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Tom’s words

Escapades in etymology

By Tom Chatfield   February 2008

Any argot (private slang) invokes two related concepts: specialisation, and thinking yourself special. The word itself suggests this, coming from the French argoter, “to quarrel”: argots are for those at odds with the world, and have immemorially been used by secretive, selective groups such as criminals and craftsmen. “Barallete,” for instance, arose in the 12th century among Galician knife-sharpeners, mixing nonsense and dialect to keep local practice secret. “Parlyaree” (from the Italian parlare, “to talk,” and loosely based on Italian) was a 17th-century cant used by peddlers, actors and other itinerants. In the 19th century—via music halls—it became “polari,” a…

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