The Best and Worst of Jargon

For better or for worse, most professions have their own special jargon. For better, because this verbal shorthand can help make our working lives more efficient. For worse, because it has the power to exclude outsiders. Jargon can also be a cop-out for deep reflection. Indeed, one cynic said that the institution invents jargon because it saves people from having to really talk to each other.

But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s go a little deeper. In his writing Masterclass, author Malcolm Gladwell devotes an entire lecture to the topic. “The nature of jargon can tell you much about the world”, he says. There are two types worth noting:

The first is the type that keeps the rest of the world out. When I first started my career, a kindly HR person gave me a glossary of the typical acronyms and contractions I could expect to hear in the course of my work. In total there were 36 TLAs and…(oh, sorry, a TLA is a “three letter acronym”) - in total there were 36 TLAs and some 15 catch-phrases that would help me “go native” with an array of different stakeholder tribes. It took months to become fluent.

The second type of jargon is the type that facilitates privileged access to a world many outsiders thought they’d never be permitted to enter. One such example is the Kaplan-Meier Curve, an icon in the world of drug testing where a treatment may attract millions of research dollars over a period of many years. Most insiders refer to it simply as “The Curve” and at first glance it’s just two lines on a graph.

But for those who know what it stands for, Kaplan-Meier is so much more: The first line represents people with a certain disease and their survival rate over time. The second represents the survival rates of people who are taking your new drug. If the two lines are exactly the same, your drug isn’t working. If the second line dips below the first one, it means your drug is killing people. But If the second line goes above the first line, your drug is a lifesaver. The Kaplan Meier Curve is the concluding slide researchers show their audience when unveiling test results. People wait for it with bated breath and, depending on what the lines do, it’s either a case of effusive celebration or deep mourning. Says Gladwell, “It’s Jargon at its best, it has the power to pull you in and keep you riveted until the last slide of the presentation”

Why is the Kaplan-Meier Curve so powerful as a piece of jargon? After all, It’s just two people’s names isn’t it?

It’s Simple

Even a lay person can get it. If you can see daylight between the 2 lines and line one is above line 2 then your drug is a success. It’s deep science disguised as child’s play.

It’s Emotional

No matter how little you know about drug research, the Kaplan-Meier Curve recreates the feeling of inherent drama that an expert oncologist feels when he’s in the audience waiting to find out whether his work in the past decade meant anything or not. Nothing so beautifully embodies the challenge the drug maker is facing as the KMC.

As the Kaplan-Meier Curve shows, Jargon can be a double edged sword. The key is to sift out the language that has become bleached of meaning and to preserve the gems. Does your profession, trade or area of expertise have the equivalent of a Kaplan-Meier Curve? Something so disarmingly simple that it holds the keys to universal understanding? If so, are you making the most of it?

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