Once upon a time, when Patrick Campbell was still alive, I was a regular (once a year) contestant on Call My Bluff, which was nice but not a living, so it was a good job I was also working full-time for Punch Magazine. The morning after one appearance on the programme it was my turn to go round to the print works for the final proof reading on that week’s issue of Punch, and I thought in my youthful innocence that the printers would be impressed by my having been on TV. They were, but not in the way I thought.
‘Blimey,’ said one, speaking for all, ’you made an idiot of yourself last night didn’t you?’ I didn’t think I had. I felt hurt.
‘I mean, that word “pying” that came up. You said you didn’t know what it meant.’ I hadn’t either, and I don’t suppose you do. The correct definition turned out to be “arranging in alphabetical order”, which seemed so unlikely to me that I’d gone for another meaning altogether.
‘How can you not know it?’ said the aggrieved printer. ‘We use it all the time here. Every time someone knocks a tray of letters over someone shouts ‘Get that pyed!’
It wasn’t really surprising that I hadn’t registered the term, but nor was it odd that he should be amazed, because you always think your jargon will be automatically comprehensible to other people. Outside old-fashioned print works I don’t suppose the word is ever used now, but to him “pying” was as common as dirt.
So is jargon just one person’s trade languag? Is it a kind of shorthand which we are all justified in using if the other person also knows the shorthand? When my wife, who works as a TV producer, says to me: ‘I’ll have to be off early tomorrow morning because I’ve got an all-day VT edit and dub on that regional opt-out,’ should I be honest and say ‘What the hell does that mean?’ or be tactful and say ‘Fine by me’.
I’ve always had the impression that insurance people have their very own jargon but whether they have used it to inform people or to conceal information is another matter. I myself have never fully understood any insurance policy I have taken out as my mind tends to cloud over when I hear the phrases “endowment”, "with profit”, “index-linked” and all those bits of shorthand beloved of insurance salesmen. I could ask them to explain it. In fact I often have and I have never understood the explanations, as no insurance salesman believes that anyone can be so ignorant of insurance as I am, so they never slow down to the right speed. Then, desperate to get rid of them, I buy the policy and everyone is happy.
That is why I have so many pieces of insurance on me and I sincerely believe that if I ever die I shall be the richest person alive. I think jargon is always justified if it provides a good short cut. One expression I remember from my days at the print works was to describe a single word which is left dangling from the previous paragraph at the top of a column of print. Just one word, all by itself on the first line. Printers hate that. They call it a widow. ‘Can you get rid of that widow?’ they say, which always sounds pleasurably violent to me and is immeasurable better than saying : “Can you get rid of that single floating word which has become detached from the previous etc. etc.’
Jargon is amazingly useful in jazz when you haven’t got much time to tell the band what you want them to do. ‘Fours!’ yells the leader out of the corner of his mouth, meaning he wants to swap four bars with the drummer. ‘Bridge!’ he cries, meaning go straight to the middle eight. ‘Bass!’ he shouts, meaning the poor bass player has to take a solo while everyone else ignores him or goes to the bar for a fresh pint.
The jargon that depresses me is the loose, flabby kind, the kind that businessmen tend to use when they’re attempting to describe a situation or atmosphere, or trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. ‘We’ve been hearing a lot of favourable noises about that one,’ I heard a man on the train say. It’s on a par with ‘Feedback has been very exciting on this one,’ or ‘ As regards this one we are moving into a whole new area here.’
I once spent a whole day in the antique shops of Bath trying to find an old desk and it reminds me very much of what the antique dealers said when I asked them if the marked price was the real price. ‘Oh, I think we could come to some readjustment there.’ ‘Oh, there was every chance that the price might settle down a little.’ ‘Oh, there was no reason why a little slack might not be taken up,’ or ‘some air let out of the tyres’ – all those phrases meaning one thing alone: ‘I’m not telling you anything till I find out what you are thinking.’
Maybe that is what jargon is really all about – concealing your meaning. Who was it said that a memo is written, not to inform the recipient, but to protect the sender? A lawyer, probably. After all, the whole of British law is written in jargon so that only lawyers can understand it. At least, I hope they do, because other wise we’re all sunk.
Clerical Medical Investment Group Newsletter “Life” Feb. 1991