Marjorie Garber, PI | The Nation


Marjorie Garber, PI

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According to cultural historian Peter Burke's introduction to Languages and Jargons (1995), the word jargon has an extremely long and wide-ranging history. A medieval word, originally found in Provençal and French in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Chaucer used it to describe the twittering of birds. In the fifteenth century, it indicated the language of a marginal or foreign culture (Kafka later called Yiddish jargon). By the sixteenth century it meant gibberish (gargle and jargon are derived from the same root). In an odd twist, there was even a period when it could be used to specify a form of intercultural lingua franca. But by the early eighteenth century, it took on its primary modern meaning as the vocabulary of the professions. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary defines jargon as "any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of people, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade or profession." With the rise of industrial society and the proliferation of professions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was a veritable explosion of jargons.

About the Author

Robert S. Boynton
Robert S. Boynton, head of the Magazine Writing Program at New York University, is the author of The New New Journalism...

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This complex history makes jargon a perfect candidate for Garberian analysis. There aren't many shades of meaning that haven't been ascribed to the word in the past 800 years--an ambiguity that Garber uses to suggest that what passes for jargon today "is in the ear of the listener."

Although exhaustively argued, Garber's defense of jargon is relatively simple. Since language is a living thing, yesterday's jargon words may very well be today's normal or standard speech. Then comes the deluge: For Adorno, author of The Jargon of Authenticity, the words "authenticity," "genuineness," "transcendence" and "belief" were jargon. Orwell considered "romantic," "plastic," "values," "human," "dead," "sentimental," "natural" and "vitality" to be jargon. ("It would be interesting to know what kind of response Orwell might have had to the movement that has grown up in his name," Garber asks coyly.) Shakespeare alone introduced more than 1,500 words, including "label," "lapse," "dialogue," "design," "accused," "addiction," "rival" and "anchovy" into written English. "Could we imagine doing without them?" Garber asks.

Well, certainly not "anchovy," although we could probably make do without most of the others. But isn't Garber's suggestion a straw man? Who in his right mind argues that we should dispense (her word) with them? Words like "values" and "belief" are indeed vague and clichéd, the kinds of dead language that good writers avoid in order to keep their work from feeling stale. But are they jargon in any recognizable, modern sense of the definition?

Quicker than you can say Aufhebung, Garber has surveyed jargon's linguistic history, broadened its definition, resolved the tension between technical and nontechnical language and transcended what she calls the "paradox of jargon." She does this by constructing a syllogism so slippery it would make Socrates blush, and then dares us to question her faulty logic: (1) Jargon encompasses two conflicting kinds of language: the technical and the banal. (2) Jargon is any kind of language that has been overused and now substitutes for thought. (3) Neologisms, because they are invented to suit the specific needs of thinking, are the only words that aren't jargon. (4) But since neologisms are precisely the kinds of words that are most frequently recognized as jargon... (5) Then all language is jargon.

With its pristine pedigree, jargon turns out to be the public intellectual's best friend--a friend whose moral power, curiously, comes from having all the right enemies. "Too stale; too new. Too foreign; too familiar. Too pedantic; too demotic. Too plain; too fancy. With all these contradictory strikes against it, clearly jargon must be doing something right," Garber writes. Jargon is everything and nothing, a sign of the certainty of ambiguity, the stability of instability, a category that defies and defeats categorization itself.

And this is Marjorie Garber's genius. Cheerfully embracing the irreconcilable, she beats her critics to the punch. What can you possibly say about a thinker who is so comfortable with intellectual incoherence, as long as it carries a whiff of subversion?

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