[update: link fixed. Also, the more I think about this, the worse I think "imbricated" is. Don't all discourses overlap to one degree or another? So it's not a case of using "imbricated" to mean "partially overlapping" (which would save words). I can't think of any discourses that would be "tesselated," so I don't think there's a useful distinction being made. I guess the point is that the "imbricated" discourses are held to be those that overlap more than other discourses do, but I'm not sure about how one goes about deciding when two discourses are "imbricated" and when they are not.]
I was at a wedding this weekend and was listening to my father (a physician) and my brother (an emergency room nurse) talk about injuries to the spleen and pancreas. It was very interesting, and, having grown up in a medical household, I followed most of the jargon. But at one point they started talking about "itp." After that went back and forth for a while, I had to say "acronymn, please?" and they told me that ITP stood for "idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura" (explained here). I could follow the "idiopathic" (unknown cause) and "purpura" (purple spots), but "thrombocytopenic" was, at least in conversation, lost on me. But once they explained, I followed the discussion.
That got me thinking about jargon in different specialities. There may be problems with medical jargon, but most of the time it works: once you know what the words mean (and if you have Latin and some Greek), they are pretty straightforward. Look up the term, and it is yours. This is not the case all of the time in English, and I think it illustrates a failing.
Which is why I will continue to mock the use of "imbricated" in literary studies. As I said in this post:
"imbricated discourses" aren't things--they're metaphorical descriptions of things. And that if "imbricated" is a better description than overlapping, you should explain why either metaphor has more explanatory power.I knew the word "imbricated" from icthyology: there are a fair number of fish with the species name "imbricatus" which describes their scales. But as a quick search will demonstrate, there are also starfish, mushrooms and plants that are "imbricatus." In each case, the word is being used precisely: the scales or plates overlap just like shingles on a roof (as opposed to sitting next to each other like, say, tiles on a floor (which would be tesselatus).
In literary studies the word is obviously used metaphorically, which is fine: metaphors carry ideas from one place to another (according to Stephen J. Gould, the luggage carts at Athens airport say "metaphoros" on them); they are, to use Daniel Dennett's term, "intuition pumps" (which is itself a metaphor). I have no problem with using metaphors to explain complex ideas.
But the problem with "imbricated" is that it is a bad metaphor. When you use "imbricated," you're saying, I think, that discourses overlap partially but not completely. Ok, I guess, though when we say other things "overlap" we almost always mean that they don't overlap completely. But the discourses do not overlap the same amounts for every single one (single what, anyway? Discourse?) the way shingles do on a roof. I'm also not sure if discourses do overlap that way, anyway: they seem more intertwined rather than imbricated. And when you listen to people use "imbricated," it's pretty clear that they are not being precise at all, but using the word instead of "intertwined" or "connected."
I am being pedantic (and since I'm a teacher and professor, I think that's a good thing, kinda my job), but if the metaphor is imprecise and confusing (because most normal people don't know what "imbricated" means even in a literal sense), then we shouldn't use it. In fact, I think people who do use "imbricated" are using the word to indicate that they are members of an in-group, or to show that they are smarter than the average bear. At least for me, this doesn't work, which is why people who use "imbricated," especially in casual conversation, deserve a good mocking.
The difference between medical jargon (which can be just as "in-group" and alienating as "imbricated") is that the medical jargon is at least perfectly clear when you look it up in a regular old dictionary or know your Latin and Greek. Medical jargon also uses metaphor ("iliac," for instance), but the purpose is to illustrate and the effect is precision. The same can't be said for literary jargon, and I think that is unfortunate: again, we should be the strongest supporters of precision and detail in language use.
In Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (a completely under-rated work by him, by the way; much better than Henderson the Rain King), there's a little passage about how it's an error to call a person "dilapidated," which means "having had stones removed from it." We fight a losing battle against fossilized metaphor and imprecise language, but it is a long defeat worth fighting, because when we preserve the specific meaning of "dilapidated" as "having stones missing" or "imbricated" as "overlapping like shingles on a roof," rather than allow these words to decay into just dead metaphors for "old" or "entwined," we keep the language richer and more powerful, more able to communicate specific, concrete ideas in only a few words.