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The inevitable magnetism of intersemiotic vacuousities (or why people love nonsense)

Every discipline attracts jargon. Why?

Cynically we might say it’s because they want to make themselves look important and keep outsiders from understanding what they’re saying. Sometimes that is the case or becomes true, but less cynically it seems to be a natural byproduct of spending a lot of time thinking and talking and writing about one particular subject or area.

Focus on one area for enough and spend time with others doing the same and you often want precise or particular ways of separating or grouping things. We find that general words don’t give us the tools we need – they’re either too specific or too general or they don’t express things the way we want. So we reach for other tools. Frequently in the English-speaking world we dip into Greek or Latin, occasionally making sorties into French and undergoing formación in Spanish to find just the right words to say what we want to say. Either we find another language has a more precise/general word for what we want to describe or we cheerfully portmanteau or build new meanings on these linguistic green-field sites. What is fantastically seductive about such new territory is that the terms are completely empty of meaning to most people. Using pristine new expressions, unsullied by confusing connotations or associations we can fill the word up with our very own definition and have it mean exactly what we want it to mean: no more, no less.

In other words, we are just a sliver away from Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

There is the slight problem that no-one understands what you mean unless you tell them, but that is the price we may judge is worth paying for clarity and precision. But what if other people start using your term and twist and adapt it for other purposes? What if people understand things differently? What if the cognitive effects achieved by the implicature are contrary to your intent? Well, then it’s back to the Greek and the Latin to find a new, pure, empty term to fight another day.

Is there another way to communicate without losing people? Can we communicate using common-or-garden words and phrases? Yes, I believe we can, and I believe it is worthwhile. Running after some security in an empty and pure term may well just lead to confusion rather than clarity. Sometimes I have a suspicion that we end up finding far too much security in jargon and can even deceive ourselves that we understand more than we really do. Being forced to use ordinary language or even simple language to explain or describe or talk about something is a challenge. But perhaps it’s not hard for the reasons we often think.

Perhaps it’s actually hard because explaining something clearly and simply means we have to understand it very, very well. Regurgitating jargon is something anyone can do.

Any fool can make something simple seem complicated. What takes genius is making something complicated look simple. So, whither inter-semiotics?

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