When Jargon Fails

By Mark Nichol

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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5 Responses to “When Jargon Fails”

  • D.A.W.

    The U.S. Air Force had a long series of accidents, collisions, crashes, and explosions involving thermonuclear weapons, none of which lead to a nuclear explosion, thank Heaven and nuclear safety black boxes. H-bombs have been dropped on North Carolina, South Carolina, and off the coast of the Carolinas. (A regular “Bermuda Triangle” during the 1950s.) H-bombs have been in bomber crashes in New Mexico; Thule, Greenland; and notoriously in southern Spain (in 1966), due to an air-to-air collision. The B-52 collided with a KC-135 tanker plane during air-to-air refueling. The B-52 was carrying four H-bombs, all of which were equipped with parachutes. (This was for in wartime, the B-52 could drop an H-bomb from high altitude, and then have time to fly away to a safe distance before the explosion.) One bomb landed in a stream and was recovered mostly intact. One bomb landed in Mediterranean Sea, and it was later fished out intact. Two of the bombs suffered hard impacts on Spanish ground, and their conventional explosives detonated. Very scary! Because of their electromechanical black boxes, there was not any nuclear explosion, BUT radioactive, poisonous plutonium powder was scattered about on Spanish farmland!
    The U.S. Dept. of Defense and Atomic Energy Commission later gathered up most of the contaminated soil, sealed it up in barrels, and shipped it off for burial on AEC land in South Carolina (!). That area of Spain has also been under surveillance for contamination. In the early 21st Century, the Spanish government requested for even more soil to be removed, and I believe that this process is still going on.

  • D.A.W.

    The kind of potential “nuclear weapons accidents” by the USSR in the field of aerospace is little known. On the other hand, some accidents involving nuclear weapons on Soviet/Russian submarines are well known to the Western governments.
    Several Soviet/Russian submarines containing nuclear weapons (and nuclear reactors) have simply disappeared in the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans, and in most cases, their resting places are known to the west. In one notorious case, a Soviet submarine — carrying nuclear torpedoes — sank in Swedish territorial waters while snooping around in the Baltic Sea. Naturally, the Swedish government was EXTREMELY upset:
    1) Why was a Soviet submarine snooping on us, a neutral country, inside our waters, and without our permission?
    2) To top it off, why with nuclear weapons, in our territory, without our permission — which would never have been given?
    3) And then with the stupidity to allow the submarine to sink?
    4) Nuclear safety black boxes are also subject to corrosion in seawater, and what if all Hell broke loose?

  • D.A.W.

    Sean is really, really correct: In a technical context, “black box” might mean “a component that performs a task without exposing how it operates”. Thus, the internals of the box are unknown, or “black”.
    A black box could contain mechanical or nuclear subsystems or devices whose contents are kept concealed, vague, or unknown. (A black box can even contain a self-destruction subsystem for the event that someone tries to open it up without special knowledge!)
    A “black box” could simply contain contents that are so complicated that only experts can understand anything about them. For example, modern-day automobiles and avionics contain these. Doing a “tune-up” on an auto engine used to be a relatively simple thing to do. Nowadays, the ignition systems contain microprocessors and lots of other esoteric devices.
    The more common meaning for black box is a similar electronic or electromechanical subsystem whose contents are also kept concealed, vague, secret, Top Secret, etc. Hence, there is an element of humor in calling the “flight data recorders”, etc., “black boxes” in that their contents are publically known, though with very complicated technology and very rugged.
    For really black, black, Black Boxes, there are the electronic boxes that contain the subsystems for encrypting and decrypting in telecommunications — for the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the CIA, MI-5, MI-6, the KGB (and its successors), etc.
    In the U.S. Government, the whole field of such secrecy is called the “Black World” (or similar terms). It also includes information about thermonuclear weapons and their own electromechanical black boxes for detonation — and safety subsystems to prevent them from detonating under improper and dangerous conditions. The United States has had H-bombs that have been dropped because of accidents (unintentional dropping, plane crashes, fires, explosions) w/o a nuclear explosion, and the Soviet Navy had submarines that disappeared/sunk with nuclear weapons on board w/o exploding. This was because of a cascading set of safety subsystems, any one of which can prevent the nuclear detonation, or any detonation at all.
    Very Important Black Boxes, indeed!

  • venqax

    @Sean: Good point. The meaning you refer to is exactly the one that came to my mind, not the airplane device, and it really could make just as much sense without any more context. It reinforces the central message of the OP.

    If the black box survives an airplane crash, why don’t they make the whole plane out of that black box stuff? Steven Wright

  • Sean

    In a technical context, “black box” might mean “a component that performs a task without exposing how it operates”. Thus, the internals of the box are unknown, or “black”. Contrast with a “white box” (seldom used) where the workings are revealed and known.

    Not that this meaning of “black box” would add any additional clarity to the sentence. Avoiding that jargon is excellent advice no matter what the underlying meaning of the phrase is.

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