THE BOOKSHELF: SLANG.

Oxford UP was kind enough to send me a copy of Slang: The People’s Poetry, by Michael Adams, and if you’re interested in the subject, you’ll want to read it. The author is an actual lexicographer and historian of English, but he’s comfortable with popular culture—he’s also the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon. But most importantly, he thinks clearly and writes vividly. Here he is on the distinction between slang and jargon:

But the social circumstances that provoke jargon are different from those that provoke slang: in jargon, there’s something at stake beyond positioning oneself in the social circumstance. Jargon may be stylish, but it is not, as Eble suggests of slang, analogous to fashion: jargon has to roll up its sleeves and do real work. There is nothing playful about on a wait, triple-sat, or four-top; these are all shorthand for things that folks working in restaurants don’t have time to say at length. For instance, when a server returns from a break, another says, in passing, “We’re on a wait,” not “We have more patrons than we can serve at one time.” The second server is passing because she has just been triple-sat and she doesn’t have time to explain, or she’ll be weeded. Note that “I’m weeded” takes less time to say than “I am in the weeds.”
In slang, clipping’s cazh [casual], but in jargon it’s efficient. When a server behind you quietly says Backs, there’s nothing casual in the message: it’s a warning that said server is carrying a full tray and that no one within distance of a stage whisper should move. … In this situation, if you don’t understand restaurant jargon, if you don’t respond to it as a member of the guild, the results will be catastrophic. …
So jargon is practical: it’s brisk and unambiguous, and it helps busy people do their jobs efficiently. But its use is also social: social relations within the restaurant depend on it, and efficient work for the common goal depends on cerain social relations. When restaurant jargon is slangy—full of fun, invention, and irreverence—it reinforces the restaurant in-group’s camaraderie and alleviates the tedium of its shared labor.

Later he makes the point that jargon tends to be homogeneous: “servers in California use terms familiar in Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey.” And he discusses edge cases: “At Winchester, one of England’s great public schools, students have spoken a peculiar slang over so many centuries that it looks surprisingly like jargon. An item of Winchester slang is called a Notion, a term that is itself a Notion.”
After the initial section on definitions, he has chapters on the social, aesthetic, and cognitive aspects of slang, ending with a section titled “Toward a Poetics of Slang,” which begins, charmingly, “It should be clear by now that I’m more inclined to complicate matters than to get to the bottom of things” and ends by saying slang “cannot be understood without considering its relation to every relevant aspect of language, the slight but irreducible area of a spandrel amid the lines and arcs and space of the grand design of language…” And each chapter ends with a full bibliography. A fine job.

Comments

  1. If I say to my fellow mechanic, upon noticing a faux pas, “you’ve put a spanner in the works”, is it slang or jargon I’m speaking?

  2. Unless it’s used with an exact mechanic’s meaning contrastive to various other mechanic’s situations, it’s slang. It’s slang that probably isn’t used by mechanics, though, if it does have a specific mechanic’s meaning.

  3. Unless it’s used with an exact mechanic’s meaning contrastive to various other mechanic’s situations, it’s slang. It’s slang that probably isn’t used by mechanics, though, if it does have a specific mechanic’s meaning.

  4. It’s not slang either, it’s simply a metaphor.
    Michael Adams’s style is not unlike your own, Language.

  5. How come this book already has 24 customer reviews at Amazon.com ? Michael Adams must have a big following because it only came out, inauspiciously, on April 1 — come to think of it, does it really exist?

  6. The book has so many reviews at Amazon for at leat one reason: advanced reading copies (ARCs) were sent out ages ago. I received mine in January, I believe.

  7. But I thought Amazon customer reviews were done by idiots like me, not by people who get advance copies. That’s a bit sly of Amazon.

  8. I usually forget to do it myself, but there are a lot of excellent books out there which either have no Amazon review or have badly-done Amazon reviews. If you read and like a book which is not of broad interest, it’s worth looking at its Amazon listing to make sure it’s properly reviewed. In some cases there’s only one review from someone who read the book by mistake.

  9. I usually forget to do it myself, but there are a lot of excellent books out there which either have no Amazon review or have badly-done Amazon reviews. If you read and like a book which is not of broad interest, it’s worth looking at its Amazon listing to make sure it’s properly reviewed. In some cases there’s only one review from someone who read the book by mistake.

