For the first several years of my life, America and I spoke the same language. Then, when I turned thirteen, something strange happened. I could no longer talk to my parents. Or to my teachers. Or, for that matter, to anyone who wasn't my approximate age. I still employed English, of course, but now it was a very particular form of English. Because conventional speech was inadequate to express the emotional and glandular chaos of adolescence, I adopted a new vocabulary to convey teen-age lyricism, teen-age nihilism--a vocabulary so teen-age, in fact, that it was virtually incomprehensible to anyone but other teen-agers. This private language gave me and my friends identity, purpose, definition. It also cut us off from adults. As alien as extraterrestrial beings, we stared at our elders across the impassable boundary of an indecipherable vernacular.
This was my introduction to the power of jargon--its power to unify and its power to estrange.
Later, home from college, I paid the ritual visit to my old high school. It was pleasant to discover that I could now communicate with my ex-instructors on a more or less equal basis. It wasn't so pleasant to discover that I could no longer communicate with the students. When I graduated, good was boss, bad was nowhere, and the grownups were squares. When I returned, good was bad, bad was beat, and I was as square as the grownups.
This was my introduction to the treacherous inconstancy of jargon, its quicksilver ability to change, and in changing, to date and even mock its practitioners.
During my army basic training, I was abruptly confronted with t he perplexing doublespeak essential to the military establishment. Here, privates' lives were overwhelmingly public, and soldiers were instructed to render hostile personnel inoperable rather than to kill the enemy.
This was my introduction to the jargon of officialese, in which words march in union, eyes forward and consciences permanently to the rear. The prime objective of these ranks upon ranks of neatly turned phrases was to camouflage reality.
I soon realized that my fellow soldiers (or grunts) had a language of their own, an appropriately brutal and obscene language in which war was declared fun (on-the-line slang for "fucking unbelievable") and all deaths, of friends or foe alike, were termed getting wasted.
This was my introduction to the jargon of the disenchanted--pungent words that heightened and clarified reality instead of concealing it.
Stateside again, working as a newspaper reporter, I studied those verbally adroit politicians who use yet another form of jargon to avoid, twist, shade, manipulate, or otherwise distort the truth. Quickly disillusioned, I paced restlessly back and forth across the country, absorbing the lingoes peculiar to different locales, different jobs, and new friends. As I collected the more colorful phrases and explored their definitions and derivations, I grew increasingly impressed with t he power of the spoken word and increasingly curious about how jargon develops, how it changes, its various functions, and its various influences on so many of use in so many areas of our lives. No American, after all, represents only one American subgroup. A business man is rarely a business man only; he also may be a CB enthusiast, a self-help disciple, a military reservist. As a result, jargon often filters from one professional or social stratum to another, crosses and mates and eventually produces hybrid offspring that further complicate the language and confuse the uninitiated.
As I looked and listened around, I concluded that, for the most part, you are how you talk, and how you talk is best characterized by the jargon that you use. Essentially, jargon--or buzzwords, "in" words, slang words, cult and cant and can-do words--is restricted to a specific group. Inevitably, a once-inside term loses its exclusivity through frequent exposure to outsiders and is replaced with a more obscure substitute, the disgraced word or phrase either dies or, often, is incorporated into the language at large, whereupon it becomes institutionalized, bureaucratized and, ultimately, devitalized.
While a term is in its prime, it serves to keep secrets, to keep society segmented, and to provide adults with a socially sanctioned equivalent of pig Latin. Politicians and pimps do not talk like plumbers or producers, nor should they. In any occupation, jargon is a tool of the trade without which one cannot do business. To penetrate a particular world, it is essential to understand the language of the natives--and understanding their dramatically distinct languages is the purpose of this book.
You will find language that is remarkably colorful as well as language that is characteristically colorless. In the best, most durable jargon, form follows function, and the words heard on the streets of our cities preen and crow and swagger. The terminology of technocrats lurks and slouches and hides in pigeonholes, while the words of the sexual underworld cuddle and insinuate and seduce.
Although you'll come across words that are totally familiar, they are employed in unusual contexts or are masquerading behind new and occasionally inexplicable meanings. Conversing with Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-glass, Alice argues that glory does not mean a "nice knock-down argument." In return, she receives a lesson in the mutability of language and the creation of jargon.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I want it to mean--neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be the master--that's all."
Insofar as the actual use of the English language is concerned, the most outrageous liberties are taken by those who are probably the best educated, namely Big Business. It can't resist, it seems, the temptation to invent extraordinary words: a condomarinium, for example (an amalgam of condominium and marina) means a tax shelter scheme. To prioritize is to rank in order of importance. Big Business Talk also borrows and steals quite shamelessly from various sources in its search for the right word. From the Communist Party comes apparatchik (originally used to describe a junior Party member, it now means a junior executive). From the French military comes rebarbative (literally, "beard to beard" but now meaning an acrimonious business confrontation); from the Pueblo Indians comes kiva (a sacred ceremonial chamber, now the executive suite).
