Friday, 9 December 2011

J is for Jargon

I'm a writer. I talk about things like POV all the time, I know what an ISBN is, and the difference between verso and recto. They're all bits of my writer-ish jargon. Most professions have their own language, complete with acronyms and the like. Put the right bits of jargon in the right character's mouth, and you've instantly added to their characterisation. Someone who tells you that they're outcome-driven is telling you a lot about themselves (or opening the kimono).

(I've always wanted to write a character who uses lots of business/office jargon and have a book called Ducks in a Row: An A- Z of Offlish by Carl Newbrook (Offlish being jargon for Office English) which yields all manner of goodies from Blue sky thinking to Running a flag up the pole. The nearest I've come to it was Marcus in Kissing Mr Wrong. It was a small moment of personal triumph to get 'athermal birefringent filters' into the text.)

The trouble with jargon is when it becomes incomprehensible to outsiders. I haven't a clue what 'athermal birefringent filters' are, but nor does viewpoint character Lu and it's not important to understanding the text. There's nothing more frustrating than being deep in a story and then getting dragged out by not understanding a particular word. Jactitation is a great word, but I don't imagine many people know what it means (restless tossing in illness, twitching or convulsion) let alone a jactitation of marriage (the pretence of being married to another). Every time the reader goes out of a story, you potentially lose them.

Foreign language is another form of jargon. All jargon potentially excludes readers, but using foreign words potentially alienates them. Your French/Greek/Latin/whatever may be fluent, but mine certainly isn't and I hate reading bits of foreign language in a novel which I don't understand. Providing a direct translation is convenient, but breaks the illusion that the novel is real life. Make the meaning of your foreign words clear from the context. These are from A Single to Rome.

'Buon appetito,' she murmured as she put a plate down in front of Natalie.

'Ciao, Natalie, come stai?' It was Teresa.
'Va bene,' Natalie said, pleased to have at least mastered the polite exchange of greetings in Italian, but then had to lapse into English.

Alternatively, have your characters translate for each other (and the reader).

'I used to be a lawyer,' Natalie said.
Bettina looked puzzled. 'Avvocato,' Claudio chipped in, handing out drinks.

Later on, I used the word avvocato without translation, hoping that it's stuck in the reader's mind.

Finally, don't forget that using jargon isn't rocket science.


Patsy said...

See what you mean - I went off to Google verso and recto!

Giles Diggle said...

On the other hand, jargon comes and goes like bell-bottom trousers! Language itself changes so fast in the modern world.

I have this constant debate: should I be contemporary with lots of references to things of the now, or should I write in a more universal way which hopefully will still be readable in 50 years, rather than just being a piece of its time - a bit like Dad Dancing in an old wedding suit?

Philip C James said...

Rocket Science is just knowing how to make a salad, isn't it?

Giles makes a good point about timelessness but of course whatever you do is going to set the novel in a era. Times change; if your MP character is appointed to the cabinet and submits himself to his electorate to allow them the final word that sets the passage in the early 1900s (Churchill did that in 1906 and lost the by-election!) Patrick O'Brien made it a USP of his books. Choosing the right representative phrase to provide that period furniture and yet allow the reader (of any age) to feel they understand it, is the mark of Sarah's good writer and of their understanding of their audience, surely?

I wasn't going to admit it but now Patsy has done so, I googled 'V & R' also. If I had once known it I'd now forgotten their meaning. Thus does Sarah maintain her position of superiority as teacher over us.

If you ever need a dictionary of (Royal) Naval slang I cannot recommend too highly

JACKSPEAK A Guide To British Naval Slang & Usage by Rick Jolly.

If nothing else it has over a hundred salty sea dogs' euphemisms for sexual intercourse, products of the ready humour of the military.

Oh go on then, my favourite is "Receiving swollen goods."

Giles Diggle said...

What Philip says is very interesting and true, but I think it is even more difficult than ever before for the good writer to define the age - only history will tell if s/he got it right. (s/he; he/she tells it's own story)

Much of the world today seems to be Branding and a collapsing of history and culture into an electronic mash-up (jargon!) where past and present happen simultaneously on whatever device we use are using at the time.

Everything leads back to a good central story that can resonate down the generations. As has always been the case.

Sarah Duncan said...

Re V& R, this blog aims to be educational, y'know.

Jargon over time is interesting. I think we seem less tolerant over recent jargon, rather than jargon from the more distant past. So PO'B is fine, because he's writing about 200 years ago, Austen is fine too. But something written in the 80s or even the 90s seems horribly dated.

Philip C James said...

I watched part of CASUALTY on Saturday with half a mind on your point about jargon. Yes, there are tons of clinical terms used to make the viewer of this medical soap feel they are watching a real A&E (ER) at work (but then my Devil's advocate pointed out that it's different for the visual arts, where viewers can understand the jargon better because they can see a visual example).

OFF TOPIC (FOR SOUTH-WEST READERS ONLY): the whole episode had a valedictory feel about it, presumably to do with the impending move of production site from Bristol to Wales. As the final shot was of Clifton Suspension Bridge, I imagine the new series will open with a shot of an ambulance crossing the First Severn Crossing!

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