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Term of art

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Jargon, buzzwords, slogans

A term of art is a piece of technical jargon in a given field that has a meaning specific to that field, often one that may not be obvious to outsiders. When attempting to make a meaningful contribution to a field, it is generally very important to understand that field's terms of art, lest one be branded a fool within the field for basing one's entire position on a misunderstanding.


[edit] Why?

Often, jargon comes under fierce criticism for being inaccessible to the non-expert, lay public. It is accused of complicating prose and enforcing a sort of elitism. However, these words can be essential in science to quickly and unambiguously describe a process, experiment or result. For example, the term adiabatic refers to a process where heat is not transferred between an object and its surroundings, and its definition implies quite a few other things - here one word gets across the meaning, and indeed more meaning, than a simple explanation itself. It may be all well and good to think that describing things using simple words is beneficial but this can lead to additional confusion when definitions are, in fact, very precise and a brief, simple and accessible description in place of a "term of art" would leave ambiguity.

[edit] Misuse

Cranks, quacks, and denialists often intentionally misuse terms of art to confuse their marks, who often don't understand the specific technical definition of what may be an otherwise familiar term. A particularly egregious example of this is the denigration of a scientific theory (where "theory" is a term of art) as "just a theory" (using the more common but less authoritative understanding of the word). This often leads to cargo cult science where the fancy words are there, but they're used incorrectly. Quantum mechanics is one aspect of science that suffers at the hands of this quite badly. Users of quantum woo misinterpret uncertainty, waveforms or various other hypotheses behind the counter-intuitive phenomena described by quantum theory.

Sometimes cranks will even just invent their own terms. "Toxin", for example, when used in alternative medicine and detox is practically a meaningless term that refers to any number of chemical substances—even when they aren't necessarily toxic by the technical definition used in toxicology (and that's if they ever mention what the toxins actually are).

[edit] In popular (or not) culture

  • In David Mamet's edgy film, Oleanna, the jackass professor character is overheard saying on the telephone to actual sane people, "is that a term of art?".

[edit] See also

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