Politicians also invent words (autarky meaning a country that is capable of sustaining itself economically, for example). And they delve into all-Americanisms, adapting what they find to get their point across. A barnburner, for example, is a political renegade who puts principle above party. (If a barnburner is called in by his peers in an effort to pull him back into line, the meeting is called a board of education.) Mom and Pop Meets are gatherings where the issue of birth control is likely to be raised. To cow-waddle is to attempt to head off passage of new legislation by the tactic of going through the voting process as slowly as possible, a kind of ambulatory filibuster.
When it comes to delaying tactics, of course, nobody can compete with bureaucrats. Red Tape Talk is replete with examples, the most fitting of which is bureaucratization which means the process of dividing and then redividing authority. This is practiced to such an extent that even simple jobs don't get done and simple decisions are never made. It's a very common tactic because bureaucrats are, by definition, really loath to do or even say anything that they can be held responsible for . Red Tape Talk for waffle is bafflegab.
The mastery of bafflegab generally guarantees that the bureaucrat will be able to enjoy a ceegee (cradle-to-grave) lifetime career as a government employee, particularly if he or she manages to residuate, or maintain a low profile. Those with high profiles risk ending up as postles, or fired. (The word is a bastardization of a Latin word describing exiles.)
A not dissimilar sense of bafflegab spills over into Spook Talk. Words like destabilize (to overthrow a foreign government) and minus advantage (the result of an operation that leaves things in a worse condition than they were before) have the distinct ring of the bureaucrat. Other Spook Talk, however, is far more scary--largely because it sounds innocent or worse, downright laudable. Botanicals, for instance, are organic drugs that can wipe out a nation's livestock (and, though of relatively minor importance, cause national hairlessness). Nod out is the end result of lethal poison that cannot be detected in an autopsy. Motivation means blackmail. Human ecology means brainwashing.
News people, whether in print or in television, tend to face up to the situation and shrug at the fact that the facts of life are what they are. On a small-town newspaper, for example, a general assignment reporter sent to cover a boring local event is known as garbage. A local television-news director, aware that covering only straight news might break the attention span of the viewers and send them to another channel, will order the anchor crews to "HINT it up a bit." ("HINT" is an acronym for "Happy Idiot News Talk," whereby the anchor men and women chit-chat and giggle--and in so doing, statistics show, build up the biggest ratings.)
People in advertising treat their art-versus-money schizophrenia with such total cynicism that Ad Talk includes not only a word for their chosen profession, euphemantics (an amalgam of euphemism and semantics) but also for the jargon itself, zipvoc (for zippy vocabulary). Also at the receiving end of this cynicism are: the media where the ads appear (television is cluttervision); and both prospective buyers (concretes, for "consumer cretins") and viewers who never buy a darn thing, no matter how persuasive the ad (lot lice). Advertising, moreover, is a profession where demographics and consumer-testing play a dominant part and, accordingly, an aura of scientific knowledgeability also permeates much Ad Talk. For example,and at the simplest level, there is DIB's which stands for Discretionary Income Budgets"--or how much will they spend?
The amount of the take is also of perpetual concern to show-biz folk, to whom monetary failure--i.e., no audience--has the additional ignominy of personal affront. (A newspaper that is never read or an advertisement that never sells surely can never cause such instant agony as emoting Hamlet's soliloquy to an empty theatre.) As a result, Show Biz Talk (extending the honored maxim, "The show must go on.") tends to put a brave face on things. If a play goes from beginning to end without benefit of an audience, the blame is not put on the performers but the competition as in "there must be a big dance in Newark."
If the apologist feels this is unfair to Newark, he blames the actual town where the disaster occurred, calling the place a bloomer. This stems from a double-edged insult used in carnivals: "The roses here must be blooming, 'cause this burg stinks."
Such real-life, tradition-based sources of jargon, good as well as bad, abound in Show Biz Talk. The busker, who performs on the sidewalk outside theatres for the benefit of those standing in line for tickets, had the same job description and the same stage in Elizabethan England. The face of Annie Oakley, the star attraction in Buffalo Bill's 19th-century "Wild West and Congress of Cowboys Extravaganza," appeared on many of the free tickets he gave away; today, an annie oakley still means a free ticket. Turn-of-the-century vaudevillians often used a park bench as a base from which to deliver their corny acts: today, to bench still means to deliver corn.
As might be expected, Computer Talk abounds with jargon related to space travel, including such words and acronyms as avionics (the adapting of electronic systems to travel in space) BURP (the jarring motion caused when the on-board computer adjusts direction) and cesspool (a spacecraft system that converts waste to, among other things, food). The jargon of landlubbering computer experts includes glitch (an unexplained energy surge), floppy ( a flexible memory-storage disk) and badger (a computer terminal that can "read" identification badges).
Both extraterrestrial and terra-firma computer experts might seem at a glance to be entirely devoid of emotion. This, if their jargon is anything to go by, is not always the case. Many have a genuine liking for computers (a machine held in particular affection is a kludge); in fact, they apply certain elements of Computer Talk to computer and human behavior patterns alike. A gang punch, for example, means either the punching of identical information onto a number of cards, or what other professions know as a gang bang. Freefall, the condition of weightlessness in space and a consideration in designing spacecraft computers, also means "falling-down drunk." DO (decision overload) is the malaise of both a computer that is nonfunctional because it has been overly programmed and an executive who has collapsed from strain. (Such strain, incidentally, might stem from having made too many beepers, Computer Talk for human, rather than computer ideas and solutions to any given problem.)
