Jargon – a force for good or ill?

Distinguish an electrical engineer from a humanities graduate: ask them how many syllables are in the word “coax”.

I was involved in an interesting discussion with colleagues recently about the joys or otherwise or jargon.  It stemmed from a section I wrote in a recent article, How to talk to security people: a guide for the rest of us.  In it, I suggested that jargon “has at least two uses:

  1. as an exclusionary mechanism for groups to keep non-members in the dark;
  2. as a short-hand to exchange information between ‘in-the-know’ people so that they don’t need to explain everything in exhaustive detail every time.”

Given the discussion that arose, I thought it was worth delving more deeply into this question.  It’s more than an idle interest, as well, as I think that there are important lessons around our use of jargon that impact on how we interact with our colleagues and peers, and which deserve some careful thought.  These lessons apply particularly to my chosen field of security.

Before we start, there should be some definition.  It’s always nice to have two conflicting versions, so here we go:

  1. Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand. (Oxford dictionaries – https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/jargon)
  2. Without qualifier, denotes informal ‘slangy’ language peculiar to or predominantly found among hackers. (The Jargon File – http://catb.org/jargon/html/distinctions.html)

I should start by pointing out that the Jargon File (which was published in paper form in at least two versions as The Hacker’s Dictionary (ed. Steele) and the New Hacker’s Dictionary (ed. Raymond)) has a pretty special place in my heart.  When I decided that I wanted to “take up” geekery properly[1][2], I read my copy of the the New Hacker’s Dictionary from cover to cover, several times, and when a new edition came out, I bought that and did the same.  In fact, for many of the more technical readers of this blog, I suspect that a fair amount of your cultural background is expressed within the covers (paper or virtual) of the same, even if you’re not aware of it.  If you’re interested in delving deeper and like the feel of paper in your hands, then I encourage you to purchase a copy, but be careful to get the right one: there are some expensive versions which seem just to be print-outs of the Jargon File, rather than properly typeset and edited versions[3].

But let’s get onto the meat of this article: is jargon a force for good or ill?

The case against jargon – ambiguity

You would think that jargon would serve to provide agreed terms within a particular discipline, and help ambiguity around contexts.  It may be a surprise, then, that first problem that we often run into with jargon is name-space clashes.  Consider the following.  There’s an old joke about how to distinguish an electrical engineer from a humanities[3] graduate: ask them how many syllables are in the word “coax”.  The point here, of course, is that they come from different disciplines.  But there are lots of words – and particularly abbreviations – which have different meanings or expansions depending on context, and where disciplines and contexts may collide.  What do these mean to you[5]?

  • scheduling (kernel level CPU allocation to processes OR placement of workloads by an orchestration component)
  • comms (I/O in a computer system OR marketing/analyst communications)
  • layer (OSI model OR IP suite layer OR other architectural abstraction layer such as host or workload)
  • SME (subject matter expert OR small/medium enterprise)
  • SMB (small/medium business OR small message block)
  • TLS (Transport Layer Security OR Times Literary Supplement)
  • IP (Internet Protocol OR Intellectual Property OR Intellectual Property as expressed as a silicon component block)
  • FFS (For Further Study OR …[6])

One of the interesting things is that quite a lot of my background is betrayed by the various options that present themselves to me: I wonder how many of the readers of this will have thought of the Times Literary Supplement, for example. I’m also more likely to think of SME as the term relating to organisations, because that’s the favoured form in Europe, whereas I believe that the US tends to SMB.  I’m sure that your experiences will all be different – which rather makes my point for me.

That’s the first problem.  In a context where jargon is often praised as a way of short-cutting lengthy explanations, it can actually be a significant ambiguating force.

The case against jargon – exclusion

Intentionally or not – and sometimes it is intentional – groups define themselves through use of specific terminology.  Once this terminology becomes opaque to those outside the group, it becomes “jargon”, as per our first definition above.  “Good” use of jargon generally allows those within the group to converse using shared context around concepts that do not need to be explained in detail every time they are used.  An example would be a “smoke test” – a quick test to check that basic functionality is performing correctly (see the Jargon File’s definition for more).  If everyone within the group understands what this means, then why go into more detail?  But if you are joined at a stand-up meeting[7] by a member of marketing who wants to know whether a particular build is ready for release, and you say “well, no – it’s only been smoke-tested so far”, then it’s likely that you’ll need to explain.

Another enduring and complex piece of jargon is the use of “free” in relation to software.  In fact, the term is so ambiguous that different terms have evolved to describe some variants – “open source”, “FOSS” – and even phrases such as “free as in speech, not as in beer”.

The problem is that there are occasions when jargon can be excluding from others, whether that usage is intended or not.  There have been times for most of us, I’m sure, when we want to show that we’re part of group and so use terms that we know another person won’t understand.  On other occasions, the term may be so ingrained in our practice that we use it without thinking, and the other person is unintentionally excluded.  I would argue that we need to be careful to avoid both of these usages.  Intentional exclusion is rarely helpful, but unintentional exclusion can be just as damaging – in ways more so, as it is typically unremarked and is therefore difficult to remedy.

The security world seems particularly prone to this behaviour, I feel.  It may be that many security folks have a sound enough grounding in other spheres – especially those in which they’re working with others – that the overlap in the other direction is less noticeable.  The other issue is that there’s a certain elitism with security folks which is both laudable – you want the best people, with the best training, to be leading the field – and lamentable – elitism tends to lead to exclusion of members of other groups.

A quick paragraph in praise of jargon

It’s not all bad, however.  We need jargon, as I noted above, to enable us to discuss concepts, and the use of terms in normal language – like scheduling – as jargon leads to some interesting metaphors which guide us in our practice[8].  We absolutely need shared practice, and for that we need shared language – and some of that language is bound, over time, to become jargon.  But consider a lexicon, or a FAQ, or other ways to allow your colleagues to participate: be inclusive, not exclusive.


1 – “properly” – really?  Although I’m not sure “improperly” is any better.

2 – oh, remember that I actually studied English Literature and Theology at university, so this was a conscious decision to embrace a rather different culture.

3 – or “Liberal Arts”.

4 – the most recent “real” edition of which I’m aware is Raymond, Eric S., 1996, The New Hacker’s Dictionary, 3rd ed., MIT University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

5 – I’ve added the first options that spring to mind when I come across them – I’m aware there are almost certainly others.

6 – believe me, when I saw this abbreviation in a research paper for the first time, I was most confused, and actually had to look it up.

7 – oh, look: jargon…

8 – though metaphors can themselves be constraining as they tend to push us to thinking in a particular way, even if that way isn’t entirely applicable in this context.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

3 thoughts on “Jargon – a force for good or ill?”

  1. At some point we have highly technical concepts that need to be defined, e.g. in security CWE (https://cwe.mitre.org/), what is the difference between a buffer under flow, a buffer overflow and an integer overflow? I think one aspect you missed is that although groups can define themselves via jargon they can also define and release that jargon to educate others and bring them in (like CWE does to an extent, it contains examples and resources for various terms in an education attempt).

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