Which Word Wednesday: Argot, Jargon, and Lingo

By October 5, 2011 language No Comments

Language ties people together. Families, friends, coworkers, and social groups use the same language to strengthen bonds between members. But the language that binds can also divide, keeping newcomers from feeling welcome and wanted.

For example, how well would an outsider be able to follow a conversation consisting of vague phrases such as future-proof, low-hanging fruit, bandwidth, and helicopter view? Why can’t we speak plainly?

Everyone likes a bit of a flair when it comes to language. But what do we call these specialized lexicons? This week on Which Word Wednesday we are going to consider the word trio argot, jargon, and lingo. Let’s look first to the Oxford American Dictionary for the definitions:

argot :: noun
The jargon or slang of a particular group or class.

jargon :: noun
Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

lingo :: noun
The vocabulary or jargon of a particular subject or group of people; informal often humorous or derogatory.

These definitions don’t make much of a distinction for usage. All three refer to specialized words and phrases for groups of people. We have to look to others sources for additional help.

Ron Evans tells us in The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language1 that:

Argot is a specialized vocabulary or set of idioms used by a particular group, designed to be used by insiders only.

Jargon applies especially to the language or vocabulary of a particular trade, profession, or organization.

Lingo is a pejorative term to describe language the user doesn’t easily or readily understand.

That helps! Argot would include acronyms and abbreviations used for in-house references. Jargon would be used to describe the lofty language of physicians or lawyers or electricians. Lingo would be used to describe the lofty and annoying language used by physicians or lawyers or electricians.

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What’s my WWW verdict? Argot and jargon are kind descriptors; lingo is mocking. Sadly, I have been misusing lingo for years (I thought it was a casual word for language—oops).

What’s your verdict? Do you use argot, jargon, or lingo? What’s your least favorite corporate buzzword? Cast your vote and share your thoughts in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 17.

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