Shop Talk

John Lennard

  • Jargon: Its Uses and Abuses by Walter Nash
    Blackwell, 214 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 631 18063 X

The reviewers’ quotes which, fifteen years I ago, Macmillan chose for the reprint of Kenneth Hudson’s The Jargon of the Professions were a moral lot. Auberon Waugh, writing for what should now be called Books and Bookpersons, declared that ‘Mr Hudson writes with the elegance, precision and wit of a Fowler ... a delight to read and a mine of useful instruction’, while Peter Clayton, in the sterner fashion befitting the Sunday Telegraph, thought that ‘it’s not often you get a hook so worthy of purpose, so forthright, so amusing and yet so balanced.’ The reviewer for the Scotsman, traditionally anonymous, was given pride of place: ‘If we all listened to Hudson,’ he said, ‘we would think and write a little better. Some of us might even say what we meant, and be understood.’ What a happy day that would be, here and in Laputa, but if Hudson’s book is still in print it is not readily to be found, at least in Heffers, and the volume of peevish complaint about the proliferation of jargon and the multilateral economies in the area of SALT (the Strategic Acronym Limitation Talks) has shown no tendency to downturn. If anything, it has shown more clearly than ever an applied nimbyfication: I am exact; you have rather a fondness for using several long words when one poor monosyllable would do adequately; and he (sic) networks technobabble.

Hudson’s book is amusing – collecting and mocking jargon is not difficult – and it gives a good version of the most obvious theory of jargon, in its modern and pejorative sense: technical or otherwise specialised language, which need not be offensive in itself but readily becomes so when displaced from its proper sphere, or used to bamboozle. Hudson distinguished as springs and springes of jargon the learned professions, soldiers and politicians, and the literati, including along the way a suggestive demonstration of the extent to which the phrases of the Anglican liturgy function as patent jargon. With entertaining animus, he also took a stick to the near and would-be professions, arguing that the lexicons of the established professions (‘defrocking’, ‘disbarring’, ‘striking off’, ‘cashiering’) deserved more respect than those of the aspirant professions (from academia to business). The desire for professional status and clubbability is a clear motive for the aggressive creation and use of jargon, not least in the field of literary critcism. Indeed, the surprising rarity of theoretical accounts of jargon is a severe version of people living in glass houses not throwing stones. Hudson’s view of a hierarchy of jargons, with the language of the old professions outranking that of the newer ones, aligns with the class system; in this hierarchy the jargon with the highest status is the Queen’s English.

The attitudes of Hudson’s reviewers have become a part of the content of Walter Nash’s book. It is pleasing that a scholar so commonsensically frustrated by modern theoretical jargon should have written a book which is, in effect, potently deconstructive. Source jargons, the specialised lexicons of any occupation in their occupational use, are still to be distinguished, and properly valued; the rest of Nash’s taxonomy, though anything but new, is stated with new clarity and order. Jargon from any source may be found in one of three forms: shop talk, show talk, and sales talk. The historical passage of a word or phrase from restricted exactitude, through metaphor to common language, and then, as jargon, to a death by evacuation of meaning will he shown by the successive predominance of these forms. Good examples are to be found in the rich array of nautical terms from the age of sail: ‘making headway’ or ‘leeway’, ‘being taken aback’ or ‘in the offing’ or ‘on another tack’, ‘letting the cat out of the bag’, ‘running out one’s guns’, ‘bracing up’, ‘battening down the hatches’ and ‘having the balls frozen off one’s brass monkey’ – these were all once perfectly exact terms but they had the fortune to enter wider use. To reimpose their original exactitude, in shop talk, is now to risk bitter accusations of jargoning, while mixing them up in metaphors, or advertising (‘You’ll be taken aback by our new hatchback’), apparently risks nothing.

Nash’s taxonomy and theory tries to be aware of, and so classify and describe, matters of class and the discriminations of ideology. He notices the prevalence of pugilistic jargon in journalistic descriptions of worldly affairs, so that a low blow indicates that the gloves will be off in the next round, and even the gamest heavyweight counterpuncher may lead with her chin or suffer a knock-out unless saved by the bell. ‘In many ways,’ Nash suggests, ‘the terminology of boxing assumes the figurative character once supplied by the terminology and imagery of fencing ... in representing the exchanges of vigorous argument.’ There, for a moment, beneath the movement of language, is a movement of culture driven by taste and driving on class. Nor is the synchronic neglected:

Cricket, the prime example of sport as morality, requiring strict observance of rules in letter and spirit – whence the condemnatory judgment ‘it’s not cricket’ – provides a strain of language generally devoted to notions of stubborn defensiveness (‘stonewalling’), or patient, self-denying collaboration (‘keeping your end up’), or long experience (‘a good innings’), or humorous cunning (‘yorker’, ‘googly’, ‘chinaman’), or occasional bafflement (‘stumped’), and only in a few instances of vainglorious triumph (‘knocked for six’; a notable example of this expression in figurative usage was General Montgomery’s prediction, during his victorious North African campaign in 1942-3, that the British 8th Army would ‘knock the enemy for six out of Africa’). If boxing jargon offers metaphors of competition and debate, the language of cricket projects a kind of noble defensiveness, flawless self-possession, an unselfish allegiance of the individual talent to the collective identity of the team.

