When Jargon Fails
Jargon has its purposes. In content pertaining to popular culture, when employing slang to engage readers and other consumers of entertaining information, concise and/or colorful slang enlivens the experience. But in writing about business and technology, jargon can encumber rather than enhance comprehension, and writers should take care to use it judiciously.
Consider this sentence: “What ‘black boxes’ for validation and/or testing exist in the organization?”
This sentence has a couple of problems. First, why is “black boxes” enclosed in quotation marks? Evidently, the writer erroneously believes that doing so helps signal to the reader that the phrase “black boxes” is jargon being used figuratively; unless you’re referring to those little plastic cubes that hold paper clips, no object that can be described as an actual black box exists in the organization, and these marks supposedly serve as a disclaimer. But quotation marks are superfluous for this purpose; they are useful for calling out ironic or specious wording, like pacification in the context of war, but not for emphasizing metaphoric usage of words and phrases.
Furthermore, however, is the phrase even useful? Think about various examples of figurative jargon employed in business contexts: Talk about planting a seed, or restraining a loose cannon, or starting over with a clean slate, and colleagues will know what you’re talking about—it’s clear from the context that gardening, artillery, and chalkboards are not under discussion. But what is a black box? The term alludes here to a device—which is no longer black nor shaped like a box—used in aircraft to make an audio recording of the actions taking place in the cockpit during flight; a black box can be retrieved from a plane after a crash to determine the cause of the accident.
This is a pertinent metaphor for a mechanism for documenting validation and/or testing of organizational processes or systems, but because “black box,” though familiar to readers, is not as transparent in meaning as many other examples of figurative jargon, the reader will have to pause and analyze the analogy, which distracts from the reading experience.
Would it be helpful to provide a gloss, or a brief definition of the jargon? That would be useful if the entire article were about a documentation mechanism. But in the context from which the sentence about black boxes was extracted, it is simply a passing reference, and defining the phrase would be merely a further distraction. In this case, the best solution is to replace the jargon with a phrase that clearly expresses the intended idea: “What mechanisms for documenting validation and/or testing exist in the organization?”
When writing or editing in any context, evaluate whether jargon or other slang serves communication or itself (or, worse yet, the writer’s ego), and retain or revise accordingly.
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