Specialized Vocabulary: Terms of Art or Industry Jargon?

Yesterday I walked by a pub that recently opened in Grand Rapids and saw the words wells and calls. These words and others are part of the specialized vocabulary of bartenders—their terms of art.

The pub is the Brick and Porter. (Native English speakers will likely get the pun, but for any nonnative speakers reading this, the restaurant has a brick aesthetic and it serves porter; the words play off the phrase brick and mortar, which refers to a physical place of business.)

Anyway, out on the sidewalk was one of those sandwich boards meant to lure in pedestrians.

The sign said something like, “Happy Hour: 4–6 pm, Wells $5, Calls $6.” (I’m going from memory here; the hours or prices may not be accurate.)

specialized vocabulary in bartending

Well, it’s your call: wells and calls are part of the specialized vocabulary of bartending.

But it was the use of wells and calls that jumped out at me—mainly because I had no idea what they meant.

Of course, I knew it had something to do with drinks, and I guessed (correctly) that wells is short for well drinks and calls is short for call drinks.

But that’s as far as I got. I had to turn to the good folks at Alphabet Inc. (aka Google) to get the definitions.

A well drink is a drink that comes from a bartender’s well (also called a rail). The lower-end liquors make up the well, and it’s what a bartender uses if a customer orders, say, a vodka tonic.

A call drink, by contrast, is one that contains a specific brand of liquor. The customer requests (or calls) a name brand—Grey Goose or Ketel One—for the drink in question. (Call drinks are pricier than well drinks.)

One Man’s Specialized Vocabulary Is Another Man’s Gobbledygook

I’m relating all of this because it’s a perfect example of specialized vocabulary.

Every industry has it, from the restaurant world to the construction industry to the field of linguistics. (Ever hear of hypernyms and hyponyms? Linguists know these terms but non-linguists generally don’t.)

Tip: Keep specialized vocabulary to a minimum in marketing texts if you’re writing for a general audience.

Regardless of what industry you’re in, you might be using words that the average person doesn’t understand. Someone working in logistics, for example, uses the term LTL every day. But the average Joe or Jane doesn’t, because the term “less than truckload” appears only in a very specific context, a context that most people will never find themselves in.

Ditto for myocardial infarction. This term essentially means “heart attack,” but you won’t hear people other than physicians (and cardiologists, specifically) use the term.

Wells and calls on the other hand? You’re more likely to come across these terms during a night out. (I guess if I enjoyed liquor more, I probably would have learned these terms years ago. I’m more of a beer and wine guy, after all.)

The bartending industry is rife with terms that you may only know if you have occasion to use them—that is, if you frequent bars and order cocktails.

A drink can be straight up (or simply up), neat, dirty, or served on the rocks or with a twist. For more bartending terminology, check out this glossary of bartending terms.

Terms of Art: From Translation to Horse Parts

To see how writers use specialized vocabulary, all you have to do is open up an industry magazine or trade journal.

Translation Industry

The ATA Chronicle, for example contains articles written by and for members of the American Translators Association. Within its pages you may see terms such as source language, CAT tool, and congruity judgment.

Translators who read the magazine encounter these terms from issue to issue or while doing other research or professional development. They use them in their day-to-day work.

Tip: Ask people outside your company to read your marketing copy. If they can’t understand it, you might be overdoing it with industry jargon.

As a result, these “terms of art” don’t raise any eyebrows.

But anyone who isn’t a professional translator would have a harder time understanding these words.

The key, then, is for a writer to know not only what her audience needs but also what her audience doesn’t need. A contributor to the Chronicle knows that readers are familiar with these terms of art and therefore can use them without any fear of “talking over” the audience.

Horse Anatomy for Laypeople

About a year ago, a friend of mine decided to play a little practical joke on me. He had earned points through some program or other and wanted to spend those hard-earned points on a magazine subscription for a friend.

He got me a subscription to Practical Horseman.

Now, that’s a great gift for a horse lover or an equestrian—even a large-animal vet. But the owner of a language services company?

specialized vocabulary, terms of art, horse withers

“Pa! Look at the withers on that beauty!” exclaimed the guy who recently learned what withers are.

There’s a silver lining to everything, though. Now, once a month, I get to flip through the pages of a magazine that uses specialized vocabulary like it’s going out of style—perfect inspiration for a blog about language!

Here’s a sampling from just one page of the magazine:

  • well-defined withers
  • short cannon bones
  • point of hip to point of buttock to stifle
  • The pasterns, both front and rear, have good slope
  • very light muscling over the gaskin

Okay, from context, I can tell that these are all “horse parts”—but that’s as technical I can get.

It takes research (or the knowledge of a specialist) to know that withers, for example, refers to the ridge between the shoulders of a four-legged animal.

Should You Use Jargon in Your Marketing?

I always tell clients that they should minimize the use of specialized vocabulary in marketing copy for general audiences.

It’s one thing to use terms of art to show that you know your business; it’s quite another to litter your copy with terminology that the average person won’t understand.

But I’m not saying that Brick and Porter used the wrong words. They were right for the context. The fact that I didn’t know them says more about my familiarity with that context than it does about the pub’s word choice in its marketing.

And that’s where hospitality differs from other industries. Most people at some point or another go to a restaurant or order drinks from a bar. But only a very small percentage of the population ever enters, say, a dressage competition.


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