English of subcultures global English language change and slang

High-speed tech jargon

In its most familiar sense, jargon means specialised, often technical vocabulary associated with a particular type of work or area of activity. For example, there’s scientific jargon, medical jargon, airlinese, and business speak (the last of which I’ve written about before).

Jargon is part of a sublanguage, and is subject to forces of change just like our common vocabulary is. Technology evolves quickly and its jargon is churned out at a corresponding rate. Entire avenues of research and use are rendered obsolete by superior (or better commercialised) developments, so what were technological buzzwords one year might be unrecognisable just a few years later.

On her Fritinancy blog, Nancy Friedman recently wrote about the “Tech Jargon of Yore”, the yore in her title an ironic note on how rapidly tech terminology can become outdated. Browsing Jargon Watch, a book of popular digital jargon from 1997, she says these words “remind or enlighten us about the demands, annoyances, and fixations” of the mid-1990s.

Some of these phrases, such as astroturfing and going postal, have survived the intervening years, while others were briefly popular but faded fast. Bitnik, for example, refers to “someone who uses a public, coin-operated computer terminal to log onto the Internet.” Jargon Watch has seven bit words, apparently – all of them obsolete according to Nancy.

Fast-forwarding to the jargon of today, Adrian Weckler’s article “Tech lingo 101 FTW, OK?” in Ireland’s Business Post reports that IT and online jargon has gotten out of hand, and that abbreviations now “rule our lives”. Acronyms and initialisms have always been popular in brand names, but they seem more prevalent than ever, partly on account of microblogging services like Twitter that encourage compression and make every typographic character count.

David Pogue in the NYT has a related complaint, wondering why tech writers rely so much on jargon and attributing it to habit, laziness, or self-aggrandisement. As the writer of a tech column, he has learned some tricks designed to “communicate technical points without losing the novices”. This is crucial when conveying any kind of specialised material to a wide audience.

In tech journals and on tech websites, a certain level of familiarity may be assumed, and in more mainstream contexts some specialist terminology has become common enough to be used without fear of unintelligibility. So long as jargon is reasonably transparent and pitched at the appropriate level, there is no cause for alarm; when communication fails because the words we use are too obscure or esoteric, people will either stop reading or let us know.

Do the “walls of techno-babble” leave you feeling cached out, stuck in dial-up while others are high-speed beta users in the cloud? Is tech jargon’s functionality in need a reboot? Let us know in a comment – or in the “comment field”, if you prefer.

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Stan Carey


  • Stan:
    Isn’t it strange that we haven’t turned jargon into a verb? It seems counter-intuitive, considering the propensities of the language. I’ve always had a friendly feeling for jargon. Its use is a warm and fuzzy way for us to identify with our little patch of the tribe, and to recognize our semblables.As a journalist, I’ve observed that our jargon is relatively limited: a few words like “stet,” and “lede, “graf” and “hed,”‘ phrases like “newshole,” (at least in American journalism), but in business, science, academia, and government, jargon rules supreme; at least that’s my understanding of the output resulting from the input, after the throughput has been massaged.

  • Marc: Jargon doesn’t seem to have generated very many derivations, but jargonize/-ise has some currency. Jargonify, less so. I like jargon too, up to a point. Like you say, it helps establish group identity, and there can be ample appeal in the words themselves. As a biologist I’m especially fond of scientific terms, some of which can be truly wonderful. There’s no end of entertainment in zoological nomenclature, to mention but one subset.

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