This → PainfulTalkHistoryPainfulTalk1

PainfulTalk is the opposite of PlainTalk. It’s anything but plain – it’s full of jargon, big words, imprecise references, obscure allusions, and weird grammar. PainfulTalk is not easy to understand. This makes it painful to read PainfulTalk (hence the name). Unfortunately, a lot of really neat ideas are written in PainfulTalk for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, people don’t believe that PlainTalk can convey the nuance of their ideas. Other times, people have ideas which they don’t think are profound enough, so they make the sound more complex than they really are. And who knows – maybe some people just naturally work in PainfulTalk and don’t find it painful at all. Either way, the general feeling here seems to be PlainTalk is to be used instead of PainfulTalk.



Fields like CriticalTheory and philosophy are full of PainfulTalk. The post-modern philosophers are particularly good at PainfulTalk. Take the following from Lyotard.

There are a number of dangling pronouns here that make this passage seem more obfuscated than it probably really is in context. that direction? they are isomorphic? this obviously implies? orientation with respect to what?

another example

“Silicom as a Second Language: WHEN PLAIN ENGLISH ISN’T WORDY ENOUGH, INCENTIVIZE YOUR FORM FACTOR” article by David Pogue

“You can think of Silicom as a sort of reverse shorthand: it requires more words to express a thought than English, thereby making the speaker feel as though each utterance has more import. In Silicom, … A laptop isn’t small; it has a “compact form factor.”

Of course, every profession has its jargon, but Silicom is sillier than most. Whereas doctors, musicians, and mechanics invent terms for concepts unique to their professions, computer-industry nerds merely substitute words for which perfectly good English equivalents already exist.”

Pretty funny. Exactly the opposite direction from Visual:SpeedTalk. – DavidCary

See Also


[This is the second half of a conversation in which we investigate ideas surrounding what constitutes PainfulTalk, looking at how some of the aspects that cause people to categorize some talk as painful derive from choices made by the author, others from the context and background of the reader. There’s a huge history of research in narratology and other fields in author-reader relations that we won’t go into here, but if you’re interested in following the entire conversation, it begins with PainfulTalk1.]


Actually, I think that’s really good.

I’d add to “reasons why people use PainfulTalk”-

I believe that many of our institutions (colleges, governments, justices,) reward PainfulTalk, and punish PlainTalk. Many good people don’t realize what is happening, but they come to honor PainfulTalk, and reject PlainTalk. They believe that PainfulTalk is “smart,” and PlainTalk is “dumb.”

I think most (almost all) PainfulTalk isn’t done for malice- it’s just something that people have become used to, and they don’t know what they’re doing. I mean, this goes for me as well- I frequently find myself speaking PainfulTalk, and I work to find a PlainTalk way of understanding and explaining it. (And, usually, when I’ve done so, I find that I understand it better than I ever have before.)

Now my response for Murray:

Murray, I agree. My response went waaay overboard.

I am frustrated when I talk about PlainTalk. I am frustrated when I say, “PlainTalk is not a rejection of Jargon.” …and then I get a lot of replies “But surely, Lion, you must understand the need for sophisticated vocabulary…”

But regardless- my response was too much. I’m sorry.

As for truths and PlainTalk-

Yes, I agree: PlainTalk can also be very profound.

But, I don’t know if I’d say that PlainTalk just “appears” to be PlainTalk, just because it’s expressing something deep.

As for talking philosophy-

I hope I’ve made clear: I’m not waging war on jargon.

I know that in conversations about Awareness, for example, we have to say “Neural Correlate of Consciousness,” which we then abreviate to just “NCC.” And we say “Zombie,” but we don’t mean what most people think. We even have “Zagnets,” and all sorts of other weird fantastic creatures.

I have no problems with necessary jargon. It doesn’t bother me that Physicists say “Quark,” without turning it into a full-on explanation of all of Physics up to the point. It doesn’t bother me that people talk about things that I can’t understand.

