I first wrote this blog post this time last year, when it seemed only a hop, skip and jump in time since we’d been enthralled by the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio. And it wasn’t just medals that got the media buzzing, but medalling.
We all know that a medal is a thing (noun). What raised the hackles of the armchair arbiters of language was the use of medal as an action (verb).
“She’s hoping to medal.”
“He medalled at London 2012.”
“Medalling is out of the question now.”
When BBC commentators started applying these principles to the word podium, social media went wild. (Well, what passes for wild on the bits of it that I read. I don’t get out much.)
“Podiuming?” gasped the self-styled grammar gurus in outraged unison. “How could they?”
In my heart, I feel their pain. To hear a familiar word used in an unfamiliar way is jarring, and hard to ignore. I can’t imagine that I would ever use medal or podium as verbs in my own conversation.
But that’s the point. I hardly ever do use those words, in any form. I’m not a sports commentator; it’s not my subject, so the fact that the language associated with it rarely passes my lips (or my keyboard) should be no surprise.
I may not like “She’s hoping to medal” or “Let’s party” or “Your parcel has shipped” but these usages are out there for a reason.
It’s no good saying people are breaking language rules.
It’s no good saying people are just lazy these days (even if that’s actually true).
The fact is, if it’s possible to tweak language, someone will tweak it. The historical evidence for constant language change is everywhere. Much like King Canute’s fawning courtiers when he couldn’t hold back the tide, I have to accept this whether I like it or not.
A good linguist will put personal feelings aside and try to understand and explain the evidence.
Jargon – words that work for work
Medal as a verb is not new – it’s been around for at least the last couple of Olympic Games, as a quick online search will tell you. But how might it have come about?
Sports commentary is a niche job – it involves a constant production of specific information on the spur of the moment (as most of it happens live). ‘Verbing’ the word medal is very efficient (see what I did there?), as it takes less time to say than conventional phrasing, so that even more rapid facts can be squeezed in. When commenting on Usain Bolt, that must make it an attractive option.
True, it doesn’t reduce the prattle by much. But it all adds up.
No-one will know who first thought of using it like that. And it’s probably subconscious anyway – but it’s useful, so it sticks.
It’s likely to be the same for your line of work. There will be words and phrases that you use quite frequently that aren’t needed outside your profession.
Broadly speaking, that’s what jargon is. It can have a negative press, but the basic reason for jargon is to help groups of people with the same understanding to communicate efficiently with each other.
Why would car mechanics speak of “the metal bit that goes up and down with other bits that go roundy round to help make things move from here to there”, when they could say “piston” instead? (More observant readers might note at this point that mechanical engineering isn’t really my subject either.)
If you happen to have even less idea of what a piston is than I do (unlikely), you might object that your car mechanic/dealer is sloppy for using just one word when 24 would be more helpful to you. So one person’s “efficient use of words” is another person’s “lazy”.
With jargon, context is all
If you are writing about your field of work, and the rest of your profession is your target audience, then you’d expect to use industry-specific words to each other – you’d be wasting time if you didn’t. (For example, in a business report or a product description.)
But what if you want to hook in clients who are new to the field, eg, with your website, email newsletter, blog or other promotional material? We all have to start somewhere, so don’t assume that your potential clients know everything that you know. (If they do, why should they come to you?)
For a start, it’s basic good practice to spell out the first use of acronyms or abbreviations. For example: “SEO (search engine optimisation) is a constantly changing field.”
Then you might need to expand on what search engine optimisation really means, depending on the context. And here’s where we’re back to the piston scenario – can you explain what you mean clearly?
As experts in our own fields, we all have to find a balance between appearing reassuringly knowledgeable (because we are!) and not alienating the people we’re addressing.
For example, sometimes when editing, I need to explain my decisions. I learnt long ago that many people aren’t at all clear on the meaning of noun, verb or adjective, but it’s extremely difficult to explain language without them. And those are just the basics.
If I were chatting to a fellow linguist, I’d fling grammatical terms around with abandon (gosh, we do have fun!). But in editorial margin notes, my website, and blogs like this, I have to think of other ways to get the message across.
Jargon can creep up on you. Like that poor frog being slowly brought to the boil, if you are immersed in the strange language used by your fellow professionals, you don’t realise it’s happening. Soon you’re spouting acronyms and – hooray! – it feels like you belong. It’s hard to accept that, outside in the real world, millions of people are getting by without using those terms. More than that, they might be put off by seeing them used.
But most people like a quiz. Here are some jargon examples that are really useful in the right contexts – and utterly bewildering to the uninitiated. Without cheating, can you a) say what field they come from (all different) and b) explain precisely what they mean?
To conclude: rather than criticising jargon or new language forms, we all need to make informed choices about whether or not to use them. Too hard to decide? Then a professional copy-writer or editor could be just the help you need.
A version of this post first appeared on Mill House Media in October 2016.