Layman’s Terms – What Does It Mean? Why Do We Say It?

What does it mean when someone says “in layman’s terms.” When one is told to put things in layman’s terms, it means explaining a particularly complicated piece of information in brief, simplified, and easy to understand words.

But have you ever considered what layman’s terms itself mean and where it originated from? Interestingly and ironically enough, the answer isn’t quite as brief or as simple to explain.

What does layman’s terms mean? We use simple terms when we try to explain a complex issue so that the average person can easily understand it. Speaking in layman’s terms is not to dumb down. It is to educate using terms that an average person can easily digest. You need to use simple words first to define what the big words mean.

Read on to learn more about what in layman’s terms means and why we say it.

Why Do We Say Layman’s Terms?

So why do we say layman’s terms? Layman’s terms is defined as explaining a complex issue using words that can be understood by an average person—assuming that the person does not possess knowledge of the technical jargon associated with the subject matter.

The layman’s terms definition or meaning is describing something complicated in simple language that anyone can understand. But what exactly is a layman, and why is this term synonymous with simplification?

Within the context of the phrase, a layman does not belong to a specific profession and does not have professional knowledge or expertise in a particular field. However, in its original usage, it refers to someone who is not a member of the clergy but a non-ordained member of the church.

History of the Term Layman

The specific term layman was first used during the 15th century. While the original layman’s terms definition or layman’s terms meaning relates to the clergy, its usage also extends to the fields of law and medicine until eventually applied to all fields as per its modern usage.

The word layman comes from the Old English leah, which means a glade. When combined with mann, it (more or less) means a person who cares for a glade. The word evolved from leahmann to leyman and layman to lyman and so on, referring to a person responsible for something.

The title of layman was originally gender-neutral. At that time, the word man was defined as the thinker, and men meant to think or to have a cognitive mind. Thus, man was used when referring to all people in general, whether they be male or female. 

But in about a hundred years after the word layman became common, the term laywoman was coined as a separate designation for female laypeople. And it wasn’t until the 1970s when the term layperson was used as a gender-neutral reference to male and female laity alike.

Connection to the Catholic Laity

The collective term for the layman, laity, comes from the shared Middle English and French word laite. Its French form, in particular, originated from the Latin laicus, which in turn derived from the Greek words laos (people) and laikos (of the people or common).

Although the term laity is applicable to various religious groups and sects, it is perhaps more commonly associated with the Catholic Church. The next paragraph below is the definition of laity according to the Catholic document Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

The term laity means all the faithful except those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church, and those in holy orders. These faithful are made one body with Christ and are among the People of God; they are made sharers in the priestly, kingly, and prophetical functions of Christ; and they carry out part the mission of the Church and all Christian people in the world.

what does laymans terms mean

During the Middle Ages, clergymen had a better education than common citizens. And since the laity was an unofficial part of the Church, they were not privy to the internal practices and terminology shared among the clergy. Hence, we can see the correlation between the two descriptions:

  • The layman as a common person outside the Church; compared to
  • The layman as a common person who is not an expert in a certain field of specialization.

The Importance of Layman’s Terms in the Medical Field

When defining what is layman’s terms, and what does layman’s terms mean, we need to look at the medical field. The ability to explain things and concepts in layman’s terms is very important for any professional who has to relate to an average person. A good example of this scenario is in the medical profession.

For instance, doctors constantly use technical terms for medical procedures and scientific names for medicines and diseases. It isn’t proper to throw out such big words at their patients when they explain what ails them and what treatment will be required. Doing so would likely just go over their heads. In other words, patients become more intimidated when they receive complicated explanations about their health.

Medical professionals should not have to rely too much on clinical terminology to better communicate with their patients. Doctors should always be able to express their diagnosis in simple and clear terms that anyone can understand. That way, their patients are more likely to trust them and believe with what they have to say.

For example, a healthcare provider telling a patient that he is negative for metabolic syndrome might not be appropriate. Instead, a doctor should say that he doesn’t have any risk factors that would increase the likelihood of a stroke and heart attack.

The Importance of Layman’s Terms in Law

Another field where knowing layman’s terms can be helpful is the legal profession. Many of us may be familiar with certain legal terminologies only because we hear them in various media, like in a movie or on television.

But how many of us actually know what they mean? Are we even aware that an affidavit is a statement that one swears is true or that litigation is the process of a lawsuit? When we find ourselves lost in legal terminology, we consult with our lawyer to interpret these terms for our comprehension.

For instance, let’s say someone feels the need to read a contract before signing it. Should the person become overwhelmed by the unfamiliar legal terms he or she encounters? It is up to the counseling lawyer to translate what all that legalese means. He should protect them from any underhanded anomalies that might be lurking behind the fine print.

