Fuckin’ words, how do they work?

My very first ever blog post was inspired by a student malapropism, so it’s pretty true to say that students’ struggles to mash words into sentences is part of the bread and butter of blogging for me. That, and swears, of course.

Lately, I’ve seen a rash of students talking about things being “close nit” or even “closenit”, and once “close nitt” (fancy-ass hypercorrection?) which makes me ponder their absolute lack of understanding of the concept of etymology, to say nothing of their ability to relate the meaning of that particular term to its spelling. Being a wag and a trickster, the first time I saw it, I asked if the student thought the term had something to do with lice, which went down about as well as one would expect.

In a related incident, I had one essay that talked about a person being a “gun ho”. Vivid, eh?

Usually, although not always, when I correct misapprehensions about word usage, students are nice enough about it, say “okay” and move on to mutilate new and different words. Last week, I encountered fascinatingly stubborn resistance. Let me regale you.

I have this student, and she’s definitely up on the high end of the business student stereotype scale, which means (for those of you who have had the pleasure not to encounter such a type), that she is extremely literal,  very determined to follow directions exactly, determined that following exactly the exact directions will earn an A, upset when there are no exact directions which will allow this process to occur, and argumentative about all the above. In addition, she’s pretty resistant to new information, and ever so slightly ESL. (To clarify: I understand ESL is like pregnant, and either you are or you aren’t, but generally her English is very good, although also tending to the absolutely literal.) Let us, for the purposes of this exercise, call her Dogged Dora.

The task I had given was to write an analysis of one of a selection of essays. Dogged Dora chose to write about the one written by Margaret Wente, who is insightfully described by one blogger as “the Globe and Mail’s resident imbecile”. A quick review of her recent columns reveals that she wrote one on Valentine’s Day entitled “Why Romantic Love is Overrated,” dear GOD, she is a hack. But I digress. Here in the Empire, teachers of Freshman Comp often fall back on Wente’s essays for these kinds of tasks because they are both dire (lots of easy things for students to comment on) and help to up our percentage of required contain Kanadian kontent. In short, of the list of choices which were better-written and more interesting, Wente was the softball.

Among the stupid things she does in this piece, Wente makes a statement which more than one student described as “racist against Europeans”. That is, she says, “Fortunately, we do a whole lot better than the Europeans. They are the world’s worst cheapskates,” from which you can extrapolate a pretty good picture of the Wente oeuvre. Now, there’s plenty to criticize in that statement, and students can and do call her on generalizing, and using inflammatory vocab and similar.

Dogged Dora, I suspect fooling around with Mr Thesaurus, came up with the word “indiscreet” to describe Wente’s word choice in this sentence. When I marked her essay, I commented on this and said it wasn’t quite the right nuance of meaning, since indiscreet tends to refer to revealing secrets. No big deal, just something to take note of. Everyone moves on, right? Wrong.

See, Dora did a solid job on this task and earned, as a result, the mark Business students hate most – an A-. So naturally she had to move on to Stage 2 of getting a grade – bargaining. Most of my other comments she found acceptable, but this thing about the word, she got really hung up on it. “I looked it up in the dictionary,” she told me, “and it means saying stuff you shouldn’t say. Like Wente shouldn’t say this about Europeans.” I conceded that while that was true, “indiscreet” meant more revealing secrets or things that should be kept private. “Exactly,” said Dora, “if she’s racist against Europeans, she should keep that a secret.” Well, yes, but no. I tried again to explain, and Dora again just couldn’t see the difference in the shade of meaning. All “stuff you shouldn’t say” is in the same category. We were there for 10 minutes on this thing, with Dora digging her heels in harder and harder, and me giving examples of indiscretions, and getting nowhere. I eventually stopped it by saying “look, it was a minor point, and not the main issue with your essay.” So then, Dora was able to move on, not because we came to an understanding, but because I had let her know that this particular error hadn’t been worth marks. “You are still wrong,” she muttered.

