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Jargon and its Siblings

16 Conversations

three pairs of lips spouting jargon

Jargon is sort of like a language, only different. Often, jargon seems as if it had been invented by specialists with the sole intention of confusing non-specialists. For instance, computing is a field in which jargon has unintentionally hampered the uninitiated. Even the occasional traces of 'humour' in computer jargon is seldom helpful. For example, memory is measured in bytes, sets of eight bits (binary digits). The side-splitting technical term for four bits, or half a byte, is a 'nibble'. This may be funny but it's not helpful.

The science and art of linguistics (and it clearly is both) notices that to every language there is the language itself and there are the results of people using it. This is because of a fundamental and necessary characteristic of language; it must remain non-specific in order to be useful for communication. Most of the words of any language have very flexible meanings which can vary by usage, situation, and history. This, of course, is the bane of every lexicographer1. If you have any doubts go to any decent dictionary and look up the word 'the'2. Are you all back? Good.

'The' is a very old word as far at the English language goes; and it is very much a part of our speech; so it is not that surprising that it has acquired so many meanings and uses. Of course, knowing that it was one of the most complicated words in English didn't have any influence on it being selected as an example (of course not). However, the word 'a' is even more complex. Are those of you who didn't check the definition of 'a' on the first trip, back? Good.

It should go without saying then, that words may not mean the same to you as they do to the person you are speaking with. It is one of the poorly understood wonders of our day that, in spite of this, we still manage to communicate reasonably well.

If our goals are different, if we require more or less precision, or if we have special needs, every language has mechanisms that allow us to attempt to provide for that need. Linguists recognise four main classes of specialised language use: cant or argot, slang, dialect, and jargon. Jargon is our main focus here, but it is important to distinguish it from its siblings.

Cant or Argot

Cant (Americans tend to use the word 'argot') is generally described as a class of vocabulary that is deliberately unknowable to anyone who has not been trained in its meaning3. The classic example is criminal cant: the source for such words as gang, mob, gat, heater, caper, fuzz, copper or cop, ice, and heist. The intent behind such cants is to permit members of these groups to be able to talk together in public without being understood by outsiders.

You may by now be saying to yourself that you already know what these words mean and that they hold no mystery for you. This is a real problem for users of cant, as you might well imagine. It is necessary for the meaning of the cant words to be known to the members of the group. The cant words become part of their everyday speech. As things progress, the cant becomes known to larger and larger groups of people, some of whom aren't criminals or, sometimes, it is deliberately exposed (as in gangster movies), and so passes into general usage, largely, one suspects, because of its novelty and, often, because it is quickly adopted as slang.


Slang, while often obscure, or even incomprehensible to those outside of the group using it, is intended to set a group of speakers apart from others. Youth slang is by far the most common example of this sort of thing. Children or, more often, teenagers will commonly take ordinary concepts and rename them, partially as a kind of cant, but primarily to set themselves apart from adults and to further unite themselves.

It's not at all uncommon that the choices for slang words would be made to deliberately aggravate and taunt those the members regard as outsiders or enemies. For this reason, sources for slang words or phrases are often taken from criminal or near-criminal sub-cultures, these having been already marked out as enemies of the target culture, on the firm, if dubious, principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend4. Other sources for slang are more deliberate, chosen with an eye to wit and contrast.

Examples of slang words and phrases are 'hip', 'cool', 'bad', 'sucker', 'jerk', 'greasy spoon', 'butchers' and 'shotgun wedding'. Particularly in the case of teens, it is natural that members leave the groups or grow out of them, with the result that these words naturally pass into the language as their meaning becomes more commonly known, and not without a touch of the old animosity.


It is becoming less the case today, but in the past it was not at all uncommon for unique vocabularies to spring up in areas where communication was limited. This can be seen where people from different cities and towns seem to have their own unique way of talking about things common in both locations. Dialects can also be seen in situations where communication is limited because of class distinction or ethnic separation.

Classic examples of dialect can be seen in the words 'pancake', 'flapjack', 'griddlecake', 'battercake', and 'hotcake', all of which mean the same thing but originate in distinct geographic areas. Some commonly known dialect word pairs are 'lift' and 'elevator', 'spanner' and 'wrench', 'biro' and 'ball-point', 'boot' and 'trunk', 'on queue' and 'in line', 'bird' and 'chick', and 'bloke' and 'guy', all of which are (or have been) in common usage in the UK and the USA, respectively; all of which probably started out as slang and may still be considered such in some circles.

Wherever there is a source of standardisation, those standards usually lag behind common practice. Linguists and writers are generally more pragmatic than lexicographers, so these sorts of things often make it into the literature before they find their way into dictionaries.


Jargon develops to some extent in the same way that slang does (that is, to distinguish a particular group); but it is largely due to a need to talk about things in very precise ways.

For instance, lawyers or solicitors, barristers, and judges are charged with making contracts and settling very fine points of law. They are a very learned profession and to some extent the language of the law is designed to set the legal profession apart from everyone else. But, more importantly, it quickly became obvious to the legal profession that the ordinary language was simply too imprecise to be able to argue causes and obligations.

