30 Examples of Incredible Professional Slang
Professional slang is the weird and wonderful array of terms, acronyms and insults that crop up in a variety of professions.
It has some overlap with jargon, but while jargon can be used to intimidate the ignorant or just to shorten a complex explanation (“I got a 404, did a hard refresh and now the CSS isn’t loading” is a quicker and more technical way to say “the website didn’t load, so I asked my browser to reload it from scratch and now the style and layout of the page is messed up”), professional slang is often less efficient than the terms it might have replaced. It’s a means of signalling that you are part of a professional group and you know what you’re talking about. It’s a means of disguising what you mean from your clients or less clued-in colleagues. And it’s frequently very funny.
We’ve taken a look at some English-language slang from a variety of professions to see how it reveals the concerns, priorities and linguistic impulses of those particular professions. Here are 30 of our favourite examples of professional slang:
Much of doctors’ slang serves a very particular need: the need to jot things down on a patient’s notes that explained the patient’s situation, but in a way that the patient themselves would not be able to understand. As such, it’s often quite insulting, and usually involves some quite dark humour.
This kind of doctors’ slang is now in decline, as records are increasingly computerised and made available to patients who want to know what these odd abbreviations mean. However, the other variety of doctors’ slang – mocking nicknames for different departments and specialities – is still going strong.
1. CTD – Circling the Drain: A typically dark example of medical humour, a patient who is ‘circling the drain’ is expected to pass away soon. Unsurprisingly, doctors have endless coded ways of referring to this, in order to make each other aware of the situation. Shortly afterwards, the note might be ‘C/C’ (cancel Christmas) or ‘ECU’ (eternal care unit – i.e. heaven).
2. TEETH – Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy: Medical doctors’ contempt for dubious alternative medicine shines through in this innocent-looking acronym, which similarly suggests that a patient doesn’t have much hope of recovery.
3. NFN – Normal for Norfolk: More biting humour here; Norfolk is typically the punchline of British jokes about people who are a bit odd, because of the area’s insular reputation.
4. ATS – Acute Thespian Syndrome: Many examples of doctors’ slang sound like they could be an actual condition – almost. ‘Thespian’ is a seldom-used English word for ‘actor’, so if someone in a doctor’s surgery or hospital has ‘acute thespian syndrome’, then they’re putting it on. Similarly, ‘acute pneumoencephalopathy’ sounds like a real condition, but in fact means ‘airheaded’.
5. Baby catcher: A ‘baby catcher’ is a much less obscure term than the previous four – it means obstetrician. Similarly, the ‘Freud squad’ refers to psychiatrists, ‘slashers’ to surgeons and ‘gassers’ to anaesthetists.
The world of slang used by computer technicians, programmers and other parts of the computer geek world sometimes has the same root as medical slang: the need to explain a circumstance to others without your patient/client understanding you. However, slang in these professions is more often based around making what can be a frustrating job a little bit more entertaining.
So much of what was once geek slang has now entered mainstream usage (most people are now familiar with the concept of a ‘gif’, even if we can’t agree on how to pronounce it) that profession-specific slang is harder to find. Additionally, in such a fast-moving field, many terms are now obsolete – the idea of being ‘stuck in blue bar land’, where a loading screen takes forever, is thankfully a much less common experience than it once was. All the same, we’ve found these five examples of what the people who fix your laptop or make that app work are saying behind closed doors.
6. PEBCAK – Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard: This has a variety of alternatives, such as ‘PICNIC’ – problem in chair, not in computer. This is used when the technician realises that the reason you can’t get your computer to work does not lie in a fault with the computer.
7. Smug Report: Punning on ‘bug report’, this is a form of bug report – i.e. a user submitting a fault they’ve found with a program or system – that has been submitted by a user with an overinflated idea of their own expertise, complete with suggestions of solutions that serve only to emphasise the depths of the user’s ignorance.
8. Fermat’s Last Post: Fermat’s Last Theorem is a famous theorem conjectured by by Pierre Fermat in 1637 in the margin of a book, with a note saying he had a proof that would not fit in the margin. It took until 1995 for anyone else to come up with a proof. Fermat’s Last Post plays on this idea – it’s a post to a forum in which the author claims to have found a straightforward way of fixing a bug, but doesn’t say what it is and never returns to explain.
9. Copy, paste and pray: Sometimes a programmer has no solution but to copy some code from someone’s suggestion on the internet, and hope ardently that it works.
10. Guiltware: Chances are, you’ve encountered this yourself. Some software is free. Some software is free but comes with a catch: it will make you feel guilt until you’ve made a donation to support its development, or registered, or something similar. That’s guiltware.
The chief problem of professional photographers – if their slang is anything to go by – is the belief of amateurs that they can do just as good a job. Mocking the practices of amateur photographer ranges from gentle nicknames to obvious insults, due to the irritation at the lack of respect for professional expertise.
The other enduring theme of photographers’ slang is language that reflects the significant changes that the advent of cheap digital photography has wrought upon the field. Older analogue cameras get affectionate nicknames, and the practices that digital photography encourages are lampooned.
11. ATGNI – All The Gear, No Idea: In photography as in so many other fields, there are people under the impression that buying all the latest and most expensive equipment will lend them immediate expertise. Sadly, it won’t.
