Whether we realize it or not, we all regularly encounter jargon in our work and in our everyday lives. But what is jargon and, specifically, what is jargon in literature? What do writers and editors need to know?
What is Jargon? Definition and History
Jargon is the particular set of terminology and language used within:
- Topics, or;
It can be found within any specialized area and
is especially common within specific industries. The term ‘jargon’ refers to the professional and proper terms, unlike slang or colloquialisms.
According to an article on Jargon on supersummary.com, the first time the term ‘jargon’ was used was in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 15th century.
Chaucer used the term to refer to bird sounds, but its meaning changed over time. It was in the late 20th century that it was used to refer to “specialized language that’s incomprehensible to those outside the field.”
- Literature, and;
All have their own specialized language that is used and understood by those within that field.
Jargon can be used in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, it can offer people within a certain group a specialized vocabulary to use with one another, so that communication is clear and simplified.
On the negative side, it can at times “be used to exclude others who are not part of the group or to show one’s own belonging to the group” (Jargon, literarydivices.com). It’s for this reason that the article 6+ Jargon Examples in Literature on examples.com calls it “the Mean Girls of Language.”
Jargon in Literature
Writers and editors have terms they frequently use when communicating with each other, like we do in the Fictionary Community. Within our field, when we talk about ‘craft books,’ for example, we automatically know we aren’t talking about books that teach us how to crochet couches for cats (yes, that’s a thing, and they’re pretty cute). Rather, we know this term refers to books that are specifically about writing and editing.
The field of literature has its own, large set of jargon to aid us with its study, discussion, and analysis. Writers use jargon in writer’s groups and with critique partners to ask for and give feedback and advice, and to ensure we are using important elements.
But there is another, even more important way writers use jargon.
Why and How to Apply Jargon to Writing
I’m sure we’ve all heard that age-old piece of advice, ‘Write what you know.’
Yet, as fiction authors, if we only ever wrote what we know, our writing wouldn’t be very exciting, would it? If you want to write about something you don’t know, research it, make sure you know the jargon, and use that jargon correctly.
Jargon can be integral to setting up your characters’ backgrounds and professions in a realistic way.
If you’re writing about a character who works in a particular profession, for example, using the accepted jargon for that profession correctly can make a huge difference to how realistic that character is.
Use terms incorrectly, and readers who work in that profession—or who know someone who does—may be pulled out of the story. Their disbelief will no longer be suspended.
The use of jargon, though, doesn’t have to be limited to the profession itself, but can also include terms related to the setting and genre.
Using Jargon According to Profession, Setting, and Genre
Let’s say you’re writing a crime novel about a murder.
Your protagonist could be a detective with the local police department, or maybe an FBI agent
When that character is investigating the area where the murder took place, they would use jargon such as:
- Crime scene,
- Dusting for prints
- Person of Interest,
- Witness, and so on.
If that same character were testifying at a trial, we could hear additional terms such as:
- Character Witness,
- Expert Witness,
- Witness Stand,
- Jury Box,
- Circumstantial Evidence,
- Hearsay, and so on.
Your lawyer character better know those terms and use them correctly, as well.
For a sports romance about hockey players, you might expect to hear terms like:
- Body Check,
- Trade, and;
Since sports romance tends to lean to the lighthearted, romantic comedy side, you might also hear slang terms (similar to jargon but casual instead of professional) like:
- Puck Bunny,
- Puck Hog,
- Puck Head, and;
- Sharpshooter (which has a different connotation if you’re writing about army rangers or assassins).
You don’t have to be a homicide detective or a private investigator to write crime, and you don’t need to be a hockey player to have a protagonist who is. But if you aren’t, then make sure you do proper research into the profession so that you can be sure you’re using the related jargon correctly.
Using Jargon to Represent Different Time Periods
The time period a story is set in can affect the jargon that’s used as well. A medical doctor in a book set in the middle ages likely would not use the same jargon as a modern doctor.
For example, according to an article written by Trisha Torrey and posted on verywellhealth.com, some medical jargon used in the past that is not used today are:
- Ablepsy (Blindness),
- Blood Poisoning (Sepsis),
- Consumption (Tuberculosis),
- Melancholia (Depression), and;
- Ship Fever (Typhus).
The same is true for a book set in the future—though you might have to make up your own jargon in this case, since the professions, equipment, or technology you are writing about might not have been (and may never be) invented.
Using Jargon in Worldbuilding
Writers of fantasy—or any genre or story not set in the real world—will have to create a set of jargon to use in their novel or series about that particular fantasy world. It is then important to ensure the newly crafted jargon is used consistently all throughout the book or series.
Examples of Jargon in Literature
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy
Brandon Sanderson, a well-known fantasy author, creates his own jargon for various things in his fantasy worlds, such as professions or titles within the political or social hierarchy, and for his unique magic systems.
For example, in his Mistborn Trilogy, his magic system involves using trace metals, either already present in the body or consumed, to perform various feats of magic.
This system is called Allomancy and the people who can use this magic are called Allomancers. But the jargon gets more specific than this as well.
People who can use one type of metal are called Mistings, and those rare few who can use all types of metal are Mistborn. He refers to using the metals to get specific results ‘burning,’ as in ‘burning tin,’ ‘burning pewter,’ and so on.
Sanderson sets up the basics in book 1 of the trilogy, adding to it as the story progresses.
Then he is consistent in the use of his coined jargon for all of the systems he created for that fantasy world, The Final Empire, through to the end of the series.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
In The Silence of the Lambs, the protagonist, Clarice Starling, is a trainee in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit.
She is sent to interview Hannibal Lector, a brilliant psychiatrist, serial killer, and cannibal, who is currently housed in an asylum. She is to ask for his help in locating the latest kidnapping victim of another serial killer, Buffalo Bill, before he can murder the girl, who happens to be the daughter of a senator.
Because of her position and the task she is assigned, we get both law enforcement (FBI) jargon and psychiatric jargon throughout the book, and in the movie adaptation.
We see terms like:
- Serial Killer,
- Behavioral Science,
- Psychiatrist, and;
If you are a writer, chances are you’ve already been using jargon, even if you’ve never realized it.
However, if you are conscious of it and intentional in using it correctly and effectively in your stories, it can add an extra layer of realism to help draw readers into your story world.
One of the most important ways it can do this is by helping you create realistic characters your readers can relate to.
Article Written by Sherry Leclerc
Sherry Leclerc is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach editor, Fictionary content creator, Writer’s Digest certified copy editor, and independent author. She is a member of Editor’s Canada, the Canadian Authors Association (CAA), and The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).
Sherry holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature and a B.Ed. She is the sole proprietor of Ternias Publishing, through which she offers various editorial services. She also has a YouTube channel where she has a vlog about writing and editing, titled The Mythic Quill. You can find it on Youtube .
Sherry currently lives in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. You can contact her at [email protected] or [email protected]
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