In this light John Major’s cricketpersonhood is no accident, since the person who put the ‘gray’ back in Great Britain knows very well that cricket washes whiter. Nash avoids such immediately topical reference in favour of an old and valued sitting duck, Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada’: in setting it up and knocking it down, however, he makes one of his rare mistakes. After the undiluted cricket of the first stanza, Newbolt’s second goes to war:

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

Nash is eager to lance the ‘analogy it proposes – that fighting the Mahdists or the Fuzzy-Wuzzies is a game, just like a school cricket match. (The “broken square”, we presume, being somewhat like a disastrous collapse of the middle-order batsmen.)’ He presumes wrong. Given his remarkable knowledge of source jargons I wonder if he really doesn’t know about infantry squares, which were invulnerable to cavalry so long as no man wavered or tell out-of-line, and horribly, mortally vulnerable as soon as any man did. ‘Vitai Lampada’ may be risible and deplorable, but it is not technically stupid: the more scornful the sentiment of any line is, the greater the number of anapaests substituted for the basic iambs (compare ‘Play up, play up, and play the game’ with ‘And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat’); and its metaphors are carefully mixed, enabling, for example, the ‘ribboned coat’ that in the first stanza was so obviously First XI colours to become, with the second, the war hero’s medals, simultaneously admired on an individual and recognised as un-obtainable without the support of many others.

Nash often sells himself short by stopping short, and in the later, weightier chapters on ‘Jargon and Literary Creativity’ and ‘Movers and Shakers’ his ability to drop things just as they were getting interesting becomes a real frustration. The best moment in these chapters is a virtuoso reading of the canting stanzas from Don Juan (‘Poor Tom was once a kiddy upon town,/A thorough varmint, and a real swell,’) and Byron’s excellent note on them (‘The advance of science and of language has rendered it unnecessary to translate the above true and good English, spoken in its purity by the select mobility and their patrons’). Perhaps the worst is when, having drawn a distinction between language-brokers and language-breakers, Nash extends it suggestively to another distinction:

Rock jargon, like the criminal and sporting argot of Regency times, is a ‘closed’ code, spoken by insiders and their patrons, revealed not taught, its meanings learned in practice, not inferred in theory. It makes new words, but its way of making them is mimetic and impressionistic. ‘Thrash’ and ‘riff’ are like the onomatopoeic ‘zoing’ and ‘kapok’ of the comic strips; if you cannot understand the word in connection with the event, it will not help you to analyse it. In this respect rock jargon is markedly different from techspeak, the language of technology and science. Technical jargon is ‘open’ at least in this, that its formations can be understood and imitated, even when its references are unfamiliar; you can understand how the words signify, without always understanding what they signify.

Here, surely is a valuable distinction, obvious enough but neither adequately theorised nor in common currency, between a jargon which is purposively exclusive, and whose value and potential malignancy lies in that élitism, and a jargon which is purposively disseminable, and whose value and potential malignity lies in that ubiquity. Yuppietalk hovers uneasily between the categories. But does Nash do anything with his insight? Nope, natch: the compound-forming propensities of the acronymic ‘laser’, as another example of technospeak, first draw, then commandeer, and so divert, his attention. Similarly, any engagement with the teasing relations of jargon and metaphor, sighted dozens of times in examples, is dismissed on the penultimate page with a mention.

The extent to which Nash subordinates analysis to accumulation is reflected in the book’s otherwise promising division into the chapters of text and a wannabe Devil’s Dictionary. The same grace and sins inhabit the definitions:

gender Once a grammatical term (as in ‘nouns of the feminine gender’) this word now fatuously denotes a biological category, as in ‘person of the male gender’. In this function it seems to have all but displaced sex, which word now refers a. to coitus, which is something ‘had’ – one ‘has sex’, usually (though not mandatorily) with a person of the opposite ‘gender’, or b. to the pudendum muliebre. Persons of the female gender are no longer to be accounted members of the fair sex or the gentle sex, and to describe a woman as a credit to her sex might be considered an ambiguous compliment. Late 20th-century usage apparently reverses the colloquial practice of the 19th century, when gender could connote pudendum, as in the naughty schoolboy’s rhyme ‘Amo, amas, I loved a lass,/And she was tall and slender;/Amas, amat, I laid her flat/And tickled her feminine gender.’ (Captain Marryat quotes this in his novel Jacob Faithful. 1834.) Gender studies are now an academic discipline, though not, of course, in the Marryat sense. See further gender politics.

Of course the word is abused by reductive, tautological and polemical employment, but is it really worth, for the sake of half a historical insight and two bushels of salt, ignoring the perfectly clear and respectable distinction between genetic (and so anatomical) sex, which is very binary, and cultural gender, which isn’t? Or the less respectable one between the pudendum muliebre and the pons asinorum? Ambrose Bierce it ain’t, nor yet Raymond Williams, and too many of Nash’s definitions fall nastily flat between them; but some are very much better. Credentialism, or ‘the principle that a PhD goes farther than an MSc’, joins Virtual Reality (‘real toads in imaginary gardens’) and Pollster (‘formed on the model of gangster, mobster, youngster, hipster, huckster, doomster, gloomster’). Though the merest footnote to Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Jargon, this glossary deserves a place on the reference shelf. And at his very best, Nash is close to perfect:

economical with the truth Mendacious by default. The phrase was invented, and its applications demonstrated, by Sir Robert Armstrong (now Lord Armstrong), Secretary to the [British] Cabinet and Head of the Secret Service, who when called as a witness in an Australian court, in the course of the so-called ‘Spycatcher’ trial, would not admit to lying, but cheerfully confessed to having been economical with the truth. The phrase has entered the language, and joins Winston Churchill’s invention, terminological inexactitude. Perhaps in time the fun lexicon of friendly fibs will be augmented by Lady Archer’s phrase inaccurate préis, describing her husband’s gift for telling a flowery autobiographical tale. See porky.