Is Jargon Really Necessary?

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Aug 16, 1947 

Is Jargon Really Necessary? 

Complaints not only about the number of forms that have to be filled in nowadays but of the difficulty of understanding them and being able to fill them in correctly have become a feature of English life.

A correspondent of the “Times” has just given some fresh evidence for the general view that some of these forms are above the heads of about half the population. “I have,” he says, “been dealing with application forms for supplementary bread rations for manual workers in the small works where I am employed. Of the 145 applications filled in by our employees (61 male and 81 female) 27 of the female applicants have filled in their forms correctly.”

As all these workers are of fair intelligence, he adds, “I can only assume that the ingenuity displayed by the Food Office in designing the form must have over-reached itself.”

Not having seen the forms, I cannot criticize them. But I sometimes wonder whether the pleasure in obscurity that has been so conspicuous in certain schools of modern poetry and painting may not have spread like an infection into government and business offices.

* * *

One would have expected after all these centuries to find the English language purged of its obscurities and capable of framing a question about bread rations in a way that even a moron could hardly misunderstand. Yet who is there who has not found himself puzzling over documents in English that might as well have been written in a foreign language and that could be understood without the aid of an interpreter?

What strikes one as odd is that the love of obscurity is particularly among the more highly educated sections on the community. Nearly all the most unintelligible documents have been drawn up, not by illiterates, but by lawyers or civil servants who have been brought up on the lucid prose of Addison and Swift. It is as though they took pleasure in cultivating a secret language of their own which, like thieves’ slang, the uninitiated are not supposed to understand.

Every profession has, of course, its own language. The doctor makes out his prescriptions in a tongue and in a handwriting of which the common man can make nothing. The chemists, luckily, are mostly men of genius, and can read the prescriptions well enough at least not to poison us.

Even the names of simple illnesses become mysterious when translated into medical language.

* * *

Certainly obscurity can be impressive. There were a good many Victorians who would have admired Browning and Meredith a good deal less if ordinary people could have understood them more clearly. They did not approve of the derisive spirit of Tennyson, who

said of Browning’s “Sordello” that he had understood only two lines of it—the first line which said:

“Who will may hear Sordello’s

story told,

and the last line which said:

Who would has heard Sordello’s

story told,”

and that these were both lies.

There have been philosophers and psychologists too, who have been greatly admired for their obscurity, which seems to produce a pleasant giddiness in the reader.

Writers about the absolute and the unconscious cannot in fairness perhaps be asked to be as precise as people who merely want to know whether you have a right to a supplementary bread ration. Here there is nothing mystical to bemuse the brain and to confuse thought and speech.

Perhaps a change in the education system is needed in order to train the young to call a spade a spade in such a way as will make it impossible for anyone to believe that they mean is a toasting-fork.

* * *

With this in mind, I think that boys and girls, instead of being asked to write essays, which many of them seem to hate doing, should be given passages of jargon and official English to translate into simple prose that would not be above the head of you and me.

I am convinced that the jargon of officialdom is due, not to the official’s incapacity to write straightforward prose, but to his belief that jargon is more impressive than straightforward prose, as a judge’s wig is more impressive than his natural hair of baldness.

The official drawing up a document wishes to address you, not as man to man, but in the pomp of authority, and simple prose is not pomp enough for him.

He speaks, not as a human being, but as an oracle; and oracles have as a rule made a point of being unintelligible.

He produces, indeed, a kind of artificial fog in which the ordinary citizen feels utterly at a loss as he gropes his way about muttering to himself: “Is this jargon really necessary?”

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