Murray, you wrote: “To outsiders, such language may seem overly complex. I can understand Lion thinking that these people should just talk “plainly”, but the only reason the discussion doesn’t seem plain to him is because he unfamiliar with the language.”

First, that statement doesn’t represent me. I don’t think people should “just talk plainly,” if plainly means “without jargon.” I have never meant this. I have several times said I explicitely do not mean this.

I hope this is clear: Necessary jargon does not bother me.

But Second: I don’t think the only reason the discussion doesn’t seem plain to him is because he is unfamiliar with the language.

I think that the reason the discussion doesn’t seem plain to me is because it’s actually not plain. I think I’ve given a number of good examples where people are speaking in a language that is complicated, and with no good reason.

I think we should strive, regularly, to make sure that we’re speaking PlainTalk. If we find that we are not speaking PlainTalk, I think it’s time that we stop, and ask ourselves, “Is this really necessary?” If it is, then we go forward. If it is not, then we rework our language back to PlainTalk. It keeps us honest. And I think it also helps up think clearly about things.

I have those three questions I use: “Is the True? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind?” That is- this difficult phrasing that I want to use- is it right? Is it accurately saying what I mean to say? And then- is it necessary? Is there an easier way to say this thing? And then: “Is it Kind?” Most nebulous, but- “Am I helping people out by saying this? Is this something that people want to or should know about?”

I’ve said a lot of unkind things here. I’m not very skilled at PlainTalk. But I recognize it as an ideal, and I don’t think my imperfect use of PlainTalk means that it’s not worth striving for. PlainTalk has done good for me, and I’d like to see it used more.

I think we have great promise ahead of us, with all this new technology coming out, and this gigantic networking of people. I think we have great things to look forward to. I think now is the time for talking about PlainTalk. I think people care about this and want it. I want to give voice to this desire and this promise. Things just take time.

Lion, I think you are right. When wiki started moving we observed that it needs a culture to succeed. A number of elements have been found over time. I think PlainTalk is another important element of this culture, that you identified. How should we otherwise communicate globally and sucessfully?

I’d like to tune your questions to “Is it True? Is it Beautiful? Is is Kind? Is it Useful?”. Beauty comes in to represent art and individuality. Necessary turned to Useful because of a philosophical symmetry that is hidden somewhere in this.

Mattis, another task for you: How can we translate PlainTalk and PainfulTalk to German? How can we popularize PlainTalk, which has absolutely no tradition in our countries?

Lion, I think most of what I reacted to was that you seemed angry about a point I was’t even making – you didn’t seem to be listening. My point was not about the presence of jargon, which is part of what I had been calling community-local or community-specific language. I was trying to make a point about the locality of community-based knowledge, which of course can easily (and usually is) reflected in a community’s use of language. So that not only are outsiders not aware of the jargon, they’re not aware of the community’s use of language, the deeper meanings of its words and their usage-in-context. This is probably more important than the dictionary definitions of the terms. So if someone comes into a community from the outside, even being armed with a dictionary won’t help them much. We can all read Heidegger, but a great deal of what he says is reflected both in those layers of meaning in the words, as well as any references he might make to past discussions, statements, positions, etc. made within the philosophical community, none of which is reflected in the dictionary definitions of the words. So even if he were using PlainTalk, much of the meaning is unknown to those outside his community. If Heidegger or Habermas talks to a bunch of laypeople, they must tailor (“dumb-down” sounds negative, but is probably accurate) their discussion to those people in order to be understood. But when they talk within their own community, even using the same lexicon, their words will ring differently. So please note that I was (unsuccessfully) trying to make the point that I was not talking about much of the things this page had already talked about, like the presence of jargon.

