Linguistic fog in the academy

A couple of weeks ago I had a telephone call from an old friend, who works for a voluntary organisation that is currently trying to enter into a partnership with a small group of universities. He had just come from a meeting with representatives of the institutions. ‘About half way through the meeting’, he told me, ‘I suddenly realised that the whole discussion was being conducted in a foreign language. They probably thought they were speaking English, but that’s not how it sounded to me. It seems that academics are unable to get through a single sentence that does not have at least one incomprehensible (and unexplained) acronym and one bit of jargon that no outsider can understand.’

He has a point. People who work with me in Robert Gordon University know that I stop the discussion the moment an acronym appears – and at first that meant I was stopping the discussion every minute or so. At least I can learn them, but for outsiders this is not so easy, not least because the acronyms are different in each institution.  It seems to be impossible for us to avoid acronyms for committee names, and for processes, programmes, strategies, plans, buildings, even people. And this alphabetical cocktail is then enriched with jargon that only insiders can understand. The result is a kind of mysterious incantation that sounds like some pagan ritual.

But this is wrong. The academy is not some obscure cult that seeks to protect its rites from non-believers. It needs to be able to engage with the wider community. So if you are an academic, drop all your acronyms, abbreviations and jargon. Go and make some sense. You know you can.

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8 Comments on “Linguistic fog in the academy”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    This isn’t a problem unique to academia, either. Every area of work will have its own jargon and acronyms, but I get the impression that social services (at least the area where I now work) is at least as bad as academia, if not worse. I compiled an acronym guide at work – which keeps getting added to, of course – and it’s currently around six pages long. I’m guessing anyone working at any level of government could tell the same story.

    This, for example, would make complete sense to anyone in an organisation similar to mine: Request EES, EP & ERE for VPS/CRC from OW CW.

    Reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with a friend who at that point worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, about efforts to invent a word (and get it into the OED) that would describe a conversation such as your friend was party to, that makes no sense whatsoever to anyone not familiar with the relevant jargon. If such a word never did emerge, it’s needed more than ever.

  2. V.H Says:

    Is the truth not far more mundane. These names develop because the full title is a convoluted tongue twister dreamt up on the fly for some sub-committee which then takes on a life of it’s own as office space is found for it’s meetings and ancillary staff are allocated to aid its tasks. So you have the Committee for the Study of Wobbly Jam Cakes (CoSoWJaC) in ComRoom B305 from 3-5pm every 3rd Friday with Jen John Freida and Eric as it’s civil service.
    Since there isn’t a book of names each place will dream up it’s own so this isn’t going to stop anytime soon. The very best that can be hoped is the full name is tacked on someplace near the top.
    Then of course you’ve the mission drift. I forget what Sir Humphrey called it. But anyhoo, where you’ve the ComSowJaC in charge of the staff pension fund of 6 billion. So even if you did know the full name you’d be none the wiser.

  3. sharonlflynn Says:

    Ferdinand, I’m not sure if you saw the recent article about banning jargon in the public sector “Only pizzas are delivered” but I do wish we could stop talking about “delivering learning”.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/only-pizzas-are-delivered-public-sector-jargon-banned-in-first-style-guide-for-government-announcements-8730020.html

    I find the situation is worse than you suggest. Working in a central unit to support academic staff use of our VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) I find the need to speak 3 quite distinct languages: the first is the language of academics; the second is project management speak; and the third is one that has been developed by academic administration. To further obfuscate matters, some of the vocabulary is similar, but the meanings can be quite different.

  4. Kevin Bissett Says:

    The problem sometimes is that when people from the same group have a meeting or a conference call which includes people outside that group they talk for the benefit of the group rather than the wider audience. It is easier said than done but we should always strive to address ourselves to the audience present at any given moment – know your audience!

    I was impressed recently on a work conference call where we were troubleshooting a very specific technical problem with one of our customers, all of us being involved on the engineering side. At one point our customer involved the manager from one of their retail shops so that we could have a test initiated by them. Once that person had joined the conference bridge the language used by our customer changed to be as non-technical as possible. And this wasn’t dumbing down in any way; it was just the use of plain descriptive terms which were understood by everyone present. When the retail shop manager was released the “acronyms, abbreviations and jargon” of course returned.

    I don’t agree that we should never use acronyms and jargon; they have their place in facilitating speedy communication *given the right audience!* If there is doubt then plain descriptive terms should be used and feedback from the audience can guide the speaker towards replacing “longhand” descriptions by the shorthand of acronyms and jargon.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    Is “lol” permissable then? Acronyms and jargon can be a pain if you don’t know them – just as dropping foreign words or phrases in can be. But any specialism, academic or otherwise, will need to use them. So its more a question of knowing your audience. A more pernicious problem, IMHO, is the widespread use of management cliches as the cult of managerialism takes over higher education.


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