In with the in crowd: secret languages can confuse, exclude or empower
There are between 6,500 and 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. Include argots — the characteristic language of a particular group — and that number climbs ginormously.
Ginormous itself is argot, the portmanteau of gigantic and enormous to form a new blended word. It’s also hyperbole: gigantic is no longer deemed huge enough, so we blend and expand.
Groups of people form their own private lexicons because coded language is exclusive, exciting and defiant. Part of it is finding your community: the mystique of being in the “in group” carried over from school; the private joke you have to be in on to find funny. You find your tribe by mimicking the peculiarities of their diction. It creates a sense of belonging, expertise and solidarity.
But it can go beyond that. The coded nature of argot (from the French for slang) can be deliberately subversive because that particular group rejects the status quo, which they find unsatisfactory, unacceptable or oppressive. It can also help conceal criminal activity or frowned-upon behaviour, making it a cryptolect — a secretive language used to confuse and exclude others and affirm the character of a marginalised subculture.
For all those reasons, argot is my favourite part of language: it sits in the forbidden corners, between the gaps, underneath the rigidity of all the rules of grammar. It’s where creativity bubbles and thrives, shrouded by an enigmatic cloak of linguistic abandon.
Often, adopters of argot have common enemies to defy or hide from: traditional conservative society; the law; the police. Defying the authority and perceived supremacy of the dominant forces in society is empowering and essential to avoid detection. It’s why drug dealers and users employ female personification in their trade to euphemise and conceal. So having a dinner party with Tina, Gina and Molly would be less civilised than it sounds: you’d be taking, respectively, crystal meth, GHB and MDNA. Similarly, the patois used in hip-hop was originally used to defy the same enemies, the argot defined by clever puns, rapid rhyming couplets, blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay and don’t-give-a-toss attitude set to an insistent beat.
Youth slang is one of the most consistently refreshing of argots. The yoof want to feel cool, exclusive, quirky and not speak in the same manner as their ’rents, which is why they’ll say things like “Nek minnit I had mahoosive FOMO” — a combination of Jamaican patois hybrid, portmanteau, acronym and drama.
As fresh as argot can feel, it can also become redundant, incumbent or mainstream. Cockney rhyming slang, for example, is a casualty of sweeping gentrification. Some of it has become mainstream — we all know what “apples and pears” means. But it retains its linguistic creativity: one’s Aris means “arse”; an abbreviation of Aristotle, which rhymes with bottle-and-glass. Genius.
Here are some argots peculiar to their groups.
Nellyarda, zhoosh the riah, titivate, schlumph your Vera down, and palare that omee for the bevvies because I’ve nanti dinarli.
(Translation: Listen, style your hair, make yourself look pretty, drink up your gin, and talk to that man to get a drink because I’m skint.)
Polari was pugnacious, camp, and racy. The cant was whispered by gay men in large cities in 1960s Britain (when homosexuality was illegal). In today’s more equal times, it’s linguistically archaic. But there’s a move from language lovers like myself to preserve and promote Polari as a kind of linguistic artifact — so the battles and resilience of those who spoke it are remembered and respected. The Polari app is fantabulosa, giving etymologies and explanations of the full Polari lexicon as far as records exist.
Polari’s weapon was camp — turning on its head the idea that “camp” was effete and submissive, instead transforming it into something powerful and defiant. It did this by imprinting a flamboyant flair and strange panache using a complete mish-mash of words borrowed from cockney rhyming slang, backslang (when a word is pronounced backwards such as riah and emag), Yiddish, Italian, theatre slang and naval slang. You might have dropped a Polari word into a sentence to surreptitiously show the attractive man you were talking to that you’re gay, or test if he was. Or to avoid disapproval — even arrest. Or simply to bitch, and get away with it.
Polari was popularised by the 1960s BBC radio series Round the Horne, featuring two camp Polari-speakers, Julian and Sandy. Once it gained popularity, the cat was out of the bag. 1967 saw the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, making Polari redundant.
Gym-goers speak in a common language, but those who attend CrossFit take it to another level. They don’t attend a gym; it’s a box. Acronyms abound — Wod (workout of the day) is the best known, but others include Amrap (as many reps as possible) and ATG (ass to grass). The Wod is often given a female name. Founder Greg Glassman explains: “Anything that left you flat on your back, looking at the sky asking ‘what just happened to me?’ deserved a female’s name.” Charming.
Like many argots, the unique vernacular enhances CrossFit’s mystique and sense of being a special, exclusive community. It gets people like me writing about it in places like this. Clever marketing, really.
Talking of clever marketing, when a corporate noun replaces the neutral noun, or a corporate word becomes a verb, the corporate really has won an Orwellian victory. It means we say Kindle instead of e-reader, iPhone instead of smartphone and Play-Doh, Sellotape, Pritt Stick and Tippex instead of their generic alternatives. Hoovering, tweeting and googling show how those companies dominate their markets.
Office talk — doing a Swot analysis and Smart objectives by end of play — is the kind of acronym-heavy argot that organisations develop their own version of, to build a sense of belonging, perceived expertise and perceived verbal shortcuts. Please. Just say the whole thing. Acronyms are annoying.
If you’re French, I’d argue that you’re automatically cool. Certainly, as I’ve written before, the French have the coolest idioms. But if you’re really cool in France, you use Verlan — a French cant which is like pig Latin, but cooler. It was initially used by young people, drug dealers and criminals as a secret language. Unlike pig Latin, many Verlan words have travelled into mainstream French. To speak in this coded inverted tongue, you must separate the word into syllables, reverse them, then piece it back together. Verlan itself is verlan for l’envers (backwards). Another example is chébran, which is the Verlan of branché (cool).
It may be dead, but there are many benefits to learning Latin — it deepens your understanding of English and other languages, and gives interesting insights into etymologies and the like. But it could be considered a cryptolect: a secretive exclusive language, designed to exclude, in this case, oiks. It’s mainly used to distinguish an expensive education from a state one. After all, it’s as arcane and defunct as Polari. It means private school kids can know that in vino veritas because their schools were acting in loco parentis.
It’s especially true if you call your university your alma mater. Ugh.
Sensationalist and over abbreviated language is journalese. If you interview an everyday eyewitness without a party trick to speak of and call them “talent”; if you speak of pegs or hooks metaphorically; or if you discuss “news currency” — then you’re chatting in journalese.
Gary Nunn is a regular contributor to Mind your language. Twitter @garynunn1
Originally published at www.theguardian.com on April 8, 2016.