Doug Englebart talks a lot about these kinds of issues, and tried to develop technological means to conserve community knowledge (what he called a DKR or Digital Knowledge Repository) so that as the community changed it would always have a place to go to find out what it “knew” at the current point in time, as well as its historical knowledge. This idea of a DKR is remarkably similar to a wiki, but not quite. That this is CommunityWiki would almost suggest that we have implemented a DKR, but the part that’s missing would be a much stronger ability to establish what the state of community knowledge was at some date. That’s quite difficult on a wiki, indeed, it’s quite difficult to even grok the “current state” of the community’s knowledge because there is typically no summary, no way to grasp the entirety of a wiki except to read everything. Doug’s idea of a DKR would have solved both of these problems.

He once told me about how a group of engineers were asked why an airplane their department had designed several years prior had been having some major structural errors in the tail. Problem was, there was only one engineer on the original design team still with the company, and only he was able to answer (and solve) the problem. The answer was only in his head. The company hadn’t kept an adequate DKR (on paper or in a computer) that would enable the analysts to grok what the design team knew. When they left the company, they took their knowledge of the design with them.

What I was trying to explain was aiming in this direction. What constitutes I think a great part of people’s perception of PainfulTalk is not the presence of jargon, it’s that they weren’t part of a specific community long enough back to grasp its historical “DKR” contents. They might even know the words, but things seem unintelligible. This is why newbies to an online community are often encouraged to stay quiet for awhile, so they can come up to speed with what’s currently the state of affairs. And again, I’m not apologizing for simply bad communication – different issue.

You might remember that several years ago I quit my job and started a Ph.D. program. If so, you can probably guess that I’ve had more than my share of jargon and bad communication. Academia (as has been pointed out) is rife with it. Part of what makes academia more prone to this is not only that there are a lot of people who aren’t good writers forced to do a lot of expository writing about things they don’t often fully understand, it’s also that an academic community within a given domain is constantly on the move, knowledge-wise. One must read a great number of books and journals to grok the state of a community’s knowledge, something entirely necessary in order to comment on and contribute to that knowledge base. And of course, part of a community’s knowledge is wrapped up in its use of community-specific language. I did not use “jargon” because I also include community-local definitions of “common”, non-jargon terms, and the knowledge of conversations, issues, arguments, etc. within the community. And to be quite clear, I should say that I am an advocate of PlainTalk. I wish there was more of it, particularly in academia. I also simply wish that people were better educated, better taught to think critically, and to communicate effectively.

So perhaps I think we are talking about two separate things. Perhaps it might be good to also discuss this idea of a DigitalKnowledgeRepository? (DKR), because I think (as does Doug Englebart) that the lack of ability to grasp a community’s present and historical knowledge is one reason why we’re prone to repeat bad parts of our history. I was sitting in a café yesterday talking to an old English veteran who was in the British military in Iraq in 1956. He couldn’t understand why we are back there again, why we ignore all the things that we’ve done in the region. Part of the reason is that most people are completely ignorant of the last century’s history in the Middle East, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Hell, most people don’t even know what the Ottoman Empire was. A third of Americans can’t even locate the Pacific Ocean on a map. If the public had easy access to this kind of knowledge, it might make us less prone to support the kinds of horrible “leadership” we have now, since we could quickly see both their motivations and when they were leading us back into historical quagmires. I think the wiki community (as a whole, as well as the greater Internet community) is part of a grand scheme to document our collective experience. There’s a movement within the blogging community to document the state of affairs of the entire community by simplifying the means of inter-blogging, sharing, harvesting, etc. (see David Neiwert’s Orcinus blog as a great example of a journalist who constantly references his own past writing as well as that of other journalists). If we can come up with a way to link up the collective contents of all wiki, we can perhaps come up with a way to enable a world-wide DKR. Doug believes we must do this to survive. I agree. – Murray

