Language and power


“It is the will of Théoden King that none should enter his gates, save those who know our tongue and are our friends.” So says the guard at the gates of Edoras, as he bars the way of Gandalf, Aragorn and Gimli.

Language can be exclusory, as English travellers to Québec discovered in the 1970s, after General de Gaulle’s visit and his shout from the balcony of Montreal City Hall: “Vive le Québec libre!” People who visited Montreal found that quite a few French Canadians, even shopkeepers, refused to speak English.

Cant is a word, as the OED explains, for ‘The peculiar language or jargon of a class’ or specifically The secret language or jargon used by gipsies, thieves, professional beggars, etc.; transf. any jargon used for the purpose of secrecy.’

Slang is different, not having exclusion as its motive. Fowler in Modern English Usage says that slang ‘is the addiction that results from the favourite game among the young & lively of playing with words & renaming things and actions; some invent new words, or mutilate or misapply the old, for the pleasure of novelty, & others catch up such words for the pleasure of being in fashion; many slang words & phrases perish, a few establish themselves; in either case, during probation they are accounted unfit for literary use.’

The unlovely word jab, which started as a slang word of cocaine addicts, seems to have become widespread for injection; but the airmen’s slang brolly for a parachute and kite for an aeroplane do not seem to have taken off in a similar way, nor has the medics’ pot for a plaster of Paris.

But in the days of mass media, there is a kind of slang whose motive is control. In the guise of fashion, its intention is inclusory: to initiate people into a fraternity of consumers, recruited on the screen by advertisers and media people, who would like to hear their coinages on the lips of everyone. And so the development of language, rightfully the joyful pursuit of the democracy of the ‘young & lively’ becomes the work of an oligarchy—modern Druids, and this is one of the ways they exercise their power.

Next post: More on vocabulary.