The Princes of Jargon


Those who ply infamous trades, such as thieves and prostitutes, glory in their crimes, and regard honest people as dupes: the majority of men, in the depths of their hearts, scorn virtue; few scorn glory. -- Vauvenargues, Excise Maxims

It is necessary to make precise several points that are indispensable to understanding the very spirit of the subject. In the language of the dangerous classes, it is a term that exactly defines those who belong: freed slave [affranchi]. The word designates an individual who is emancipated from slavery by disengaging from "the constraints of communal morality" (Albert Simonin). In fact, this person -- disengaged from the obligations of lawful work -- keeps apart due to principle and thus has recourse to other means of procuring money. The same word also designates an individual whom one has brought up to date, whom one has initiated into the milieu, to whom one has taught a new code, along with its laws and its language, which reflects everything.[1] Moreover, this second meaning cannot be conceived without the first one, and this double definition clarifies all the aspects of this world, which is above all marginalized, which is then voluntarily organized as such. One cannot comprehend this term, nor speak of it validly, if one neglects this double and essential notion. It is indispensable to be able to place oneself at a distance from current social values and the vocabulary that they imply. Nine times out of ten, those who write about argot thus find themselves on the wrong side of the subject.

The argot of malefactors is in the image of their world: a derision of the existing world and not a transference of it, as some have claimed. "Language -- how could one forget this fundamental fact? -- is in a very close relation with one's manner of feeling, thinking and judging [...] One speaks as one judges, and judges as one feels" (Alfredo Niceforo, The Genius of Argot [1912]). In the very utilization of argot, there is a pure pleasure that is already a first result, a manner of mocking the uninitiated, and thus already a deception, a first step towards deception, a first satisfaction. Moreover, this is not a characteristic of the dangerous classes, but of all jargon that is paired with a caste consciousness. To belong to a House, Family or Order is already, in itself, a force, if not a power.

The argot of the dangerous classes is, above all, operational and this is what determines the choice and cryptological formulation of its vocabulary. Argot does not have a real grammatical framework. It also calls upon prudence and economy. A correctly constructed phrase already has a meaning, outside of the lexicon. In usual syntax, replacing several words with the phoneme schtrumpf does not guarantee hermeticism. Argot wants to be synonymous with "stupid" language, unintelligent and thus unintelligible, which escapes from the logic of habitual speech and which thus does not follow linguistic rules. Likewise, the words do not wear out; they do not evolve, either. Because it has been over-used, a word can completely disappear from the lexicon of argot so as to reappear, one or many centuries later, with the same freshness (thune[2] is a good example). Argot is also the sum of all the procedures that deform language (verlan, largonji, javanais, etc.), and that are used in a certain milieu, among individuals who are able to recognize themselves through them. Argot is disguised language. It was through argot and disguise that Vidocq[3] penetrated into the criminal world of his era and set an example for his successors.

Unlike specialized languages that are limited to a single group in the same sector, argot has a national, if not international usage. "While each region in Italy has a proper dialect, and so it would be impossible for a Calabrian to understand a Lombard, the thieves of Calabria have the same vocabulary as those in Lombardy. In the two countries, one calls wine chiaro, bread arton, water lensa [and] meat crea. The argot of Marseilles is not different from that of Paris" (Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Man [1889]). According to Bernardo de Quiros and Llanas Aguilaniedo (The Underworld in Madrid), one finds in the argot of Italian swindlers words from Old Spanish germania "that the international vagabonds took along with them across all of Europe." It is not by chance, as Niceforo remarks, that "the nomadic professions had extended and complex argots": "If you study the jargon of the dritti[4] of the Piazza Guglielmo Pepe, you will find a part shared by the jargon of the Roman underworld, and a part proper to the dritti. This special part, proper to the caravans [of travelers] [carovane], is also found among the dritti of Milan, Torino and other parts of Italy, except, of course, for modifications due to regional influences"[5] (A. Niceforo & S. Sighele, The Underworld in Rome [1898]). With respect to Romanian argot, Lazare Sainean cites the author of a lexicon published in 1906, who specifies that "this argot appears to date back forty years, to the very era of the introduction of an organized police force in the country. An elderly thief affirmed to me that this argot was the work of the prisoners of Ocnele-Mari (the name of the largest penitentiary of the country, in Bacau, Moldavia). For that purpose they had named a commission in which it appears one found Jewish, Russian, Bohemian and Hungarian thieves. From whence came the contributions of each of them to the vocabulary of this conventional language: the terms of purse-snatchers, for example, derived from Judeo-German; those of the smugglers from the Russian or the Magyar; those of the thieves from the Bohemian." French argot also contains a good number of words borrowed from Yiddish,[6] which moreover presents more than one shared point with the Romani language: "It only consists of foreign words, but they are not immobile at the very heart of this language; they conserve the vivacity and speed with which they were stolen. The migrations of the people traverses Yiddish from end to end. All of the German, Hebrew, French, English, Slavic, Dutch, Romanian and even Latin is caught in Yiddish by curiosity and insouciance -- it already takes not a little strength to maintain these languages in this state. This is also why no reasonable person dreams of making Yiddish an international language, as tempting as this might be. Only argot borrows from it and this because it has less need of syntactical relations than isolated words. And for the reason that Yiddish has long been a scorned language. But, in the midst of this agitation of language, there reign, on the other hand, fragments of known philological rules. For example, the beginnings of Yiddish date back to the era in which Middle High German was in the process of being transformed into Modern High German. There was thus a possible choice between the two forms: Middle High German took one, Yiddish took the other" (Franz Kafka, Talk on the Yiddish Language [given in 1912]).[7]

