Defining The English Language through slang, jargon, and “The Arrival”

In the preface to Dictionary of American Slang, Stuart Flexner defines different aspects of the English language. I quote his definitions along with my American Heritage Dictionary (AHD).

  1. Slang, ” body of words or expressions frequently used by or intelligible to a rather large portion of the general American public, but not accepted as good, formal usage by the majority.”

No offense to Mr. Flexner, but that is a stiff, academic definition. My American heritage Dictionary is more fun. ” a vocabulary of casual or playful, often short-lived expressions, especially for humor, irreverence, or striking effect.”

I can wrap myself around that definition. The Flexner definition comes from a 1967 copyright copy of the slang dictionary. Perhaps words become more clearly defined over time, an evolution of meaning if you will.

     2. Colloquialisms, as defined by Flexner, “familiar words and idioms used in informal speech and writing, but not considered explicit or formal enough for polite conversation or business correspondence.” He adds, “Unlike slang, however, colloquialisms, are used and understood by everyone in America.” He cites an example of “Friend, you talk plain and hit the nail right on the head,” as a colloquialism.

I always wince at ‘polite conversation’ as the phrase makes me think of boring conversation; after all, polite indicates being nice and not offending anyone, and what fun is that. The AHD defines it as simply, “informal speech and writing.” 

3. Dialects, again by Flexner, “words, idioms, pronunciations, and speech habits, peculiar to specific geographical locations.” AHD says ” A regional variety of a language.” Essentially the same definition, just with fewer words. Though, in this case, I like Flexner.

     4. Cant, jargon, and argot, are “words and expressions peculiar to specific segments of the population,” according to Flexner, and that sounds like his definition of  colloquialisms, but going deeper, cant is ” idioms . . . understood only by members of a specific occupation, trade, or profession.” Jargon is “technical, or even secret vocabulary of such a sub group; jargon is ‘shop talk.’  I plead stupidity as I see no difference, only different words in defining terms. Argot is ” both cant and jargon of any professional criminal group.”

AHD defines cant, much the same way as Flexner, but as secondary usage, the primary usage being ‘Insincere speech full of platitudes or pious expressions.” Is this a case of a word perhaps evolving into a different type of meaning? A generation or culture can change the meaning of words over time. Consider the word ‘gay’ that has gone from a meaning of gaiety and fun to sexual preference.

AHD then says of jargon, “Nonsensical or incoherent talk,” as the primary definition, once again using Flexners definition as secondary. As for ‘argot’, they are in agreement.

What does it all mean?

It means words are something we understand, though we may not always be in agreement with meanings. There are nuances, slight changes, and evolving language over time, even interpretation. If we are not in agreement it leads to miscommunication, and on a larger level, perhaps arguments, even wars. Think of the difficulty of language in the movie The Arrival, not just with the aliens, but with all the countries trying to understand each other as well as the aliens. Understanding words and meanings are important-and fun to study, if you love language.

Language is a virus from outer space- William S. Burroughs.

Here are my viruses e-books on Amazon

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