Words matter, and so do jargon, slang and dialect

  • Linguist John Baugh, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, coined the term "linguistic profiling" to explain how the words we say sometimes don't say as much as how we say them.

    Linguist John Baugh, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, coined the term "linguistic profiling" to explain how the words we say sometimes don't say as much as how we say them. Courtesy of John Baugh

Updated 6/12/2012 12:41 PM

Proclaiming that an NBA playoff game ended in a tie earns a TV anchor a viral Internet mocking, because everyone (well, almost everyone) knows that NBA playoff games must extend into however many overtimes it takes for someone to win. But we should all have some empathy for her.

Most of us are lucky enough not to have our verbal mishaps preserved on the Web for posterity, but we all suffer moments when a mispronounced word, an improper use of jargon, a misguided attempt to sound as if we know what we're talking about or even our regional accents can expose our ignorance or others' prejudices and lead to our own private humiliations.


In college, a bunch of my fraternity brothers and our dates went to a fancy restaurant and I was confronted with a wine menu for the first time. I acted as if I was used to being in these situations even though my powder blue prom suit from high school was a clear indication I wasn't. Someone more sophisticated and wealthier was talking about ordering pricey bottles of cabernet sauvignon. I scanned the bottom of the list.

"This Lancers Rose is supposed to be pretty good," I suggested boldly, pronouncing rose in a single syllable as if it was the flower instead of the two-syllable French word. Laughing and mocking ensued, but, since neither cellphone cameras nor the Internet had been invented yet, my humiliation died at the table.

The Bible, Mark Twain and a few others have noted that it is better to be quiet and be thought a fool then to open your mouth and remove all doubt. But it's not that easy. We want to join in, even when we don't know how. Sports, music, pop culture, fashion, geography, slang and jargon can trip us up and make us sound stupid when we aren't really that stupid.

"If you're not an insider, you don't know it," says John Baugh, the award-winning Ph.D. linguist and author who serves as chairman of the public relations committee for the Linguistic Society of America. "Mistakes are laughable only to those in the know."

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Messing up the lingo "is potentially a teachable moment if the person who knows the jargon is gracious," Baugh says.

A sports "fan" who mispronounces the name of Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews as "toes" blows his cover. When your grandma says, "OK. I'm on the Google," you have a pretty good idea that you are not going to be able to help her solve computer problems over the phone.

But Baugh notes that the same people who mock the TV anchor for her NBA flub might draw snickers themselves by referring to a "Versace embroidered leather box clutch" as a "Ver Sayes purse." Years ago, when covering Nancy Reagan at an event, I was told to note what she was wearing. I thought I did that with the phrase "wore a red dress," but even my mom snickered at my description.

"Even if you are a well-educated person, you might not be privy to the lingo," Baugh says. Sometimes that lingo is "exclusionary by design," Baugh says, explaining how fraternal organizations, police officers, firefighters, educators and even journalists have their own vocabularies.

Even when you use the right words, people still can make fun. A parent who compliments his teenager's friend on a "dope" outfit isn't groovy. A person who correctly pronounces the phrase "not my forte" or puts a lisp in "Barcelona" sounds pretentious.


Other times, just the way you say things can have meaning. Baugh tells of a University of Kentucky Ph.D. biochemist whose writings get rave reviews. But if the biochemist gives a presentation in Boston, his heavy accent draws chuckles.

An African-American who grew up in Los Angeles, Baugh is a gifted linguist who can adopt the speech patterns of any ethnic group. A professor emeritus at Stanford University and currently a linguistics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Baugh coined the term "linguistic profiling" to describe his groundbreaking studies, including one currently under way in Joliet, that shows how people with apartments for rent often illegally discriminate against a potential renter who speaks with a minority accent on the phone.

The words we use and the way we say them sometimes say more than we intend them to say. The people who hear them sometimes hear things that were never said.

"It depends," Baugh says, "upon your linguistic background."

With all the linguistic land mines out there, keeping quiet might be the best option, unless, of course, you are in the middle of your newscast.

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