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.)

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