Language is so wonderfully malleable. It can do almost anything except my dishes. Take Lewis Carroll’s, The Jaberwocky, for example. This tale about a fearsome beast is funny, not because of what the words say, but because of how they sound. “His vorpal blade went snicker snack,” is one example. Snicker snack? What kind of a lethal sound is that? We might think of a breakfast cereal but the words would never frighten us.
Not everyone delights in language’s versatility, however. Mathematicians are so scornful, they invented a language of their own where symbols act like words but are allowed no room for play. They mean what the say and they say what they mean. Astronomers don’t trust symbols. They use numbers, instead. Looking for a galaxy? Try HD 188753. Botanists are friendlier to language but it has to be a dead one. Gertrude Stein thought a rose was a rose. She was wrong. It’s a rosa. Still, being a rosa isn’t as bad as being a tagetes erecta. (Marigold)
Acronyms abound, of course, to substitute for words. ACLU means American Civil Liberties Union; NAACP substitutes for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. AARP used to stand for American Association of Retired People but they liked the letters so much, they chucked the words.
Technology adds new verbiage to our lexicon almost every day– bytes, algorithm, linux, for example. These, too, are intended to have specific meanings. Only writers, poets, lawyers and the US government delight in playing games with language. Recently I came across a website, Public Intelligence, that has published an unclassified glossary of counterintelligence terms our government uses in the spy trade. Talk about language in sheep’s clothing. Here are a few examples:
Asset — a person from another foreign intelligence agency willing to share secrets.
Jack in the Box – a dummy placed in a car to fool others into believing the car is occupied.
Walk-in – an asset that hasn’t been recruited but volunteers information
Rabbit – someone being watched or followed
Confusion Agent. A spy whose goal isn’t to obtain information but to mess up someone else’s intelligence.
“Confusion agent,” is my personal favorite. For messing around with the English language, I’d say the spy community deserves top grades.