I thought it good, necessary, and my bounden dutye, to acquaynte your goodnes with the abhominable, wycked, and detestable behauor of all these rowsey, ragged rabblement of rakehelles ….
~Thomas Harman, “Caveat for Common Cursetors”
In this 1567 warning, Harman, an English justice of the peace identifies categories of these cursetors or connivers, including “prygger of prauncers” (horse thieves); “rogues” (debauchers); and “palliardes” (fraudulent beggars). What these and the other categories share is a deliberate design to deceive through skullduggery or trickery for personal gain.
The schemers, often colluding in pairs or groups, needed language only they understood to effectuate their subterfuge. Though of obscure origin, the earliest uses of the word argot refer to the furtive language of “gypsies, tramps and thieves” as Cher sings. This vocabulary disguised the scams of the rogues from the public they wished to dupe.
Three hundred years after Harman’s warning, writings appeared in Paris, noting the conspiratorial argot of prisoners. In “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo writes: “Argot is the language of misery.” Modern crime novels and dramas offer examples of prison argot today.
Jargon is different. It derives from Middle English through Old French jargoun, which referred to chattering or twittering. The word identified an echoic or imitative form of a natural sound such as birds chirping. It evolved to mean gibberish or unintelligible language.
Jargon underwent a vocabulary evolution. It is presently associated with the specialized vocabulary of a vocational field or specific sect. At its best, jargon offers the professional a field vocabulary readily understood by those in that field. It is both an economy and an exactitude. The ornithologist and the golfer consider a birdie differently. A meteorologist speaking to other meteorologists uses troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere and thermosphere in identifying atmospheric layers, terms that would necessitate explanation to a class of elementary students. In medical arenas, jargon may literally be a life-and-death matter.
At its worst, however, jargon obfuscates, obscures. It devolves into buzzwords and technospeak. “Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking. When companies or investment professionals use terms such as ‘EBITDA’ and ‘pro forma,’ they want you to unthinkingly accept concepts that are dangerously flawed,” cautions Warren Buffett. For many, there would be greater understanding if “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization” had been spoken and “a formality,” rather than the Latinate.
Jargon is not a secretive language. The words associated with a particular field are available to all who desire to know them. Dictionaries and glossaries for such abound.
Cant is from Latin cantare, meaning to sing. Sing led to chant and then to whining and then to speech that had a singsong insincerity. Cant most often identifies trite sentimentality or pietism, particularly regarding topics in religion or politics. This speech is often comprised of a collection of stock phrases and sentiments.
Jim Mattis, a retired United States Marine Corps four-star general, speaks of stock phrases that are diffused throughout the Armed Services: “There are a lot of self-imposed restrictions by people who somehow believe they have to fall in with a certain military cant.”
The language bias implied in cant may have given rise to a secondary meaning of slant or slope. As both a noun and a verb, this usage of cant delineates a slope as an angle in a building or an oblique incline of ground.
James Boswell, who literally followed the eminent author and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, noting his every utterance for more than 20 years, cites Johnson admonishing his “friend” to recognize the insincerity of his speech: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don't mind the times … You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don't think foolishly.”
Good advice regarding argot, jargon, as well as cant.
Dr. Fran Holman, honored as University Distinguished Professor and College Endowed Professor at Louisiana Tech University, lives in Big Canoe with her husband.