Words of art – definition and meaning

Words of art, also called terms of art, are words that have a specific meaning in certain professions, activities, sports, or subjects which may be different in layman’s English. Even though native English-speaking societies share a common language, there are a large number of specialized uses of words based on specific activities or professions. Each profession has a number of expressions and terms that are peculiar or idiomatic to it.

For an individual who works within a profession, those terms and expressions become words of art, which typically convey a different meaning from their lay usage, or which an outsider may not understand at all.

Put simply, words of art means jargon terms that only people who specialize in a particular occupation or subject use and fully understand.

According to Justipedia, words of art are:

“Words or phrases that are typically only known or fully understood by people who are professionals or otherwise have expertise in a particular field. For example, in investing, words such as “price-to-book ratio,” “moving average,” or “dividend yield” may be considered words of art.”

“In the context of the law, many people use lawyers because there are so many words of art within the legal field.”



Words of art – legal profession

Often a court trial involves information and terms that are difficult or impossible for lay people to understand. So, expert witnesses are called to give evidence – to testify.

An expert witness is familiar with the words of art for a particular profession or subject. An accountant, for example, who is called to testify on a corporate fraud case, will be familiar with all the words of art used in accounting and company finance.

Words of artSlang is not the same as words of art. Slang is the use of informal words and terms that are not considered standard in the speaker’s language, while jargon or words of art are terms used with a specific meaning within a certain profession, group, subject, or activity.

The expert witness typically explains the meanings of the relevant words of art to the jury, lawyers, and the judge.

Legal-Dictionary.TheFreeDictionary.com makes the following comment regarding specialized terms in legal situations:

“Because the law is based on the expression of language, it contains thousands of words of art. Many persons working outside the legal profession would recognize that ‘taking the Fifth’ means that a person is asserting his or her protection against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

“However, very few persons would understand that an appellant is the party bringing an appeal, while a respondent is the party against whom the appeal is taken. Appellant and respondent are words of art.”

Examples of words of art

Architecture: an apron is a raised panel below a tablet, wall monument, or window. Boss is roughly cut stone set in place for carving later.

Ballet: attitude is a position in which the ballet dancer stands on one leg while the other one is raised and turned out with the knee bent.



Business: deliverable means anything that needs to be done or completed by a certain date and verified by somebody else (another party).

Words of art - politicsThere are several movements in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and other nations to get government departments and politicians to write and talk in plain English, without any words of art, jargon or gobbledygook.

Computing: a bus is a subsystem that transfers information from one computer component to another between computers or inside a computer. An instruction is a group of bits in a computer program that contains an operation code and typically at least one memory address.

Economics: economists use the term money much more specifically than lay people. It means very liquid assets which are held at any moment in time.

Elegant: elegant or beautiful are aesthetic terms that refer to the ability of an idea to provide insight into mathematics.

Medical Profession: blue pipes means veins, cabbage means a heart bypass, and champagne tap means a flawless lumbar puncture.

Music: agile means swiftly. In jazz, bend means sliding down half a step to the original pitch, or conversely sliding up half a step from the original note – it is a technique for establishing a pitch.

Nautical: all night in means having no night watches.



Poker: an action card is a card that causes considerable betting action because it helps at least two players when it appears on the table.

Wine Tasting: baked refers to a wine with a high alcohol content that gives the perception of baked or stewed flavors. It may indicate that the grapes from which the wine was made were left exposed to the heat of the sun after they were harvested.

Slang or Words of Art (Jargon)? Sometimes it is not easy to determine whether a word or expression is slang or jargon. George Osborne, former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, once said that the word BREXIT – BRitain EXITing the European Union – is  jargon. I disagree. It has become a common word used in everyday English, especially in the United Kingdom. I would say it is a slang term.

Video – Slang and Jargon

In this video, Dr. Anne Curzan explains what the difference between slang and jargon (words of art) is.