  10. Good ‘ole Amazon, a kindler, more disingenuous multi-national.

  11. Later he makes the point that jargon tends to be homogeneous: “servers in California use terms familiar in Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey.”
    That begs the question of what constitutes the community forming the jargon. Military jargon is notoriously and often comically non-homogeneous. There is a joke running aroundabout how the four services (US) put different meanings on “secure the building”.
    Army: Lock the doors and put a guard on the main entrance.
    Navy: Lock the doors and go home.
    Air Force: Turn off the TV and go home.
    Marines: Call in artillery fire and level the building
    And what standardization as exists within the Army is not left up to the market forces of natural language development; there is an office at Ft. Leavenworth that issues fiats as what terms are to be used and exactly what they mean, because these terms have to be standard and precise on a day by day basis. Special Forces (in the Army) takes delight in ignoring all this, so there’s always the dance of the scorpions when they have to operate with conventional forces. This distance is eroding in these days of counter insurgency warfare, so maybe there’s hope even for them.

  12. dearieme says:

    For playfulness in school slang, it’s hard to beat “wagger pagger bagger” (= waste paper basket).

  13. marie-lucie says:

    The existence of (occupational) jargon presupposes a significant division of labour in society, whose members pursue different occupations which often do not overlap. Similarly, the existence of slang presupposes the existence of a standard language, which belongs to a basically hierarchical and widespread society. There is no need for jargon or slang in a small, basically self-sufficient village where most inhabitants pursue the same activities and interact with most of the others, any more than for dictionaries and grammars aiming to regulate the use of the local language by its speakers. I don’t mean that there is no inventiveness under such conditions: there is, but the vocabulary and usage in general is not compartmentalized, either according to occupation, or into “good” (socially approved by an outside authority) and “bad” (condemned or at least frowned upon by the same authority).
    When there are strictures on any part of natural behaviour, there are attempts to escape those strictures, at least symbolically if not in actual fact, and slang is one of those attempts. It is not a coincidence that slang is most prolific for topics which are considered unmentionable in “polite society”, itself a concept linked to social hierarchy and control. If these topics change, or society becomes more tolerant of them, slang words pass into the general vocabulary, but then new “pockets” or domains for slang may emerge. An interesting example is the formation of the vocabulary of French, Spanish, and other Romance languages not so much from Classical Latin (the educated speech and especially writing of the upper classes of Rome, which maintained some archaic words) but from Latin slang, which passed into the speech of the general population as everyday vocabulary. Later, new slang words developed spontaneously in these same languages to meet the contemporary needs of the speakers.
    We often recognize some metaphors at the heart of slang, but (as shown in Lakoff’s work) metaphor has always been at the heart of language, except that in most words we do not recognize it as the passage of time has obscured the original meaning that the metaphor derives from. Consulting a list of Indo-European roots, for instance, shows how a relatively short list of roots has spawned a great number of words over centuries and millennia, in many cases not only through the addition of prefixes or suffixes but also through a metaphorical extension of the original concrete meaning of the root, often in directions which were not at all predictable.

  14. M-l, If a metaphorical extension of the original concrete meaning then takes off in unpredictable directions, is it then still interesting as a metaphor? I was introduced to George Lakoff by Jamessal. I haven’t read anything by him, but I am interested in the way metaphor drives thought, so I probably ought to. What do you think of his work?

  15. Pete,
    I do that too. I review good but maybe slightly obscure books that don’t have any reviews — quite often a really good book will have no info about it whatsoever — and I give any tips I know about better &/or cheaper editions.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: If a metaphorical extension of the original concrete meaning then takes off in unpredictable directions, is it then still interesting as a metaphor?
    Well, like anything, it is interesting to you if you find it interesting. Usually the unpredictable is interesting, precisely because it is unexpected.
    I recommended George Lakoff some time ago too. You can start with the co-authored Metaphors We Live By which is short and very easy to read. Lakoff is very interesting, he is not one of those very abstract theoretical linguists whose work looks like math. You can look him up on Wikipedia, see his picture and read about the various facets of his work (not all of which is in linguistics).

  17. I recommended George Lakoff some time ago too.
    Yes, I do remember now; not very long ago, I think. Memory’s not what it once was (average).

  18. Funny he shouldmention restaurant jargon.

  19. “Three-top,”four-top” and on up, for sure. In my experience (vast) in kitchens, only a rookie would say “a two-top” rather than “a deuce.”
    “Weeded” is unfamiliar to me.
    “Place,” pronounced as in French, from mise-en-place, is common among line cooks, mostly as in “Which one of you bastards took my shallots? Stay the hell out of my place?”

  20. So what is a four-top? A table with four customers? A plate with four kinds of vegetable? A cooktop? A spacecraft? A type of sweater?

  21. I believe a four-top (or four-topper) is indeed a table at a restaurant for four people – though I like the idea of it being a type of sweater. Of course a four-top could also be a member of the 1960′s Motown group!

  22. It would make their diction clearer if they said “four-top”, “temptation”, “supreme” and “Gladys Knight and the Pip”.

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