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C) Professionalisms


Professionalisms, as the term itself signifies, are the words used in a definite trade, profession or calling by people connected by common interests both at work and at home. They commonly designate some working process or implement of labour. Professionalisms are correlated to terms. Terms, as has already been indicated, are coined to nominate new concepts that appear in the process of, and as a result of, technical progress and the development of science.

Professional words name anew already-existing concepts, tools or instruments, and have the typical properties of a special code. The main feature of a professionalism is its technicality. Professionalisms are special words in the non-literary layer of the English vocabulary, whereas terms are a specialized group belonging to the literary layer of words. Terms, if they are connected with a field or branch of science or technique well-known to ordinary people, are easily decoded and enter the neutral stratum of the vocabulary. Professionalisms generally remain in circulation within a definite community, as they are linked to a common occupation and common social interests. The semantic structure of the term is usually transparent and is therefore easily understood. The semantic structure of a professionalism is often dimmed by the image on which the meaning of the professionalism is based, particularly when the features of the object in question reflect the process of the work, metaphorically or metonymically. Like terms, professionalisms do not allow any polysemy, they are monosemantic.

Here are some professionalisms used in different trades: tin-fish (=submarine); block-buster (= a bomb especially designed to destroy



1 McKnight, G. H. Modern English in the Making. Ldn, 1930, p. 556.

blocks of big buildings); piper (=a specialist who decorates pastry with the use of a cream-pipe); a midder case (=a midwifery case); outer (=a knockout blow).

Some professionalisms, however, like certain terms, become popular and gradually lose their professional flavour. Thus the word crane which Byron used in his "Don Juan" ... was a verb meaning 'to stretch out the neck like a crane before a dangerous leap' (in hunting, in order to 'look before you leap'). Now, according to Eric Partridge, it has broadened its meaning and is used in the sense of 'to hesitate at an obstacle, a danger'. By 1860 it was no more a professionalism used in hunting but had become a colloquial word of the non-literary stratum and finally, since 1890, entered the standard English vocabulary.

"No good craning at it. Let's go down." (Galsworthy)

Professionalisms should not be mixed up with jargonisms. Like slang words, professionalisms do not aim at secrecy. They fulfil a socially useful function in communication, facilitating a quick and adequate grasp of the message.

Good examples of professionalisms as used by a man-of-letters can be found in Dreiser's "Financier." The following passage is an illustration.

Frank soon picked up all the technicalities of the situation. A "bull", he learned, was one who bought in anticipation of a higher price to come; and if he was "loaded" up with a "line" of stocks he was said to be "long". He sold to "realize" his profit, or if his margins were exhausted he was "wiped out". A "bear" was one who sold stocks which most frequently he did not have, in anticipation of a lower price at which he could buy and satisfy his previous sales. He was "short" when he had sold what he did not own, and he was "covered" when he bought to satisfy his sales and to realize his profits or to protect himself against further loss in the case prices advanced instead of declining. He was in a "corner" when he found that he could not buy in order to make good the stock he had borrowed for delivery and the return of which had been demanded. He was then obliged to settle practically at a price fixed by those to whom he and other "shorts" had sold.

As is seen, each financial professionalism is explained by the author and the words themselves are in inverted commas to stress their peculiar idiomatic sense and also to indicate that the words do not belong to the standard English vocabulary in the meanings they are used.

There are certain fields of human activity which enjoy nation-wide interest and popularity. This, for example, is the case in Great Britain where sports and games are concerned. English pugilistic terminology, for example, has gained particularly wide recognition and therefore is frequently used in a transferred meaning, thus adding to the general image-building function of emotive prose. Here is an example of the use of such professionalisms in fiction.


“Father Knickerbocker met them at the ferry giving one a right-hander on the nose and the other an uppercut with his left just to let them know that the fight was on.”

This is from a story by O. Henry called "The Duel" in which the writer depicts two characters who came from the West to conquer New York. The vocabulary of boxing (right-hander, uppercut), as well as other professional terms found in the story, like ring, to counter, to clinch, etc., help to maintain the atmosphere of a fight, which the story requires.

Professionalisms are used in emotive prose to depict the natural speech of a character. The skilful use of a professional word will show not only the vocation of a character, but also his education, breeding, environment and sometimes even his psychology. That is why, perhaps, a literary device known as speech- characterizàtioï is so abundantly used in emotive prose. The use of professionalisms forms the most conspicuous element of this literary device.

An interesting article was published in the Canadian Globe and Mail 1 in which the author shows how a journalist who mocks at the professionalisms in the language of municipal planners, which render their speech almost incomprehensible, himself uses words and expressions unintelligible to the lay reader. Here is the article.




I was glad to read recently how incomprehensible the language of city planners is to newspapermen. 1 decided to call the author of the article and express my appreciation:

"Hello, I'd like to speak to a reporter of yours named Terrance Wills."

"Is he on city side or the night rewrite desk?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe he's at his type-writer."

The operator said something under his breath and then connected me to the third assistant executive city editor. After about 15 minutes of this I was finally able to communicate directly with Mr. Wills:

"That was a great story you did on 'plannerese', sir," I told him. "Where did you get the idea for it?"

"Why, I just went to the morgue one day when there weren't many obits to do and I got a few clippings. Then I talked with the copy-editor and he gave me a 32-point italic headline with an overhanging deck"

"Is that good?"

"Sure it is. Even a cub knows that. Well I wrote a couple of takes and got it in the box just before the deadline for the second night final edition."

"Is that hard to do?" I asked. My head was beginning to ache.

