Excuse me, what was that again?

My regular checkup at the dentist frequently starts off with a discussion about my dental hygiene, but often turns into a legal discussion. My dentist will occasionally tell me to stop talking in legal "mumbo jumbo" (for some reason he tells me of the origins of the phrase). "Wait a minute," I say,"I’m just telling you the law." He then moves the conversation back to my teeth and explains, more or less, that my problem has something to do with the fact that my "mesiolingual cusp is twice the size of the distolingual cusp." Uh, what? One more time, please?

Then, I have the irresistable urge to quote from an episode of Psych, one of my favorite TV shows (fake psychics, real detectives), where psychic Shawn Spencer pretends to be a doctor but doesn’t know any medical terminology: 

Shawn: Now do you want to help this patient or not? 
Walker (medical resident): Of course, sir. 
Shawn: Then speak to me like I’m ten years old. 
Walker: He had a sudden drop in blood pressure, which deprived his brain of blood. He also suffered a contusion and slight cerebral hemorrhage. 
Shawn: [pause] Talk to me like I’m five.
Walker: Uh… his blood pressure went boom and his brain got an owie. 

It seems that professionals in every industry speak in industry-specific jargon. From plumbers and pilots, to doctors, lawyers, and computer programmers, I have heard things that caused me to scratch my head and wonder if we were speaking the same language. Lawyers may be particularly prone to legal jargon, or legalese, for several reasons: we were brainwashed for three years in law school, we are relying on laws, and case law, that date back tens or hundreds of years, and jargon can make communicating difficult concepts easier. Some people, like communication expert Alan Siegel, are waging a war to simplify legal documents. I hope they win. I often have to review contracts or releases with clients and I have to resist the urge to say,"This document says ‘blah, blah, blah, and… you no longer have any rights, including the right to vote or bear children.’"

I recognize that lawyers have a tendency to speak in legal jargon. I’m told that recognizing the problem is half the battle. So, I will do my lawyerly best to speak in normal, everyday language that anyone (over the age of ten – sorry, Shawn) can understand. But, just in case I forget, I’ll give you a link to Nolo.com’s great "plain english" legal dictionary. Or just say,"Excuse me, what was that again?"


About the author: Brian Anderson

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