'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

Go here to find out more.

Sunday, 3 April 2011


I am writing an exegesis at some stage in the next two years.

To this end I have been thinking about issues around jargon/ specialist terminology vs. plain English, clarity vs. simplicity, ambiguity vs. transparency etc.

It's a fraught area in every specialist field I can think of - sales and marketing, politics, science etc.
It seems to me that the real reasons behind the use of, let's call it 'specialist language', are at the crux of the matter. Obviously if the obscure language is intended to hide unpleasant or unwelcome messages, then there is little to justify the use of such language.
However even if this less common language is used to make ideas or situations clear, precise and unambiguous, this can still result in the message not reaching people it should or could.

What is the answer? Regarding 'art-speak' which is intended to elevate the 'aesthetically cultured' speaker or writer, obviously clarity is not the intention and the language is often newly fabricated and metaphorical to the point of obscurity.

But what of genuinely complex and new ideas which require language not in common use?

Say I want to try and explore a way of depicting the beautiful iridescence of some scarab, yet, (not surprisingly) fail to do this. And if I then try and describe my process of exploration in language, is it possible to do so without resorting to metaphors or big words and you having to look up every second word in a dictionary?

Do you think I should try and write my exegesis in plainer English?


  1. The first consideration, surely, is the audience for the exegesis (which, I have to add I had generally associated with an explanation of scriptural - in its broadest sense - text). If it is an academic treatise to be read by academics and largely remain in the academic domain then the jargon of that academic discipline would, I would suggest, be appropriate.

    If, however, there is a wider audience there is a choice. They learn the language of the discipline in which you are working or you write in such a way that they can understand. The latter option may, of course, simply mean that you provide explanations of the scientific terms.

    You are a scientist and artist. My spheres were law and bureaucracy (I discount my years as a potter). The use of language in our respective disciplines could be very different. Plain words as a bureaucrat are paramount (in my view). For a scientist I would suggest that paragraphs one and two above apply!

    How thoroughly unhelpful can your commenters be?

  2. The thing that opened my eyes several years ago was learning that if you tell the doctor you have pain in the chest and he diagnoses you with angina pectoralis it means you have, guess what, pain in the chest. But you get to explain your pain in the chest to others by saying that what you have is angina pectoralis.

    Neat, huh? But not too informative. I guess the docs can't just say "We don't know what is causing the pain in your chest"....

    VW is aughtn. They aughtn to do that.

  3. C S Lewis said that if you can't explain something is plain English then you either don't believe it or you don't understand it (his context here was theology). He also lamented the over use of words ( sports commentators do this all the time, incredible play, brilliant play etc - Einstein was brillant and so are some light bulbs, but I digress) - Lewis stated that this inappropriate use of words and overuse of words meant that these words became valueless and exited our language - words are precision tools.

    You are correct about words that are used to hide reality - the military are very good at this - 'Collateral Damage' means the killing, wounding and disfiguring of bystanders i.e. the innocent. Limited Theatre Nuclear War (Note how 'Limited' is used to imply restraint) means Millions of people incinerated with the survivors dying hideous deaths from radiation.

    Polititions use the term 'Fiscal Drag' to describe how inflation pushes more people into higher tax brackets thus paying more tax - with the politicians dragging their heels (years) to make any sort of adjustments, and then announcing tax cuts as though the Santa Claus when all they have done is reestablish the status quo.

    Language is a very powerful tool, easily abused - but used wisely it gives us, poetry, narrative, novels etc (not forgetting useful instruction manuals) --- I think you have chosen a very very interesting topic Katherine

  4. You ask the question "What is the answer?" - The answer is to chose your audience. Physics written for the specialist is incomprehensible to the non specialist - but Stephen Hawkings 'A Brief History of Time' reached and was generally understood by the ordinary public.

    C S Lewis who I referred to in my other comment was much criticised by academics for writing popular theology for the general public despite the fact that this public appreciated his efforts and bought his books by the millions.

    Of course there are many times when writing about physics, theology, chemistry, medical procedures, Visual Arts etc etc should be written solely for the specialist or academic - our very lives may well depend on it - but as I suggested the writer has to choose the context, purpose and audience.

  5. Thank you for your comments, all.

    Re. audience, don't you think that the audience will fit the language, rather than the other way around? I guess I'm trying to say that if I write the exegesis using 'plainer' words (not necessarily simpler concepts), then my ideas (which I hope some others will find interesting) will reach more people.

    But then, will my tutors and other academics, upon whom I depend for approval and peer reviews, react to the absence of the usual specific art vocabulary by assuming the work lacks depth or originality?