(Accidentialy deleted by Murray last contribution) I’d like to appologize for my reaction above, bitterness Helmut said, the bitterness of a rat chased into a corner in fact. I de-embarrassed a bit. Peinliche Sprache. “peinlich” from “Pein” = “painful” from “pain”. Pain is mainly “Schmerz” in German now. “Pein” has a touch of middleages, the “peinliches Gericht” the “painful trial” was a trial of the inquisition inplying torture. So: Schmerzliche Sprache, Schmerzhafte Sprache. German has two words for pain, what is the difference between them? The sientific term, the neuro-signal is clearly “Schmerz”. “Pein” sounds almost funny in this context. It is not used there. As a noun “Pein” is not really in use anymore. “peinlich” nowadays means embarrasing, it is commonly in use. Embarrasement is what happens when you do not mind the gap. Same with with language. The context counts. On a motorcycle tour with five hell’s-angels quoting Heidegger might be embarrasing. In the place in Frankfurt Heidegger meeting his friends to dicuss philosophy using the word with “f” might be a silly idea. I used it here and removed it now. The rat escaped from the corner it was stuck in. I appologize again. This is one of our most rampant pages here, I wonder why. It obviously touches something important. I’m almost a bit afraid of it. We have different mothertongues here. We are in fact multilingual. We are using English as our working-language. But we think in French and in German too here. Why does the canyon/river metaphor work fine for almost everybody worldwide (Heidegger included) and the Heidegger-excerpt above does just about the opposite? Redundancy, the degree of compression of a context, the time you are given to understand it. It seems of importance if painful talk is rooted. Is there a way get a painful-talk text explained in plain-talk? How willing and how capable are painfull-talk talkers in helping to build translation bridges to those who are interested but do not understand?

Murray: Yes, this DKR sounds interesting. Not learning from history: A while ago there was a little stress here with a troll, who had already before been here. All the information, the contributions and answers had been deleted and expired, when the troll came here again. I could not inform myself on that person and things had to be repeated, which would have been eviteable if such information would have been stored somewhere. There is this old radio you do not use anymore as you have a better one now. It disturbs you in your house. If you put it out in the street rain will destroy it, it’s still working. You put it in the garage. That’s what we need. A place to put things we do not want in the house. I roughly layed out an idea on the use of an off-topic cluster on Ca’ Foscari wiki: off-topic. I copied this over here to discuss it: Off-topic. Optional exclusion for off-topic, or certain off-topic-pages (as certainly “spam here only” and its subpages) from the recent changes impementing a choice “show recent changes in ‘off-topic’” could somehow lead into what we are looking for. Right now there is the wiki, there is a tiny little bit the “other wikis” (interlinking and the wiki-node mainly) and there is the vast non-wiki. We need a garage (important things like personal computers for example get invented in garages;)). For our old and overcome knowledge. For annoying experiments. For shallow stuff. And behind the garage, where nobody sees it who doesn’t want to, we put our garbage.

Mattis, I wish two things: (1) that I spoke German fluently (well, that and French and Japanese too); and (2) that I were wealthy enough to just fly to Germany and spend a week in your neighborhood, so we could spend the days talking. I don’t know that anything would come of it, but there are times when one feels that there is some strange sort of kinship, intellectually, spiritually, I don’t know, and it deserves investigation. Your English is just bad enough to expose your real thoughts, and just good enough to convince me that our conversation would be very productive. :-) Admittedly, my German is just enough to locate a toilet, and maybe a beer. Suffice it to say, I always enjoy hearing the way you express ideas. – Murray

I briefly summarize my points.

First, look at the introducting sentences of the page :

PainfulTalk is the opposite of PlainTalk. It’s anything but plain – it’s full of jargon, big words, imprecise references, obscure allusions, and weird grammar. PainfulTalk is not easy to understand. This makes it painful to read PainfulTalk (hence the name).

This is an objective definition of PainfulTalk : painful talk is defined as somethings which is written so as it gives headaches.

Next, we derive from this objective characterization a subjective quality : Sometimes, people don’t believe that PlainTalk can convey the nuance of their ideas. Other times, people have ideas which they don’t think are profound enough, so they make the sound more complex than they really are. And who knows – maybe some people just naturally work in PainfulTalk and don’t find it painful at all.

