The Jargon Matrix

Yesterday’s Dilbert takes us into a dark world of language, the Jargon Matrix:


The Matrix, but with jargon from the world of technology businesses.

On the movie, from Wikipedia:


The Matrix is a 1999 science fiction action film written and directed by The Wachowskis, starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano. It depicts a dystopian future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality called “the Matrix”, created by sentient machines to subdue the human population, while their bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source. Computer programmer “Neo” learns this truth and is drawn into a rebellion against the machines, which involves other people who have been freed from the “dream world.”

Asok has gone into the jargon dreamworld, where he’s lost in a fog of computer terminology and voguish business-talk.

From OED2:

6. Applied contemptuously to any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of persons, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade, or profession.

[first cite] 1651 T. Hobbes Leviathan  iv. xlvi,   Abstract essences and substantiall formes. For the interpreting of which Iargon, there is need of somewhat more than ordinary attention.

This gloss reports the lumping together, as contemptible: (a) the (necessary) technical language of various occupations (in scholarship, science, art, law, medicine, religion, technology, crafts, etc.); (b) the vocabulary that people use in configuring their social, cultural, and political worlds; (c) expressions that serve to mark membership in some social group (as slang so notably does); and (d) voguish expressions that serve to mark the user as in fashion. (These are far from mutually exlusive categories.)

Indeed, usage critics sometimes lump these categories together, characterizing them all as vogue words, merely fashionable, and thus “overused”.

Asok’s “jargon” moves from category (a) — vocabulary for talking about technical matters — to full-blown category (d) — peel the onion and move the needle, both fashionable metaphorical idioms in certain circles.

Category (a) expressions are the subject of technical dictionaries in many fields. Category (c) expressions are collected in slang dictionaries. Category (b) expressions are the subject of cultural criticism, which focuses both on sociocultural constructs and on the expressions people use for them; recent cultural critics in this area with a focus on lexicography include passionate amateurs like Bill Safire and linguists and lexicographers like Geoff Nunberg and Ben Zimmer. Somewhat more broadly, in the last year or so, we’ve had the NYT Magazine’s “First Words” pieces, “Essays on what language reveals about our moment” (mostly written by engaged amateurs).

The bulk of these pieces are organized around specific expressions, among them:

stack, thirsty, owned, un-American, weaponized, Anthropocene, resistance, humbled, disavow, elites, self-investigation, radicalization, empathy, we, normalization, grievances, bias, stamina, working mothers, patriot, disclosure, law and order, gaffe, racism, national conversation, minimalism, political correctness, minimalism, queer, haters, authentic, smart, rigged, everything, presidential, survivor, bully, woke, empowerment, homeland, they, populist, bro, establishment, protection, divisive, erasure, -phobic, perfect storm, progressive, boots on the ground, self-identifying, radical, narrative, resilience, accommodating, amateur, truther, diversity, deterrence, thoughts and prayers, unicorns, shiny objects, moment, illegals, rock star, austerity, crazies, moderators, prejudice, religious liberty, postracial, relevant, folk, can’t even, random, shade, gotcha, natural, mindfulness, polarizing, you do you, flawless, evolve, loser edit, you’re welcome

A few are topically oriented, but still with an interest in lexical matters, for example:

anonymous online harassment, public schools, leaks, social media companies, whiteness, conspiracy theories, online avatars, life in the gray zone, cultural appropriation, pics or it didn’t happen, optimization, stay or go

Back to the cartoon, and jargon in a computer-technology context. The crucial reference is to the Jargon File and its descendant Hacker’s Dictionary. From Wikipedia:


The Jargon File is a glossary and usage dictionary of computer programmer slang. The original Jargon File was a collection of terms from technical cultures such as the MIT AI Lab, the Stanford AI Lab (SAIL) and others of the old ARPANET AI/LISP/PDP-10 communities, including Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Carnegie Mellon University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. It was published in paperback form in 1983 as The Hacker’s Dictionary (edited by Guy Steele), revised in 1991 as The New Hacker’s Dictionary (ed. Eric S. Raymond; third edition published 1996).

… Despite its tongue-in-cheek approach, multiple other style guides and similar works have cited The New Hacker’s Dictionary as a reference, and even recommended following some of its “hackish” best practices. The Oxford English Dictionary has used the NHD as a source for computer-related neologisms. The Chicago Manual of Style, the leading American academic and book-publishing style guide, beginning with its 15th edition (2003) explicitly defers, for “computer writing”, to the quotation punctuation style – logical quotation – recommended by the essay “Hacker Writing Style” in The New Hacker’s Dictionary (and cites NHD for nothing else).

The Jargon File and its descendants concern themselves with expressions of categories (a) through (c), with a bit of (d) and a tone of fun.

jargon history. The history from OED2 before the current usage, sense 6 (above):

1. The inarticulate utterance of birds, or a vocal sound resembling it; twittering, chattering. This early sense [late Middle English, from Old French jargoun, of unknown origin], which became obsolete in the 15th cent., has been revived in modern literature

2. A jingle or assonance of rhymes. rare. [last cite 1891]

3. Unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; nonsense, gibberish. (Often a term of contempt for something the speaker does not understand.) [ME through 1874]

†4. A conventional method of writing or conversing by means of symbols otherwise meaningless; a cipher, or other system of characters or signs having an arbitrary meaning. Obs. [last cite 1686]

5. A barbarous, rude, or debased language or variety of speech; a ‘lingo’; used esp. of a hybrid speech arising from a mixture of languages [for an example, see the discussion of Chinook Jargon below]. Also applied contemptuously to a language by one who does not understand it.

[first cite] 1643 Sir T. Browne Religio Medici (authorized ed.) ii. §8   Besides the Jargon and Patois of severall Provinces, I understand no lesse then six Languages

On jargon as roughly equivalent to mixed language or (pidgintrade language (sense 5 above), consider this entry from Wikipedia:

Chinook Jargon … is a [language form that originated] as a pidgin trade language in the Pacific Northwest, and spreading during the 19th century from the lower Columbia River, first to other areas in modern Oregon and Washington, then British Columbia and as far as Alaska and Yukon Territory, sometimes taking on characteristics of a creole language. It is related to, but not the same as, the aboriginal language of the Chinook people, upon which much of its vocabulary is based.


One Response to “The Jargon Matrix”

  1. John Baker Says:

    The odd thing about business jargon is that it’s principally disdained by its ostensible users, people who work in business. And note that the examples in this strip include terms without an equivalent, so that the implication is that one simply doesn’t want to hear about these concepts at all. (“Blockchain” describes a form of distributed ledger technology, used for Bitcoin and thought to have great business potential; there is no other term for it, short of the cumbersome and nonspecific “distributed ledger technology.” “The cloud” refers in the aggregate to third-party servers accessed through the Internet; there are many ways to describe this concept, but no other one-word term.)

    The terms used by Asok in this strip generally strike me as reasonable and appropriate when used in context. “Peel the onion” and “move the needle” are arguably clichéd metaphors; they don’t bother me, but they could with more use. I’m not familiar with “responsive design,” but if it has its transparent meaning of a design that’s responsive, that’s too vague to be useful. The other terms all have specific and useful meanings.

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