April 25, 2009

Arguing against jargon

I think we should all applaud our hobby for using very, very little jargon. I think this is especially amazing when you consider that every collectible certificate came from the world of finance, a profession inundated with arcane and obscure terminology.

I just did a search in the current issue of Scripophily, the quarterly publication of the International Bond and Share Society. I saw no jargon whatsoever.

Now, that is not to say that every single word would be immediately understandable to a novice. Words like "specimen", "proof", "vignette", "preferred", and even "scripophily" (the official name of the hobby) can be confusing. However, I classify those words as necessary terminology and fully recognize that the boundary between terminology and jargon can be fuzzy.

Most collectible bonds are "first mortgage coupon bonds". A novice may not know what a first mortgage coupon bond is, but the term cannot really be simplified. Besides, the words appear on bonds.

However, if a description were shortened to "1885 7% 1st", we would be solidly in the realm of jargon. Even experienced collectors might not know the description referred to a 7% first mortgage bond issued in 1885.

To me, the test is often simple. If a simple word can be substituted for a confusing one, then the confusing word is probably jargon.

Take "recto" and "verso", for instance.

These are Latin words for "right" and "back." With the exception of a handful of people in the teaching and clerical professions, no one really understands, let alone speaks, Latin. "Front" and "back" don't sound terribly professional, but their meanings are crystal clear. "Recto" and "verso" are therefore jargon words. (In truth, "recto" refers to the right hand page in a book meant to be read first. Its use in describing certificates is, in my opinion, a little misguided to begin with.)

In some cases, jargon is used to make writers or speakers sound professional and educated. It is a time-worn rule that if you spout off a little Latin, you sound like a pro.

And then, there are terms that serve definite purposes in one profession or hobby and somehow get stolen and cludged onto another. They are not really jargon so much as "Frankenstein words."

One of those ugly monsters is the term "mint condition". Here was a perfectly good term used in the coin hobby in years past. Coins are minted, so the term "mint condition" had its place. The term was abandoned when collectors accepted the fact that coins came from mints in wide ranges of conditions. Today, coin collectors refer to those conditions as various "mint states."

In a strange paradoxical twist of fate, the abandoned term "mint condition" lives on as a Frankenstein term in various collectible paper hobbies, including stock and bond collecting. How is it that "mint condition" can be used to describe pieces of paper that may never have been within a thousand miles of a mint? Was there ever a collector of paper who thought paper was minted?

I maintain a large glossary of terms related to the hobby of collecting stocks and bonds. Please contact me if you ever encounter jargon or Frankenstein words that need clarification.

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