Jargon-free since October - updated

Compared with my last place of employment, Carleton is to jargon as the top of Everest is to oxygen. I am continually surprised by how few au courant terms sneak into speech and writing by faculty and staff. Perhaps I should have expected to find so few business buzzwords: no self-respecting academic talks about "thinking outside the box" except ironically, and often only then when spurred by the presence of an actual carton in the corner of the room. But the lack of academic jargon? Very interesting. When someone talks about a "paradigm shift" (granted, this is a big crossover term), they're more than likely talking about Kuhn. When some term from my former life slips into a proposal, my boss almost always redlines it.

Still, the occasional buzzword does slip into conversation and prose. Several times this summer, I've heard someone refer to a person, group, or situation as a "canary." This was pretty opaque to me until, at a meeting this morning, the speaker expanded on it: a certain group of students are "canaries" because if a new program benefits them, it's likely to benefit everyone. It's a reference to "the canary in the coal mine," only not really: those poor yellow birds only conveyed useful information when they died. If there was more oxygen in the mine than usual, they didn't, like, complete their chem major more quickly or master calculus with less effort. They probably just sat in their cages, wondering why the hell they were in a coal mine.

UPDATE (7/26/06): In a long meeting today with many of the same principals as yesterday's meeting, I heard three different people invoke the canary, all in this inverted way. All were also chemists. Maybe they're attuned to methane in a different way than the rest of us.

email: christopher at tassava dot com