Slang vs. Jargon (An initial 4A N2...?)

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Tue Jul 2 20:43:27 UTC 2002

> Why wouldn't this work:
> JARGON is a set of terms used by a group across age, class,
> societal, etc.
> barriers
> while SLANG is much more (don't kill me for this) dialectal.

I would buy that jargon cuts across age. It cuts across class in as much as
different classes are represented in the group that uses the jargon (but
legal jargon, for example, would tend to be the province of the upper middle
class). But terms that cut across societal boundaries are called Standard
English. I'm not sure what you mean by "dialectal," but if you mean regional
then it is not necessarily true.

I offer the following two definitions:

Jargon: a specialized vocabulary predominately used within a profession,
trade, or other activity with identifiable participants.

Slang: an informal, nonstandard, nontechnical vocabulary composed chiefly of
novel-sounding synonyms for standard words and phrases. [taken from RHHDAS]

The two are not mutually exclusive. A term can be both slang and jargon
(e.g., "bumsicle" is both slang and medical jargon).

Note the "with identifiable participants" part of the jargon definition. I
have given this a lot of thought, and have concluded that it is an essential
part of the definition. If we wish to classify terms as jargon, we have to
have some practical means of identifying those who are members of the group
and those who are not. If we can't identify the group with some degree of
precision, then we can't tell if use of the term is largely restricted to
that group.

This means that groups like the "marijuana-smoking community" can't have a
jargon. Even if we came up with a strict definition of who potentially
qualified (e.g., smoked more than 5 ounces in the last five years), there is
no evident way to identify members and exclude nonmembers. On the other
hand, we can have a prison jargon because convicts and correctional officers
constitute a readily identifiable population. It may seem arbitrary, but it
is essential for practical application of the definition.

I use "activity" rather than "group" in order to exclude regional, ethnic,
and class dialects from the definition of jargon. If someone can come up
with a better term than "activity," I would appreciate it. (If a language is
a dialect with an army, then a jargon is a slang with a journal.)

> For example, in the marijuana-smoking community, you can find
> the very old,
> the very young, black, white, male, female, etc.  all calling
> a $10 amount of
> drugs a "dime bag".  Therefore, that is jargon.  However, it's been my
> experience that the older set use "grass" more and the
> younger  set use
> "pot".  Therefore, those are slang.

This is a good example for the "identifiable participants" clause. My gut
tells me that use of "dime bag" is largely restricted to marijuana smokers
and would qualify as jargon, while "pot" is widely used outside that group
and would not (but could still be slang). But for the life of me, I can't
define a research project to validate my hunch. I can't identify the
population of marijuana smokers, therefore there is no way to determine what
terms are used within and without that population.

> And bringing it back to the pigs for a moment... I don't
> think 5-0 use of
> drug terms counts for anything... they aren't the words of
> their group; it's
> like me learning french and when I mess up my pronunciation, French
> phoneticians freaking out about new allophones (or something...).

A lot depends on your image of narcs. If your image of narcs conforms to
"Dragnet," clearly the cops are not using drug slang as their own. But if
your image of cops conforms to "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue," the cops
use the terms as their own. Which image is more accurate is the question. I
would think the latter is more accurate, but I don't really know.

> And one last teeny side note, I won't consider ecstasy as
> slang for DMA, if
> that were true, then aspirin would be slang for
> acetylsalicylic acid, which I
> would say it is not.

Analogies like this aren't valid; usage doesn't follow logic. Each term must
be evaluated independently. "Aspirin" is a standard term as it is a
generally used term for the substance; "acetylsalicylic acid" is
pharmacological jargon. The question is whether or not either term,
"ecstasy" or "DMA," is generally used and qualifies as standard.

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