I've noticed this phenomenon in language which I've come to think of as "the opposite of jargon", but which I'm hoping there's a better name for. I don't know anything about linguistics, hence I'm posting this here.

The phenomenon occurs when complex ideas and belief systems are successfully compressed to very short phrases such that the listener seems to instantly grasp the idea without further explanation, often allowing for the stealthy spread of a philosophy or ideology.

First example: The school principal circulates an email to all teachers urging the staff to a meeting on "Best practices for working with students with disabilities." I, a teacher, have never heard the phrase "best practices" before, but its meaning is self-explanatory: I'm going to learn the best possible way to do my job. Further, this implies that there is one, singular best way to do this job. If I know another way to do this, it is probably inferior, since there can only be one 'best.' When I use this phrase with my colleagues, I spread this notion of a single ideal execution of a job.

Second example: My friend Jane tells me she must be careful in certain situations to use "politically correct" language. I've never heard the phrase 'politically correct' before, but the meaning is plain: Some statements are correct while others are not. This correctness is in some way to do with 'politics'. The stealthy inference here is that some person or persons has written down a list of acceptable words and ideas, and is enforcing it. We are censored, oppressed. When I use this phrase with others, I spread this sense of victimhood.

So where jargon tends to be used to divide an in-group from the general population these phrases have the opposite effect welcoming the listener in to a group of believers. This, I believe, even when they might have otherwise objected.

So what is this called? I'd welcome suggestions for reading on this topic.


First of all, there is the hypernym register. A language breaks down into all kinds of registers, and you can contrast specific jargon with other registers like "newspaper text" or "talkshow discourse". Usually, there is no such thing like "not jargon", because every discourse takes place in some group or community, it is just another one than the professional community of teachers or people participating in a certain political discourse.

  • I see, thank you. But is there a word for the work that these types of phrases do in reinforcing or weakening the boundaries of groups? I'm trying to suggest that 'jargon' reinforces barriers to entry whereas these phrases weaken the barriers in a stealthy way. Mar 24 at 15:52

I need to point out that you didn't clearly explain what an example of "jargon" is and what a supposed example of "opposite of jargon" is, and it's not obvious from your question. The primary linguist concepts underlying that realm of language use are literal vs. metaphorical language, or denotation vs. connotation. Some words exist only as technical vocabulary, such as "leukocyte", "allophone", "squamata", where non-specialists may have heard the first two words but least likely the third, and non-specialists probably don't know what the words mean. Alternatively, whatever meaning they assign to the word diverges significantly from the specialist's meaning. Some words are commonly used and have an established meaning but are also assigned a special meaning in a certain domain of discourse (e.g. "spline", which was taken into math with a related but different meaning). There is a slippery slope in the continuum of "literality" of meaning, to the point that you get utterly pointless debates over what "logic" means (the Aristotilean view vs. the neo-Fregean formalist view).

Your examples are non-compositional phrasal constructions, where it's not possible to know intended referents if you just know the literal meaning of "best", "practice", "political" and "correct". Such constructions are similar to somewhat specialized word usage in linguistics, for example in phonological theory, "rule" doesn't mean the same thing as it does in ordinary English. In the latter case, we manage because we can give (and teach) a technical definition of "rule" that more or less allows anyone to determine is X is a "rule", but in your examples, one has to infer a definition / rule for categorization by observation (where the "community leaders" clearly identify X, Y, Z as "best practices").

It seems that what you are interested in is the problem of inferring the intended referent from a word of phrase which has become somewhat lexicalized, that is unlike "old car", the meaning of the expression isn't reducible to the meaning of "old" and "car", or, to use the jargon, the meaning is non-compositional.

  • Thank you. The term non-compositional is helpful! Mar 24 at 18:39

What you are asking for is idioms.

I have not read the examples yet. We'll see.

"Idiom" can be defined variously. In the sense that is pertinent here I understand it in the broad sense of an idiomatic expression within a language in contrast to other languages. This is usually explained in second language acquisition as a phrase that is not sum of parts.

In a more narrow sense the term is used to mean a proverb or designated figure of speech.

In a very specialized sense in linguistics it may be used to mean almost a whole language, like a very special idiom is underlying the Germanic languages (I don't remember who said that).

That contrasts well with jargon if both points mark extreme ends of the understandibility of any given utterance in context. So, SMPS is only understood by EEs, and differently in other fields, but US is understood by any speaker of AmE and far beyond.

That's not an exact opposite, just as there's no opposite to 0 degree Kelvin.

Compare your examples: 1. "best practices" I think that's what I was trying to say, a set phrase that with sufficient knowledge can be understood by a speaker first as a sum of parts and and second to imply maybe certain expectations.My chosen examples don't square well because abbreviations are exceptional in oral speech. 2. "politically correct" Is actually a figure of speech. Known as PC it squares well with my examples. Its interpretation is subjective though and since it pertains to language politics first of all, it is also limited by the respective speech community.

Both examples may count as jargon. The latter counts maybe more so as political jargon. It just so happens that politics is understood to be a concern of and for everyone, but this cannot universally hold true.

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