JARGON & SLANG
A few years back there was a commercial for the Los Angeles Times entertainment section about a film Production Assistant’s first day on the job. Everyone is yelling at him to get something: “Get me a high hat!” “I need a snoot!” And the burley Key Grip needs a “spinner” right away. The Production Assistant (P.A. or “Gofer”) looks up each term he doesn’t understand in a little film dictionary, and gets what was asked for… except for that “spinner.” It isn’t in the book. So he keeps avoiding the Key Grip. Finally, he comes face to face with the big Key Grip who says, “I asked you for a spinner!” The Production Assistant admits he doesn’t know what that is, and somebody hands the Key Grip a coffee stirrer… which he puts in his cup and spins. Everybody laughs.
That commercial was not only a good illustration of STORY, it’s a good illustration of the difference between JARGON and SLANG.
Jargon is the technical terms used in a specific occupation. George Bernard Shaw once quipped that “Every profession is a conspiracy against the layman.” On ER we heard doctors talk about contusions and lacerations and hemorrhaging and BPs and sinus rhythms. We can translate those terms into bruises and cuts and bleeding and blood pressure and heart beat rates… but then we wouldn’t sound like doctors! Each of those terms is a real word or abbreviation of words that has an actual meaning. We can go to any ER in the world and the same terms will be used. Jargon are words with a specific meaning used in a specific occupation. Because they aren’t “made up” you can’t substitute one term for another or make up a term that “sounds cool”. You can’t have Dr. Carter ask for a “red sauce test” instead of an “ESR.” You CAN have him ask for a “sed rate test” – that’s also medical jargon for an Erythrocyte Sedidentation Rate test which tests the rate at which red blood cells settle. It’s part of the standard “blood work” done by the lab. Jargon words have actual meanings that people within that occupation all understand.
Slang is made up words. Though these words may actually be understood by others in the occupation, they are not based on real words or abbreviations. On NYPD Blue we always heard Andy call crooks “skels” – that’s slang. According to William Safire, “it is a shortening of (slang term) skellum, meaning a rascal or thief.” The word doesn’t have a specific meaning – it’s a blanket term for low-lifes. Though a slang term may have its roots in a real word, it’s sill a bastardization. It’s something that may not be understood by others in the same occupation – “skel” is only used in New York City. Slang terms tend to change and evolve because they aren’t based on actual words or phrases. A “sed rate test” isn’t going to change – it’s short for “Erythrocyte Sedidentation Rate test” which isn’t going to change. But a “skel” used to be a “punk” used to be a “scumbag” used to be a… A “skel” may be a “perp” – that’s jargon for “perpetrator”, someone who commits a crime – but not all “skels” are “perps.” You can find perpetrator in your dictionary but you won’t find skellum.
It’s important to use correct jargon when writing a script in order to be authentic, but slang is a much different story. You can play with slang, make up your own slang. You may do some great research and come away with a list of “real slang” used by whatever profession your script involves… but if we’ve heard those slang terms before in a dozen other movies you’ll want to come up with something new. In Clueless they could have used real teen slang, but created their own original slang which made the movie unique. “He’s totally Baldwin” is something we’ve never heard before… which adds to the creativity and entertainment value of the film. Also, today’s real slang changes so fast, by the time your film hits theaters “bad” may have gone back to meaning bad and confuse the audience. When you’re making up slang put yourself in the shoes of your character to see the world as they see it. In a script about computer programmers they insult someone by calling them a “crasher” because having your computer crash is the worst thing that can happen. Even if real programmers use different slang, you aren’t being inaccurate because slang changes and evolves.
I’ll bet actual high school kids were using the made up slang from Clueless after the film came out… but they still called them “S.A.T.s”. Be accurate with jargon and be creative with slang.
This week’s assignment:
Your script is about people doing community service work cleaning up trash from the side of the highway to pay off speeding tickets.
Come up with the slang terms for any 10 of these:
The county transport van
The bags they put the trash in
The sticks they use to poke & pick up refuse
The shoulder of the road
The Sheriff who monitors them
The orange vests they wear
The fastest worker
The slowest worker
A habitual speeder who does this every weekend
The other side of the road
The white line on the road