Argot Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The argot of hustlers, says Ned Polsky, is "strikingly uniform from one city to the next and, within large cities, from one poolroom to the next (Hustlers, Beats, and Others, 2006). (Willowpix/Getty Images)

Argot is a specialized vocabulary or set of idioms used by a particular social class or group, especially one that functions outside the law. Also called cant and cryptolect.

French novelist Victor Hugo observed that "argot is subject to perpetual transformation—a secret and rapid work which ever goes on. It makes more progress in ten years than the regular language in ten centuries" (Les Misérables, 1862).

ESL specialist Sara Fuchs notes that argot is "both cryptic and playful in nature and it is . . . particularly rich in vocabulary referring to drugs, crime, sexuality, money, the police, and other authority figures" ("Verlan, l'envers," 2015).


From the French, origin unknown

Examples and Observations

  • The Argot of the Racetrack
    "The argot of the racetrack is responsible for piker 'small town gambler,' ringer 'illegally substituted horse,' shoo-in 'fixed race, easy win,' and others."
    (Connie C. Eble, Slang & Sociability. UNC Press, 1996)
  • The Argot of Prisoners
    "Prison argot, originally defined as the jargon of thieves, is a particular form of slang (Einat 2005)—in some circumstances, a complete language—capable of describing the world from the perspective of the prison. It has been argued that prisoners live, think, and function within the framework defined by the argot (Encinas 2001), whose vocabulary may supply alternative names for objects, psychological states of minds, personnel roles, situations and the activities of prison life. Experienced inmates use argot fluently and can switch between regular names and their argot counterparts, and the degree of familiarity with argot is an important symbol of group membership among prison inmates (Einat 2005)."
    (Ben Crewe and Tomer Einat, "Argot (Prison)."Dictionary of Prisons and Punishment, ed. by Yvonne Jewkes and Jamie Bennett. Willan, 2008)
  • The Argot of Pool Players
    "The poolroom hustler makes his living by betting against his opponents in different types of pool or billiard games, and as part of the playing and betting process he engages in various deceitful practices. The terms 'hustler' for such a practice and 'hustling' for his occupation have been in poolroom argot for decades, antedating their application to prostitutes.
    "Like all other American deviant argots I know of, [hustlers' argot] also reveals numerous facets that testify against a 'secrecy' interpretation. Some examples: (1) Hustlers always use their argot among themselves when no outsiders are present, where it could not possibly have a secretive purpose. (2) The argot itself is not protected but is an 'open secret,' i.e., its meanings are quite easily learned by any outsider who wishes to learn them and is an alert listener or questioner. (3) The argot is elaborated far beyond any conceivable need to develop a set of terms for deviant phenomena, and even far beyond any need to develop a full-scale technical vocabulary . . .."
    (Ned Polsky, Hustlers, Beats, and Others. Aldine, 2006)
  • The Argot of Card Players
    "A cardsharp who is out to cheat you may be dealing from the bottom of the deck and giving you a fast shuffle, in which case you may get lost in the shuffle. You might call such a low-down skunk a four-flusher. Flush, a hand of five cards all of one suit, flows from the Latin fluxus because all the cards flow together. Four-flusher characterizes a poker player who pretends to such good fortune but in fact holds a worthless hand of four same-suit cards and one that doesn't match.
    "All of these terms originated with poker and other betting card games and have undergone a process that linguists call 'broadening.' A good example of movement from one specific argot to another is wild card berth or wild card player as used in football and tennis. In these sports, a team hopes for back-to-back victories—from a fortuitous ace-down-ace-up as the first two cards in a game of five-card stud."
    (Richard Lederer, A Man of My Words. Macmillan, 2003)
  • The Lighter Side of Argot
    "A streak of humour runs through the traditional argot. Prisons were often described as schools, as in the contemporary College of Correction, and the hulks used to accommodate prisoners were the floating academies. Brothels were convents or nunneries, the prostitutes who worked in them were nuns, and the madam was an abbess."
    (Barry J. Blake, Secret Language. Oxford University Press, 2010)

Pronunciation: ARE-go or ARE-get

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Argot Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Argot Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Argot Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).