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What’s your English: subcultures

Have a look at this extract from a regular column in a British newspaper:

This is a nice little hand for seeing a flop cheap and early, so I limped behind…. Juliano checked and I checked, knowing the button would definitely bet. I was discounting his hand, but I knew he would make a continuation stab. He duly bet 1,200, called by Juliano, and I check-raised to 6,500. The button folded and Juliano called. Interesting. Cold-calling a bet and a check-raise? I hoped he had hit his set.

Have you worked it out yet? For anyone who doesn’t belong to the group this column is aimed at (and that includes me), the word bet is the only real clue to what’s going on. If bet suggests card games, then hand becomes clearer, and it all begins to make some sort of sense. But most of the ‘content’ words (hand, limp, check, raise, fold, button, set) are regular, high-frequency English words – but with specialised meanings. They belong to a subculture: in this case, the world of poker. (The column is written by journalist Victoria Coren – who also happens to be a world-class poker player.)

There’s a useful distinction – which we have talked about before – between the ‘core’ vocabulary and the countless ‘sublanguages’ which together make up English (or any other language). Core words form a high proportion of any text, whether it’s on a Facebook page or in a serious academic journal. (These are the words shown in red in the Macmillan Dictionary.) But individual subject-fields, hobbies, and occupations all have their own sublanguages too, and these are, roughly speaking, words that are in common use within that community but more or less unknown outside it. Some may be highly technical terms. If you work in particle physics, words like lepton, boson, and muon will be part of your everyday discourse. Or they can include made-up words like the LOLspeak Natalie Hunter blogged about last week. But just as often, as in the case of poker, most of the ‘terms’ are ordinary words used in specialised ways.

Sublanguages cover a massive range, but for the next few weeks, the blog will be exploring vocabulary at the more informal end of this spectrum: we’ll be looking at street slang, the music world, and lots more. Welcome to subcultures month!

Our Open Dictionary is a good place to find subcultural words, and we always welcome additions. Whatever you’re interested in, there is bound to be some specialised vocabulary associated with it – and we’d like to hear about it.

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Michael Rundell

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