One phenomenon visible in many Wellesley classrooms is students’ heavy use of eloquent academic jargon to impress their professors and peers. Technical words like “juxtaposition,” “dichotomy” and “inherent” are frequently employed in discussions.
In an article for The Columbia Spectator, student Karl Daum asserts that these trite filler words serve as vacuous commentary cloaked in intellectual sophistication and discourage users from organically analyzing the subject at hand. Others maintain that technical words are a crucial component of the academic lexicon and are an integral part of academic discourse. I believe the latter.
Daum makes some erroneous assumptions about technical words in his article. While expressions like “utopia,” “paradigm” and “through the lens of” are commonplace in the academic setting, they are not trite because they are used in different contexts. Each of these words has a comfortable niche in every class from political science to history and even economics, because all of these subjects rely on the same basic vocabulary to formulate experiments, analyze phenomena and make normative judgments.
Technical terms like “analyze” and “explain” are also not hackneyed, since English words often have multiple meanings for different situations. For example, the word “clip” means both “to fasten” and “to sever.” Similarly, “juxtapose” sometimes refers to comparison rather than contrast. These factors shed light on the usefulness of academic jargon in the classroom.
Another problematic conjecture Daum makes is that technical words stagnate the imagination and prevent fruitful academic discussion. His claim is incorrect because words are merely the expression of thought. Idea A remains Idea A regardless of what words are used to express it. Thus, thoughts exist independently of the words we use to express them.
Indeed, the culprit of failed discussions is lack of student insight into topics rather than the language they rely on to express their ideas. It is also crucial to note that the classroom possesses a limited arsenal of words acceptable for academic discussions. Just as a generally agreed upon canon of classic works exists in English literature, only select words like “analyze,” “integrate” and “identify” have a comfortable place in the academic setting. However, an excellent example of the pitfalls of limiting our vocabulary is evident in George Orwell’s “1984,” a book in which characters must converse in Newspeak, a language meant to reinforce loyalty to the state and reduce individualistic thought. Thus, the frequent use of academic jargon is both inevitable and desirable within the classroom and society as a whole.
Interestingly, Daum refers to technical words as habit words we often rely on when conversing with others. Habit words is a category that encompasses any term we often employ in general. For example, I often use the words “neat” and “wicked” colloquially. Most other people also have choice phrases with which their friends identify them.
Should we Wellesley students cut down on our trademark expressions, academic or not, or embrace them by continuing to use them frequently? I believe that since we already tout our ethnicities, races and sexualities as integral parts of ourselves, Wellesley students should be proud of the idiosyncratic language they use. The words we use to express ourselves are an integral part of our own unique identities and often reflect our beliefs and past experiences. Therefore, trademark words should be respected and encouraged in public usage, both within and outside the classroom.
At the end of the day, we must return to the question of what motivates our choices of which words we choose to use. If we are using fancy phrases to ensnare others in confounding intellectual labyrinths or elevate ourselves on pedestals to the detriment of others, it is only right to seriously consider altering our vocabularies and intentions for the future. Conversely, if our words serve as ladders out of an abyss of misunderstanding or as features of our own unique personalities, we can keep our habit words in good conscience.
We should also acknowledge the sway others hold over us and not be alarmed if we observe subtle shifts in our vocabularies. After all, it’s all part of the learning process.