Having just spent some time in Scotland, encountering Scots accents and language, and having read Kathleen Jamie’s book Findings while on my trip, and having visited castles and a distillery (even though malt whisky is not something I drink), I find myself thinking again about words. In particular, specialized words–those used by the ancient crafts such as beer-making, by vintners and distillers, weavers, farmers, and builders of defenses, ships, and of cathedrals, architectural terms and words specific to a trade: jargon.
Jargon, the word itself, comes from the French. As per the Online Etymology Dictionary:
jargon (n.) mid-14c., “unintelligible talk, gibberish; chattering, jabbering,” from Old French jargon “a chattering” (of birds), also “language, speech,” especially “idle talk; thieves’ Latin” (12c.). Ultimately of echoic origin (compare Latin garrire “to chatter”).
From 1640s as “mixed speech, pigin;” 1650s as “phraseology peculiar to a sect or profession,” hence “mode of speech full of unfamiliar terms.” Middle English also had it as a verb, jargounen “to chatter” (late 14c.), from French.
One of the things I like best about taking tours of and reading books about distilleries or castles and the like is the chance to savor those unusual and often strangely lovely-sounding special terms. The lyne arm. The tun. The potstill, the draff, the spirit safe. Wort and wormtub.
And there’s the donjon, the voussoir, the queen-post, the feretory…in addition to all those buttresses and gargoyles and portcullises. Not to mention the terms, many of them archaic, associated with the making of tapestries and the cooking of meals and the husbandry of sheep or falcons or cattle.
Or the laying of stones for roads or masonry walls, for the engineering of moats and the design of crenellated defenses. So many words, and only highly specialized historians know them today; whereas once, the mostly illiterate men and women who did the work used the language of their trades.
It’s still true today–perhaps more than ever–that jargon is used among the people in a given industry, computer tech or realty or politics. I suppose those words will as surely fall out of use, or evolve in their meanings, and perhaps more rapidly than the jargon of yore.
Obscure terms, highly specialized in their function as means of communication. Sometimes, quite beautiful to know.