The result was a very carefully designed set of definitions and conventions, which set forth the precise meaning of nearly every word in a legal document; and, wherever possible, they would use standardised agreements, which have already been tried and proved. Ideally this leaves nothing to be argued but the intent and validity of contested agreements or violated laws. Read out of context, a legal document cannot help but seem overly elaborate and unnecessarily obscure. But, while the language of law is English, it was never intended to be conversational.

Very Nice, But...

Why should you care? The reason is very simple. It is perfectly acceptable (and almost inevitable) that the words of a particular jargon will not mean the same as the same word used in another. And, even worse, it is not likely to mean the same as that word when it is used as part of common speech.

If you are telling yourself 'no', now that you have been warned you will take the proper precautions, you had better read on. The rest of you, who are undoubtedly here out of an innate desire to stretch your minds, settle back and get comfortable.

Consider first a very simple example: the words 'crazy', 'insane', 'psychotic', and 'psycho', all heard commonly in daily speech. In most dictionaries which present common usage, these words are all given substantially the same meanings, frequently referring to each other. And, this is true... for common usage. But if you are reading or speaking with someone whom you do not know, you should realise that 'crazy' is a jazz term meaning exciting, 'insane' is a legal term meaning incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, 'psychotic' is a psychological term meaning that the patient's emotional and cognitive functions appear to have little or no causal relationship with the world around him, and 'psycho' is a term for a paying customer who expects specific sexual favours from prostitutes. So, you may not be hearing what you think you are.

These are only superficial problems though because, when dealing with single words in a language that is normally and essentially ambiguous, we are experienced in noticing when what we hear doesn't seem to fit the context of the conversation.

1 + 1 = 10

Another and more troubling example lies in the area of mathematics. We have been trained in math from a relatively early age; so many of us, and many dictionaries, do not distinguish between the terms that we use in daily life and the terms we were taught to use for mathematical operations. There are times, for instance, when we might say, that one and one is two, or one and one equals two, or one plus one is two. And by all of these we mean to say, 1 + 1 = 25. The odds are that in ordinary conversation we would not notice which of these expressions was being used. So, what are you to think when you overhear someone saying that 13 and two equals zero? Would you instantly say, Aha! They are talking about the binary and of 13 and two!6.

To take this one step farther, imagine that you are in a discussion with a friend, who is a professional mathematician. You have had a wide, ranging discussion over a bottle of wine, when you suddenly notice that she's talking about the difference between the world viewed from both real and imaginary perspectives, that the world when viewed as complex is a very different place than when it is simply real, and that, when you add in the irrational, even complex things become even more difficult and interesting.

If the wine bottle is more than half empty7, your safest bet would probably be to reply, 'Erm, sure', and simply let it go past. But, let's assume that the evening is early, and you really want to get in on this. Perhaps, you might say that you think the irrational or imaginary shouldn't be mixed up with the real, that they are separate ways of looking at things and should be kept that way. You may well be on your way to a thrilling discussion, till you realise that you are talking about two totally different subjects. To a mathematician, deliberately talking at a level where a non mathematician might keep up with her, 'real' refers to the real number system, 'imaginary' refers to the square root of minus one, 'complex' refers to numbers that have real and imaginary parts, and 'irrational' refers to numbers which cannot be described as the result, sorry, the quotient8 of an integer divided by another integer9.

If you think this example is contrived, you are right. It is, of course, to make a point. But, if you believe that this problem is trivial, then consider for a moment the definition of division.

The electronic version of the Merriam Webster Dictionary lists 19 distinct definitions for 'division' in 11 categories. Only one of the definitions refers to 'the mathematical operation of dividing something'. The others range from the act of separating things into parts, to describing things that have been separated, to military organisational practices, to botanical usage, and, finally, to sports organisations. It seems clear that the arithmetical usage came long after the word was in use in English for more common activities.

Our confusion over the use and definition of these terms is further complicated because, during our education in mathematics, we were seldom told that the definitions we were being given only applied to mathematic calculations. If we were confused - and which of us weren't - we simply filed all these things in a special category labelled 'Horrid Stuff', tucked it in the back of our minds till it was forced out in quizzes and tests, and ran out to play ball10. Consider that at that tender age, you had recognised and categorised one of the first systematic jargons in your life that didn't concern itself with play.

It would not be until much later that you found some, at least, of the concepts of mathematics to be useful for what you had to get done. Can you remember wondering why anyone would ever want to work a story problem?

By then, you were well into the one and one is two stage; and, in any case, the dictionary will seldom tell you that the word you think you know is part of a specialised vocabulary, as well as meaning what you think it does. You may very well have wondered, at some point, why the army names their little groups after an operation in arithmetic. The result of all this is that many of us have never been confronted with the relative nature of our language and will often argue vehemently against that concept.

This problem becomes even more of an issue when we find ourselves involved in philosophical discussions, where words may be redefined at the start of every session and be progressively changed as points and discoveries are made. People who are not familiar with this sort of ad hoc jargon creation, may begin to feel that things and concepts that they felt very comfortable with are suddenly very strange and unmanageable. In some cases, they can become very angry, feeling that things they have understood all their lives are seemingly being mocked or challenged.