  6. The answer to your dilemma could be to write it for the peer reviewers in first instance and then publish a translation. On the other hand by the time you have achieved the first objective you may well be too mentally exhausted with the subject to go on to the second suggestion.

  7. Hi Katherine,
    You are introducing a very interesting topic. I like the medical terminology concerto, by the way.
    My answer to your question is: the plainer the English the better. Off course you have to trust your tutors and the academics that have to approve your work. Often I meet people that use difficult words to hide that they really don’t know the subject well. Another reason is that some want to show off and want to look more important. (As an adviser with a Chemical engineering background I sometimes make training material for mid level technicians, based on expert knowledge). But explaining complex things with simple words is a hard job. You know the expression: I am writing you a long letter because I did not have the time to write you a short one?
    So the plainer the English, the larger the audience can be. Off course every field has its own specific terms, but why not explain it the first time you use the difficult word. For instance, I did not know what the word iridescence meant, so I Googled the Dutch translation. Literally translated back into English it means rainbow colorness. (Regenboogkleurigheid). Easy to understand and it will not be forgotten.
    Officially you should choose your audience and adapt your language to it. But if you want to go beyond the normal audience, you are faced with a lot of extra hard work. In that case people like me can probably understand more about art and enjoy it more.

  8. Wendy Pedersen8.4.11

    Well Kate some very interesting comments. You know of course what I would suggest, esp as I want to read it, preferably without a dictionary to hand. But then you gotta do what you gotta do. I suggest you measure how strongly you want to fight a war on two fronts 1. Gaining your degree, not a so easy task but well within your capabilities. And 2. Become a rebel and possibly become what others might call a "real artist" by pushing the boundaries, sail out into the ocean on your windsurfer and teach some of the entrenched to fly above the waves as well. Sorry got carried away with the metaphors. I have a tongue in check solution, publish it in text speak lol......

  9. Ben. Thank you for your careful and thoughtful comment. It is still an issue unresolved. Was it Darwin who began one of his letters "This is a long letter because I didn't have time to write a short one" ?

    Perhaps at the end of 2012, when hopefully I will have successfully finished my study, I will go back and write the findings up into an illustrated book. I have a friend who has seen my work and feels that Penguin may be interested (!).

  10. Wendy. Yes. Thought you'd say that. Of course you have a vested interest in the outcome as it was you who suggested the topic in the first place, remember? Text speak. Hmmm. If I'm to use that, you'll have to teach me more of it...

  11. No no no!! Any language you like but please - a language! Text speak is not a language. Actually I don't usually make such definite statements so I suppose that falls in to the category of "Text speak is not a language, discuss." I would justify my statement by saying that, although text-speak is a means of communication it lacks structure which is a pre-requisite of language."

  12. Don't panic Mr Mannering. We were just joking. At least, I was :o)

  13. To kick off, I've always been a fan of simple English. And try to abide by this in my life.

    However, he says, veering off topic, after doing several translations into English (from Catalan/Spanish) or "Europeans", what becomes clear is that sometimes "plain English" is only "plain" to native speakers. i.e. a German/Belgain/Latvian speaker of English would understand much more easily a stuffy Latin-based text, than "plain English". When I started out translating, I had to re-write and "complicate" the language for it to become universally understandable.
    Obviously not really relevant for your "problem" but I thought I may as well point it out it anyway.(just try passing that sentence on to a non-native English speaker!).
    Best of luck.

  14. Ah Brian. As a translater, you see a side of language that most of us don't. I taught ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) to Koreans for a while. There are certain characteristics of English that catch them out too. I found myself adjusting the sentence structure to fit their understandings sometimes...

    Oh, and veering off topic is always acceptable here. It all adds to the richness that is blogging!

  15. I have returned to this post because this morning I was writing a letter and recounting the time many many years ago when I used a colloquial phrase and translated it literally into French. I have discovered many times that trying to translate simple English with, amongst other things, its liberal use of apostrophes causes considerable problems in translating.

    I also decided to use your Darwinian quote but it struck me that it didn't sound like any of the Darwin prose that I have read (admittedly only The Voyage of The Beagle and extracts from The Origin of The Species) so I checked. It was actually Mark Twain. Sounds much more like something he'd have said.

  16. Apparently nothing is ever truly original: "I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short (Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte)" ~Blaise Pascal, Lettres Provinciales (1656-1657), no. 16.

  17. Excellent research GB. Thanks for sharing your findings. I guess one shouldn't believe anything one reads on the interclacken.