Posts Tagged Shakespeare

Why I love jargon

The English language is in trouble. Instant and text messaging have turned the medium of Shakespeare into an appalling mess of acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons. Still, there is hope, and it comes from America’s subcultures.

From hipsters to gangsters, subcultures are everywhere. Their members build a unique culture within the macro-culture of American society, and one of the ways they do it is through language. Having a separate culture means looking at the world differently from everyone else, and, consequently, describing it differently.

Every white suburban high school kid is familiar with the slang used by their favorite rappers, and teenagers of a different generation called un-cool things “square” to fit in with the beatniks.

However, this is nothing compared to the linguistic innovations of professional subcultures. The military has its own names for things: in the Navy, the floor (or ground) is the “deck” and walls are “bulkheads.” Truckers have their CB codes (“10-4,” etc.) as well as their own specific vocabulary: in CB slang, a snowplow is a “salt shaker.” The same is true of diners (“axle grease” is code for butter and a bottle of ketchup is a “lighthouse”).

I have even found job-specific jargon in my own workplace, an agency that serves people with disabilities. To make the place seem un-institutional, the people it serves are called “consumers,” putting them on the same level as the people lining up at Wal Mart.

By repurposing words to be more meaningful in their own specific context, professional subcultures are helping the English language evolve. Other groups seek to minimize the use of words in order to make communication faster, but, while on the job, information needs to be specific and instantly recognizable. That means giving words new uses (or even inventing new words) rather than abbreviating them.

That’s why jargon is so interesting: it demonstrates the entire process of language in microcosm. The purpose of language is to communicate with the rest of the world. People in the military, trucking industry, or health services could not adequately describe things from their perspective, so they expanded the language to make that possible.

The current, Internet-happy society views proper English as an impediment to the constant flow of information to every person. With the broader culture focusing on quality over quantity, it is up to the subcultures to keep the English language going.

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Connotative dissonance

Shakespeare famously asked “what is in a name?” Actually, a lot; modern language is about more than aptly describing the world; it’s about describing the way we want to view the world. With a little clever diction, we can turn the mundane and the pathetic into something more. The British have “news readers;” Americans have “news anchors.” The position of secretary has been replaced by the “executive assistant.” People don’t have problems; they have “issues.” It is the opposite of Newspeak: instead of removing meaning from words, they are imbued with more meaning than the things they are describing.

However, these liberally-defined connotations can backfire. Words carry multiple meanings, and when we try to give them new ones, an ironic contrast can arise. One example is the title of “mayor” on Foursquare. This social networking site tracks members’ locations; the person who spends the most time at a specific location, like a favorite coffee shop or bar, becomes the “mayor.”

Foursquare did not invent this term. City dwellers have been electing “mayors” at their neighborhood bars for decades, but the term had a little less reverence than it gets on Foursquare. Pre-internet “mayors” were usually senile old men, the kind of people who had nothing better to do but sit in a bar all day. It was a sarcastic title for someone who, like it or not, was a fixture of a certain establishment.

Foursquare users like to think being the “mayor” makes them popular but they are really continuing a proud tradition started by a bunch of irascible old coots. Either way, one person loiters in a bar because they have nothing better to do.

Another example of connotative backfire is the frequent use of the word “consumer.” This word is used to describe the buying public; “we are a nation of consumers,” a recent credit card ad declared. Non-professional electronics are known as “consumer electronics,” and the people buying them are advised by Consumer Reports.

“Consumer” is an accurate term, and it sounds more neutral than “buyer” or “sucker.” Still, it has another use that could spoil many ad campaigns. Organizations that serve developmentally disabled people have a problem. Cases like Willowbrook (the New York mental institution whose abuse of patients was famously exposed by Geraldo Rivera) have made the public more sensitive to the mistreatment of the mentally ill and the need to view them as autonomous human beings. Due to the diversity of services these agencies provide, a single term like “patient” won’t cut it, and “client” was thought to imply too much dependence. Consequently, the people these agencies serve are known as consumers.

An attempt to make life’s endless stream of financial transactions into a lifestyle and economic system was borrowed to make the developmentally disabled feel better about themselves and their relationship with caregivers. The comparison may benefit those people, but other American consumers might not appreciate the comparison.

The Bard was right: words are only descriptors of what we encounter. And their impermanence is heightened by the constant process of redefinition. Modern linguists seem most interested in using words to cover reality in shiny, attractive packaging. This is how language evolves, but people attempting to make the world seem classier through creative connotation should be wary of the “mayors” and “consumers” that came before them.

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