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What’s in a word?

At about the same time as posting yesterday’s blog, I put a status update on Facebook which read:

I think I am getting my head around a couple of ‘ologies’ and understanding how they are relevant to my research – eeeek! am I turning into some kind of academic – help!!!

As sometimes happens with status updates, but somewhat to my surprise, this update has opened up an interesting dialogue and has helped me understand something of my resistance to using some forms of language. It has also had the effect of clarifying that there are contexts where it is right and proper to use more complex language if one is to be properly understood.

My starting position is that the language which we speak and write is primarily a communication tool. If what we speak and write cannot be understood by the intended audience, then we might as well not have spoken or written. This could imply that the only form of communication which I find acceptable is using the simplest language possible and avoiding all technical or specialist terms. Just counting up the number of 5-syllable words I use shows this is not the case. However, I do have a tendency to prefer not to use specialist language as far as possible. This is partly because I am not particularly interested in language as such. It is also because I have found myself in situations where I have felt excluded from discussion because of my lack of affinity with the language being used. Even if I understood some of what had been said, I was completely unable to respond in any meaningful way. Rather than making me want to understand and use the language, my response was to accept that I was not bright enough for such exchanges and to make no attempt to engage in them. Fortunately, in another setting, I did learn I was not as dim as I thought and achieved a fulfilling career, but I never really came to terms with the language issue and have at times set myself up as anti-intellectual.

The Facebook discussion has opened up the reality that whereas my tendency is to use plain English whenever possible, there are others who relish acquiring and using more complex language:

I love the way that we can express complex ideas concisely – and then stepping stone from one complex idea to another with relative ease.

When I express the view:

I agree reading academic papers should require some work on the part of the reader, but most of that work should be in understanding and applying the ideas being presented and discussed rather than in understanding the language used to present those ideas.

Others would say:

when we are talking to peers in a research community surely we need to agree that we can throw ologies around and assume that we will be understood, or that people have the nouce to find out what we mean. We are invested in educating ourselves surely, so doesn’t understanding require some effort on the part of the reader here?

There is a sense of agreeing to disagree, but there is also an awareness that when we speak or write, we are not only communicating to others, but we are meeting our own needs in many and varied ways. I will no doubt be taking more risks with language in safe situations, but I would be fascinated to know how comfortable, or otherwise, others feel with academic ‘jargon’.

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