By ignoring the role and the existence of the Gypsies, in particular, one makes (in matters of etymology) the fundamental error of directly starting with the Greek, Slavic or Germanic roots, which are so many borrowed words. One then gets lost concerning the era of their appearance, their methods of transmission and thus the very history of argot, to say nothing of its essence. "The stay there (in Greece) must have been long and collective, since all the European dialects of Romani, including calo, possess a wide sampling of incorporated Greek words,"[8] observes Torcuato Perez de Gusman in The Gypsy Blacksmiths of Seville (1982). "In an awfully curious book from the 16th century [...] entitled The Courtly Study by Lorencio Palmireno, we encounter the following passage, which tries to explain why the Gypsies were called Greeks: '[...] They claimed that they came from Egypt Minor [...] but they lied [...] In 1540, a learned man [...] spoke with them in the Egyptian language, which, they claimed, they did not understand because they left it so many years ago. He spoke in Vulgar Greek, as one speaks in Morea and the Archipelago; some understood, others did not: thus, since all of them did not understand, he said that the language they spoke was fake and was used by thieves to conceal their thefts, like the jargon of the blind'"[9] (Adolpho Coelho, The Gypsies of Portugal [1892]). Argot does not, as it were, contain words that have come directly from the Latin, nor even from Low Latin, as opposed to Low Greek, a living language, spoken by the travelers who have not kept, one suspects, any memory of the Latin learned when they studied the classics. Villon reserved Latin for his poetry and not for his ballads [written] in jargon. If argot has sometimes come to us in written form, it was essentially constructed to be spoken, just like the language of the Gypsies. Thus, the very spelling of Villon's Ballads in Jargon causes problems. The usual orthography does not apply to unknown words; it does not permit us to divine them. Then one must have confidence in the copyist who first confronted this problem, who first reproduced what he believed he read or heard, who first interpreted with his own knowledge and his own means. Here, the document does not have a scientific exactitude. According to Marc Bloch, it is a witness despite itself.

Everywhere there are Gypsies, there is an argot, and all the argots contain words of Romani origin. The more the dangerous classes of a given country are extended and organized, the more words are unrecognizable, founded in a unified argot. "The coatto[10] who undertakes to learn all the jargon of the underworld undergoes at the end a test before his tutor, assisted by the leader of the society of the Camorristi and two other individuals, by custom two old Camorristi who are expert in the Gypsy language or boccaglio ["mouthpiece"] (jargon)"[11] (Emanuele Mirabelle, The Underworld [1910]). Here we see at work, closer to our times, the famous "Archisuppots"; in the same way that several argots utilize the word college for prison, the penitentiary of Brest was called The Great College. In Spain, "the mutual influence of underworld jargon and the cale language was so great that the police called prison language calo. Walter Starkie maintains that, in this meeting of the persecuted and the marginal, the bandits provided the masses and the Gypsies the organization"[12] (Torcuato Perez de Guzman). "It is obvious that in a large maritime and commercial town like Barcelona, argot could not be of recent date, even less because the Tsigane element was represented there for centuries. It was in Barcelona that the Bohemians appeared for the first time on the [Iberian] Peninsula, in 1477" (Max-Leopold Wagner, Linguistic Notes on the Argot of Barcelona [1924]).

