To limn is divine, burbs are for borons

July 7, 2000

Her students worry about academic jargon, but Marjorie Garber says it is an essential scholarly tool

Juxtaposition and context are everything. Readers of The New York Times in March 1999 had a chance to test this assertion as they settled in with their coffee and morning paper. In the letters column, under the headline "Academic jargon is a cover", readers found letters, ranging from the dismissive to the vituperative, responding to a feature on "bad writing" in universities.

A professor of sociology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst accused prominent scholars of obscurantism and self-aggrandisement. A Berkeley professor of art history retorted that critics of these academic stars should survey their own writing for "sententiousness", "moralisms and banalities" that were, in his view, far worse than "genuinely exploratory neologisms".

If, however, our reader of the morning Times, wearying of this jousting, had set aside the news section of the paper and picked up the arts pages, he would have encountered another point of view on the question of difficulty in language. For, in this section, book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt was also taking note of syntactical complexity.

Lehmann-Haupt had popped a recording of a BBC radio production in the tape deck of his car and was "struck by how nearly incomprehensible some of the language was". He had to go over and over the text, in "an obsessive manner", until the meanings of certain lines "revealed themselves".

Instead of finding this experience infuriating, he found it "gratifying" and, finally, cathartic. What was this hard text, full of extraneous and idiosyncratic forms? Shakespeare's King Lear.

It is not my purpose to compare the plays of Shakespeare to the philosophical writing of Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, or to the postcolonial theory of Homi Bhabha, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, the two principal targets of The New York Times piece on bad writing. I teach all three with pleasure and my students find reading them both difficult and rewarding. What I want to emphasise is that it is possible to consider something worth the difficulty and that difficulty may in fact be part of the experience of reading.

What is academic jargon and why are they saying such terrible things about it? Does jargon mean too much or too little? Does it convey "meaning" or obfuscate it? Much depends upon who is doing the speaking (or writing) and the listening (or reading). Today we have drug dealers' jargon, theatrical jargon, radio jargon, space jargon, political jargon, defence jargon (aka Pentagonese). You name it.

Neologisms, new words, are often described as jargon and therefore disparaged, especially if they play fast and loose with established parts of speech (a noun becomes a verb, a verb or an adjective turns into a noun). But yesterday's neologisms, like yesterday's jargon, are often today's essential vocabulary.

Consider a lively coinage like virtuecrat, first used by journalists to describe, with compact irony, a public figure who makes a point of professing moral beliefs as a cultural imperative. Or micromanage or infomercial. Many words that are characterised as jargon are professional words, insider words - what used to be called "terms of art".

We see hints of the intoxication with magical, abstruse terminology, terms of art, in today's televised medical dramas, when the cries of "pulse-ox", "tube 'em", and "stat" give an aura of authenticity, while the TV doctors are brusquely interrupted, in mid-phrase, by patients demanding that they speak plain English. For the audience it is partly the medical mumbo-jumbo that creates the respect. The same goes for legal dramas and even police stories. Jargon has its pleasures.

The word "jargon", when used to dismiss the language of critical theory in the humanities, is in fact describing what for practitioners of those disciplines are terms of art. The quarrel is often picked over vocabulary and syntax, but what is at issue, very often, is not language usage but the legitimacy of critical theory as a discipline.

Which kinds of linguistic formations are identified and condemned today as "academic jargon"? In critical writing, the chief culprits seem to be what might be called "transformers" - nouns that are turned into verbs, sometimes via the "ise" suffix, such as problematise, and adjectives that become nouns, such as the ethical, the other, the abject, the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. Also on the hit list were proper names that become adjectives, such as Adornian, Althusserian, Foucauldian, Barthesian and post-Fordist, as if they referred to adherents of a sect.

And yet it is surprising to see how our responses to language change. For every denunciation of what The Times Literary Supplement, way back in 1973, deliciously called "the refingered worry-beads of lit-crit jargon" there is, in another place, an embrace of fresh coinages. Here is an example, a kind of "report from the trenches".

Popular linguist Mario Pei once asked a group of graduate students at Seton Hall University to give him their personal lists of five beautiful and five ugly words, along with five coinages of words they would like to see and five words they thought should be dropped from the language. The results were instructive. Ugly words, Pei reported, tended to be "monosyllabic and of native origin", such asloot, snooze, retch and jazz. Beautiful words included a number of foreign forms, such asZeitgeist, Weltanschauung and Lorelei. Words suggested for the discard pile, he notes, may have been coloured by their meanings. Among them were lesbian, lukewarm, momism and niggardly.

