Freakin' lingo

Today I had the experience of hearing somebody speak a sentence and having no clue what any of the keywords meant. I got 'the' and 'at' but I was at a loss to the rest. I was trying to make casual chit-chat after a seminar that a friend was speaking at, which happened to be full of business information technology and logistics students and experts. I was just there for moral support. After the initial question, "So what do you do?" I had to take them through the ensuing sentence word by word to extract the meaning.

Sometimes I get the feeling that people overuse industry and academic lingo because they actually don't know what it is they're studying themselves. The meaning seems to be shut away inside the walls of some intellectual game, without truly making a connection with the outside world and the lives of ordinary people. I get this feeling because I do it myself, sometimes, when my research is particularly foggy. You hide behind the vagueness and breadth of words that have multiple meanings, and most people don't ask too many questions.

Later that day I went to another seminar (today I felt like I was back at uni again!), and I had an only slightly better idea what was going on. This one was actually sort of in my area, but was so theoretical and relied on so much assumed knowledge of this author and that theory that I had the feeling of being in a familiar room with the lights switched off. I kept waiting for the guy to get to the crunch - to actually talk about a thing or a country or a person - but all I got was illusions to bodies of literature.

So I was getting annoyed and was thinking, "This is such a self-indulgent wank", and I got even more frustrated when the questions - all from middle-aged men - came out in equally convoluted gobbly-gook.

I joined the (mainly) men for drinks after the seminar, and they turned out to be nice, relatively normal people (as normal as academics get, I suppose). It struck me that this seemingly exclusive and unnecessary language was actually useful to them - it allowed them to discuss complex concepts in a kind of short-hand that the people in the group were all familiar with.

That's why you have lingo: it actually serves an important purpose of communicating shared meanings in a concise manner. The problem is that lingo is, by nature, exclusive. I think it's important that there are other people participating in seminars like today's other than the middle-aged men who have been in the field for 50 years.

But yeah, I guess what I'm saying is that the language you choose to use is always a balancing act between expedience and inclusion. And by being too expedient and too exclusive you run the risk of being ego-centric and narrow-minded. It can be about keeping your place and making other people small.

So I suppose that lingo can be used as a way of keeping others out - because you're in your own little intellectual world and don't want to relate to the outside; because you don't intend for others to be able to understand the language of your group. Lingo and language generally is about boundary setting, which is important for any group (or else it wouldn't be a group). It suffers from the same dilemma as any other sort of group boundary: how penetrable should the boundary be before the group stops being a group, either because no one joins or because everybody joins?