The Eternal Bugbear of Technical Terminology



Patent #EP1064957B1: Device for the evaporation of volatile products with variable evaporation intensity by interposition of a mobile bushing. In plain English? A bugspray device.

“Professional discourses…provide enough of a rhetorical challenge to require our best efforts at understanding them.” — Charles Bazerman

For professionals in technology-intensive industries, contending with technical language is a familiar ordeal. Resembling the Five Stages of Grief, the process is cyclical, and goes something like this:

An unwelcome document appears in your inbox, or on your desk, accompanied by assurances from your boss or client (or both!) that the information contained in the offending tract is absolutely integral to your current assignment — and, quite possibly, to the fate of the company and/or humanity as a whole. You know, without the shadow of a doubt, that it is a technical treatise: the title is long and wordy, a linguistic labyrinth of tongue-twisting terminology.

Glaring enviously at the PhD across the room–forgetting, for the moment, that four to nine years of academic serfdom, for poverty wages, do not exactly constitute an “unfair advantage”–you heave a gigantic sigh, spend a few minutes (or hours) procrastinating, then grudgingly glance at the abstract. A torrent of apparent gibberish assaults your cerebrum, evoking the all-too-familiar cycle of denial (“aha! I know that word — this makes perfect sense!”), anger (“why can’t scientists just write things in plain English?“), bargaining (“if I just read a few Wikipedia pages, I’ll know as much as that stupid PhD”), despair (“I’ll never understand this; I’ve read it five times and I still don’t get it”), and hope (“I could say something about it to that PhD; maybe he’ll spend ten minutes ranting about how awesome or dumb it is–and then I’ll have something smart to say to my boss and/or my client!”)

In the end, the result is always the same. Whether or not you read the document carefully, and regardless of how much time you spend on Wikipedia, you come away with only the most superficial understanding of its contents. Even more frustratingly, this superficial understanding is often quite inaccurate–a fact that will be painfully revealed by the first question asked of you by someone with a technical background.

Before you begin to feel like a failure, please remember that none of this is your fault!

Every profession has its own jargon, largely incomprehensible to the general public, and highly technical areas are no exception. This is because, in the words of Greg Myers, “in a specialized research article, the writer can take for granted certain assumptions and methods, knowing that any competent specialist reader will also take these ideas and methods for granted.”

The problem, of course, is that these “assumptions and methods” remain Greek to non-specialists, including non-specialists with an otherwise stellar record of academic and/or professional achievement. Because no one–specialist or otherwise–enjoys admitting that he or she is in the dark, so to speak, this lack of comprehension is rarely communicated. Productivity suffers from such reticence, as it is rather difficult to be efficient at one’s work–or to make sound decisions–when one lacks a fundamental understanding of the subject at hand.

Fortunately, the solution to this dilemma is simple–and endorsed by 96% of qualified geniuses. When one lacks the background knowledge to properly contextualize a problem, one should request assistance from a knowledgable source. So instead of glaring enviously at the PhD across the room, try asking directly for help. Surprisingly enough, most PhDs are (or at least should be) extremely familiar with the concept of things that fall outside of their realms of expertise; the one across the room may be quite delighted to help you understand the important document on your desk.

Of course, if your problem is with patents, leave your poor PhD alone, and call IP Checkups instead! We have the expertise necessary to synthesize, contextualize, and explain (in plain English!) the technical, legal, and business-related aspects of your patent portfolio. We also like to help you work out the kinks in your current patent strategy. So don’t torment yourself with arcane and linguistically troublesome information–leave it to the experts, and save your resources–both mental and material–for the areas in which you excel, in which you are able to add the most value to your organization!


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