© 22 Oct 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Groups add words and usurp others to facilitate communication inside (and, incidentally, impede communication outside) the group.


Over the past few days I have been engaging the rootsdev community trying to establish vocabulary to discern between different classes of genealogical technology initiatives. In particular I see people asking for and/or trying to develop


Of course, these areas are not mutually exclusive but I personally find the distinctions helpful in understanding what other rootsdevers are doing.

One of the rootsdevers responded to my efforts to draw distinctions, categorize them, and label the categories with a call to action. “‍I see a lot of nice words,‍” he said, but “‍challenge you to give us your ideas on specific subjects.‍” A just reminder that action is needed. And I have a specific action plan in mind. So why was I engaging in words first?

Every community of which I know has a custom set of words they use to mean specific things. Usually these are words that are used by other people anyway, but are redefined within the community. In computing, for example, the word “‍abstract‍” has been redefined away from “‍far from daily experience‍” to “‍composed of less-abstract parts‍” so that computer scientists would call a quark less abstract than a bowling ball. Similarly, Mormons use the word “‍testimony‍” to refer to particular type of faith or confidence rather than the legal usage of “‍evidence provided by a witness.‍”

Partly this is just an outgrowth of natural change in vocabulary within a restricted group. I don’t think there’s any particular reason, for example, that Pittsburghers say “‍whenever‍” to mean “‍at the time that‍” instead of “‍every time that‍”. But sometimes it is much more deliberate.

Consider the “‍abstract‍” example. In computing we need a word indicating directions on the “‍composed of‍” ladder. “‍Composed of‍” and “‍part of‍” are not sufficient because we want the same term to refer to “‍animal‍” being more abstract than “‍mammal‍”. We could have added our own word, maybe based on some foreign/dead language or maybe invented from whole cloth. Instead, we hijacked a word that sometimes meant what we wanted (e.g., “‍furniture‍” is a more abstract idea than is “‍sofa‍”) and declared that we’d use it to mean that all the time. I doubt this was conscious; probably someone was using the word correctly in one context and decided to use it to mean the same thing in a different context despite the fact that second usage was “‍incorrect.‍” It worked, others did the same, and thus a jargon was born.

I have a habit of stepping over the lines a bit, moving from one discipline to another and seeing what my knowledge of algorithms, computational theory, and mathematics can do to help tie up some of the loose problems in that area. I thus spend a fair amount of time with jargon as an enemy, a barrier to entry that I have to struggle over through sheer determination and lot and lots of reading. It’s often not clear which terms they have usurped nor how these terms have been modified to suit the needs of a particular field. In the midst of these struggles I often find myself wishing that jargon did not exist.

But once I learn the jargon, I find it hugely helpful. Being able to refer to specific categories of things precisely without worrying about the usual ambiguity of natural language… it’s a treat, really, a balm that makes communication easier and more pleasant. At least with other people who know the jargon.

I just wish, sometimes, that there was a repository of jargon glossaries. I could make one, I suppose, and populate it with samples of half a dozen fields’ jargon. But I don’t know if I can always tell which words I am seeing through the lens of a particular field, and quite frankly I’d rather spend my time on something else. Like writing a blog post about jargon.

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