This way of presenting things suggests that the objective determination is prior, and the subjective one, derivated. In other words : that anything written so as to give headaches is the result of some crackpot or pretentious or very very very clumsy mind.

This was the reason of my intervention, because I know right well that to be false. So I give you Heidegger’s example, and, frankly, I think this is plain talk. It is just plain talk for a very particular community, plain talk with, not only little jargon (Dasein, in-der-Welt-sein…) but a lot of common words which have a very specific meaning due to historical reasons (in the history of the group).

And this implies four things in particular :

1. As long as you don’t have a clearcut way to objectively distinguish between A and B, they do not exist as scientific entities. I am honest in judging that Heidegger is plain talk, I can argue for this. You think it is painful talk. This shows, either that it is on a border, either that the distinction is not clearcut, or there is no operative distinction in the most global context. (*)

2. The suggested distinction between plain and painful talk seems operative and, I’m sure of it, comes from experience, but it is nonetheless simplistic. It assumes that words have an individual meaning regardless to textual context and sociological-historical context.

3. It also assumes that there are better styles than others, which I don’t question, but the problem is : how to recognize these better styles ? If we decide of canons too early, this will result in an impoverishment of everybody’s styles, and in the last in an evolutionary crash. We need crackpots.

4. Even in the case of the wiki community, you do not seem to realize that your plain talk, my brethrens, is the painful talk of the ordinary man. One could point that nobody in everyday life talks of Pattern Language, of Back Link, of Minor Edit, of Creative Commons, of Wiki Syntax… But this is jargon within plain talk, you’ll say ? Okay, but there are also a lot of common words or expressions which we give a very different meaning just because we are a community…

To conclude, I assert that the distinction between plain and painful talk is not, imho, conclusive. There is the subjective/objective problem, there are the edge examples, there is the importance of community in it… And too many people seem to accept it immediately, so it may be suspect… – NicolasMontessuit

(*) Things are in a continuum. In practice, the determination of what is pornography or not, of what is plain talk or not, etc., is the result of your social group prejudices. The excerpt of Lyotard given of this page is a good example, because it is perfectly plain for people who share the history and the culture of the group to which it is intended.

There will always be, in the whole society, a certain fraction of the population that will be interested in, say, critical theory. These people will have fun reading Lyotard, and it won’t be painful to them. For the others, they are not interested in critical theory, so why bother ?

The fact that you want everybody speak plainly in every branch of human knowledge indicates that you would like everybody be able to read anything, but that will seldom happen, as people have very different interests in life. It is an “apostolic goal”, in the original sense of the word.

I understand that wiki culture is different, because it is non-specialized, horizontal, transversal. For such a transversal pluridisciplinar medium, plain talk is good. But one this interlinking plaintalking medium is given, people surfing on it will dispatch in every direction, one reading “Boy Scientist #1”, then “Boy Scientist #2”, then “Quantum Mechanics for Dummies”, then “Feynmann Vol. XII”, etc. Even if the first texts are plain talk, the last ones are not.

This discussion tends to ignore the “time factor” in any discourse or reading. I can begin a textbook or a debate in a fully plain style, but, if I introduce new words all along, it can become painful talk at the end.

The same is true with your education, and the fact that some find Lyotard painful, and other plain, means only that some were present when there were “episodes” in which the weirdly used words were introduced…

The introduction of specific words (“jargon”) or specific uses of common words (“pain”) are unavoidable, because it pertains to the specific nature of what is discussed (see the weird uses of words when speaking of wikiwikis, for instance).

Thus it would not be wise to suppress it. But it would surely be wise to give people a way to overcome the difficulties, and the solution is : retranslating every thing that is said, over and over, again and again.