In contrast to Computer talk's occasional acceptance of the existence of human beings, Military Talk goes to great lengths to avoid all mention of flesh and blood. Friendly casualties are our own wounded and dead. They are the result of fighting the enemy, or in other words, of having made contact with hostile unfriendlies. This reluctance to refer to human beings applies in particular to the jargon related to atomic, biological, and chemical warfare--an event which itself, through its interests of A, B, and C gives us the terrifying threat of alphabet soup. (The bacteriological scientists who work on plans for biological warfare--or, let's face it, germ warfare--are know as bugs bunnies.)
The very worst that could ever happen--an accidental nuclear war and the resultant worldwide destruction--are known in Military Talk by two all-too-apt acronyms: OOPS, for "occasionless ordered preemptive strike," and MAD, for "mutually assured destruction." (The notorious button by which an American president can launch such an OOPS and create such a MAD is actually a set of codes carried by a military officer who never leaves the president's side. The officer is known as the bagman, the case, the football.)
Many of these Military Talk phrases are the product of public-relations men ("flacks" in every other jargon but the military's) whose skill in euphemisms knows no limit. Fortunately for the rest of us, Military Talk is occasionally brought back to ground by the saltier jargon of the GI. Whereas a military flack might describe a battle fatigue as acute environmental reaction, to the GI it is more simply, and more accurately, lurped out (from LURP, a long-range reconnaissance patrol, one of the most dangerous and friendly-casulalty-prone details of the Vietnam War).
And to whatever degree the rest of the world (i.e., the nonmilitary population or, to Military flacks, the nonessential personnel) might be threatened by disaster, the GI can't wait to join us. The Real World has always been his objective, and to get here he has to get out of the service (a process he thinks of as derosing), even if it does mean a reentry into a life where telephone bills are always the victim of computer error.
Helpful Talk is the jargon used by those who pursue physical, mental, and spiritual perfection through a gamut of philosophies, some as old as India and others as new as today. Perhaps a better definition can be found in their own jargon. Their key word and highest ambition is to actualize, and if they do, their actualized selves have realized full human potential. ("Gestalt" used to be a key word, and referred to the entire human organism; it has now been abandoned, however, because of rampant vulgarization.)
Inasmuch as Americans' fascination with their own heads and healths is a recent thing, so Helpful Talk is the newest of the jargons. But it also may well be the most humorless. The condition of complete adaptability, for example, used to be known as "AC/DC." Unfortunate sexual connotations, however, forced that expression to be jettisoned in favor of an acronym based on the same letters, namely acdac. Of course, anything directly sexual that helps one on the road to actualization can be talked about, and is, but never in such a way that pleasure alone is the purpose or was the result. For example, however earth-shattering a moment might have been, it is referred to in Helpful Talk as an interaction. The same rule applies to the description of orgies, which at their most abandoned level are known as social interactions, and at their more conservative, where those involved have met before, extended-family interactions.
Sex Talk, too, tends to be somewhat humorless, much of it reflecting the unending pursuit for partnership that takes place in the singles bars. Once inside, the man or woman of few words can pick from a variety of to-the-point one-wonders: moy? (My place or yours?); McQ ? (Meaningful quickie with implied promise of something more permanent being likely); and BC? (Do you use birth control pills?). The pornographic movie industry has contributed its share of Sex Talk, too, including inscrewtable (a porn flick starring an Oriental ) and pornchops (one that combines sex and violence).
Not unlike Sex Talk, High Talk, the jargon of the drug culture, also tends to reflect the utmost seriousness with which drug users pursue their pleasures. Unlike Sex Talk and other People jargon, however, High Talk has a social progression to it, from the different ranks of dealers (baggies, "street dealers," to Oz Men, who sell to the baggies, to the Kilo Connection, who sells to the Oz Men) to the different rank of beads (A bead, B bead, C bead, etc.), each into a different drug.
Without doubt, the
liveliest of all People jargon is Street Talk, the slang heard on every
street in every American city. More than all the jargons it constantly
adapts to changing times--and more than all others it also promises, at
least on the surface, hostility to the stranger. No tough Western
baddie was ever given a line that contained the degree of threat contained
in "Hey, Chuck....," a greeting for anybody who doesn't belong on
the street and who, in self-interest, had better go away, or "You better
up," a warning to leave or else. Much Street talk was originally
Black in origin, even though today the sidewalks might be slightly integrated
with coal burners (whites who socialize with Blacks). An even
larger degree of integration that has taken place on urban streets in recent
years is the arrival of people who speak Spanish--and that language has
also added a flavorful spice to Street Talk. Andale (get out
of here) is a Spanish equivalent of, and just as ominous as, "Hey Chuck."
A jargon reply might be con safos, which at its politest translates
as "the same to you." This, of course, should be used only with great
caution--but then so, too, should all jargon. After all, the novice
in any new language is likely to make at least some mistakes.