If you think you’re not a jargon junkie, take another look


Do you know what a pier cap is?

Resist the temptation to google it. Either you know what it is or you don’t.

And if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world – you’ve got this far in life without knowing, so a few more minutes won’t make any difference. It has nothing to do with things nautical, by the way. I’ll tell you what it does have to do with at the end of the post.

Pier cap came up in a conversation I had over the weekend – one of many such conversations I’ve had recently that made me reflect on the jargon we use every day, often without even realising it.

If you’re a regular reader, you may know that I’ve been delving deep into the world of web development this year. And I’ve belatedly realised that I too have been trotting out terms that have flummoxed my conversational companions.

Speaking the lingo

The thing is, either you’re in the know, or you’re not.

And when you drop in front-end developerserver scripting languages and CSS preprocessors, and see the blank look opposite, you very quickly realise you’re talking in riddles to the uninitiated. 

The problem is that it’s so easy to do.

You live and breathe this jargon to the point that it becomes part of your everyday vocabulary. It’s only when the tables are turned – and that can happen very quickly – that you see what it looks like from the other side.

Later in the week, I had coffee with a friend who’s a singer, and we strayed onto the IPA vowel chart. He’s studied this because it helps him understand why singing in English is different to Italian or German, and I’ve studied it because I almost became a professional linguist many years ago. 

And let’s face it – because I’m an inveterate language geek.

So we were rapping about high and low vowels, back and front vowels, close and open vowels. I could see other people in the cafe watching us as if we were talking a foreign language. Which wasn’t very far from the truth.

Speaking in a code that only you understand has something seductive about it, as if you’re part of an exclusive group. You’re on the inside, and everybody else is on the outside with their noses pressed against glass.

But I very quickly discovered what it felt like to be excluded when my friend strayed onto his real turf.

Now I did study music theory long ago when I was a violin player (a story for another time) but have become a little fuzzy on the details over the intervening period. So it didn’t take long for me to feel like an outsider.

As we jumped from descant to polyphony, from counterpoint to the intricacies of plainchant, I felt myself moving very quickly out of my comfort zone.

The write message

A few days later, I had a briefing call with a client for a case study.

This time, it was AV jargon that was flying thick and fast. Suddenly, I was transported into the territory of Crown digital power amplifiers and Cloud 4 zone mixers. We talked about sub-base units and music that (wait for it) had plenty of headroom

Mentally, I was filtering out all of the buzzwords as we went along, but then stopped myself.

Because jargon isn’t always a bad thing if you’re talking to people who expect to hear it. I’ve never heard headroom applied to music, but maybe facilities managers (whose area of responsibility encompasses matters audiovisual) are perfect familiar with it.

So whenever a specialised term or buzzword came up, or a technology was mentioned, I checked if readers would be comfortable with it and, even more importantly, would be expecting to see it in the copy. 

Because at the end of the day, as with any piece of copy, it’s not about you. Or about me. It’s about them – the readers, the clients, the prospects. How much they know, and how much they need to know. Whether they have to be educated on the lingo, or already speak it fluently. Whether they’re going to feel included or excluded if you use it. 

And to get that right, everything needs to been seen from their point of view. You need to write like a reader, and get yourself inside their head to understand how they see the world.

That’s the key to copy that works – for them and for you. 

Capping it off

And pier cap? You’ve seen thousands, without even knowing it. It’s the stone cap that goes on top of a pillar (the pillar is called a pier in this context). It often has a ball, light or even a decorative flourish in the form of a pineapple or a bowl of fruit. 

So there – now you’re in the know.

Doesn’t that feel good?