Sunday, February 20, 2011


A well-known architectural critic writes an article full of jargon words that only a few fellow theorists would understand. When the editor of the journal for which the article was written translates the words into prose most readers comprehend, the author demands that the editor reinstate several words to signal that he has read the current theory. The editor has to decide whether to acquiesce to the author’s wishes or to stand up for the reader’s comprehension.

Every discipline has its own jargon: words that have specialized meaning to those in a field. Jargon can enhance people’s productivity by increasing the efficiency of conversation among those who understand it, encapsulating in a single word or phrase a complex theory or body of knowledge. In that sense, jargon increases communication by saving us time. But jargon also diminishes communication by decreasing the ability of others outside a field to understand the lingo of those on the inside, placing a wall between those in the know and those who are not.

We may take some comfort in the jargon of others. If we have an illness or an injury needing immediate attention, we may welcome the argot of medical personnel as they attend to us, speeding up the delivery of the treatment we need, even though we may also worry about what their conversation portends in terms of our prognosis. In situations like this, we can find ourselves torn between a desire to understand a specialized terminology and a desire not to know.

In most cases, though, jargon becomes an unnecessary barrier between people. While it may save time, words comprehensible to only a few mainly serves to enhance the prestige and power of some over others, a gambit that has gotten so out of control that many disciplines now have sub-fields with their own terminology that even fellow professionals do not understand. Technical language, in other words, has begun to raise ethical issues, evident in the dilemma of the editor described here.

Nietzsche once described architecture as “the will to power by means of form,” and we might call jargon the will to power by means of words. Power relations, be they architectural or linguistic, bring us immediately to the question of who has power over whom, by what means, and to what end? If the power that professionals wield has, as its goal, improving the lives of others – as in the case of attending physicians or, one hopes, in the case of architects looking after the public’s health, safety, and welfare – then we happily grant them that power through their license to practice. But it quickly becomes an abuse of power if professionals simply want to show, through their actions or their words, that they know or possess something others do not.

Ethics panels look for such abuses of power when it comes to the actions of professionals, and editors have the responsibility to do so when it comes to words. Audience matters here. If the readership of a publication understands the jargon, then editors should allow its use in order to save readers’ time and the journal, space. If there exist, however, a number readers who may not understand what a particular writer has written, the editor has a responsibility to translate the jargon into words that most, if not all, will comprehend.

A follower of Nietzsche might call this simply a matter of the editor’s will to power over that of the writer, and that may be true. But if we resist the temptation to reduce every conflict down to a question of power and instead take a more nuanced view of ethics, the editor here has an obligation, contra Nietzsche, to defend the interests of those with less power – the readers in this case – against a writer who wants to use jargon to assert his power over them and to elevate himself in the eyes of a few peers. When writers knowingly use arcane words to impress others with what they know, all it really shows is how little such writers know.

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