How to Write in Layman’s Terms

Being able to put things in layman’s terms is a useful skill to practice. This advantage is particularly true not just for conversation but for education as well.

Use it as a teaching tool to familiarize beginners with the workings of a particular area of study or industry. Also, it is especially helpful when we are writing articles about specialized subject matters.

To learn how to write for the common person, here are a few guidelines that you can follow.

1. Avoid the Use of Jargon

The term jargon must sound like such a big word in itself. But when we say jargon, we mean the language used by an expert in a specific field.

Imagine that you’re writing an article for readers who are unfamiliar with that particular field. You wouldn’t want to beat them over the head with terms requiring insider knowledge to be understood. These terms include technical language, field-specific slang words, and undefined acronyms.

As much as possible, try to replace technical terms with more familiar words. Again, use terms that the layman will find easier to understand. For instance, rather than saying tachycardia, you can say fast heart rate instead.

If you want to include examples of jargon in your article, be sure to explain what they mean. For example, point out that a chief cook and bottle washer is business slang for a person who holds many responsibilities.

Also, if you need to use an acronym, such as the military term FUBAR, don’t forget to explain what it stands for the first time you mention it. If you aren’t aware, FUBAR stands for f***ed up beyond all recognition.

2. Keep Sentences and Paragraphs Short

It’s difficult enough to make sense of technical jargon. Even more so when you’re reading extremely long sentences and paragraphs overflowing with them. Moreover, if you are putting things in layman’s terms, lengthy explanations can get just as intimidating. Not to mention boring for your readers.

To keep things moving along, write your sentences in the active voice. Express your points clearly and directly. Eliminate repetition and unnecessary modifiers. Avoid wordiness and try not to use words that explain the obvious or give too much detail than is necessary.

in laymans terms

Keep things short and sweet. Break down long compound sentences into two or more shorter ones. As for your paragraphs, they should ideally be about 100 to 200 words long and must focus on a specific key point.

There’s no need to follow the rules all the time. But while there’s room for some variation in length, keeping your paragraphs concise will help you avoid those dreaded walls of text. It’ll make your work much more readable and pleasing to the eye as well.

3. Quickly Get to the Point

Some readers may have a shorter attention span and the tendency to skim over what they read. As a writer, you must catch their attention from the get-go. Or else, they’ll quickly lose interest and stop reading your article entirely.

Upon the first paragraph, you must be able to state the main point of your article as clearly and concisely as possible. This very article, for instance, begins with an explanation of the layman’s terms meaning, then poses the question of how the phrase came into being. Within the first two sentences, you have introduced the subject of the article.

4. Do Not Dumb Down

While your task is to simplify the subject for the general audience, be careful not to dumb down things too much. If you talk down to your readers as though they were children, they might feel insulted and disinterested altogether.

It is vital to find the mode of expression that best suits the type of readership that you are trying to reach. If your target audience is children, it’s necessary to simplify information down to their comprehension level.

But when you are writing for older readers, address them as adults. They are clever enough to grasp the subject’s basics despite being unfamiliar with the technical terms involved.

Some points to take note of when you’re writing at the layman’s level:

  • Consider whether your readers have some existing knowledge of the subject.
  • Think about what your readers may need to know for them to understand your point.
  • Determine how adept your target audience is at grasping complex ideas.

Take these pointers into consideration so that you can adapt your writing style to your chosen audience.

5. Proofread Your Work

Once finished, the last but no less crucial step is proofreading your article. For an unbiased opinion, it is best to have it checked by someone else. It could be your friend, colleague, or acquaintance who is a non-specialist on your work’s topic. They would be able to verify how clearly your article explains its subject. Moreover, they can help you point out which areas may need further elaboration.

Conclusion – In Layman’s Terms

So, to recap, what is layman’s terms? What does layman’s terms mean? We use simple layman’s terms when we try to explain a complex issue so an average person can easily understand it.

Why do we say layman’s terms? Speaking in layman’s terms is not to dumb down. But to educate using terms that the average person would easily be able to digest. You need to use the little words first to define what the big words mean.

Some people like to throw big words around to show off how smart they are. But what may sound intelligent to one person might be complete gibberish to someone else. Moreover, it takes just as much intelligence to simplify a complex thought as it does to come up with one. Maybe even more.

True intelligence is in the proper application of the knowledge people possess. Moreover, it’s how well they communicate their ideas to others. Sometimes, they need to, in a sense, unlearn what they have learned and practice how to speak at the common man’s level.