"What? Sure, I guess. Listen, I'd like to discuss this with you further but I'm on the rewrite desk and my legman is going to be calling in a scoop any minute now. Good-bye."

I sat there with the phone in my hand, thankful that in this complex age the journalists are still preserving simple English.



1 Aug. 19, 1966.

D) Dialectal words


This group of words is obviously opposed to the other groups of the non-literary English vocabulary and therefore its stylistic functions can be more or less clearly defined. Dialectal words are those which in the process of integration of the English national language remained beyond its literary boundaries, and their use is generally confined to a definite locality. We exclude here what are called social dialects or even the still looser application of the term as in expressions like poetical dialect or styles as dialects.

With reference to this group there is a confusion of terms, particularly between the terms dialectal, slang and vernacular. In order to ascertain the true value and the stylistic functions of dialectal words it is necessary to look into their nature. For this purpose a quotation from Cecil Wyld's "A History of Modern Colloquial English" will be to the point.

"The history of a very large part of the vocabulary of the present-day English dialects is still very obscure, and it is doubtful whether much of it is of any antiquity. So far very little attempt has been made to sift the chaff from the grain in that very vast receptacle of the English Dialect Dictionary, and to decide which elements are really genuine 'corruptions' of words which the yokel has heard from educated speakers, or read, misheard, or misread, and ignorantly altered, and adopted, often with a slightly twisted significance. Probably many hundreds of 'dialect' words are of this origin, and have no historical value whatever, except inasmuch as they illustrate a general principle in the modification of speech. Such words are not, as a rule, characteristic of any Regional Dialect, although they may be ascribed to one of these, simply because some collector of dialect forms has happened to hear them in a particular area. They belong rather to the category of 'mistakes' which any ignorant speaker may make, and which such persons do make, again and again, in every part of the country." 1

We are not concerned here with the historical aspect of dialectal words. For our purpose it will suffice to note that there is a definite similarity of functions in the use of slang, cockney and any other form of non-literary English and that of dialectal words. All these groups when used in emotive prose are meant to characterize the speaker as a person of a certain locality, breeding, education, etc.

There is sometimes a difficulty in distinguishing dialectal words from colloquial words. Some dialectal words have become so familiar in good colloquial or standard colloquial English that they are universally accepted as recognized units of the standard colloquial English. To these words belong lass, meaning 'a girl or a beloved girl' and the corresponding lad, 'a boy or a young man', daft from the Scottish and the northern dialect, meaning 'of unsound mind, silly'; fash also



1 Wyld, Cecil. Op. cit., pp. 13-14.

Scottish, with the meaning of 'trouble, cares'. Still they have not lost their dialectal associations and therefore are used in literary English with the above-mentioned stylistic function of characterization.

Of quite a different nature are dialectal words which are easily recognized as corruptions of standard English words, although etymologically they may have sprung from the peculiarities of certain dialects. The following words may serve as examples: hinny from honey; tittie apparently from sister, being a childish corruption of the word; cutty meaning a 'testy or naughty girl or woman'.

Most of the examples so far quoted come from the Scottish and the northern dialects. This is explained by the fact that Scotland has struggled to retain the peculiarities of her language. Therefore many of the words fixed in dictionaries as dialectal are of Scottish origin.

Among other dialects used for stylistic purposes in literature is the southern dialect (in particular that of Somersetshire). This dialect has a phonetic peculiarity that distinguishes it from other dialects, viz. initial [s] and [f] are voiced, and are written in the direct speech of characters as [z] and [v], for example: 'volk' (folk), 'vound' (found), 'zee' (see), 'zinking' (sinking). To show how the truly dialectal words are intermingled with all kinds of improprieties of speech, it will be enough to quote the following excerpt from Galsworthy's "A Bit of Love."

"Mrs. Burlacomble: Zurely! I give 'im a nummit afore'e gets up; an' 'e 'as 'is brekjus reg'lar at nine. Must feed un up. He'm on 'is feet all day, goin' to zee folk that widden want to zee an angel, they'm that busy; an' when 'e comes in 'e 'll play 'is flute there. He'm wastin' away for want of 'is wife. That's what'tis. On' 'im so zweet-spoken, tu, 'tis a pleasure to year 'im— Never zays a word!"

Dialectal words are only to be found in the style of emotive prose, livery rarely in other styles. And even here their use is confined to the function of characterizing personalities through their speech. Perhaps it would not be a false supposition to suggest that if it were not for the 'use of the dialectal words in emotive prose they would have already disappeared entirely from the English language. The unifying tendency of the literary language is so strong that language elements used only in dialect are doomed to vanish, except, perhaps, those which, because of their vigour and beauty, have withstood the integrating power of 'the written language.

Writers who use dialectal words for the purpose of characterizing the speech of a person in a piece of emotive prose or drama, introduce them into the word texture in different ways. Some writers make an unrestrained use of dialectal words and also slang, jargonisms and professionalisms, not only in characterization, but also in their narrative. They mistake units of language which have not yet established themselves in standard English for the most striking features of modern English. An over-abundance of words and phrases of what we call non-literary English not only makes the reading difficult, but actually contaminates the generally accepted norms of the English language.

Other writers use dialectal words sparingly, introducing only units which are understandable to the intelligent English reader, or they make use of units which they think will enrich the standard English vocabulary. Among words which are easily understood by the average Englishman are: maister, weel, eneugh, laird, naething and the like, characteristic of Scottish.

Dialectal words, unlike professionalisms, are confined in their use to a definite locality and most of the words deal, as H, C. Wyld points out, with the everyday life of the country.

"Such words will for the most part be of a more or less technical character, and connected with agriculture, horses, cattle and sport." 1


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