Language “for the birds”: New guest post at Oxford Dictionaries

I have a new guest post up on Oxford Dictionaries’ OxfordWords blog. This one is called “Language ‘for the birds’: The origins of ‘jargon’, ‘cant’, and other forms of gobbledygook.” Here is a sample:

‘Infarction’? ‘Heretofore’? ‘Problematize’CathexisDisrupt? 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 jargoncantpatoisargot, 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-14thcentury, naming ‘nonsense’ or ‘gibberish’. But a usage a few decades later — in Chaucer’s late 14th-century Merchants 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.

Head on over to the blog to read the full post and learn what cantpatois, argot, and gobbledygook also have to do with birds. Be sure to check out the other great content on the OxfordWords blog and the always incredible Oxford Dictionaries.

m ∫ r ∫

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