My job gives me a good excuse to ask stupid questions of smart people, and one thing I've learned is that experts can be difficult to talk to. The ideal expert is someone who both commands a field and has the ability to explain his or her work in a way that's accessible, even fun. The problem with expertise is jargon: language that is essential to describing specific things, words and phrases that are familiar to insiders but impenetrable to everyone else.
Most jargon is too esoteric or emerging to be of wide interest, but the occasional word or phrase becomes common enough that the general public latches on. Lingo moves from expert circles into the language at large thanks to news (think "subprime mortgage"), celebrity usage ("macrobiotic," anyone?) and necessity (it seems we're conditioned to expand our technological vocabularies without much prodding at all).
Here is my pick of five words to learn for 2016. Use them three times each and they'll sound less clunky, I promise:
Cisgender: This one already made the Oxford Dictionary cut for mid-2015, so if you don't know it, you're already behind. A cisgendered person (cis for short) is someone whose biological sex (the physical body, designated female or male) matches their outward gender (how they present themselves, usually on a spectrum of feminine to masculine, and dubbed woman or man). More simply, cisgendered is the opposite of transgendered.
CRISPR: Touted as the biggest science story of last year, CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene-editing technology developed by American biochemist Jennifer Doudna. The Globe's André Picard dubbed the process "molecular scissors" (its full, unwieldy handle is Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats associated protein 9). CRISPR allows for the alteration, addition or elimination of genes in DNA sequences, and was originally intended to develop disease-resistant plants. Since every living organism has genes, CRISPR is now a bioethics minefield, as it makes possible everything from Huntington's-disease-free babies to animal-free meat. Chinese scientists have already altered human embryos; no babies have been born yet, but it only gets messier from here.
Lowflation: Coined in 2014 by a Bloomberg News journalist, this term seems fairly obvious – a low rate of inflation, probably lower than the 2-per-cent target aimed for by the Bank of Canada and many other central banks. The complicated part is what that means practically, especially for average Canadians grappling with a declining dollar and a stalling oil economy. "It's not necessarily bad news for the consumer," said Douglas Porter, the Bank of Montreal's chief economist. He cites lowered gas prices as one benefit, and believes that food and clothes could also become cheaper soon. But it also means wage stagnation, extra-bad news when partnered with Canadians' record levels of household debt. Your job is to resist the siren call of those sexy lowflation interest rates.
Ocean acidification: Jargon can be a big problem when a topic is relevant to everyone but comprehensible to a select few. Example A: climate change, the complexities of which involves terms such as this one. If only more scientists would take the cue of marine biologist Danielle Dixson, who wants to share her work with everyone. The University of Delaware researcher briefs the White House about changing weather patterns, but has also written children's books aimed at making climate science comprehensible to kids (and their parents). What I learned: Ocean acidification is when rising carbon-dioxide levels cause the pH level of the world's oceans to drop. This is particularly bad for crustaceans and coral reefs, both of which provide food for everything else down there.
FOGO: An addition to your pop-culture primer. Riffing off the band-wagoner's FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) comes its flip-side, FOGO (Fear Of Going Out). It's an introvert's confession, a world-weary tongue stuck out at socializers whose anxious FOMO drives them to leave their homes, like, every weekend. Canadian spokespeople include singer Alessia Cara of Brampton, Ont., whose Here is a FOGO anthem: "I would rather be at home all by myself" she croons from a party, before heading out to wait for her friends in a car. And you can find your FOGO uniform at Montreal's Stay Home Club, which offers sweatshirts bearing slogans such as "Happy alone" and "Boring is best." Which is especially true in January, no?