Language ‘for the birds’: the origins of ‘jargon’, ‘cant’, and other forms of gobbledygook
Infarction? Heretofore? Problematize? Cathexis? Disrupt? Doctors have their medicalese, lawyers their legalese, scholars their academese. Psychologists can gabble in psychobabble, coders in technobabble. For people outside these professions, all their jargon seems ‘for the birds’ — all too true, if we look to the origin of the word jargon and its common synonyms. Let’s cut through all the jargon, cant, patois, argot, and gobbledygook with a look at the origins of these terms naming the specialized languages used by particular professions or social groups.
The downsizing or leveraging of corporate speak may be a modern phenomenon, but English has been prattling jargon for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites jargon as early as the mid-14th century, naming ‘nonsense’ or ‘gibberish’. But a usage a few decades later — in Chaucer’s late 14th-century Merchant’s Tale – suggests the word’s etymology: “He was al coltish ful of ragerye / And ful of Iargon as a flekked pie”. Full of jargon as a flecked magpie: no, that’s not the fustian speech of a pretentious intellectual, but ‘the chattering or twittering of birds.’ By 1651, the OED records jargon’s contemptuous sense of ‘any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms’, citing Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.
The English jargon derives from the Old French jargon, also describing the ‘warbling of birds’. The Old French jargon was recorded in other forms, such as gargon, which may look a little familiar if you’ve ever gargled any mouthwash. For many etymologists take jargon back to the same source as gargle (and, due to their mouthy spouts on their cathedral roosts, gargoyle): garg-, a root imitating or echoing the sound of noises made in the throat. I wouldn’t recommend any mouthwash for your boss’s jargon any time soon.
If jargon is ‘for the birds’, then cant is ‘for the beggars’. The OED cites cant as ‘the speech or phraseology of beggars’, back to at least 1640, when it characterized their supposed ‘whining manner of speaking’. Whining is music to no ears, but the origin of cant might just have a song to sing.
Some etymologists have argued cant shows Celtic roots (cf. Irish caint, ‘language’). Others, however, trace cant back to the Latin cantus, a ‘song’ or ‘chant’. French fashioned cantus into chant, also featured in Chauntecleer, fabled rooster of Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Cantus is formed from the Latin verb, cantāre, frequentative of canere, ‘to sing’.
Someone was doing a lot of singing, but who? Originally, it may have been priests. The OED cites different forms of cantus and cantāre as early 1183 in use as contemptuous reference to church services. Presumably, sacerdotal intonations jarred some ears as irritating and affected, as we saw was later applied to beggars. While we may think of beggars as out in the open, there can be more covert elements on the streets: thieves, whose historic cants have shrouded their criminal efforts in secrecy.
The Latin canere may sing a yet older tune, if Indo-European linguists are correct. These scholars root canere in the Proto-Indo-European root *kan-, ‘to sing’, also believed to be the source of English’s own hen.
It seems we can’t get away from the birds. Perhaps patois — a word originally referring to regional dialects often deemed inferior to a national standard — will take us in a different direction.
Like jargon, patois comes into English from the French. In fact, the OED first cites it from 1643 where it appears right alongside jargon (‘The Jargon and Patois of severall Provinces’). The word’s original tone may still be felt, however, when referring to the patois of Creole dialects, especially Jamaican English; this label appears by the 1930s.
There are a number of conjectures for the origin of patois. While acknowledging it as doubtful, the philologist Walter Skeat does note that some scholars have rooted patois in an earlier patrois, formed ultimately from the Latin patria, ‘native land’ or ‘homeland’, rendering patois ‘the speech of the natives’. Another philologist, Ernest Weekley, suggests the word might hail, like jargon, from an imitative origin, citing pat- (as in patter) and gab- (as in, well, gab).
The lexicographer Eric Partridge takes us down a different trail. He cites an Old French verb patoier, formed from pate, ‘a paw’. The verb, apparently, carried a sense of handling something as if with paws, hence clumsily, which was then likened to the ‘clumsy’ speech of countryfolk — in the eyes of elites, that is. The French pate might originate in the late Latin patta, also a ‘paw’ or ‘foot’. Various efforts have pawed at the source of the Latin patta, including a Celtic root for ‘to be broad’ (like the flat, top part of a foot), a Germanic root for ‘to tread’ or ‘to step’, and the Proto-Indo-European root for ‘path’.
The Latin patta- may be related, moreover, to the source of that same paw, which, according to the OED, first named the ’foot or claw of’ — you guessed it — ‘a bird’ in English.
Argot isn’t attested in English until 1860, according to current OED research, and, like cant, originally denoted the jargon used by thieves in Paris. Today in English, argot somewhat lacks the negative connotation of jargon and is often reserved for specific subcultures, like the argot of jazz musicians. But its origins appear as secret as the underworld language it first named.
According to Baumgartner and Ménard, argot appears near the end of the 17th century as a term for a ‘group of beggars.’ It may derive from the Latin argūtus, an adjective which, when applied to speech, can refer to something ‘expressive’, ‘cunning’, ‘shrill’, or ‘talkative’. Argūtus is formed from arguĕre, ‘to declare’ or ‘accuse’, the source of English’s own argue.
Yet, in his informative Argot: The Flesh Made Word, Jonathon Green – the preeminent lexicographer of slang, in all of its jargon, cant, patois, and argot – takes us back to the roost. For the best suggestion for the origin of argot, he allows the French ergot, ‘spur of a cockerel’, a talon-like growth on the inner leg of young male chickens. Green goes on: the spur of a cockerel ‘conjures up the image of the beggars raking in their loot like a cock rummaging his dunghill with his ergots or spurs’.
Of course, no discussion of jargon is complete without gobbledygook. Like jargon, gobbledygook is imitative – in this case, of a turkey’s gobble. In 1944, U.S. Congressman Maury Maverick remarked on the ‘gobbledygook’ language, or the ‘long’ and ‘pompous’ jargon of government officials, as the OED records. Maury’s grandfather was Samuel Maverick, whose last name lives on in maverick, famed, as Maverick was, for not branding his calves. Talk about birds of a feather, eh?