should take place. That’s not the same thing as say­ing what ac­tion is pos­si­ble.” Not only did my ex­pla­na­tion fail to satisfy the de­sign com­mu­nity, but I my­self was un­happy. Even­tu­ally I gave up: de­sign­ers needed a word to de­scribe what they were do­ing, so they chose af­for­dance. What al­ter­na­tive did they have? I de­cided to provide a bet­ter an­swer: sig­nifiers. Affor­dances de­ter­mine what ac­tions are pos­si­ble. Sig­nifiers com­mu­ni­cate where the ac­tion should take place. We need both.

Nor­man, Don­ald A.. The De­sign of Every­day Things (pp. 13-14). Ba­sic Books. Kin­dle Edi­tion.


Ex­ag­ger­a­tion and rhetor­i­cal punch are the hard­est to fight

Peo­ple will always be mo­ti­vated to use the most ex­treme sound­ing ver­sion of a thing. (See “re­ally”, “ver­ily”, “liter­ally”, as well as “Con­cus­sions are an Ex­is­ten­tial Threat to Foot­ball.“)

I’m not sure you can do much about this. But if you’re in­tro­duc­ing a new con­cept that’s es­pe­cially “pow­er­ful sound­ing”, maybe look for ways to dis­t­in­guish it from other more gen­er­ally pow­er­ful sound­ing words. I dunno.

Mak­ing things sound good or bad

A re­lated failure is when peo­ple want to shift the mean­ings of words for poli­ti­cal rea­sons, to form an as­so­ci­a­tion with some­thing “good” or “bad”. Kaj So­tala said in a pre­vi­ous thread:

It feels like for poli­ti­cal con­cepts, they are more likely to drift be­cause peo­ple have an in­cen­tive to make them shift. For in­stance, once it gets es­tab­lished that “gaslight­ing” is some­thing bad, then peo­ple have an in­cen­tive to shift the defi­ni­tion of “gaslight­ing” so that it cov­ers things-that-they-do-not-like.
That way they can avoid the need to *ac­tu­ally* es­tab­lish those things that bad: it’s already been es­tab­lished that gaslight­ing is bad, and it’s eas­ier to shift an ex­ist­ing con­cept than it is to cre­ate an en­tirely new con­cept and es­tab­lish why it is a bad thing. (It’s kind of a free rid­ing on the work of the peo­ple who paid the ini­tial cost of es­tab­lish­ing the bad­ness.) I would guess that less loaded terms would be less sus­cep­ti­ble to it.

I think this is slightly eas­ier to ad­dress than “ex­ag­ger­a­tion.” If you’re cre­at­ing a word with nega­tive valence (such as ‘gaslight­ing’), you could in­tro­duce other words that also sound bad that ap­ply in more con­texts, so that at least the peo­ple who want to sneak nega­tive con­no­ta­tions onto things are less tempted to also dilute the lan­guage.

You could do similar things in the op­po­site di­rec­tion – if you’re cre­at­ing a word with pos­i­tive valence that you don’t want peo­ple to glom onto, maybe also cre­ate other pos­i­tive-valenced words.

(Some peo­ple try to fight this sort of thing by pun­ish­ing peo­ple when­ever they mi­suse words, and… I dunno man I just don’t think that fight is winnable. Or at least, it seems like we should aim to things up so that we have to spend less en­ergy on that fight in the first place.)