The Gypsies have the art of words, as the poor previously had the art of cooking leftovers. "The language of the Tsiganes is what is most characteristic of them and the surest defensive weapon in their troubled and delinquent lives. It is an argot and it is in the argotic strata of other languages that its elements penetrate; if it reaches as far as ordinary language, it is only in the social strata permeable to argots" (Jules Bloch, The Tsiganes [1953]). This same author notes "that it is in the tide that carried them the furthest -- as far as America -- that this language is the most conservative; in Asia, by contrast, it seems that the affinity of the local social types has favored a much greater deterioration of the Indian heritage." "The entire history of the language of the Spanish Tsiganes, its deformations and its cross-breeds, its borrowings and its influence on popular speech and literary language in the Pyrenean countries [all this] is to be done anew and requires a much vaster documentation than what we can currently make. This would be an arduous effort, very minute and very tiring, but which promises -- we are sure -- a very abundant harvest and one that would not fail to elucidate many problems in Hispanic philology" (M.-L. Wagner).

If the language of the Gypsies is the prototype of argot (as I have said it is), this secret language also expresses the fact that there are two peoples, foreign and hostile, employing the language of a single country. The Gypsies are the only people to have belonged, in their entirety, to the dangerous classes. Their history is made up of the "combats that they have fought to preserve their nomadic lives against the 'philanthropists' who have wanted to improve their lot" (Jan Yoors, Gypsies [1966]). In a certain way, the Gypsies are "primitives" who have confronted the modern world with ancient weapons (argot, the magic of words, tribal spirit). In short, their history, memory and "writing" are entirely contained in their language, which is a language of struggle, as is all argot. All the argots resemble each other because, in argot, one thinks in the same way. Argot doesn't have any climes, homelands or frontiers. It only translates the same words. According to Gabriel Tardu, it is "the manifest sign of a cosmopolitanism without homeland" (Comparative Criminality [1886]).

In argot, as in the language of the Gypsies, one can in fact observe a polarization of vocabulary around certain themes, all tied in one manner or another to the life of the dangerous classes. Impressive series of synonyms for certain terms that are quite useful are found on both sides. The procedures of phonetic and morphological deformation (already evoked) are employed systematically, as are semantic modifications (substitution of a name by its quality, especially); the inversion of meaning tied to the inversion of syllables (jobard ["dupe"] / barjot ["nutcase"]); the disguising of the names of towns and countries (Canelle for Caen, Arnelle for Rouen); nicknames (Pepe le Moco, Pepa la Bochoca); or the usage of pronouns disguised or deformed by suffixes inspired by Romani inflections (men ys, mezis, meziere, mogniasse, mogniere, mon orgue ["my organ"], mezig in French; mia madre ["my mother"], monarca ["monarch"], montagna ["mountain"], monelle ["brat"], simone, il gobbo ["the hunchback"] in Italian; menda ["creep"], mangue ["thief"] in Spanish; my nibs, my nabs, my watch in cant; michels, minotes in German; muggins ["a dupe"] in American, etc). These procedures can be found in Romani and in all the argots of malefactors (they show through to the one who is attentive and of good faith in the lexicon in this work). Another revealing and perhaps even more meaningful aspect is a kind of return to ordinary language when the subjects speak of themselves or when they designate their association. Such terms are societe ["society" or "firm"], della legge ["the law"], the family way, socio ["member"], Kosher, Gesellschaft ["society"]. One is then among "brothers," "men" or "boys," which are the most esteemed terms in the milieu. "I have always remained a boy," says a song from 1880. This argot is perhaps the most shocking one: "This password, rallying cry and call to enroll thieves is quite simply a marvel. Who would hear 'boy' [garcon] and think thief or rogue?' " (Louis Barron, Foreign Paris [1883]). The Gypsies have, of course, "reserved" words when they speak chatcho: "The idea that Antonio was not sincere does not even concern me, because he saw me as one of his brothers, a member of the wandering tribe, of which the two principal character traits are a profound hatred of the Busnes[13] and an unalterable attachment to their fellows" (George Borrow, The Bible in Spain [1845]). "At the memory of their exploits, Freddy and Marco called out to each other: 'Say hey, chowa!' This was an emphatic exclamation that Freddy claimed to have invented. In fact, he learned it in prison. It was a 'manouche' expression (Gypsy argot), the equivalent of 'my brother!' which he also said on occasion. When he used this expression, those on his side knew from whence he came" (Jean Monod).

"One must not confound popular language with argot [...] But one must recognize that the argot of malefactors, the argot of the prisons, enters into the formation of popular language to an important degree. The cause is obvious: crime more often comes from the need and poverty of the lower classes than from the people who lack nothing [...] The frontiers between argot -- the diverse argots -- and popular language are sometimes difficult to determine" (Henri Bauche, Popular Language [1920]). "Argot is not and has never been -- save for a few, very rare exceptions -- the true Parisian patois, even if it tends day by day to become so rather completely" (Charles Nisard, Study of Popular Language [1872]).

