What is Argot?

Mary McMahon

Argot consists of a specialized vocabulary that is used by a small, insular group of people, often taking the form of a clique. It is particularly associated with criminals and thieves, although people in specific regions, fandoms, and classes also use it to communicate. In a very insular group, the resulting argot can be essentially incomprehensible for people outside of the group, thus creating a very clear “us and them” division. This vocabulary can also be used, of course, to talk about illegal or questionable activities without fear of discovery.

Rappers sometimes use argot to seem "in the know."
Rappers sometimes use argot to seem "in the know."

There is a difference between argot and slang or jargon. Jargon refers to a set of terms, idioms, and concepts that are shared by people with a similar interest. It is used almost like verbal shorthand in a community of well versed individuals, such as baseball fans, computer engineers, or athletes. Jargon is not necessarily meant to be alienating, although it certainly can be confusing for people who are not versed in it. Slang is more widespread than jargon or argot, and it tends to spread quickly and metamorphose as it is used.

The term "argot" has been directly lifted from the French. In French, it refers specifically to the vocabulary used by criminals and thieves. Many French novelists, including Victor Hugo, were very interested in this type of language because they felt that it made their books more believable and interesting. The original meaning of the term has widened since it was borrowed from the French, although the association with low-lifes remains.

Using argot identifies someone as a well versed member of a group. It is meant to be deliberately alienating, and can often be derisive and derogatory when it references people outside of the group. Many groups that are marginalized anyway use language which is heavily weighted with argot to highlight their differences. As a result, many people associate the vocabulary with the lower classes, criminality, and geeks, considering it a "hermetic language" that promotes isolation rather than togetherness.

In some cases, argot may make the jump into popular culture and become slang. This is especially common with thieves' vocabulary, which includes colorful terms like "the fuzz" for law enforcement and "on the lam" for avoiding the fuzz. Since popular culture often idealizes marginal groups, terms taken from argot fall in and out of fashion, depending on what group is being idolized at the moment. People may also deliberately use it to make themselves seem "in the know," as is the case with individuals like rappers.

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Discussion Comments


Just a note: in modern French, Argot does not refer anymore (as first meaning) "specifically to the vocabulary used by criminals and thieves", but rather, as in English, to a language that is particular to a group, a milieu or a society class.


A group that uses argot, which has always interested me, consists of those that work in the medical field. Beyond their Latin based words and complex scientific jargon they have also developed an argot to talk about patients in ways that they can't understand. Unfortunately, this is often derogatory and in the case of argot, usually gives the medical group a feeling of superiority.

They use coded words to talk about someone if the incident is clearly their fault and a result of stupidity, to insult someone's weight and condition. I suppose their argot can be a way to find humor in the worst of conditions, but if you ever look at a list of words that have been decoded it is rather disheartening.


Argot has always been really interesting to those that study sociology. Any time you can clearly identify a type of learned behavior and watch how people adopt it is incredibly useful to understanding how the rest of us function.

In the case of something like drug users the use of argot to describe certain drug paraphernalia and actions was very group specific, with outsiders not knowing what their language meant. In many ways this kind of code was a safety mechanism to keep people, like police, from understanding what they were saying.

The people doing the study believed that argot also helps to more tightly bond people together, which is key in keeping a group solid.


@Frances2 – By the new definition – the loose one – wouldn’t the code words soldiers use during military missions be considered argots too? The code words have the “us versus them” mentality, and nobody outside of that specific group knows what the words mean, right?

I mean, if a team of soldiers is journeying through the desert to find a lost missile or something, they might call it an “egg” or something less obvious, like a “fallen cactus”, and nobody else will really understand what they’re talking about. Argots are really useful in situations like that.


@SushiChamp – Yes, that would be considered an argot (and incredibly rude, by the way). Actually, a complete language like that (if it isn’t based on any publicly known language) is a true argot. In fact, true argots are very rare, so over time, the term has been broadened to also include specialized words and modified publicly used languages.

For example, you could call Pig Latin an argot by today’s standards, although it’s created by modifying a common language. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure the Klingon language (derived from the Star Trek TV series) is a true argot. It’s a standalone language that only “Trekkies” speak, so it meets the original definition.

There’s even a Klingon Language Institute. Amazing!


So, is “argot” another word for “code words” or “secret language”? If I made up a language that only my friends and I spoke, so we could stand in a crowded mall and talk about people without them realizing it, is that an argot?

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