“Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” have permeated the public lexicon. Both terms describe post-Thanksgiving sales at various retailers, often accompanied by rushing for limited inventory and a bit of chaos. What differentiates jargon from slang?
The dictionary website Lexico defines Black Friday simply as “The day after Thanksgiving, regarded as the first day of the traditional Christmas shopping season, on which retailers offer special reduced prices.” However, for decades, retail employees have spoken of the day in ominous tones, and with good reason. Shoppers often rush into stores in huge numbers, getting into fistfights and shouting matches over limited inventory. Lexico further explains that when used in the shopping sense, Black Friday initially referred to “congestion created by shoppers” in the 1960s.
Alternate stories abound, including claims of its origins in Philadelphia due to post-Thanksgiving, pre-Army-Navy football game tourist traffic. Regardless, where does jargon come from and how does it differ from slang? In her video series The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins, Dr. Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan, explained.
Slang vs. Jargon
“Slang isn’t jargon, and slang isn’t nonstandard dialects,” Dr. Curzan said. “Michael Adams—who wrote the book on slang—summarizes it really nicely. Adams writes: ‘Slang is language of a group with a shared interest but not a shared purpose. It is the language of being, not of vocation or avocation.'”
In other words, she said, jargon is the specialized language we use at work. Computer jargon, for example, includes “brute force attack,” “patching,” and “malware.” Jargon can also extend to hobbies and sports, such as “dime coverage” and a “blitz” for fans of American football. This jargon contrasts sharply with slang, such as “chit chat” or “shoot the breeze” or “weirdo.”
“What jargon does is help establish communities, in some ways, the way slang does: It establishes insiders and outsiders; who knows the jargon and who doesn’t,” Dr. Curzan said. “But it lacks the irreverence of slang. It also isn’t typically challenging the standard, or even especially informal in all circumstances. It can often sound more formal; think about [the literary theory jargon word] hermeneutic.“
One of the most ubiquitous forms of jargon comes from restaurants and servers. According to Dr. Curzan, one of her former students considered putting together a glossary of restaurant jargon, including some well-known entries—and some lesser-known, as well.
“Here are some of the terms she came up with: D.O.S., ‘dressing on the side,'” Dr. Curzan said. “Campers: These are diners who linger after the meal has ended and/or the last table; the people who are sitting there when you’re trying to close the restaurant. Typically, campers is a disparaging term.”
A more familiar term is 86, which means when a restaurant is out of something. Servers might say “86 pork chops” or “How can we be 86’ed swordfish?” The origins of the term are still up for debate, with theories ranging from rhyming slang for “nix” to a bar throwing unruly drinkers out, where the street address “86” could be prominently seen.
“In restaurants, you’ll hear people talk about something ‘On the fly’: They need it right now; it’s an emergency,” Dr. Curzan said. “You’ll also hear people talk about top: This is the number of people in a dining party. For example: ‘I just sat a two-top at table 10.’ Or it can be the number of guests that a table can hold: ‘Did you clear that six-top yet?'”
Clearly, these terms are shortcuts, or ways to discuss industry terms with efficiency. By way of doing so, it establishes who’s part of the community in the sense of who works there and who doesn’t.
Depending on your perspective, “Black Friday” could be considered a rare example of jargon that has become slang.