Academics and their big words

Robert Fisk has a column in today’s Independent; unfortunately it’s one you have to pay to read online. So no link. (*UPDATE* I found a free access version at Fisk’s website. So you can read and decide for yourselves whether what follows is a fair representation.) Anyway, the headline is “Let us rebel against poisonous academics and their preposterous claptrap of exclusion”. Which pretty much sums up the tone of the contents.

Words or phrases that Fisk thinks are just too big and hard include:

metaphorical constructs
fundamental dialogic immediacy
prosocial tendences
exilic spirituality
political and mythic interdependencies
ubiquitous human psychological process of othering
meaning system
cognitive dissonance
dialogic injuries
cultural envelope
family psychodynamics
social intercourse

Keep Out, these words say to us. This Is Something You Are Not Clever Enough to Understand.

(And don’t suggest that he should try expanding his vocabulary by looking them up. He says firmly, early on: ” ‘Matrilineal’ doesn’t exist in my dictionary. Nor is it likely to.”)*

This “language of exclusion”, he thinks, “must have grown up in universities over the past 20 years; after all any non-university educated man or woman can pick an academic treatise or PhD thesis written in the 1920s or ’30s and – however Hegelian the subject – fully understand its meaning. No longer.” (That just seems such a challenge: pick some random Hegelian philosophy theses from the early 20th century and see what my mum and dad make of them. Or me, for that matter. Yeah, I can see us now, full of enlightenment, chatting about Hegel over the Sunday roast.)

I know, most of those words I’ve listed (but ‘elite’?) are not exactly what you’d find in everyday speech or even in a broadsheet newspaper. And I often struggle with ‘theory’ people’s writing; but, very often, less because of individual words or concepts than the clunking, convoluted manner in which the buggers string them together. (In other words it’s not the language/vocabulary that’s the problem, it’s a lack of writing skills. And it’s quite true that poor writing + heavy theory (tends to) = extreme violence to language.) I’m not defending bad writing here.

But how about an alternative list of academic words for you?

ventral ectoblasts
nematode cell lineages

Know what any of those mean? (PZ, sit down.) They were picked at random from PZ Myers’ beautiful blog Pharyngula; they’re all terms from biology, and I think are all evolution-related. I could equally turn to online conversations between physicists or chemists to find incomprehensible terminology. Or what about the impenetrable thickets, to most of us, of economics and statistics? Do you know what the following mean: linear regression, multivariate regression, loess smoother…? (Randomly picked up at Crooked Timber.)

My point is not to complain about these disciplines for using language I don’t understand. Quite the opposite, in fact. (And, just to make this clear, PZ is a marvellous writer.) We have no problem recognising that many academics in science fields need specialist language in order to do their job, and that frequently means impenetrability to the majority of people outside their fields. When someone like Fisk talks about ‘academics’ in this kind of article, he doesn’t mean all academics, does he? I don’t notice him demanding that mathematicians stop using all those secret algebraic symbols which others (read: journalists, despite a few rhetorical flourishes about the little people) don’t understand. Mathematicians, stop doing that, you make us all feel stupid!

No, of course not. What Fisk is talking about are anthropologists, political theorists, literary theorists, linguists and so on (the ‘soft’ social sciences and ‘theoretical’ humanities, if you like). And I object strongly to the idea that in these fields it is “poisonous” and “snobbishness” for us to do what is regarded as normal for other academic fields (and, of course, many non-academic specialist fields too): to develop our own concepts for our own use, which are complex because the subjects they are used to describe and analyse are complex; and which have to be learned.

Of course, at times we also need to communicate beyond our highly-trained colleagues and speak to wider audiences (including journalists with inadequate dictionaries). But, then, so do the scientists. If Fisk were simply saying that we should do more of that, fair enough. But what he actually does is to argue that humanities academics should not use any language beyond the capacities of the average a) journalist or b) first-year college student. Not in books, not in the classroom, not in lectures.

If the general public doesn’t understand what scientists are talking about, obviously it’s because the subjects are really hard. If it doesn’t understand what humanities scholars are talking about, blame the scholars for inventing a “secret language” that makes everyone else feel inferior and stupid. Because, of course, the subject of humanities (human beings and all their works…) isn’t at all hard to understand, is it?

* By the way, the first appearance of ‘matrilineal’ given in the OED is from 1904.

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22 Responses to Academics and their big words

  1. Simon says:

    I think it must be post-Hegelian; I picked up a copy of Heidegger’s _Being and Time_, and didn’t understand a word. I didn’t understand a word in translation, either.

  2. Hear, hear. Couldn’t agree more.

    Haven’t got anything particularly pithy to add, so will just agree…

    Oh wait, I know: I’d like to see the average reader today pick up medieval history theses (or books) from the 20s/30s (or through the 50s even) and be able to read all the Latin (left untranslated b/c any EDUCATED person would know Latin, and anyone who didn’t had no business reading such things. His glory days of past academic accessibility to all is the most ridiculous chimera I’ve ever seen.

