Caution: This piece contains a lot of mentions of the word ‘jargon’.

Credit: The Sales Whisperer/Flickr.
Credit: The Sales Whisperer/Flickr

When writing one of my first pieces for The Hindu, I remember being called out for using a lot of jargon. While the accusation itself may have been justified, the word my supervisor chose as an example of the problem was surprising: “refraction”. He wanted me to spell it out in 10 words or so (because we were already running out of print-space). When I couldn’t, he launched into a long tirade.

It’s easy to spell out the what of refraction in 10 words – just refer to a prism. But if you’ve to understand the why, you’ll end up somewhere in the vicinity of quantum mechanics. At the same time, there are some everyday concepts in our lives that are easier understood the way they appear to be than in terms of what they actually are. This is where I’d draw the line of jargon. While everything can be technically simplified to the predictions of a complicated theory like quantum mechanics, jargon is that which isn’t at its simplest in the most pragmatic sense.

Clearly, this line lies in different places for different people because it can be moved by specialized knowledge. Writing in Nature or Science, I can take for granted that my audience will understand concepts like resonance or Feynman diagrams. Writing in The Hindu, on the other hand, all I can take for granted is reflection and, hopefully, refraction. Then again, these are publications who (ought to) know what their target audience is like. So I ask: If you were writing for a billion people, where would you assume the line is?

To me, the line would be at the statistical mode.

What irks me is that – in India at least – the statistical mode for different topics lies at incomparably different places. For example, I would be able to get away with ‘repo rate’ and ‘tortfeasor’ but not ‘morbidity’. My first impression was to somehow peg the difference to the well-established lack of scientific temper. But then I realized what the bigger problem was: news publications in the country are in a state of denial about lacking the scientific temper themselves, and consistently refuse to subject financial and legal news to the same scrutiny and the same wariness with which science news is treated.

If editors really wanted to take responsibility for their content, they wouldn’t let repo rate go through the press, or tortfeasor, or short fine leg, or Brent crude, or fiscal deficit*, or the history of the BJP**. However, they have let these bits of information go through without any apprehensions that they might be misunderstood or not understood at all. And by doing so, they have engendered an invisible reading culture that enforces the notion that these words don’t require further explanation, that these words shouldn’t be jargon – rather, wouldn’t be jargon if not for the reader’s ignorance.

In this culture, business and politics news (henceforth: fin-pol) can be for the least common denominators among all readers while science news… well, science news isn’t for everyone, is it? While the editors have misguidedly but efficiently dejargonized fin-pol news, with the effect that while fin-pol content is considered conventional, science news is still asked to be delivered sandwiched between layers of didactic material.

Another problem – this one more subtle and less prevalent – is that fin-pol reporters can often bank on historical knowledge while science reporters, word for word, remain constrained by the need to break down jargon. In other words, the fin-pol writer can assume the reader knows what he/she is talking about but ‘Feynman diagrams’ have to be repeatedly laid out unless the article is explicitly specified as being one in a series.

*If I can’t use ‘refraction’, you can’t use ‘fiscal deficit’.
**If you refuse to learn from sources other than the media as to who MSR Dev is, I refuse to let myself be persecuted for not learning from sources other than the media as to who SP Mukherjee was.