When we talk about the argot of drug users, we mean their vocabulary or the collection of slang words and phrases used by one drug user to communicate with another—often to the exclusion of non-users. In some instances, argot extends to the intonation or pitch used to speak words and phrases.
Argot fascinates sociologists, anthropologists, and others who study human behavior because the use of argot is an example of learned behavior that helps identify members of one social group as opposed to another, Argot also marks off the boundaries of group membership: those of the in-group use argot with ease, while outsiders use argot ineptly or not at all.
In one study, we showed more than 2,000 drug users in Baltimore, Maryland, a photograph of someone injecting a drug into a vein, and we asked "What do you call this?" The vast majority, well over 50 percent, said that it was a picture of someone "firing up" and most of the others called it "shooting." Most other people in Baltimore speak of "firing up" their furnaces or "shooting" baskets on a basketball court, but they do not think about drug use when these terms are used.
The argot of drug users also varies from place to place and from time to time. A very small minority of the drug users in our study spoke of "main-lining" the drug, "spiking," or "oiling" when they saw the picture of a drug injection into a vein. These are older terms for the same injecting behavior now called "firing up" and "shooting" by younger drug users.
In some ways, argot reflects the social structure of groups: in-group members use the argot, while others do not. However, if argot was used to serve as a badge of membership in an in-group, then we might expect to hear argot in general conversations, no matter who is present. Nonetheless, sociologists studying the use of argot often have been surprised to find that argot is spoken mainly between group members but not as often when nonmembers are present.
Arguing from evidence of this type, some observers claim that argot serves more to convey and reinforce identities within groups than to distinguish one group from another. That is, the process of learning and using drug-related argot reinforces the process of joining in with others who use drugs. In some ways, this process might serve to supplement the reinforcing functions of drug use, making continued drug use more likely rather than less likely.
Many of the terms that originally were part of the argot of drug users have entered into more common usage. For example, "dope" has become a general purpose term, widely used in relation to many types of drug; many people know that "weed" or "reefer" refers to marijuana while "acid" is LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). This encyclopedia includes a glossary of terms in the article SLANG AND JARGON, which lists many examples of argot that have become part of American slang usage.
(See also: Slang and Jargon )
Maurer, D. W., & Vogel, V. H. (1973). Argot in narcotic addicts. In L. M. Snyderet al. (Eds.), Narcotics and Narcotic Addiction, 4th ed. (pp. 364-455). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.
Smith, A. M., et al. (1992). Terminology for drug injection practices among intravenous drug users in Baltimore. International Journal of the Addictions, 27, 435-453.
ar·got / ˈärgō; -gət/ • n. the jargon or slang of a particular group or class: teenage argot.