    (And anyone who refuses to accept that “matrilineal” is a word is just a jackass.)

  3. Laura says:

    Nice post, Sharon. I do get annoyed when writing gets overly jargon-filled, but generally, most people need those words to get their ideas across. I can’t believe cognitive dissonance is on the list. That must have involved some cognitive dissonance on his part.

  4. PZ Myers says:

    Hey, I know what all of those words from my list mean, and I think I know what all of the words from Fisk’s list mean (I’m also aware that my understanding of terms from another discipline could be subtly wrong, and that’s ok.)

    The thing is that I also know that if I had to explain each of those terms in teeny-tiny words that a Fisk could understand, I’d have to expand each one out to a few sentences or a paragraph. Those words aren’t saying “keep out”, they are saying “This subject has complexity and depth and you need to have some foundation in the discipline to continue.” Do we really want to insist that all academic articles must be written for people who know nothing about the subject?

  5. Steve says:

    You should try working for the civil service!

  6. Sharon says:

    NK, I checked (and added) the first appearance of matrilineal in the OED (I thought it would be early 20th century, but wasn’t sure). I meant to do it earlier, since that was the word that originally had me falling off my chair and rushing to my keyboard. Not exactly postmodernist is it?

  7. rob says:

    You’d think that Fisk would have an advantage in situations like these: surely the top of his high horse puts him closer than most to our ivory tower? ;)


    Rock on, Sharon! Apart from anything else, your point about popular science vs academic science / popular humanities vs “academic” humanities is, bizarrely, often absent from debates about this. Humanities/social science scholars I’ve read about this in public forums are too often in the grudging position of half-accepting the opposition’s claims. Whether they should or not, there’s an awful lot of guilt in the post-socialist humanities.

    As for “matrilineal”, I wonder if this falls partly in the same category as the word “gender” in style manuals, which is usually disingenuously dismissed as “unnecessary in its contemporary usage”, to the sound of the same sneer which dismisses “Ms.” as nothing but an abbreviation of manuscript.

    Not too long ago Jonathan Culler (a man whose writing does sterling work to make even the scariest literary theory easily intelligible and exciting-seeming to first years) co-edited a collection of the “usual suspects'” responses to such claims, Just Being Difficult?. That most of the major points that need be made in reaction to popular arguments about this can be made in a post as short as this is actually one of the reasons I haven’t read it! But still, someone else might want to.

  8. Kieran says:

    As I recall, I included a link to an explanation of the term loess smoother when I used it on CT. Maybe Fisk thinks that even including an explanation is unduly poisonously oppressive and preposterously exclusionary. As for the claim that “any non-university educated man or woman can pick an academic treatise or PhD thesis written in the 1920s or ’30s and – however Hegelian the subject – fully understand its meaning,” I can only say I wish it were true. It would make my life a lot easier.

  9. yeah, well…


    Dictionary. It’s called a dictionary. We use them when we don’t know what words mean, and then we get to keep the words. It’s like a free prize that keeps on giving!

  10. Sharon says:

    Thanks all for your great responses.

    Kieran, thanks for confirming my suspicion that that bit about older theses was b/s. And yes, you did include a link in that post – and thanks for putting it in the comment, seeing as I was in too much of a hurry to follow it at the time. A reminder, btw, that it’s not just about dictionaries – this is what *teachers* are for too, to explain (in the classroom or in online tutorials like that) the new and slightly scary concepts that we, as students, start to come across in our reading (yeah, I know, that presupposes students read). Perhaps the most annoying thing about Fisk’s article was that he thought *students* shouldn’t be faced with these pesky things (he finished up by telling them to ‘rebel’ and walk out of classrooms). And yet I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if I could find him complaining in other articles somewhere about the commodification and dumbing down etc of university education – too much giving students what they want and so on.

    Rob: Yes, I think that there are probably misconceptions out there that ‘matrilineal’ is some radical-feminist thing (whereas, as the OED entry shows, it was coined simply as a useful and indeed necessary complement to ‘patrilineal’). But I was a bit put off that book too. It seemed a very long-winded way to go about things. To me, it *is* a very simple point: all academics need special tools that they learn as part of their training, including language, in order to get on with their work, whether they are physicists, literary theorists, historians, etc etc. Yet, it seems that whereas people generally accept that physicists’ (or biologists’ or statisticians’) conversations are largely and necessarily incomprehensible to them, there’s something objectionable about (say) literature scholars doing the same thing. I can think of 2 explanations of this double standard: the perception is that humanities (and some social sciences) are in reality ‘easy’ subjects (compared to sciences) and so all the ‘secret language’ is just dressing up to pretend they’re more difficult than they actually are. And/or we feel we ‘own’ these sort of subjects in a way that we don’t with science, so we actually feel somehow ‘dispossessed’ and upset by scholars talking about them in language we don’t comprehend.