Communication is very largely context. The context that I’m arguing about is Wiki. So on wikis, make sure the ShopTalk you use is well-defined. If you use a term that isn’t common, link to somewhere that explains it. That way, people who get confused can find help. But terms aren’t really the problem. The problem is with people who use terms that aren’t well defined fully knowning that they aren’t well defined. People who use grammar to hide their meanings. People who try to talk over the heads of their audience. I’ve already been accused of this a few times right here. It wasn’t my goal (at least not one that I thought of), but I can see where the accusations come from. On wiki, try to keep things clear. That doesn’t mean simple or simplified. It means trying to clue your reader in on the context, on the ShopTalk, and on the background. Try not to lord over other people. Try to be honest. I’ll grant that the meaning of words change over time – that much is obvious. Look at marriage. It happens more quickly in small, closed communities than for society as a whole (again, marriage). But, what we want is to not have small closed communities. At least not here. We can lower the barriers to learning. We can make a resource where someone can come in, start reading, and start learning. So, try to be clear. When you use a term, try to be pretty sure you know what it means. When you’re writing, try to be organized. Give your reader clues where you’re going. If a simpler sentence will do what you’re complex one does, use the simple one.

For me, it largely comes down to being explicit. If you’re trying to be clever and imply a lot of your meaning, then you’re assuming a shared context with your reader who will get what you’re implying. You cannot assume that here. So, be explicit. Explain things, even if it seems a little redundant. Link often. Try to give your readers as many hints to your context as you can. Make a see also section so people can get their bearings. If you don’t have time, if you’re just trying to get something across quickly, then write it the way that’s most natural to you. But then try later to translate it. Or, hope that someone else can figure out what you were getting at and translate it for you. Indeed, I really like the idea of retranslating every thing that is said, over and over, again and again. It keeps us in touch with what’s going on, keeps our knowledge current, and keeps things clear.

Also, I’d apprecaite a similar analysis to the new, summarized contents of this page that I posted earlier today. The stuff at the top of the page is obviously way behind. It was written in a hurry, with the hopes that others could flesh it out. So let’s try to clean things up so we can argue with more precision and clarity.

In support of the argument that a great part of what constitutes PainfulTalk in academia comes from the vicissitudes of academic writing, I cite Richard Rorty in Analytic Philosophy and Transformative Philosophy:

  • What one acquires as a graduate student in an analytic philosophy department is not a set of methods or tools, but simply familiarity with the various language-games presently being played by the faculty of that department. These are language-games which may well be viewed with contempt by the analytic philosophers at the next university down the road. Nevertheless, familiarity with such language-games is what constitutes initiation into the profession. In this respect, graduate training is precisely the same process for students of David Lewis or Donald Davidson as it for students on the other side of the abyss--disciples of Albrecht Wellmer or Gianni Vattimo, for example. In all four cases, you acquire what suspicious outsiders call pointless jargon and what convinced insiders call indispensable tools.

This paper is also cited under ScienceVsPhilosophy and followed up by NicolasMontessuit in AnalyticPhilosophyAndTransformativePhilosophy?, which must be one of the longest of wiki page titles – MurrayAltheim.

Pity the Silicom article link is broken. Macworld have revamped their archive, and it just ain’t there.

That’s too bad. Somebody please tell those Macworld web masters that Cool URIs don't change.


Wiki:WritingTheRightThingsDown discusses another kind of PainfulTalk: copy-and-paste from other documents. At its worst, it leads to pages and pages of boilerplate text, with only a few snippets of real content hidden here and there.

A (not very good) excuse for PainfulTalk:

Like any industry or field of study, the computer field has lots lingo and jargon to confuse the layperson. This is simply so consultants sound like they know what they’re talking about, to confuse the heck out of you, make you feel stupid, and ultimately charge you more. It’s the same whether you’re talking to a plumber, doctor, or car mechanic; it’s all about money. Rick VanDerveer

Just found this example of painful talk (yes, it’s a parody).

DavidCary, you’re an engineer; Can you make any sense of this? Is that PainfulTalk, or ComplexPlainTalk? (note: I got tears in my eyes, watching this..!) One that goes a bit further.

Hehe, seems like your paper got rejected ;)

It was beyond their understanding. That’s ok, because you can always Generate a new one. Welcome to the future of scientific paper writing!

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