Whereas the most basic purpose of language is to facilitate communication between people, its development is necessarily a social affair. That being said, the role of individuals in this process cannot be denied. Only individuals think, act, speak, and write; there can be no erection of social constructs without the sum of individual efforts. It is true that a collective endeavor is necessary in order for a particular word to come into use and be understood to have a particular set of meanings with regard to connotation, denotation, and exosemantics. But before this can happen, some individual must take the first step. Someone must have an idea that one cannot express in one’s extant vocabulary and thus feel the need to either borrow a word from another language or invent one out of thin air. Because ideas which cannot be put into words are very difficult to utilize, this creative process is necessary for the advancement of knowledge and technology.

Jargon 101

The next step toward a word gaining widespread acceptance and usage is use within a smaller group. At this stage, a word may be described as jargon. Merriam-Webster defines jargon as “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group” or as “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.” Those outside of the group in question often view the former as the latter, with varying degrees of accuracy. The majority of jargon consists of terminology within a specific industry created to allow for greater precision and efficiency among participants in that industry. As Étienne Bonnot de Condillac writes,

“Each science requires a special language, because each science has ideas which are unique to it. It seems that we should begin by forming this language; but we begin by speaking and writing and the language remains to be created.”[1]

However, any social group can have jargon; the defining characteristic is special vocabulary and/or definitions, not use by any particular type of group or toward any particular purpose.

There exists a wide range of applications for jargon within various social dynamics. Jargon can be used as a means of excluding outsiders by speaking in terms that they do not understand, in which case it is also known as argot. The particular pronunciation of a word can also denote in-group versus out-group; this is called a shibboleth. Conversely, a lingua franca is especially used to communicate with outsiders; examples include the various creole languages and pidgins that have formed when people who speak mutually unintelligible languages wish to trade. The general trend over the long-term is for the secrecy of argots and shibboleths to be dissolved, for technical jargon in a specific field to become part of the wider lexicon of a language, and for linguae francae to develop into full languages, but in each case some of these will be lost in the mists of time.

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  1. de Condillac, Étienne Bonnot (1776). Le Commerce et le gouvernement considérés relativement l’un à l’autre. p. 93.
  2. Schmitt, Carl (1996). The Concept of the Political: Expanded Edition. The University of Chicago Press. p. 61.