Popular language is in some way a hinge-language, the place of encounter and the point of fusion between the closed language of particular criminal bands and the open-creative language of the entire population in which the dangerous and laboring classes are mixed together and in which the individual -- though anonymous -- appears. Argot has no author. In Lacenaire's argot pieces, it is not Lacenaire who speaks, but the world of the bandits and grinches of all countries. If there are plays on words but, even more, plays on their meanings, the truth is elsewhere, in the usage of the initiates, those who have chosen it.

"My impression, as I have said, is that the authentic speaker of argot is not he [or she] who plays on images and makes puns, who links words in argot to words in ordinary language, but he [or she] who finds a proper clearness [evidence] in the argotisms that nothing ties to ordinary language and from which, on the contrary, they are separated by multiple deformations. Argot forges its meaning from a formal bricolage, insignificant at the start" (Jacques Monod).

The gradual passage from the argot of the dangerous classes -- which is a coded language, a cipher -- towards a popular argot can be summarized by this simple and natural formula: the ludic content increases to the exact extent that one distances oneself from serious things. There is no real division between the two Beings of argot. By passing into popular language, argot words only acquire a new youth, and this thanks to the associations of ideas that involve metaphors. Argotic metaphors or analogies are the equivalent of metaphors in poetry: they are there to render the language vivid. This form of ludic diversion gives argot its popular and good-natured character, which masks the technically primitive side and, at the same time, softens the brutality. The weapon that others have utilized is here deactivated; the play, the verbal jousts and the relief remain. "I call 'Parisian' certain words, turns and locutions -- figurative or not -- that are essentially proper to the popular language of Paris [...] These words, turns and locutions are not of a nature to be claimed by argot, although they sometimes have an air of familiarity with it. Certain metaphors are perhaps cynical or violent, but the majority of them have -- in their own right -- the impulsive spirit, picturesque [quality] and allure that come through the coarseness of the form [...] Argot that is more premeditated, that is to say, more affected, more worked-over [...] hardly offers the qualities that, on occasion, are possessed by isolated words, similarities, rapprochments or misunderstandings" (Charles Nisard, Of Several Popular Parisianisms [1876]).

In our era, it is because poetry is no longer practiced that some people can rediscover it in argot, in which the part of poetry remains small. Metaphors are to argot what the image of the Gypsy is to the Gypsy.

[1] Author's note: "Across the frontier that separates it from the world of rules, the underworld does not know censorship. Argot is made of 'liberated' signs" (Jean Monod, Les Barjots ["The Crazy Ones"] [1968]).

[2] Alms or a unit of money.

[3] Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857), a former criminal who became a police detective.

[4] Author's note: From the Kalderash words Xitro, Xrito: crafty, cunning.

[5] Italian in original.

[6] Author's note: Among the less-known ones: menesse (woman) from main eyses (Rotwelsch, Eschi); antifle (church) from tifle (Middle High German, tiefel: devil); traiffe et marron (taken, made/done) from traif (MHG, treffan: to touch, to reach) -- and not the Hebrew treyfe (impure) as stated in the Larousse of Argot, 1990 -- and from machen (MHG, mahhon, machon: to make/do, to arrange); battre (to simulate, to deceive) from batrigen (MHG, betriegen: to deceive); rif, rifle, ruffe (fire, war, front, revolver), metatheses of feirer (MHG, fyr, vuir: fire), etc.

[7] In addition to translating into English Becker-Ho's citation of Kafka (which is in French, not German), we have translated Kafka directly from the German, as follows:

[...] It only consists of foreign words. These words do not rest in it, but are separately retained with the hurry and liveliness with which they were taken. The wandering of the people runs through Yiddish [den Jargon] from one end to the other. All the German, Hebrew, French, English, Slavic, Dutch, Romanian and even Latin is grasped inside Yiddish due to curiosity and frivolity; to hold these languages together in this state requires a great power. Therefore, no reasonable man thinks to make a world language of Yiddish, as close-by as this actually is. Only the language of swindlers learns from it gladly, because it less needs grammatical relations than single words. Then because Yiddish was a disregarded language for a long time.

In this drifting [Treiben] of language, there prevails snatches of familiar grammatical rules. The beginnings of Yiddish, for example, come from the time when Modern High German came from Middle High German. There was a choice, Middle High German took one, Yiddish the other.

Note that the title of this essay is Einleitungsvortrag uber Jargon ("Introductory Lecture on Jargon").

[8] Spanish in original.

[9] Portuguese in original.

[10] Author's note: A person condemned to hard labor [in prison].

[11] Italian in original.

[12] Spanish in original.

[13] Author's note: The stranger, the enemy.

(Published by Editions Gerard Lebovici in 1990; 2d edition published by Gallimard in 1993. Translated by NOT BORED! January 2008.)

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