Steinbeck on jargon

Since we returned from a winter break in Mexico’s Baja California, I have been reading John Steinbeck’s delightful book Sea of Cortez.

An account of an expedition he undertook just as WWII was breaking out in Europe, it’s witty, humane and most charming. It is about survival and biology and exploration and discovery and politics and “civilization”. And drinking. One of its most vivid characters is the Sea-Cow: his willful outboard motor!

In this excerpt Steinbeck goes on a rant about scientists and their obscure jargon. This is something that we should all pay attention to in our own fields – whether marketing or architecture or design or film. You know what I’m talking about.

“It has seemed sometimes that the little men in scientific work assumed the awe-fullness of a priesthood to hide their deficiencies, as the witch-doctor does with his stilts and high masks, as the priesthoods of all cults have, with secret or unfamiliar languages and symbols. It is usually found that only the little stuffy men object to what is called “popularization,” by which they mean writing with a clarity understandable to one not familiar with the tricks and codes of the cult. We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child. Can it be that the haters of clarity have nothing to say, have observed nothing, have no clear picture of even their own fields? A dull man seems to be a dull man no matter what his field, and of course it is the right of a dull scientist to protect himself with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees, as do other dull men who are potentates and grand imperial rulers of lodges of dull men.”