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Culture and technology
17 September 2013

The sinister purpose of academic jargon

Last week the Deep End noted the influence of ‘journalese’ – the tabloid English in which much of our news is written. In a thought-provoking piece for Prospect, Michael Billig looks at a different kind of linguistic distortion – one that seeks to obscure meaning instead of exaggerating it:

  • “One example that linguists like to cite is the word ‘autocondimentation.’ The story is that managers in the catering industry devised the word to describe the practice of customers applying sauce to their hamburgers: the long word made the managers appear expert.”

The irony is that the academics who study the development of jargon in the public and private sectors are guilty of the same crimes against language:

  • “Like other social scientists, and like the managers of universities and other big businesses, critical linguists have shown a penchant for big nouns. They write about the language of managers being filled with ‘nominalization’ and ‘passivization’; and they refer to the coining of new managerial terms, such as ‘autocondimentation,’ as ‘relexicalization.’ Just like the catering managers, the linguists can use big words to bolster their expertise.”

Of course, the arts and humanities have long suffered from science envy. Natural scientists can fill entire technical dictionaries with polysyllabic words of Latin and Greek derivation and, thus, social ‘scientists’ feel they have to do the same:

  • “By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real…”

But even if one abandons the pretence that sociology or literary theory can ever be as objective or empirical as chemistry or physics, is it not the case that academics still need to use specialist vocabulary? Michael Billig doesn't think so:

  • “Social scientists commonly justify their use of big words by saying that ordinary language is hopelessly vague and that social scientific terminology, although it might be awkward, is at least precise. However, the opposite is true: ordinary words usually convey much more information than the big words of the social scientists, especially when used to describe ordinary actions.”

To compound matters, social scientists often use their supposedly precise technical terms to mean different things in different contexts – adding a further layer of impenetrability.

This isn’t just about sounding more intelligent than you actually are; there is an underlying ideological programme at work here:

  • “There is another reason that social scientists, especially those on the left, have given for using difficult words. The great French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote about the difficulties of using ordinary language to analyse the nature of the social world. Sociologists, according to Bourdieu, need to distance themselves from everyday assumptions which are built into the meanings of ordinary words. Therefore social critics should treat ordinary language with suspicion and develop their own technical terminology.”

If leftwing intellectuals regard plain words with suspicion we should not be surprised. Ordinary language is deeply conservative in that it is quintessentially traditional: held in common by ordinary people, it is passed down from generation to generation, growing and adapting free from central control. 

Chaotic and contradictory, but constantly creative, everyday speech is an affront to those who would plan society from the top down.


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