7 Reasons People use Coded Language

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By Mike Cronin 

Have you ever wondered why lawyers and doctors use a lot of Latin and Greek terminology? Or why the military and police are so fond of acronyms? Lingo, jargon and ___-speak are everywhere. Here are seven reasons people use coded language:

1.            Exclusivity or elitism. If you are a member of a profession, or a trade, or a group, learning and using the lingo is part of the culture. Outsiders will sound clueless if they try to use your lingo and fail; you get a measure of validation as a member when you know how to talk the talk. Academics are guilty of this. Have you ever tried to decipher the impenetrable prose of a college course description?  Consider this satirical gem: “Math 420: Numerical Methods & Queuing Theory. Students learn to quantitatively assess aggregated items, compare their magnitudes to an arbitrary constant, and enter an appropriate queuing schema accordingly.”  Translation: Count your grocery items and get in the correct checkout line!  (Credit to the Washington Post Style Invitational, Week 630, Oct 2, 2005)

2.            To (try to) impress. Some people might think they sound very knowledgeable or smart when they toss around multi-syllabic words like paraphernalia (gear or equipment) or acronyms like VB-IED. After all, why would anyone use a simple term like “car bomb,” when they could bloviate by using a mouthful like “vehicle-borne improvised explosive device?” Having a large vocabulary may be a sign of intelligence and education, but “brevity is the soul of wit.” (William Shakespeare). Trying to force or fake a large vocabulary can easily backfire. I once had someone walk into my office rubbing the lymph nodes under his chin. As he was doing this, he told me in all seriousness that his gonads hurt.  My stomach hurt after that episode.

3.            To “talk around” a subject, that is, to have a “secret” conversation while in the company of others. Parents do this around their kids – think “B.R.” (Baskin-Robbins), “Golden Arches” (McDonald’s), or “T.R.U.” (Toys R Us). Kids figure it out sooner than their parents think!

4.            To shorten a conversation, such as on a busy radio network, in order to convey the maximum amount of information while taking up the least amount of air time. The military, police, and pilots do this with their “pro words,” “brevity codes,” and clipped speech. Of course, cell phone texters are the all-time champions at abbreviating words (if not necessarily conversations), IMO.

5.            To perpetuate a mystique. Lawyers are especially guilty of this. “Legalese” can be complicated. Sometimes that’s for a very good reason: precision. I know that if I ever get charged with a crime I didn’t commit, I’d want a lawyer who could pick apart every nuance and technicality in the statute in order to get me off the hook. On the other hand, the statute was written by other lawyers in the first place!  Sometimes legalese is there for a very lucrative (to the legal profession) reason: To reinforce the idea that you need to pay an attorney a lot of money to read and write the proper legalese. “…having lawyers write the laws is like having doctors create diseases.” — Matt Beauchamp

6.            To fool you. Contractors and service providers may try to pull the wool over your eyes by diagnosing your home or car or appliance with complicated-sounding but bogus problems. If you have a mechanic tell you your car needs new muffler belts, or the halogen needs to be replaced in the light bulbs, you’re being scammed. Here’s an example of such techno-babble. In this video, the “spokesperson” (actor) is extolling the virtues of the “retro-encabulator.” As you watch, keep in mind that every device or feature he mentions is made-up. It’s all 100% hornswoggle. In this case, the video is meant as hilarious entertainment for an audience of engineers or other technical types; shown perhaps to lighten the mood at a conference. The script has been around in various forms for decades.  If the computer repairman tells you your machine is failing its “capacitive duractance” test, will you be able to detect the male bovine excrement?

7.            To obscure meaning.  Closely related to ‘talking around.” Euphemisms are the hallmark of this. When someone dies, we might try to soften the blow by saying they “passed away.” The military or CIA might say a target has been “neutralized” to soften a hard reality: people were killed.

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