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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

The Lexicon - Argot

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Word: Argot

Definition: (n) an often more or less secret vocabulary and idiom peculiar to a particular group

Origin: F slang

Source: Plain Bad Heroines by emily m. danforth

"Good for them for doing the work," Caroline said. She sounded like therapy speak in a way that made Audrey bristle, but since therapy had saved her, its argot was her default.


Why is this definition so slippery? Does the very phrasing support a continued secrecy, an evasion of meaning that mirrors the meaning of the word itself? I mean, I understand that the dictionary is just a big book of words, but the unnecessary wordiness of this short phrase is remarkable.


Let's start with that word often. Often is used to refer to events or happenings that are regular, perhaps even frequent, but not always. When something is said to occur often, it must be true that sometimes it does not occur. Introducing this word as you attempt to define another word sets the ground moving under our feet. Does the word mean this or does it only most of the time mean this?


The structural integrity of the definition is further weakened by the next phrase: more or less. Though this phrase has been around for centuries, its longevity does nothing to change its vagueness. In fact, one dictionary explains it is "a phrase used to express vagueness or uncertainty." So, five words into this 14-word definition (more than 1/3, for you non-mathematicians), all we know is that we are unsure.


What are we unsure about? I suppose those qualifiers are meant to modify our understanding of the next word -- secret. So, to recap, this word - argot - is vaguely secret or maybe secret most of the time? But secrets are always only sort of secrets, right? I mean, to be called a secret at all, some people have to know about it. And language, unless it's actually encrypted, is never actually unknown or kept hidden. It may be unique to a group, but if it is is locked away, unused, it dies.


But that's what this definition is claiming, sort of. Argot apparently means something is sort of, kind of secret, and what is kept under such hazy lock and key? Ah, yes. Vocabulary and idiom peculiar to a particular group. I'm taking these last 8 words (more than 1/2 of the total, for those playing along at home) together because they are so charmingly redundant and oddly chosen.


For example, why include both vocabulary (the body of words used in a particular language) and idiom (a form of expression particular to a certain group or person)? I suppose the distinction could be useful, especially if you were referring to a subset of language with a full set of "new" vocabulary and expressions where the typical definitions of words are not reflected in the meaning of the phrase. Take the (hideous) phrase "Shoot me an email." At some point in the business or technology sectors, email was part of a new vocabulary, and this idiom did not, in fact, refer to any traditional method of shooting, whether by bow or pistol. So, maybe, maybe, this relatively unnecessary duplication makes sense.


That concession granted, I refuse to support the rest of the clause. Idiom, by definition, refers to specific usage by a particular group. Why are these completely unnecessary words included? And why is peculiar there at all, being as its secondary definition is actually particular???


My only conclusion is that this definition is trying to throw us off its trail, preserving its own argot even as it pretends to define. The first rule about argot is that you do not talk about argot. This is also the second rule.


PS: emily m. danforth's Plain Bad Heroines has been a surprise highlight of my reading year. It's clever and complicated in all the best ways, full of atmosphere and creepiness but nothing that approaches "horror" (a genre I do not prefer), also full of amazing characters involved in multiple distinct plot lines. A deliciously chunky book without an ounce of fat on it, Plain Bad Heroines is everything this definition is not.

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