Writing Tips at GarySpeer.com

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Using jargon: When does a toothpick become a throwpick?

When does a toothpick become a throwpick? Using jargon is something I’ve written about here before, and it’s a subject that deserves your constant vigilance.

That toothpick-throwpick question is not really a riddle, but one of the many fascinating questions arising from my regular morning breakfast routine at a nearby coffee shop — I constantly ask them, “Where are the toothpicks?” and they usually tell me, “The throwpicks? They’re right over there on the counter.”

More than a waste of my curiosity, their use of the term got my wife and me thinking (yes, she’s a word person, too) about using jargon. I have been unable to trace the use of “throwpick” for “toothpick,” but I’m beginning to suspect it’s an example of using jargon from the restaurant (food industry?) bag of terms for “toothpick with a little twisty, colored plastic on one end to stick in sandwiches.”

You’ve seen such critters if you’ve gone into most restaurants and coffee shops, haven’t you? They also come in plastic permutations styled to look like little swords or daggers. At least those are two very unsatisfactory “throwpicks” used for awhile by our favorite coffee shop. I say “unsatisfactory,” because my aging teeth and gums found nothing useful about a tiny plastic sword for removing bagel particles lodged in them. (The manager is a major fan of all things related to pirates; I blame her for the short-lived turn to those nasty plastic swordlets.)

Try as I might, I was unable in my almost 5 minutes of online research via Google to find the origin of “throwpicks,” but I am confident it’s out there somewhere. Repeatedly, when I refer to these little wooden objects with their colorful twisty plastic as “toothpicks,” the servers/customer service associates at the coffee shop insist on calling them “throwpicks.”

The point of all this, dear writer friends, is this: Make sure your readers understand the jargon, or leave it out. Obviously, if jargon adds an air of reality to your fiction, you want to use it. But if it is only going to obscure what you’re trying to say, if you must use the jargon, give enough contextual clues to make sure the reader can get through it to understand what you’re writing.

Make sure your jargon, especially if it relates to a job, place, activity, group, whatever that you’re very familiar with, is truly clear to your readers. It’s easy to become so accustomed to your own group’s jargon that you forget others may have no idea what you mean.

I’ll not violate my coffee shop friends’ sense of professional obligation — or obsession? — for using jargon and maintaining their industry’s jargon. But I really would like to find out more about where the term “throwpicks” comes from. Maybe one day when Jessica, their manager, is not too busy keeping their never-empty coffee urns filled, I’ll take her aside and ask whether she can explain “throwpicks” and other coffee shop or restaurant jargon — words like “latte” and for that matter “coffee urn.”