Monday, October 28, 2013


My brother is two years into getting a degree which I will misname (it’s molecular biology, or biochemistry, or something around about there). While talking to him about what is basically a topic I know nothing about, it has struck me on several occasions just how quickly one’s vocabulary is altered when starting to study a new field. Hundreds if not thousands of new words get thrown at you, and words you thought you knew take on new more technical meanings.  It can be easy to forget just how much of what you know isn’t general knowledge and there are a wide variety of ways in which studying or working in a specialist role (in any industry I guess) can affect your vocabulary.

Apparent Gibberish

For the most part necessary jargon, these are words that have been made up by experts in the field to encapsulate concepts into easily communicable snippets. It’s not really necessary for anyone who isn’t an algebraist to worry about what diffeomorphisms are, or for those algebraists to know anything about meristematic cells. Complaining about this kind of jargon is pointless; experts need to be able to talk at reasonable speeds to each other. It is however a small step from necessary new technical terms to


My general observation is that any free space that exists between the technical terms an expert uses for expediency and the understanding of the same topic held by the general populace will be filled with bullshit. Sometimes it is applied from the outside, so that something which is fundamentally complicated can have enough bullshit applied to the detailed areas to make it seem simple. Sometimes it is applied from the inside, intricate carvings of bullshit tacked on to something simple to make it sound complex to others.

Professional Slang

This is part convenience, part in-joke. Convenience in that it’s easier to say “box” than “computer”, in-joke in that while “duck punching” is a great term there are probably less colourful and more accurate names for it. These kind of idiomatic usages are inevitable in any industry and have a similar albeit more casual basic purpose as real technical terms. Unlike those technical terms, though, I think it’s unnecessarily exclusionary to use professional slang around people who don’t understand it.

Abducting Words

Pretty much all disciplines are guilty of this to some extent or another, probably because it’s easier to use an existing word than it is to make up a new one, but it’s also unhelpful. All the words that currently exist already have a meaning (often more than one), the last thing people trying to provide precision should be doing is adding extra meanings to existing words. Just how unhelpful this is really depends on the topic and the word.

Mathematics uses all sorts of everyday words like ring, field and group to describe mathematical structures. For example a ring in mathematics is, to quote Wikipedia, “ abelian group with a second binary operation that is distributive over the abelian group operation and is associative.” The chance of confusion with a more prosaic definition of ring is nearly zero.

A computer scientist, on the other hand, using ‘overloaded’ in its programming-specific sense in a non-technical context is risking confusion. In everyday English, it is borderline meaningful to describe a word as overloaded. You could do it, but your meaning might not be clear. A programmer describing a word as overloaded means, roughly, that it has homonyms. If you don’t know this as a listener, you’re either going to be confused about meaning or completely nonplussed.

Next week's word is vehicle.

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