Now, it becomes clear that in large part the problem is that she hasn’t encountered the word before, and really, the dictionary definitions (especially in the stupid-ass dictionary.com that all students insist on using even though we have online subscriptions to the OED and half a dozen other good dictionaries and they are only a click away, arg, rant) don’t really do a good job of explaining the shades of meaning of words. You learn that by reading and hearing people with good vocabularies talk. Which she doesn’t do, and let me say, this is in no way about her being ESL or a Business student, although they may be contributing factors.

Let me bookend this with another example from last semester. My students were workshopping thesis statements for their essays, and one student put hers up, and it contained, correctly, if a little hyperbolically, the word “profoundly”. A be-hatted guy who was not generally a dumbass stuck his hand up to comment, and said “you can’t just make up words,” indicating that “profoundly” was the one he had trouble with. “It’s a word,” said the female student, to which I concurred. “Can you explain what it means?” I asked her, and she gave him a solid explanation.

“Huh,” he said.

Huh, indeed.

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11 thoughts on “Fuckin’ words, how do they work?

  1. realrellim

    I’ve noticed that too. The strangest example I have came from a colleague–a fellow musicologist. I’d used the word “concomitant” in a paper I shared with our writing group and she’d circled it, asking if I really meant to use that word. It was an intentional and correct usage, and I explained my reasoning. She still disagreed with the word choice, from what I could gather, largely because she’d needed to look up the word in the dictionary. She’s fairly young as academia goes, but I thought it was pretty amusing that she was shocked I knew a word that she didn’t, and that her ignorance of such word meant that I must have been using it incorrectly.

    Reply
  2. M-H

    This isn’t confined to the young or to students. Recently a woman who had already held two positions in a row on the Knitters Guild executive nominated for a third position. Constitution is very clear that no more then 2 consecutive positions may be held. She couldn’t understand ‘consecutive’. Three shouty phone calls to the Returning Officer and two Exec mumbers later, it required a personal visit from someone she trusted to shut her up.

    Reply
  3. fillyjonk

    I once had a student trying to use bona fide in a paper, and it came out “boneified.”

    I really, really, really wanted to write “Do you mean ‘ossified’?” (I am a biologist) but I decided that was too mean and snarky and just corrected the spelling.

    I just wish people read more. Most of my understanding of vocabulary and correct usage comes from reading; it’s hard to get it in any quicker or “easier” way.

    Reply
  4. V's Herbie

    There’s a whole ‘nother world of hilarity if you ask them to read something out loud.
    Just from the past week:
    cajole= kay-HOLE
    enamel= IN-em-el

    Reply
  5. Oh My Nose

    Alrighty then. I’ve been reading since I was 3, and by the time I was 9 I was reading 6-8 young adult books per weekend, not to mention reading dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri?) for pleasure. Yet there are a zillion words whose meaning I know and have never said aloud. So here I am now, a college professor, reading aloud in the classroom, and boom — I encounter a word I’ve never said before. So I always say, “I’ve never said that word aloud before. I think it’s [attempt at pronunciation], but I’ll need to look that up.” I feel like modeling that particular thing — not knowing, but being willing to learn — is important. Also, there are still words I don’t know. If I can’t look them up readily, I ask. In front of my colleagues. Fuck ’em.

    Reply
    1. whatladder Post author

      Oh, we all have this, especially the stuff like pronouncing awry as “awe-ry”. My mom once went to colloquium in which the speaker pronounced annals as “anals” until some one took pity on him and yelled out “dude, it’s annals”.

      Reply
    2. patriann

      Ugh! Yes. The first time I tried to say “misogynist” instead of read it was kind of a disaster. However, I do know “intents and purposes” is not “intensive purposes” so I feel vindicated overall.

      Reply
  6. Magnorth

    Personal favorites from the work place : “They don’t know what it’s like working at the cold face” / “This information needs to be inseminated”/ “try to, like, explain that in laments terms”

    Reply
  7. Christine

    Apropos of your waggery: the term has not so much to do with lice as with the student’s being a knit whit.

    Reply

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