Wood on Words: Catch up on jargon, gibberish, slang and gobbledygook

Barry Wood

In the 1979 movie “Manhattan,” Woody Allen’s character has just quit his job and is already regretting it after receiving bad news from his accountant:

“I got no cash flow, or I’m not liquid ... something’s not flowing. ... They got a language all their own, those guys.”

Most professions, hobbies and other human pursuits have their own specialized vocabularies, and, appropriately, there’s quite a list of words for such lists of words.

Most of them have some negative aspect, which is to be expected since they are applied by people who feel excluded.

The most versatile is “jargon,” a word Webster’s traces to the Middle French for “a chattering (of birds).” Applied in its broadest sense, “jargon” is considered “somewhat derogatory ... often implying unintelligibility.”

Other definitions of “jargon” include “incoherent speech; gibberish,” “a mixed or hybrid language or dialect, especially pidgin” and “speech or writing full of long, unfamiliar or roundabout words or phrases.”

“Gibberish” is “rapid and incoherent talk; unintelligible chatter,” and was immortalized in Mel Brooks’ 1974 “Blazing Saddles” in a character’s reference to “authentic frontier gibberish.”

A similar word is “gobbledygook,” slang for “talk or writing that is wordy, pompous, etc. and largely incomprehensible or meaningless.”

Its origin is thought to refer to the cries of the turkey, and it was first used in its current sense in the first half of the previous century by a man named Maury Maverick, who was a U.S. representative from Texas.

The term “pidgin,” which sounds nearly the same as “pigeon,” has nothing to do with the bird. Webster’s says it’s supposedly a Chinese pronunciation of “business,” and is an oversimplified, mixed language. These days it probably has “political incorrectness” written all over it.

“Dialect,” from the Greek for “discourse, discussion,” is the other main player in this group. It has several definitions, including its popular usage as “any form of speech considered as deviating from a real or imaginary standard speech.”

In linguistics, a dialect is a regional or other variety of a language. Two people speaking different dialects probably can understand each other to some degree, while two speaking different languages cannot.

A word similarly associated with local variations of a language is “patois,” which comes from the Old French for “uncultivated speech.”

Three members of this family of words have criminal histories.

From French comes “argot,” which originally, in the jargon of thieves, meant “the company of beggars.” It has escaped its shady past to be a general term for “specialized vocabulary.”

The word “cant,” from the Latin for “chant,” has connections with begging and thievery in its background as well. It also can be considered synonymous with “jargon” these days, but has two additional meanings: “insincere or almost meaningless talk used merely from convention or habit” and “religious phraseology used hypocritically; insincere, pious talk.”

Also rehabilitated is “slang,” a word of unknown origin. It used to refer specifically to the language of “criminals and tramps,” but nowadays its only vice is being “highly informal” and “outside conventional or standard usage.”

Slang is a rich source of new words and phrases and new meanings for old ones. And, thankfully, some slang just fades away.

Other words for specialized language include “patter”; “lingo,” which is “a humorous or disparaging term”; and “shoptalk,” which isn’t necessarily confined to shops.

And we create other such words by adding the suffixes “-speak,” as in “computerspeak” or “doublespeak,” and “-ese,” as in “legalese” and “journalese.”

Yes, even journalists have their own jargon, but I try not to inflict it on you here.

Barry Wood is a copy editor at the Rockford Register Star. Contact him at