Tech Talk Can Get You Lost in Lingo

Tech Talk Can Get You Lost in Lingo

    Every career and academic field has its own “lingo” to the extent that a conversation buried deep in lingo sounds like a foreign language. I have experienced military lingo, law enforcement lingo, and technical lingo in my life to the point that I practically dream in acronyms, speak with words not recognized by Webster’s Dictionary, and instantly recognize the glazed-over look when speaking to an non-native lingo listener.

                The reasons for individualized lingo range from the coolness factor such “oh dark thirty”  in order to express time as ‘really damn early’ to efficiency such as using “HMMWV” instead of saying “High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle”.  Many acronyms are spoken as works when gives an added effect of the listener not having a clue of what you are talking about.  For example, “I’m going to pick up a hum-v” means “I’m going to pick up a high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle”. Even in law enforcement, the acronyms can irritate the most patient listener if they are not in the club.

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                There are two situations where lingo can get you killed, or at least make you feel like you are getting killed. One is in court. The other in your writing.

                Getting killed in court by lingo as a witness is painful. In fact, I’ve seen witnesses get physically ill as if the roach coach burrito eaten at lunch has suddenly reached its final destination in all its glory. Getting beat up on the stand by an attorney or judge is so unpleasant, that time actually slows to a stop and you wonder why you even got up that morning. Using lingo on the stand can give you a bad case of ‘why did I say that?” when being cross examined.

                I talk about lingo today, because I recently experienced one of the best cases of using lingo in all the wrong ways in a federal district court.  I gave my testimony first as the defense expert in a class action lawsuit, and spoke as simply as I could to make sure the judge understood what I intended to say. Then the opposing expert was called. One of the attorneys asked her a question, she answered, but her answer was not only complicated, it was complex, full of lingo, and I even felt a sway of arrogance. I barely understood what she said and took notes to make sure I got correct what she said.

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                Then the beating started. The judge asked her to repeat her answer. She did. Then the judge asked her the same question by rephrasing it and asked for a better explaination. The expert answered again but it sounded even more complex. After three more tries with increasing tension and the judge telling the witness that she does not understand the answer, the judge turned to me at the back of the courtroom and said, “Can you tell me what she is trying to say?”

                That is when I knew this cross country trip for court was worth the trip. I translated the opposing expert’s answer, the judge understood it, and the opposing expert said I was correct.  Boom. Lingo killed that day, but luckily it didn’t kill me.

                The other place where lingo can kill is in writing. I’ve written more police reports and affidavits for search warrants than I could ever count and the one thing I learned is to keep lingo out unless it is pertinent, relevant, and understandable. Jurors don’t get lingo and much of what they hear in the movies is incorrect or misused. Judges don’t like it either.  Don’t be the only person in the room that understands what you are saying…

In fiction books where computer technology is a key element or theme, using lingo without explanation is like using a foreign language to frustrate a reader. I say this because I just read an unnamed book that when I read it, I had to really slow down my reading in order to understand what was being described. I don’t like reading slow...which means I won’t finish reading it if I don’t have to.

It is one thing to use a technical term in a sentence, but there comes a point that when the majority of words in a sentence are acronyms and “words” not found in a dictionary, the reader becomes lost and frustrated. That’s not good. It’s not good for reports, testimony, or fiction writing. Nonfiction technical writing is a little different since generally, the reader of a technical writing is a technical person.  For those types of writing, give the definition once and move on since the audience is a technical reader audience. In the other types, even though you give the definition once, the reader/listener is going to forget by the time the uncommon word or acronym is used again. So be sparse in the lingo unless it really matters or that it is used so often, your reader won’t be frustrated trying to figure out what it means.

I’ve given a few talks of putting ‘cybercrime’ into writing for fiction authors who are not computer experts.  Some of the talk is showing what forensics look like (hint: it’s not like what you see in James Bond…) as well as how to use technical terms without turning off the reader or sounding like you don’t know what you are talking about. For me, when I read, I just want to read without having to say to myself, “Excuse me, that’s not how Tor works…”.

Remember, lingo kills.

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Comments 1

Guest - Michelle on Friday, 22 January 2016 18:42

Thank you for allowing me another perspective about lingo and technical writing.

Thank you for allowing me another perspective about lingo and technical writing.
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Tuesday, 17 October 2017