I try, but fail, to enter a controversy

The other day, I posted a comment at Language Log which I was certain would draw some response.  It did not. 

The chief author of Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, had put up three posts (first, second, third) about the question of whether management types use “At the end of the day” as jargon.  Professor Liberman searched various databases, found non-managers using the phrase, and declared the question settled.  Various commenters were unconvinced.  It seemed to me that several of them were trying to say that Professor Liberman was missing the point of the question.  I agreed with them, and wrote this comment:

Mark, I read all of your posts on the question “Is expression X an example of the jargon of sphere Y?” because I keep hoping that you will explain what you think the word “jargon” means.

You keep proceeding as if an expression which is familiar in speech or writing outside sphere Y could not be jargon within that sphere. That would be a plausible way of handling the problem if a “jargon” were simply a list of words and phrases peculiar to a certain group of language users. It would then be reasonable to dismiss the question of how particular audiences (in the case of alleged management-speak, employees) respond to particular locutions (here, “at the end of the day”) when particular speakers (the audiences’ bosses) produce those locutions.

If on the other hand we consider a jargon not as a list we might find in a book, but as a form of social interaction, we would have to take an entirely different approach to the question, “Is such-and-such an expression part of the jargon of such-and-such a group?” If jargon is a way we use language to signal our membership in certain groups, our right to express certain kinds of opinions, and our expectation that others will respond to us in certain ways, then we [find] that [the] question is one we can answer only by doing a qualitative field study. It is precisely how particular audiences react when particular speakers produce the locution that we must know if we are to know whether the locution is part of the jargon that sets the speaker apart from his or her listeners. We would actually have to go out and interview office workers and find out what it means to them when their bosses say “At the end of the day” and whether react to it differently than they would if they heard a soccer coach use the same phrase on television, or someone else in some other setting.

Several comments appeared after mine, and Professor Liberman joined in the discussion with some replies.  But no one remarked on my comment.  I suppose the people who had been trying to express similar opinions in response to the first two posts had given up by that point.


  1. cymast

     /  October 15, 2009

    Or maybe they went offline.

  1. I make another attempt to engage in controversy « Panther Red
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