12. Uncle Bob: Specific to wedding photographers, an ‘Uncle Bob’ is the guest who comes with his (or her?) own very fancy camera, gets in the way, lectures to the photographer how things should be done and is generally the more irritating version of someone who has ‘ATGNI’.
13. Bottletop: Photographers aren’t exclusively damning towards those who have more money than sense. A ‘bottletop’ is the evocative term for a cheap, low-quality lens.
14. Spray and pray: This is what ‘Uncle Bob’ does – snapping away in the hope of taking a decent photo by chance rather than by skill. Unfortunately, just as no monkeys have yet written the complete works of Shakespeare, this is less effective than ‘Uncle Bob’ might assume.
15. Chimping: When you stand around looking at the display after taking a photo – like a bunch of monkeys pawing over some food – that’s ‘chimping’.
Military slang shows a fascinating evolution over the past century or so. Different locations of combat are reflected in the vocabulary that soldiers pick up, from British soldiers at the time of the British Raj referring to a ‘desk wallah’ (where ‘wallah’ is a Marathi and Hindustani suffix indicating a worker of some kind – in this case, one who sits around behind their desk instead of getting out and about with the troops) to US soldiers whose slang includes fragments of Vietnamese and Arabic.
Inevitably, most military slang reflects the harsh environment in which it developed; we’ve chosen some of the tamer options here.
16. Blue on blue contact: This scarcely counts as slang, being used in official documentation, but is an interesting example of a euphemism for a euphemism. Blue on blue contact is a nicer way of saying friendly fire – or to put it bluntly, shooting at your own side.
17. Top brass: This is an instance of military slang that has slipped into common usage. ‘Brass’ refers to officers, thanks to all the shiny brass buttons on their uniforms; ‘top brass’ is the peak of that hierarchy.
18. Penguin: a cute term used by RAF aircrews for ground crew; the people who are all flap and no fly.
19. Pilot before Pontius: Another one from the RAF, this refers to Pontius Pilate; if you were ‘a pilot before Pontius’ then you must have been doing this for a very long time indeed!
20. Rubber dagger: This is the nickname for the Royal Marines Reserve in the UK, and seems quite affectionate (they are the people who are trained in the UK, ready in case they are needed, but who mostly do normal jobs and are not called upon to fight – hence that their daggers are only rubber) – although one forum poster says, quite sniffily, “I personally find this offensive!” Given the demanding physical standards required of Royal Marines Reservists, perhaps it’s best not to offend them…
Searching for ‘police slang’ inevitably brings up quite a lot of criminal slang for the police; much of it not particularly friendly. But here we’ve looked at slang used by the police themselves. Puns are popular, and some of the more obscure terms have overlaps with cockney rhyming slang – unsurprising given the size and influence of the Metropolitan Police in London.
You might expect police slang to reveal disdain for criminals, but actually this makes up a very small part of the overall range of slang used. Instead, police officers have a remarkable number of terms to mock their workshy colleagues.
21. Blues and Twos: A term in use among the general public as well, this refers to the two-tone siren and flashing blue lights of a police car. A greater variety of sirens are now in use; police slang is often quite slow to change, with forms and procedures retaining nicknames that made sense decades ago.
22. Olympic torch: Just as the Olympic torch never goes out, this term refers to an officer who never leaves the station.
23. Station Cat: Similarly, the ‘Station Cat’ is the officer who wanders around preening themselves like an arrogant tomcat, finding any excuse possible to avoid work.
24. K9: An official name that must have been dreamt up by someone with too little to do that day, a K9 unit – say it out loud – is a dog unit.
25. Giving his drum a spin: This refers to searching a suspect’s house. What’s particularly interesting is that the term ‘drum’ for ‘house’ has been suggested as Cockney Rhyming Slang – ‘drum and bass’ = place – except that this term predates drum and bass as a genre. The idea of giving it a ‘spin’ suggests the drum of a washing machine rather than the musical variety, which in its own right is a surprisingly domestic metaphor.
While doctors and the police are increasingly having to avoid slang, for fear of it being recorded digitally and needing to explain their comments in court, one field where slang is alive and well is the restaurant industry.
Restaurant slang is informed by the need to convey ideas quickly – e.g. explaining to someone, rapidly, that they need to stay put or they will have boiling water spilled all over them – as well as the fact that the industry is more multilingual than most, so non-standard English tends to thrive. Particularly in the US restaurant industry, a lot of slang is a reflection of the fusion of Spanish and English that is used in kitchens. The high-pressure environment of professional catering also comes through, as well as the disdain in which diners are held by chefs when their order reflects poor taste.
26. Dying on the pass: The ‘pass’ is the area where hot food is placed to stay warm before the waiting staff come to pick it up – and if the food there is ‘dying’, then it needs to be collected as soon as possible, because it’s in the process of becoming inedible.
27. Cremated: How chefs refer to steaks and burgers that they consider overcooked. An order for a steak to be ‘well done’ is usually translated by chefs as ‘cremated’.
28. Still mooing: The opposite of ‘cremated’, which is likely to garner more respect from the chef.
29. In the weeds: This is what some restaurant employees will suggest is the perennial state of affairs: when there are too many demanding customers, too many orders and too little time to serve everyone in.
30. Dine and dash: Another one that’s seeped into general usage, to ‘dine and dash’ is not hurrying to get to the theatre in time after your meal; it’s eating and then running off without paying the bill.
Do you have any more great examples of professional slang? Share them in the comments!