Is the word "Lingo" appropriate in a formal context?

It sounds much more professional to me than "jargon", but I still have it in the back of my mind that it is slang.

Is there a synonym that would be better?

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    So dig this drag man, I was hangin with my buds rappin about stuff when this chick comes in with a Pleural Effusion. We considered a thoracostomy but this was contraindicated by bleeding diatheses. Bummer :/ – horatio Jun 3 '11 at 15:27

(a) Lingo is pretty dated (80s wealthy would-be hipsters, and people who pine for the British Empire being the only ones I have heard using it).

(b) It's kind of racist (it's dismissive of the manner of speech it is applied to), and it doesn't just mean "jargon", it means any manner of speech, including foreign language or other dialect one wishes to dismiss.

(c) There is absolutely no way it is more professional than "jargon" (which is a perfectly normal word).

The real question is why you think there might be a problem with using the word "jargon".

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    I had the very same thought. The word "jargon" is an acceptable and commonly understood word. "Lingo" seems a lot more informal to me, certainly less professional, and less widely understood. *I don't know why "lingo" would be considered racist. It is dismissive of manner of speech applied to, but that can refer to technology speak. Being dismissive of overly techy communication style doesn't have anything to do with racism. But that is a minor side issue. The rest of this answer by @Marcin is how I would respond to the question too. – Ellie Kesselman Jun 4 '11 at 8:03
  • It's racist because it's dismissively applied to foreign languages, especially those of less wealthy countries, and countries colonised. – Marcin Jun 4 '11 at 8:12
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    Marcin Yes! You are correct! I forgot about that. It is even used to describe Gaelic by James Bond in Ian Fleming novels. And certainly was used by colonial powers to describe the languages of vassal nations. Thank you for the reminder. – Ellie Kesselman Jun 4 '11 at 8:42

The NOAD reports lingo is informal, and it gives the following meaning for the word:

a foreign language or local dialect
  • the vocabulary or jargon of a particular subject or group of people

Probably it's informal when used for a foreign language or local dialect.


Houghton Mifflin's International Word Origins (cited by Answers.com) has this comment about early appearances of the word lingo:

In English, it was noted in a 1660 court case at New Haven colony: "To which the plaintiff answered, that he was not acquainted with Dutch lingo." William Congreve's play The Way of the World (1700) also uses the word: "Well, well, I shall understand your lingo one of these days, cousin; in the meanwhile I must answer in plain English." In 1702, Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, referring to American Indians, mentions the "verbs of which their linguo is composed."

The word lingo actually appears twice in The Way of the World, spoken both times by Sir Willful Witwoud, a character newly arrived in London from "the countryside." Henry Fielding also uses the word lingo twice in Tom Jones (1749), both times in the mouth of the rather unschooled Squire Western. So it appears that in the first half of the seventeenth century, educated urbanites associated lingo with, at best, uncouth country squires.

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Lnguage (1756) has this entry for lingo:

LINGO. s. [Portuguese.] Language ; tongue ; speech. Congreve.

I believe that Johnson italicized the word he was defining (as he does here) only when he considered that it had been borrowed whole by English from another language.

Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) has this entry for lingo:

LINGO. LANGUAGE. An outlandish lingo ; a foreign tongue. The parlezvous lingo ; the French tongue.

and this one for flash lingo:

FLASH LINGO, the canting or slang language.

"Canters, or the canting crew" were "thieves, beggars and gypsies, or any others using the canting lingo," according to Grose. Johnson didn't deprecate the word lingo in his dictionary, but it may have fallen into further disrepute as a result of its association (by the 1780s) with canting language.

Edward Phillips, The New World of Words: or, Universal English Dictionary (1707) doesn't have an entry for lingo, but it does have one for lingua:

Lingua, (Lat.) the Tongue, a little but unruly Member : Also Tongue, Language, or Speech.

The definition following "Also" consists of the same three words (in different order) as Johnson's later definition of lingo. Johnson omitted lingua, perhaps because he considered it an altogether foreign word. Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary (1717) doesn't include entries for lingo or lingua.

The first two unabridged editions of Webster's American Dictionary (1828 and 1845) lists lingo (meaning "Language; speech") as "vulgar"; by the time of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) the term (meaning "Language; speech; dialect") had ascended to "slang" status.

Nowadays, Merriam-Webster is loath to use what it calls "stylistic usage labels" in any but extreme cases; more often, it simply omits informal or slang terms (like gotta) that it disapproves of. Not surprisingly, lingo appears in recent Merriam-Webster dictionaries without any usage label.

I think that lingo sounds less formal than such (sometimes applicable) alternative expressions as special vocabulary, regional vocabulary, business [or specific trade] language, argot, cant, jargon, slang, patois, provincialism, localism, and vernacular. On the other hand lingo is more formal than most neologisms for special vocabularies that end in -ese, -speak, or -babble.


It is informal:

Wiktionary gives:

Language, especially language peculiar to a particular group or region; jargon or a dialect.

And the World English Dictionary extends:

informal: any foreign or unfamiliar language, jargon, etc

Etymonline explains its origin:

1650s, possibly a corrupt form of lingua franca (q.v.), or from Prov. lingo

So, although it is in commmon use, probably not appropriate for a formal setting.

  • What is the World English Dictionary? This is the first I've heard of it. – mmyers Jun 4 '11 at 6:18
  • It's... a dictionary? :-) – Thursagen Jun 4 '11 at 6:21
  • OHHHHH, ok, got it. Next question: Why have I never heard of it? Have I been under a rock? – mmyers Jun 4 '11 at 6:31
  • No idea. That question depends on what search engine you have, actually. – Thursagen Jun 4 '11 at 6:34
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    I frequently use dictionary.reference.com, but I don't see where on the site it is identified as "World English Dictionary." Can you tell us where this name comes from? I may just be missing something. – frances May 9 '14 at 15:10

It sounds informal but isn't, according to Merriam-Webster. I suppose it depends on whether your readers think it's slang, if that matters to you.

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    I'm UK, and to me lingo is definitely slang/informal. But I can't say whether that's a US/UK difference, or just me. – FumbleFingers Jun 3 '11 at 15:26
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    @FumbleFingers, 'lingo' is informal but 'jargon' is slightly perjorative – mgb Jun 3 '11 at 15:35
  • @Martin: Just so. To really zero in on an answer here, it would help to know the field in question. "Insider's speech" can be called various things, but some are profession-specific. A lawyer might use a "term of art," but it's hard to imagine a plumber doing the same. No offense to the pipe-fitting set. – The Raven Jun 3 '11 at 16:02
  • @Martin Beckett: I certainly agree jargon is invariably at least somewhat perjorative. To my ear, lingo has slightly positive associations, but doubtless there will be others who disagree. – FumbleFingers Jun 3 '11 at 16:05
  • I don't think jargon is pejorative - there is no other word for the phenomenon of specific technical language. – Marcin Jun 4 '11 at 9:57

"Dialects" would be better. Or you could use "colloquial," depending on the sentence.

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    Dialect has a specific meaning that doesn't fit at all well with lingo, sorry. – user1579 Jun 3 '11 at 15:53
  • @Rhodri yeah, probably you're right. Thanks for correcting – Ankit Jun 3 '11 at 16:55

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