A Word for Everything and Everything In Its place.

As a scientist I write a lot and effective communication is absolutely essential.  Whether I’m writing proposals, correspondences, emails, or papers for peer reviewed journals, the goal is communicate with brevity, clarity, and impersonality.   This means doing away with needless passive phrasing, and cutting out wordiness, for example: “a majority of” can be truncated by replacing it with “most” or “has been proved to be” replaced by “is”.  However, one thing I don’t agree with –for any type of writing- is using plain or colloquial language.

I understand that when writing science there is no need to be superfluous, layer double meanings, add flowery synonym.  God forbid you add rhyme and cadence – that can be left to authors, poets, or Naïve science journalists.

I had a bit of an argument with a supervisor in the past concerning the use of language.
My supervisor wanted me to substitute “plain” words in a paper that we submitted for publication in a peer reviewed journal.  Imagine my surprise when Trevor Quirks piece “Writers should not fear jargon” was published in Nature a couple weeks after the argument.

While I will recommend cutting out jargon when writing for non-scientists, I think to do so for scientists is simply unacceptable.  If you’re a scientist and don’t understand “paradigm” or “synergy” I’m seriously worried about you.

I don’t mean to be pessimist or a pejorist but there is an increasing trend of aversion to using jargon and substituting it with something more colloquial.  For example, a PhD student at the University of Innsbruck, Austria won a competition to explain the concept of a flame in words that a 11-year-old could understand.  However, the problem, as Mr. Quirk pointed out is that “specialized terms capture the complexity and specificity of scientific concepts” and “no other words in the English language encapsulate their meaning quite as well, and if they are dismissed as jargon, then that meaning is lost”.

Often times one may have a feeling that they are impoverished for words; a sense of onomatomomaina you may say.  Perhaps you felt you used “x” word too many times and take a look in a Thesaurus to spice things up a little.  The only problem is that language is imperfect; words are imperfect as symbols.

It’s true that Eskimos have at least 50 words for snow and Albanians have 27 words for eyebrows but that is because these cultures view differences between snow conditions or eyebrow shapes.  Words may have different semantic alliance but never different DEFINITIONS.  For example “crafty” and “skillful” are often used interchangeably, depending upon the context as their definitions are similar.  This is simply not correct as their meaning has diverged to a greater extent.  Skillful has positive connotations, whereas “crafty” carries mostly negative connotations.  The general public’s attitude toward erudite language is likely due to laziness in having to consult a dictionary; which is unacceptable in a day where definitions are just a click away.  The truth is that few word pairs (if any) are really 100% true synonyms; synonyms are situational and each one has some context or nuance of meaning that fits one and not the other.

The word synonym has “no synonym” and by that I mean a word that specifically is a synonym for “synonym”.  My thesaurus lists “equivalent”, but that is too generic, synonym refers specifically to words.  Quite humorously, the cinematographer David Watkin, wrote a biography titled “Why is there only one word for Thesaurus?”

The use of progress in place of adaptation is a perfectly cromulent word – picking the wrong word plain and simple.  Just because the English lexicon is sloppy does not mean that clarity should be abandoned, scholars should be politely but firmly insistent upon “proper usage”.

Use of the proper term is a necessity as well as the work done by the reader to understand it.  The only time synonyms should be misused correctly (for effect) is in the use of catachresis where there exists no actual name (a tables leg, for example) or for rhetorical effect as so cleverly demonstrated by Shakespeare’s Hamlet “To take arms against a sea of troubles”.

This reminds me of a story about Samuel Johnson, who was not perfect with respect to personal hygiene.  At a grand supper Lady Marmalade turned to him and said to him rather imperiously, “Sir your SMELL!” Johnson said, “Madam, YOU smell – I STINK!”

Perhaps I should stop this floccinaucinihilipilificatory post and get back to writing about science.

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