Jargon and Skylarks


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The unintelligible literary style of the civil servant, the impenetrable effusions of the legal fraternity, and the arcane terminology of computer boffins could hardly be likened to the melodious notes of song birds.

We simply call them 'jargon'.

Yet jargon meant bird song long before it developed its modern sense of linguistic babble.

Chaucer borrowed the word from the French 'jargonner' (the warble of birds) and his observation in the Merchant's tale of 1385: 'He was Al Cotish full of ragerye and ful of jargon as a flekked pye' is it's first recorded English usage.

The 'flekked pye' was presumably an ancestor of the pied crows with which we are so familiar in Durban. Or could Chaucer have been predicting the four-and-twenty blackbirds of nursery rhyme fame which were so tempting served up in a pastry casing?

In any event jargon remained true to its bird song meaning for a few more centuries after Chaucer, when Coleridge echoed his literary predecessor in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

Sometimes a-dropping from the sky

I heard the skylark sing; Sometimes all little birds that are, How sweet they seem'd to fill the sea and air With their sweet jargoning

Only in the comparatively recent times has the old meaning disappeared, to be replaced by the contemptuous sense of language which is deliberately and unnecessarily obscure.

Hunting and falconry have given us the familiar 'quarry' and 'leash', likewise the expression 'to turn tail' meaning to turn and flee.

Other terms of the chase have completely lost their original meanings. A well-bred bird of prey could be said to be 'of good nest’, or as the French say 'de bon aire'- hence the modern use of ' debonair' for graciousness in dress or manner.

A better-known expression arises from the training of falcons, where hunger is used to manipulate the bird's psychology. When it's had too much to eat the bird wouldn't cooperate and gets annoyed by any attempts to tell it what to do.

It simply sits in the top of a tree and sulks. It is 'fed up'.

Jargon tends to have the same effect on all of us.


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