When I read Bert Troughton’s blog this week, I remembered the first time I heard the term “kitten mountain season.” Or, rather, misheard it as “kitten mounting season.”
I was in a meeting last year with the ASPCA ProLearning department, where I’d recently transferred. I’d been writing about animals for the public since 1994, and was excited to learn about my new audience, the animal sheltering world. We were discussing the influx of kittens in some shelters during the summer months, and I imagined “kitten mounting season” as all these pregnant young cats (5, 6 months old, still technically covered by the term) giving birth to more tiny, screaming, hungry kitties, who turned into pregnant young kittens with more tiny, screaming, hungry kitties and…
Eventually, and thankfully, I saw the term typed out. But it got me thinking about jargon—specialized or technical language of a trade, profession, or similar group—and how important it is for communicators in any field to be clear and concise, and to never assume that your audience knows the meaning of “insider” terms.
So I randomly asked a friend if he knew what a puppy mill was.
He thought for awhile, answered with “a bad place where they sell dogs,” and asked me if that was right. It took me several tries to find words to elaborate, but he was definitely on the right track. I started out with “commercial breeding facility,” but just think about it—what kind of a mouthful is that? Now, this friend may not know in-depth details of animal welfare issues, but he does completely dote on his two cats. Maybe just like many potential adopters and supporters of shelters all across the country?
And consider these from the general public’s perspective:
Feral: Some friends asked me to spell/explain this word when it came up in recent conversation. Not that surprising, when I began to consider the many ways the term might be defined in the public’s mind… a stray? A threat to public safety? A former pet living on his own outside? A cat in a managed TNR colony? A Felis catus who’s lived his whole life in the wild?
Canine/Feline: Just “dog” and “cat” with some science-y street cred? I use these terms because they give you options for alliteration (i.e. feline frenzy!). But I know that folks don’t read, but scan text on websites…maybe “dog” and “cat” go down a lot smoother than I thought…no translation, albeit a quick one, needed? (You know what? The first, most common dictionary definition for “canine” is “a conical pointed tooth.”)
Companion animal: Per our circa-1994 style guide: We did not use the term “pet” as, for one, it was considered belittling. I love the idea of an animal being a companion. But it does take up a lot of space (especially online) and I worry that sometimes people trip over its meaning when reading. Is pet a “bad word” at your agency?
Veterinary medical terms: Sometimes there is no easy or accurate way to “dumb down” certain veterinary terms for lay people like myself. But there must have been something we could have done with this first (!) paragraph from a 1995 article on heartworm: Immature worm larvae, called microfilaria, are transmitted from one dog to another by mosquitoes. When a mosquito bite injects microfilaria into a dog’s body, these larvae migrate to the heart, lungs and adjacent blood vessels… I still have trouble assembling the cast of characters in those two sentences alone. Did people even read on to get to the part about why and how to protect your dog against heartworm?
Have you ever taken for granted that everyone knew the meaning of a word or phrase commonly used in our field? Are there some terms that we still can’t seem to agree on a definition of?
Please share—or I’ll feel really embarrassed all day about “kitten mounting season.”
Photo for lolcat courtesy of Sue Rabeaux