Jargons and Argots and Cants, Oh My!

The world of linguistics is replete with any number of synonyms for the word language. Some of these mean exactly the same thing; others carry shades of semantic difference or have multiple senses. All this serves to create a rather confusing situation for the layman who happens to wander into the middle of a conversation about language.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect? What about pidgins and creoles? How does a jargon differ from a cant? In this article we’ll try to decipher these terms and indicate how and when they should be used to maximize clarity and reduce misunderstanding.

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Word of the Month: Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court convened for the first time on 1 February 1790 in New York City, the capital of the United States at the time. On 24 February 1803, the court delivered what is perhaps its most important decision, Marbury v. Madison. This February the court is back in the news with speculation about the retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is suffering from thyroid cancer. Because of this, our word of the month for February is: supreme court, n., a judicial body holding the highest authority, 1773, first used in an act of parliament granting George III authority to establish such a court in Bengal; the highest judicial body in the United States or in one of the United States, 1788.

The Supreme Court, established by Article III of the Constitution is, as the name implies, the highest court in the land and the heads the judiciary, which is the third branch of the federal government after Congress and the Presidency. The court consists of nine justices, appointed for life. (Until 1807 there were six justices. Three more were added over the years, the last in 1869.)

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Book Review: Susie Dent’s Larpers and Shroomers

This is the time of year for lists of words (and other things) of the year and assorted retrospectives on the past twelve months. In this vein, Oxford University Press and author Susie Dent have come out with the second annual version of their “report” on the state of the English language, Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report.

I place the scare quotes around the word “report” because the book is not a formal study of the language and how it fared in the past year. Rather it is a collection of short essays and observations about the language, particularly about slang coinages and usage, at the end of 2004. Dent draws upon the archives of the Oxford English Dictionaries vast collection of citations to produce a collection of current British slang terms. (While there are some Americanisms to be found, the book has a distinctly British bent.) And while the book is the report of 2004, it does not strictly limit itself to this past year. Dent wisely interprets her topic to be the language as currently used in 2004, not just words and phrases that were coined in that year or relate to events of the year. So her coverage of slang includes words of the past few years.

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Language Death, Part III

The issue of language death is a hot topic among linguists. Language death is the disappearance of dialects from the globe, the reduction in the number of dialects that are spoken worldwide. Most linguists agree that we are in the midst of an era where languages are disappearing at an extremely rapid rate and that this will result in various unfortunate consequences for humanity and culture.

In the last two months, we have examined the question of language death, how large a problem it is, and what the consequences of language death are. This month we look at what can be done to address the problem.

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2004 Words of the Year

It seems as if every language publication, web site, and organization comes out with its list of words of the year around this time of year. So, why should we be any different? What follows is a selection of words and phrases that came to the fore in this past year. The selection criterion was simply that the term be important in the past year. These are not necessarily terms that were coined in 2004, and in fact, only one term on the list was actually coined this past year. They are listed in alphabetical order and we have made no attempt to rank which of them is the most emblematic of the year.

The list is dominated by one theme, the war in Iraq. This was the most significant event of the year and many of the words and phrases that kept popping up in the media dealt with this issue. Given this, the list appears a bit grim, but so were the events of the year. Running a distant second is the US presidential election. After that, there are a smattering of terms dealing with other issues, a few more light-hearted, others not so much.

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