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I wonder why certain words are used in occupations when possibly a common known synonym could also be used?

Examples:

  • in law, desist instead of stop, cease
  • in economics, parity instead of equality
  • in medicine, onset of a disease instead of start, beginning

What role or function does professional jargon have in these instances?

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    Spontaneously I see three reasons: 1. Professional terminology can be clearer defined, it does not rely on a broad consensus of all speakers, but only of the professionals; 2. Professional terminology can avoid the many connotations that often blur meaning in colloquial language; 3. Last but not least it serves the end of distinguishing professionality. It creates an hermetic system, to which only adequately informed peers have access. – bouscher Jul 7 '13 at 21:37
  • Yes, those are all reasons that militate for specialized terms instead of long explanations. Details are often important, and the level of detail required is often more than the attention available for long descriptions, so things get speeded up for those in the know. Not a new concept, really. – jlawler Jul 7 '13 at 22:58
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    Aside from functional motivations, terminology in specialized fields follows usage (as do words in all contexts). It may have been at the time a word was coined, that word was in relatively common use. E.g., the word onset originally meant "attack, assault", so it would have been an appropriate and vivid way to describe the first signs of a disease. – user483 Jul 8 '13 at 2:18
  • For some people the word jargon is not a familiar word. Not to mention consensus, colloquial, hermetic, etc (-; I also wanted to mention that jargon applies to senses as well as words. Otherwise mundane words can have specialized senses within certain professions for instance. – hippietrail Jul 8 '13 at 23:55
  • @hippietrail you misunderstood my question, I am not talking about the word "jargon" – Theta30 Jul 18 '13 at 0:19
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+50

Reasons for the use of jargon are precision and the tendency of communities (professional or otherwise) to develop their own vocabulary.

Precision

Members of a community, such as lawyers, might sometimes feel the need to invent new words for concepts that exist in general usage to make it clear that they are referring to a strictly defined term. This might help avoid confusion between the looser meaning of the word in general usage and the narrower meaning of the one used in specialised discourse.

Another option is to take the word from general usage and (re)define it in a way that suits the needs of the professional community. For example, German Klage means both lawsuit (law jargon, among others) and complaint, lamentation. Lawyers know that Klage if used by their peers refers to a lawsuit and not a complaint without legal consequences, there is no ambiguity involved. So if precision were the only principle shaping the language of professional communities one would expect very little or at least less coining of new terms to occur, especially since redefining an existing word would be more economical than coining a whole new word.

Identity

Another, perhaps more important, argument I think is that communities tend to come up with their own vocabulary. This is in part because they need to refer to concepts those who do not belong to the community have no interest in or knowledge of. But jargon can also arise in cases where the concept that a new word refers to is not particularly complicated or new, such as in the examples given in the question (desist for stop).

Jargon serves to create a common identity among the members of the group. If you know the jargon you belong to the group, if you don't know it everybody will notice you don't belong to the group. Spolsky (1998), for example, says that

A specialised jargon serves not just to label new and needed concepts, but to establish bonds between members of the in-group and enforce boundaries for outsiders. If you cannot understand my jargon, you don't belong to my group.

In this sense jargon is comparable to slang, which also serves to mark group boundaries. The difference, as Kollataj (2009) points out, is that slang is stigmatised but jargon is not. How groups of people, whether they work in the same professional community or belong to more loosely defined social groups, develop their own ways of communicating has been described by Penelope Eckert as communities of practice.

  • I think jargon actually is sometimes stigmatized, but only by members of the outgroup. A huge amount of silly peeves about language are justified by claims (often unfounded) that the usage in question belongs to administrative jargon or "manager-speak." Other less widespread examples: you can find people who will ridicule theological jargon because they disagree with the people who use it, or medical jargon because they don't have a high opinion of doctors. – ewawe Aug 17 '15 at 19:33
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There are many reasons for using jargon, but the primary one is precision.

Words that are used only (or at least most commonly) within a particular profession are defined accurately by practitioners of that profession to mean something precise. Hearing a common word can lead many people to THINK they know what it means, and be slightly wrong, whereas a word they don't know will have to be defined, and can therefore be defined precisely.

In your examples, "desist" means more than just stop. It means something like "stop, and don't start again, and don't do anything else so similar that we can show it has the same effect". This is why the letter you send to someone using your intellectual property is called a "cease and desist" letter, rather than just a cease letter.

Parity, on the other hand, is slightly less specific than equality. It suggests equality in one specific way, or mere connectedness, rather than actual equality.

I don't know enough about medicine to know the specific meaning of onset, but it is highly likely that it is slightly different to "start".

Even if you choose a word to represent something that is already accurately contained within a word in common usage, if the concept is important within the profession in question, it is likely that a jargon word may be coined in order to avoid the word's meaning migrating over time, as words in common use are wont to do.

  • What you wrote seems to me contradictory to what @bouscher commented. You basically say there is no jargon, when you dig deeper, while he says it is for esoteric purposes. I opened a bounty – Theta30 Jul 25 '13 at 6:00
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    Having read that comment, I think my answer includes 1) and 2) from his comment. And while I think 3) does happen, I don't think it's a reason for using jargon, but just an effect of using it. And I didn't mean to imply that ALL jargon means something different to common words (hence - "no jargon"), just that your two examples that I know happen to work that way. I think my last paragraph handles those cases too (where jargon replaces a common word, rather than adding to it) – Ryno Jul 25 '13 at 16:18
  • @Theta30 I never spoke of "esoteric purposes". By "hermetic" I just mean, that jargon creates a closed, self-referencing system to which only initiates have access. Whereas I agree with Ryno I still believe that this is not only an effect, but actually a purpose of jargon, if only on a secondary level. – bouscher Jul 29 '13 at 7:59
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In addition to precision, jargon is used to mark status and what social group(s) you are a member of, or wish you were a part of. Such jargon then coincides/overlaps with sociolect. For instance, the Alice of "Alice in Wonderland" used "looking glass" for "mirror". See also U and non-U English at the Wikipedia.

  • I am speaking about professional jargon, not upper class – Theta30 Jul 22 '13 at 14:57
  • If a specific profession leads to being counted in a specfic class (doctors, royalty, CEO's, say), you have an overlap. You need to take that into account. – kaleissin Jul 22 '13 at 17:15

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