Neologisms, jargon, pragmatics and cant

Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently asked guest writers to choose their favourite “online English” word. I couldn’t pick a favourite, so I cheated and wrote about hashtags.

What struck me most, though, was that three contributors chose the word blog. In a follow-up post, “A blob from a bog”, I write that its multiple selection

surprised and gladdened me, because blog is a word whose sight and sound I’ve always liked but have seen subjected to severe scorn and criticism for as long as it’s been around. . . .

Blog resembles blob and bog in particular, and both of these signify wet, messy, unruly things. I like both words, but I can see how some people wouldn’t. Bog, as well as being slang for toilet (hence the pun in blogroll), has negative connotations such as in the pejorative Irish slang bogman or bog man, meaning “unsophisticated person from the countryside”. [more]

Dawn McIlvain Stahl, on the blog, was also following the discussion of online words. She never liked blog but wasn’t sure why, so she set about finding “firm ground in the blog bog”.

My next post for Macmillan, “A pragmatic note”, is about the subfield of linguistics known as pragmatics, which I describe as the study of language meaning and use in context: interpersonal, social, and cultural.

Pragmatics is a very broad field with fuzzy boundaries, so my post isn’t an attempt at summary so much as a few notes on its main elements, along with expert quotes and links to further reading:

Pragmatics pays heed to social conventions and cultural norms – such as those of politeness, formality, and familiarity – and also to prosody, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures, all of which can vary considerably from one context to the next. . . .

In any conversation, we are likely to exchange both sentence-level information and more subtle, implicit information that must be inferred from the situation and from our experience of a particular language and culture – invisible meaning, as it is sometimes described. The ability to do this is called pragmatic competence. [more]

Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau – Opportunity makes the thief (1896)

Macmillan Dictionary’s theme for October was subcultural English, and under this category falls “Pinch a phrase from thieves’ cant”.

Here I look at the old jargon of the underworld, the secret lingo of street criminals and people on the margins of society: phrases like marriage-music (“children’s cries”), arsworm (“a little diminutive fellow”), and priggers of the cacklers (“poultry-stealers”):

Cant has been more spoken than written, and its precise origins are, unsurprisingly, shrouded in uncertainty. But it was once a vibrant vocabulary that served not only to identify someone as part of the subculture but to prevent those outside it from understanding the speaker.

Historically, this crooked corner of English met with considerable lexicographic interest. Early dialectologists seeking fresh slang for their collections would pay late-night visits to disreputable areas, partly out of linguistic interest but also as a service to society. . . . The idea was that by becoming acquainted with thieves’ and scoundrels’ “mysterious Phrases” we might more easily detect and deter their villainous activity. [more]

The above post links to several old dictionaries of cant and criminal slang that are available online. They make marvellous browsing material.

Finally, in “Caught in a webinar”, I briefly examine the newish portmanteau coinage webinar, asking whether it’s a useful and perfectly acceptable term or a faddish and objectionable barbarism. Opinion is strongly divided.

[P]eople complain that webinar . . . “should be banished on pain of death” . . . but if it is found useful enough for long enough, it will survive no matter how malformed some people consider it.

New words, especially voguish portmanteaus, tend to push people’s buttons, often for reasons that are difficult to discern – a gut reaction that just sticks. If you have reason to use webinar but you really can’t stomach it, you can always take advantage of the richness of synonymy in English by falling back on web seminar, online seminar, web conference, and so on. It’s worth the extra syllables if it keeps your blood pressure down. [more]

I mentioned that October was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of subcultural English. You can explore other monthly themes here, and you can browse my archive of articles on language and words here.

Comments are welcome; and thank you, as always, for reading.

[image source]

8 Responses to Neologisms, jargon, pragmatics and cant

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    My first reaction to “blog,” was one of revulsion. It sounded trendy and cute. But as with many neologisms, familiarity and resignation won the day; “webinar” may win the day as well, but not in my idiolect. The reasons you alluded to are elusive, and perhaps not logical, but that’s sometimes how language works.

  2. Ah pragmatic! Now there’s a word that has changed its meaning completely. I like the old definition – an officious person, So different the modern sense

  3. Stan says:

    Marc: That’s true. It can be hard to tell exactly what puts us off about a word, partly I think because there are often several reasons, many of them vague and associative and all of them intermingling into a gut reaction. I don’t know why I took so quickly to blog; it felt familiar already, a word waiting to happen.

    Jams: It has taken on quite a few senses over the centuries – the Shorter OED lists five nouns and seven adjectives! Some of its meanings are now rarely if ever used, and others (like the linguistic and philosophical) are largely limited to their specialist niches.

  4. johnwcowan says:

    I don’t think blogroll was in origin a pun: blog first appeared in AmE, which does not have bog in the relevant sense. I associate it rather with honor roll, though I have no specific evidence of this.

    I am one of those who hold, with Quine, that the semantics/pragmatics distinction is fallacious. Semantics is all pragmatics: what is called semantics by linguists is a theory of what things ought to mean, as opposed to what they actually do mean. Jerry Norman’s example is “Spiro conjectures Ex-Lax“, which doesn’t even look grammatical — until you know that it’s the reply to “What does Pat Nixon frost her cakes with?”

    Ernest Henley didn’t just write “Invictus”: he also gave us “Villon’s Straight Tip To All Cross Coves” (with commentary), a beautiful example of English cant, and a translation of Villon’s French cant in “Ballade de bonne doctrine à ceux de mauvaise vie” (not all of which is fully understood any more).

  5. Deó de hÚseille says:


    Blogh,pronounced:blog,as in log.Irish,n.fem. fragment,a piece,a bit.Bloghra,m.Broken bits.
    Blogh, v.t.
    Ó Dónaill.

  6. Deó de hÚseille says:

    Blogh, Irish language n,f., v.t.
    Pron: blog, as in log. fragment, piece, bit.

  7. Stan says:

    John: Blogroll was probably not a pun to begin with, but the coincidence in sounds makes it seem inevitable. I wonder if the structural similarity helped it along (I’m thinking especially of drop-down blogrolls that unfurl at a click). Thanks for the Ernest Henley links. Villon’s Straight Tip To All Cross Coves is wonderful fun.

    Deó: Blogh is an Irish word, yes, but it didn’t give rise to blog.

  8. Deó de hÚseille says:

    Ba mhaith ab fhiú buille faoi thuairim a thabhairt air! -’twas worth a shot!

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