As you no doubt have already discovered, there is not one but a variety of languages. Here I’d like to distinguish just four of these; others need to follow.
Jargon has two meanings. First and in popular usage, jargon refers to language that is overly complex or difficult for people to understand. As such it has a negative connotation; it’s language that should be avoided if your aim is clear and meaningful communication. If, on the other hand, your aim is to confuse or to intimidate jargon often serves well.
A second meaning of jargon, however, is the technical language of a profession which often is difficult or impossible for outsiders to understand. Psychologists, mathematicians, engineers, financial experts, and, of course, communication theorists and researchers have their own professional language (i.e., jargon).
So, while jargon enables members of the same profession to communicate more easily and more precisely with each other (as noted in the introduction to these ABCDs), jargon also prevents meaningful communication between those who are and those who are not members of the profession. The language of the real estate deed or the insurance policy is jargon-filled. The aim, quite often, is to put the non-professional at a disadvantage for not knowing the technical language. And unfortunately many people are reluctant to seek clarification—no one wants to appear ignorant—which, all too often, just results in jargon being added to the original jargon. It’s often helpful to remember that it’s the jargon-user’s obligation to make things clear to the non-professional and that you have the right to have the deed or policy explained in language that you can understand.
When used to increase accuracy among professionals, jargon serves a useful communication purpose; when used to confuse or confound the non-professional it is an unethical use of language and communication.
Argot (which comes from the French meaning slang) is very much like jargon except that instead of being the language of a professional class, it is (usually at least) the language of a criminal class. The specialized language of thieves, confidence hucksters, and prisoners would be considered argot. Like jargon, argot is understood only by members of the group. When terms become more widely known, the terms pass from true argot into slang. Cant is another word for argot; the word cant seems to be used more in England and argot more in the United States.
Slang is nonstandard language; it is overly casual language that would not be considered quite proper in “polite society”. “Buck” for dollar, “copper” or police officer, or “screw” for sexual intercourse are common examples. Slang is language that is widely known—people don’t have trouble understanding slang terms as they do jargon or argot—but only used in those informal situations where it doesn’t mark you as being ignorant or ill-mannered or impolite. When used in say public speaking situations, the result is often a startled reaction; the slang word or phrase will seem inappropriate and will in some way lower the level of the speech.
Taboo denotes something forbidden and may refer to just about anything that a social group might disapprove of—wearing certain colors to a wedding or funeral, eating certain foods, engaging in certain behaviors such as incest, or engaging in normally private activities in public. Applied to language, taboo refers to words (or nonverbal behaviors) or topics that would be considered coarse or inappropriate in social discourse. Profanity—that is, words your society would consider profane—is a good example of language taboo as are obscene gestures. Similarly, topics dealing with sexual fantasies, certain bodily functions, or various diseases or death would be considered taboo in many situations.
What is or isn’t taboo depends on the specific social group communicating. A term used regularly and without any special notice on the ball field may be regarded as taboo if said in a college classroom or when talking with people in authority. Similarly, what is considered a taboo topic will vary with the situation. Discussing your sexual fantasies in your course in Human Sexuality or with a therapist might be considered perfectly acceptable. Discussing these same fantasies with, say, pre-teens or with your grandparents would likely be considered socially inappropriate (that is, taboo).
As you can imagine, violating taboos can be very easy in intercultural situations since you really don’t know what is considered taboo in a culture with which you’re not familiar. For example, if you were an American at dinner at a Mexican house, you’d probably realize that the topic of illegal aliens is not your best conversation topic. But, not many people would realize that using a finger to call someone, giving an unwrapped gift or giving any gift on a first meeting or giving a clock as a gift, or not sending flowers or candy to a host would be taboo somewhere in the world. If you want to explore this topic in more detail take a look at Roger E. Axtell’s books, especially Do’s and Taboos Around the World (Wiley, 1993) and Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World (Wiley, 1997). Although a bit dated, the material is still valid and, most important, will demonstrate the wide variety of and variations in taboos around the world.
Generally, as the formality of a situation increases, what is considered taboo also increases; the greater the formality, the more that is taboo. For example, terms that you use regularly in conversation with friends might well be considered taboo is used in a public speaking or job interview situation.