THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES when I’ve needed help to translate English into English. Sometimes it was just my inability to understand someone speaking with a thick accent. I just don’t seem to have an ear for English spoken by many immigrants whose native inflections and accent impact the sound and pattern of their speech. But it doesn’t end there. A lot of different professions develop a unique argot, a form of lingo particular to their work, that may not register easily with others. Lawyers don’t sue, they litigate. Social workers don’t consider something, they address it. Doctors don’t see swelling, they see edema. These are all simplistic examples, but you get the idea. A large part of many professional practices involves taking what could be clear concepts and making them opaque. Language is the tool for accomplishing that. As Edwin Newman pointed out years ago, “boundaries are parameters, parts are components, things are not equal but co-equal, signs are indicators, and causes are dependent or exogenous variables.” These people have to justify their six figure salaries somehow. But six-syllable words may not be their best friend after all. I once watched a lawyer with a voluminous vocabulary making his closing argument to a jury. Much of what he said sailed right over their common-sense heads, smacking against the courtroom wall behind them and dripping down without comprehension. The case against his client ended simply: “We find the defendant guilty.” So much for big words.
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