Explanatory commas, by way of Code Switch

My darling sister sent me this; it’s fun+interesting, and you should listen BUT before you do that, I, too, want to talk about “explanatory commas.”

Me, I had thought they were called “asides,” those breaks from the main flow of whatever to explain a little, or round out the topic, or make a snarky remark (my specialty). No matter. Perhaps linguists and social scientists have been refining their terms across the decades, and now we’re leveraging explanatory commas.

Or not.

In the podcast, some broadcasters volley back and forth about the tight-rope they feel they walk between keeping their work focused on their core audience and their core topics…and making their material more accessible for those not in the core, the ones not already up to speed. Made accessible through ‘explanatory commas,’ asides to provide context or background…which the core doesn’t need. For these broadcasters, there are big cliffs on either side of their tightrope, because their core centers around African-American experience…and the non-core, statistically, is Anglo. More than enough raw places there to go around.

What I started thinking about, though, was jargon.

Jargon are words that belong to a subculture, that have particular meaning or nuance within the subculture but probably aren’t known or used outside that subculture. Hematoma versus bruise. Router. Saved. Depravity. Narthex.

Me and my love of words, I likely was interested in jargon since forever ago. But I started paying close attention when I began crossing over into computer work in 1992. As the only member of my department unafraid of desktop computers running the new Microsoft Windows, I was the bridge between my colleagues and tech support. I spoke English, and knew a smattering of ‘computer.’ I treated ‘computer’ like a foreign language, dropping words into contexts to see whether the tech support person would nod, or tilt their head and look at me oddly. Over time, I began to actually know what “subnet mask” and “ping test” and “interrupt conflict” meant in ‘computer’…though I was careful to keep speaking English to my colleagues. As a wordsmith, I was and am very aware of the power of language. As a woman increasingly intrigued by information technology, I was very aware of how jargon is one more way those inside the club keep the door closed to the outside.

I don’t like those closed doors.

And while I’m a fan of precise language, of using the word that means exactly the correct thing, I have tripped myself by having diction so precise that I was the only person who knew what I said. If communication fails, it is the fault of the communicator, and they need to try again. To open their meanings a little more widely, to use shared good-enough words. A “ping test” is not the same as a tennis ball bounced between two rackets, but you’ve seen a tennis ball before and I bet you’ve never sent a single “packet” between two computers just to see it come back. (Isn’t it a blessing we’re all amused by different things? I digress.)

My life on the fringes of IT made me wincingly aware of jargon. My sensitivity, in its turn, made me flinch as I walked into mainline church life as an employee. Is it any wonder people who have no prior experience feel instantly excluded when they walk into what seems to them a foyer or a lobby…but is called a narthex? When is centuries of history a good thing, and when is it getting in the way of the core tasks at hand?

Said another way: is it more important to affirm one’s cultural continuity than to invite and welcome those who don’t share it? Think hard… .

As I work on widening my writing life, I’m increasingly in contact with friends whose Christianity comes from American evangelical roots. There, too, where I least expected it, jargon flourishes like weeds. For a group who is widely known for seeking converts, I was surprised at how densely inward-facing the language can be. I was editing their writing long before meeting the writers, so I worried about the relational repercussions of jotting “Jargon,” “Jargon,” “Church-word” all over the place…but I did it anyway.

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…

1 Corinthians 9:22 I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.

My friend and colleague Kaya Oakes repeatedly points out that the “nones” are now about one third of the US population. It’s best to assume “nones” have zero experience with church-words, or even faith/religion-words. Add to that the proportions of those following non-Christian faiths, and one’s odds of having a reader, or listener, who understands one’s Christian meaning right off the bat are low.

I take Jesus’ directive seriously, though my activity toward it may look pretty oblique. I look at Paul’s strategy as both wise and shrewd–start in the place of greatest shared understanding and trust, and work from there.

Eschew jargon. Open oneself to explanatory commas.
When one sees one’s listener’s head tilt to the side, back your words up and try again.

2 thoughts on “Explanatory commas, by way of Code Switch

  1. I mean this as agreement: “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”(Probably Francis of Assisi

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