In Church

One of the areas where this may most easily be seen comes about when ordinary people sit down to discuss religious or political issues. Assuming they avoid coming to blows, they will most likely resolve never to do such a thing again, at least not with such an ignorant bloke as that one.

The problem lies on two levels with religion. The first and most obvious problem is that religious matters have to do with issues of faith, and faith is not rational, no matter how rational the person with faith may otherwise be. The other reason is that clergy of organised religions have been discussing the issues of their various beliefs since their religion was born, created, diverged, schismed, or whatever led to the existence of that faith. Naturally, like any experts, these clergy began to formulate a very precise jargon that permitted them to know that they were saying and to be able to say what they meant to say. Some of that jargon, inevitably, made its way into the liturgy and lives of the practising members.

To make matters worse, some of this vocabulary was deliberately designed to draw hair-fine distinctions between their faith and another to which they were in direct opposition. This generally meant that even certain clergy could easily become confused; hence the word 'heretic.'

Needless to say, it is nearly impossible for ordinary folk to have an intelligent conversation about religion. Most people have very little language in common that relates to religion. What ordinary language they can use, more often than not, has been tainted by their clergy when they used it to define the meaning of the very words in dispute for their congregations.

In Government

Politics presents another instance where people are prevented from holding cogent discussions by the vocabulary being used and defined by the opposing parties. There is little point in speculating whether this confusion is deliberate or not, but the fact of the matter is that a little objectivity and good will is all we need to proceed.

Setting aside the issue of faith when it comes to political judgements, every political party wants to speak to as many of the people as it can reach, and to convince that same group that its position is the only one that can get the job done.

In order to do this, the politicians are constantly looking for new, fresh-sounding ways to say what they and their party have been saying since the figurative dawn of time. They must also try to say it in such a way that they will sound reasonable to their own people but particularly reasonable to those people of the other party, who might be induced to cross the aisle, be they elected officials or voters charged with those officials' elections.

It is possible to say, with only minimum malice, that there is a certain deliberate effort on politicians' part to confuse everyone involved, by redefining common words and phrases, preferably such that have been used, or are expected to be used, by the opposing party. For instance, in the United States, this is known as 'telling it the way it is' or, alternately, 'putting the right spin on it'. When coupled with suitably obscure values for statistics whose true value won't be known for years, it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to have an intelligent conversation on the topics in question, particularly so for the political candidates themselves.

In the Street

In this way, it should become clear, even from these few examples, that while you may know what you were saying, it doesn't follow that the other fellow caught one word in five. And, it isn't necessarily because you can't think in less than five syllables to the other chum's two or 'arsey versy'. It isn't necessary to consider only doctors, lawyers, scientists, and mathematicians. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker each have a specialised vocabulary and they might forget that you can make neither hide nor hair of it.

As you walk about the streets, listen to what is being said around you, particularly when the people are dressed the same... but differently than you are. Stand outside an off-track betting parlour. Stand near a police station. Idle near a beauty parlour, theatre, or rehearsal hall. Really listen as your waitress calls out your order to the cook, 'Gimme two staring on a stack floating and two squealers, dead'. Didn't you just order two eggs sunny side up, pancakes with extra syrup, and an order of sausage, well done?

Remember that each of us uses language differently than the other because, for each of us, the language is different. It may even change while you speak, depending on what you are talking about and who you are talking to. So, the next time you wonder how your attention could have wandered that far away from the discussion, don't be afraid to ask, 'Did you really say what I thought you just said?'.

1Lexicography is the study of words and the creation of dictionaries.2Go ahead and do it, you probably never looked it up before.3Cant is, in fact, a kind of code (as opposed to a cipher) except that it is more widely known than a cryptographer would care for one to be and it is not so deliberately and totally inscrutable. A code is a set of words or numbers which are substituted for other words by the use of a kind of dictionary. Preferably there is no detectable reason why one word is replaced by another. A code dictionary might direct you to replace the use of the word 'west' with 'golf ball.' A cipher, on the other hand, is a set of rules which allows for the parts of a message to be replaced with others that have no connection to their meaning. A simple cipher would be to replace every letter with the one that follows four letters after it in the alphabet. 4For that matter, these two kinds of sub-cultures often intermix for the same reason.5 Note that in binary notation, 1 + 1 = 10, which may be spoken as one plus one equals two.6There will be no discussion here of the binary and operation. Check out Boolean Algebra. 7 Wine bottles are never half full, this is a fundamental rule of alcohol mensuration.8The quotient is the number resulting from the division of one number by another number. Equally technical definitions include, a ratio usually multiplied by 100 used for evaluating test scores, and the proportional part of a share in tax law. 9 For excellent definitions of these math terms see Numbers. 10Consider for a moment all the jargon you know that goes with your sport of choice. How many of those terms mean entirely different things outside of the game? How many of us have felt that we were waxing poetic when we developed an extended metaphor based around the concepts of sport and how it relates to life?

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