From moving into KCECH before walking to classes in DRL and going to CURF events, then getting MERTed, every stage of Penn life is festooned with acronym-mania. And that isn’t to mention all the unabbreviated jargon, such as Stommons, that sets yet another layer of linguistic complexity onto Locust Walk.
I don’t think this jargon epidemic should cause mass panic and repentance, but it’s important to be aware of the effects it has on how the university community operates.
To start, jargon has a few different purposes; the two main uses are to demonstrate group identity and to provide brief, specific terms for common objects of conversation. However, there’s also a dark side to both of those; it can be used to exclude others and can make conversations more difficult to understand for those not in the know.
But first, let me briefly explain the taxonomy of jargon, which is, in the sense that I am using, any form of specialized language. It features numerous specific terms, some of which may be synonyms for more common terms, but also often includes, as in the case of Penn jargon, many abbreviations, portmanteaus, and acronyms — a form of abbreviations based on the first letters of words. There’s no one source for jargon, and it can be informal or formal.
Jargon as an indicator of group identity is a common practice in everyday life. Many groups of friends have developed their own references over time, which is a form of jargon. So is referencing song lyrics of a popular artist with other fans of that artist. Consequently, it’s no surprise that the same jargon emerges at universities, which are essentially social units.
This is a viable explanation for many items of jargon; for example, it explains why different college houses have their own terms and acronyms within the greater realm of Penn argot. However, there’s also plenty of jargon imposed from outside the student perspective, such as CURF and SRFS. This indicates the second purpose of jargon: to make communication easier. There are plenty of places and organizations at Penn with cumbersome names, and abbreviating them is simpler to say or write.
It’s worth noting that jargon in other contexts can have other purposes, such as identifying members of a social group. However, I doubt that it’s particularly hard to identify the Penn community, given that there is a physical campus.
Yet, the positives of jargon are met with their own negatives. Jargon as a method of social cohesion inherently results in people who are not familiar with the lingo being excluded. This means that jargon should be explained, kept to a minimum, or even both when well-intentioned attempts at social cohesion run up against the reality that not everybody is familiar with certain terms.
The flip side of acronyms intended for ease is that multiple studies have indicated that acronyms, particularly if they are not known beforehand, make it harder for people to follow and comprehend text. Although they can be well-intentioned, it’s a bad idea to overload readers with acronyms. If they are, the intended clarity and concision of one’s speech is lost.
There’s certainly no imminent descent into mumbo-jumbo incomprehensible to outsiders; consequences look more like new students wandering helplessly around because they do not realize that there are two buildings on campus are called Van Pelt. Spelling things out in full form won’t instantly solve the greatest challenges affecting the world. Yet, there are still some steps that both the University and students can take to communicate clearly.
To start, people should be conscientious of whether the person with whom they are speaking understands what they are saying. If, like me, you are an enthusiastic word-collector, you may feel compelled to share these new additions to your vocabulary. However, there’s good reason to hold off: in some contexts, it can make your meaning clearer.
At a higher level, the acronym potential of future names should be taken into account — it would be nice if all names were clear and easy to use without needing acronyms, but in reality, some institutions will have a purpose too complex to express with a simple name. However, giving things simple, common-sense names are still preferable for clear communication. Documents intended for people outside the Penn community especially have a mandate — which, in fairness to them, is often fulfilled — to use language understandable to outsiders.
Finally, for those of you who are still craving more jargon, I invite you to join the as-yet uncreated UPSINUAVUVC: the University of Pennsylvania Society for Increasing the Number of Unwieldy Acronyms Visible at the University in Variegated Contexts.
BENJAMIN McAVOY-BICKFORD is a College first year from Chapel Hill, N.C. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.