Academic Lexicon

I thought I had a good grasp of English. At the very least, an advanced level of fluency.

This confidence was temporarily erased when I attended a seminar two days into my programme. This guy, an elderly, tweed-jacketed, distinguished European professor of economics walks into the room, whiteboard marker in hand. He starts to talk about rule-carriers, neo-Darwinian models, complementarity, routines, regimes and trajectories, all the while scribbling furiously on the board. You could hear the mental wheels in my head whirling as I tried to follow the lecture. Is that English? Somehow the way he constructed his sentences left me befuddled. Does ‘trajectory’ or ‘routine’ here mean the same thing as what I think it does? ‘Complementarity…’. Huh?

I didn’t realise I had been plunged head-first into the world of ‘evolutionary economics’. People in this world speak of spill overs, path-dependencies, bounded-rationality, disequilibriums, specificities and regularities, interdependencies and complementarities, heterogeneity, endogeneity and appreciative theorizing.  Thankfully I quickly realised that I was confused not because of English-language deficiencies, but because of my unfamiliarity with evolutionary economics jargon. However, I was surprised to find that people in this world use this lingo in daily conversation!

In social ‘science’ as in any other sciences, scholars create, adopt and adapt terms to express academic novelties. I guess the objective is conciseness. So, scientists end up using complex and sometimes crazy terms to make their point. A constantly evolving collection of discipline-specific jargon develops as a consequence. I found this quote from Socrates interesting: “All sciences of importance require the addition of babbling and lofty talk about nature; for the relevant high-mindedness and effectiveness of all sciences of importance… come from the addition of rhetorical amplification”. Hmm, so the use of complex lingo is deliberate, to encourage people to take scientific discourse more seriously? I have read somewhere that scientists of yore sought to create an academic elite, an esoteric assemblage inaccessible to the masses. I am still yet to understand the motivation behind such segregation then, but I see no place for it in this day and age. Do modern scientists have similar objectives?

From my perspective, two things came to the fore: 1) we need jargon to make science effective, 2) we need jargon to keep science exclusive. On the first point, I agree that for people to read from the same page scientifically speaking, they have to agree on semantics. Therefore maybe it is impossible to live without jargon. On the second point… is it even a real issue? Maybe. Why do some scientists insist on using complex language to express themselves? How about the complex sentence construction and the indiscriminate use of vocabulary? Are they so brilliant that they can’t speak in layman’s terms? Or are they consciously making their work unreadable by people outside their academic group? I have no answers. Maybe high mindedness is an occupational hazard. I’m afraid that if I’m not careful, I will fall into this category of scholars.

Young scholars venturing into new disciplines have the uphill task of familiarising themselves with the lingo before they even think of making a scientific contribution.  I think I spent the first 6 months of my study just finding my way around this new discipline and deciding whether I subscribe to their view of the world. No, I haven’t fully decided yet. But it is obvious to me that I am unconsciously adopting this lingo in my daily life. I hope that by the time I re-integrate into ‘real’ society, I will be able to drop the “high-mindedness” and “rhetorical amplification”, especially if I want to play an active role in policy development or work in the private sector.


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