  11. Claire says:

    Cripes. Anyone can guess the meaning of matrilineal by breaking up the word. (Or have I got that wrong?) I often hear people talking like that about popular history books that contain ‘too many big words.’ The human mind is quite capable of learning new words through the context of the sentence. If it can’t do that then it’s also quite capable of using a dictionary. Is this the dumbing down of Britain or wot?

  12. Caleb says:

    You don’t even have to point to other academic disciplines to prove that we accept all kinds of specialized vocabularies in everyday life. To follow American football, you have to master an entire lexicon of words that are probably mystifying to outsiders, like “safety,” “touchdown,” “line of scrimmage,” “nickelback,” etc. But I guess I’m just an abstruse academic if I point out that many kinds of languages are “emic” in this way.

  13. Um … I’d like to point out, while procrastinating marking discussions, that: 1) I don’t know some of the words Fisk to which Fisk objects — so really (good point about teachers aside) I would look them up if I needed to, and; 2) English has one of the larger western language vocabularies, IIRC, but our vocabularies have been shrinking over the past 50 years or so (including new words coming in). I just don’t get why anyone would object to learning new words, even if I agree that some fields (especially those leaning towards theory and criticism) seem to use jargon to obfuscate.

  14. David Foster says:

    The test of specialized vocabulary should be this: do the specialized terms make it easier to clearly express oneself than pre-existing ordinary language? For example, in electrical engineering it’s easier (and less ambiguous) to talk about “ohms of resistance” than “that tendency which tends to decrease the level of current passage for any given voltage.” (And if you disallow “voltage” too, then things get really complicated.)

    “Matrilineal” seems to me to clearly fall in the same category. But how about “ubiquitous human psychological process of othering” and some of the others on the list?

    I’ve noticed that when people are working on things that are really hard, they tend to come up with words & phrases to make it sound simpler and even whimsical (like “cookies” in computer science)…but those who are working on things that lack real intellectual depth tend to do the opposite. Some of the jargon use in the humanities is no doubt justified, but I suspect that much of it falls in the second category above.

  15. Sharon says:

    This is bringing up something I meant to say when I was writing the post and making that list. I deliberately selected a range of examples to cover ones that I thought we’d agree were crass (like matrilineal) through to ones that were likely to be subject to much more questioning. Most of us, I think, will be brought up short by something on that list. I meant to make a stronger comment about how the sheer lack of discrimination helped to undermine any more reasonable points Fisk might have been trying to make, and moreover that we should be careful about making subjective judgements about what is ‘useful’ and what is ‘jargon’.

    But I tend to think that ultimately none of those words/phrases can be approved or condemned out of the context of their usage, which takes me back to my point about bad writing. It’s not about the words you use, it’s how you use them. Sameer at Histori-blogography has posted with that notorious passage from Judith Butler (which I had in mind earlier). It’s a horrible sentence, I think, but that’s not because of individual words. It’s because of the way those words are thrown together: the structure is clunking and confusing, it piles the words up to sheer excess – and it’s repetitive as well. It’s got no discipline and no imagination – and that’s what I call truly bad academic writing.

  16. Miriam says:

    Last summer, the city newspaper received a tiny flurry of outraged letters after an op-ed writer had the temerity to use the word “infelicitous.” Apparently, it was “elitist” to use such a word. Elitist, I tell you! I had always been under the impression that one learned how to use a dictionary in elementary school, but it could be that things have changed since my benighted youth. In any event, I’ve been making a point of using “infelicitous” in class whenever possible :)

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  19. David Salmanson says:

    The thing is language evolves over time and they could easily tell you that “othering” is the process whereby one group uses real and imagined differences to create separation from another group. It may seem odd and strange to you if you encounter it for the first time at 40, but if you learn it when your 15, it seems perfectly clear.

  20. Sameer Shah says:

    I first want to say that I stumbled across your blog and like it very much. Good luck with the next History Carnival!

    I just wanted to highlight a comment that you made forcefully and convincingly with your juxtaposition of Fisk’s terms and biological terms.

    The ‘abstruse’ words that Fisk complains about are specialist terms, with specialist meanings. Sometimes I get the impression that critics of this type of scholarship believe the words are loosely defined and ambiguous. The words, they claim, are so confusing that they do all the work.

    What is important to understand is that these ‘abstruse’ terms are the ANALTYIC TOOLS and ANALYTIC CATEGORIES for a group of scholars — with highly specific meanings. And good scholars do define exactly what they means their her argument hinges on some term. So if one is discussing a “dynamic interplay” between X and Y, one would have to specify exactly what that interplay was.

    And certainly bad writing (and bad scholarship) results when these analytic tools/categories are ill-defined (or reified). (And sometimes it is made on purpose, as in the Sokal Hoax.) But that bad scholarship is produced doesn’t negate the fact that good scholarship is also produced.

  21. Ancarett says:

    In essence, what Fisk’s complaint all boils down to is that most of the humanities and a fair chunk of the social sciences should be nothing but simple, “plain folks” common sense using homey language and clear, happy analysis that supports what the moral majority of the moment wants to hear, right? Because this isn’t really work, is it? *sigh* Excellent and educational response on your part!

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