Coinages, predictably, were the most inventive: "boron", for a boring person; "mutatophobia", for fear of change; and my favourite, "antiquidate".

What was most interesting in these responses was the lack of fear of foreign words.

But Pei's survey was undertaken almost 30 years ago. I decided, therefore, to repeat the experiment last summer. My "focus group" was also made up of graduate students in English. Some respondents showed clear aural preferences (one's "beautiful" words all had soft "e" sounds - caramel, dwell, trellis). Many expressed uncertainty as to whether the "beauty" ought to inhere in the sound or the meaning, though among the words deemed especially attractive were some rather unbeautiful concepts, like ebola, diarrhoea, and syphilis. The ugly words included, predictably, some racial epithets and some diseases and several journalistic abbreviations, such as burb for suburb.

But it was with the coinages and the expungeables that we hit paydirt. Among the gems in the former category: glambiguous (meaning glamorously ambiguous), frusturpation (anger and discomfort caused by writer's block) and evailable (reachable by email).

What words did these contemporary graduate students want to banish from the language? Mostly terms from tabloid journalism, computer-speak, middle-management, the so-called "helping professions" and advertising.

They wanted closure on closure, to slam the gate on all words ending in "gate" (travelgate, Monica-gate), to get rid of impact as a verb, disconnect as a noun, and dispose of proactive, mission statement, incentivise, utilise and codependent among others. The only terms from literary and cultural analysis that were considered disposable were subaltern, left and rightwing and race.

It would be foolhardy to draw "scientific" conclusions from these responses. But they tell us something generally about jargon. Desired were words that were precise, on the one hand, and striking - even witty - on the other. Not desired were words that seemed euphemisms or sound bites.

Incidentally, I deliberately omitted from my set of questions the word "jargon", which I thought would produce some knee-jerk responses.

After the survey I wrote back to my respondents and asked them to send me words they considered jargon. Among the replies: negotiate boundaries, liminal, theory, downsize, escrow, historicist and a range of typographical practices from subtitles given after a colon to parentheses. From which we can deduce that some of my students are looking for mortgages, others are grappling with the internet and more than a few are tired of terms they encounter so often in literary-critical writing that they have lost their freshness and therefore their meaning.

And this brings us to something we might call "the jargon-effect" - a sign that something intrinsic to the discipline is happening. First, among scholars who coin new terms so as to make headway on problems within the discipline. And second, among apprentices to the discipline (graduate students, medical students, law students and law review editors) who use these new terms as their point of entry into disciplinary thinking.

What has happened in literary critical language, I think, is that the "de-familiarised" has become overly familiar. Some stylistic innovations have become cliches, dead metaphors. The first time I saw the word (en)gendering, or the word (re)membering, the curious typography made me think twice about how gender, or memory, come into being. That gender is a process, not just a "fact of life". Or that memories are, by their very nature, developed backward from "now" to "then".

All this I might have derived from the orthographic trick of separating these familiar words into prefix and root by the use of parentheses. But the 30th time I saw these words written in this form, it had become stale: it no longer made me stop and think.

Resentment of jargon comes from several sources: resistance to being left out of an in-group conversation; fear of what is not recognised; suspicion that something subversive may be going on; aesthetic recoil at language that is perceived as ugly or unfamiliar. But I want to insist here that jargon is a sign that something is happening in language.

When poets engage in such coinages what they are said to produce is not "jargon" but "difficulty", something valued rather than disparaged. It is an old argument to say that the critic and the scholar should aim at the same precision of language as the poet. But it is a good argument still. We need to distinguish between the creative use of language and its parroting; but also between the arbitrary dismissal of new language forms in one genre and their celebration in another.

For those who care about words, about thinking through language, the history of jargon is the history of ideas in the making, of hard ideas as well as hard words - the history, in short, of our terms of art.

Marjorie Garber is professor of humanities at Princeton University, New Jersey. Her book Academic Instincts will be published next year by Princeton University Press.

18 featuresThe Times HigherJJuly 7 2000 daniel pudles

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