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Language Wars: Classroom Edition

Once again, in my odd role as both an advocate of vigorous and powerful language, but also as an authority figure vested in upholding cultural norms, I am thrust into a thorn-lined dilemma.

Every time I bring up the subject of student language usage, I find myself between two camps: the language libertarians who believe that any rules against language usage are unrealistic and unnatural, and the language (cultural) conservatives who believe in restrictions against certain kinds of language. So I know where I'm treading.

Here's the situation: for the Write-a-Book-in-a-Year Club, the students send me a weekly snippet of their Work in Progress.  I include these WIPs in a PowerPoint as a part of our meeting.  They can be no longer than 200 words.  So, one of the club members is working on a hard-boiled horror story, and he sent me a WIP for today's meeting that included the word "f***" four times.  Not the REAL word spelled out, but the "f" with three asterisks after.  I told him that the language that we use in the WIPs has the same rules that we apply in any other classroom activity, which is that the language must be "classroom safe." 

I know, I know, I know the passive aggressive argument that "f***" isn't the real word, so the author didn't actually write it, but, come on, we all would read it the same way, and we're strongly sure of the author's intent of how we're supposed to read it.

I told him that I wouldn't put it in the slide show.  I don't consider the word, even with asterisks, to be classroom safe.  He rewrote the passage and sent me the new version.  I approved it.  The new version, however, includes the words "piss," "prick," "damned," "bastard" and it uses "Jesus" as an expletive.  Within the context of the piece, however, I found the new version acceptable and "classroom safe" and included it in the slide show. 

How in the world did I do that?  Here's how: my student defined the edge of "classroom safe" for me.

This whole "classroom safe" standard, though, if fraught with inconsistency.  We teach Catcher in the Rye, which uses the f-word (five times, as far as I can tell), and that book is deemed "classroom safe."  How come it's okay to read the word in a book in class but not to allow a student to use it in class?  I show the movie All The President's Men in my Journalism class, and it also uses the f word once.

I don't fully buy the "Catcher in the Rye is great literature, and your student is not writing great literature" argument. 

It doesn't help with my problem that the high school this year has launched a program to clean up students' language in the halls.  There are posters that say "No Cursing Allowed," and the teachers are supposed to send students who use bad language to the office for clean-up detention. 

I maintain the "classroom safe" standard in my room, and I carry out my role as an authority figure vested in upholding cultural norms, but I'm uneasy about it.  I can't just say to the kid, "You can't use that language because it just isn't done here."  That's the equivalent of saying, "There's no reason for it.  It's company policy."

I want to be more thoughtful than that.

Swimming in Wet Water

posterThis poster has always bugged me.  I know they want to remind kids that underage drinking is dangerous, but my mind always reads it that we only have to report the "dangerous" underage drinking, which means we can ignore the safe kind.

It's akin to saying "Look out for large giants" or "Swim only in wet water."

I'll admit to being a bit of a language fanatic.  I'm the kind of person who wants to add possessive apostrophes to signs that are missing them (and to delete them where needed). 

I remember when an assistant principal was reaming me because one of the students in my class was wearing a hat.  The school standard at the time was that hats were to be removed in the classroom.  Although I disagreed with the rule (it didn't matter to me, and I didn't see that it affected their learning), most of the time I just didn't see the hats.  My mind doesn't work that way.  I have the same problem with other dress code violations.  My habit is not to look at the girls to see if they are exposing too much skin, or to read the kids' t-shirts to see if they are advocating the use of a controlled substance.

So, when the assistant principal told me that I wasn't a team player and to "Remember the hats rule!"  all I could think about was why do the hats get to rule?  I don't remember electing them.

Bad Words at the High School

I followed a couple of sophomore girls to the cafeteria this morning where I was taking my class to spread them out for independent reading.  I caught a sentence out of context when one of the girls said to the other, "So my sister told me that was a load of shit and refused to do it."  Which provoked me to ask her about the word, "shit."  Is "shit" a bad word any more?

They gave me an interestingly nuanced reply.  They believe that it wasn't bad in the context that she used it because she wasn't using it as an insult to a person.  Besides, she said, she was quoting someone else and not actually saying it herself.

I pointed out that she did say it.  She had to say it to tell the story.

"But I didn't say it," she said.

I don't think my high school is any better or worse than other high schools as far as language usage goes.  During passing period I hear F-bombs fairly often, along with a sprinkling of other obscenities.  Despite the evidence, not every high school kid drops into that kind of diction, but it's nearly impossible for a high school kid to not hear that kind of diction, which is one of the reason I find it funny when a parent objects to a word in a book.

Memory is unreliable, and I recognize how we have a tendency to clean up our vision of the past, but I don't remember so much swearing in the hallways when I graduated high school in '72.  There certainly was a lot of bad language, and I used some myself, but not in the hallway where a teacher could hear me.

I don't have any conclusions to draw from this other than language and language boundaries change.  For anyone who is worried, though, the rules you remember about bad language in the classroom still apply.  George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" are still verboten in the classroom (although "pissed off" seems to have become completely innocuous).

Related Post: When Characters Say F#!@

P,S.  In an interesting coincidence, threeoutside pointed out that jaylake posted a link to a related Language Log article that is also about speech we say and speech we quote or use as an example.

Language Oddities

My middle son came up with a language principle a few days ago.  He said, "English allows contractions, but even though a contraction can include a subject and a verb, you can't make an entire sentence out of it."  His example was the contraction "I've" for "I have." 

If someone asks, "Has anyone here seen Avatar?" it is legitimate to answer "I have," but not "I've."  You can answer "I am" if you are asked if you're going to the mall, but you wouldn't answer "I'm," nor would you say "I'll" if you are asked to take out the garbage.  You say "I will."


Earlier today, my wife asked me how to spell "lieu," as in the phrase "in lieu of."  I had to look it up.  It turns out that "lieu" is French, and it only appears in English in the "in lieu of" phrase.

And my last oddity was realizing that we call workers at the window in a bank "tellers" instead of clerks.  It's a middle English word, evidently.

If you want to have a giggle about language, check out the Grammar Nazis.


The Language of Dismemberment

I was thinking about some of the oddities of colloquialism this morning.  Isn't it peculiar how many of our expressions deal with losing body parts?  You can "scream your head off," for example, which is a pretty vivid image if you picture it literally. 

That isn't the only piece of our bodies we're able to separate our selves from linguistically.  We can also walk our feet off, sing our hearts out, and work our fingers off (which is related to the gruesomely metaphorical, "I worked my fingers to the bone").

At least the previous examples have a kind of sense to them.  "I worked my fingers off" tells us which body part took the abuse.  The expression, "I worked my ass off," doesn't enjoy the same literalness of connection.

Our eyes are particularly mobile too, as they can pop from our heads in surprise, or, as various writers will tell you, can wander around a room or whatever.  My favorite was a story where the writer said, "His eyes fell to her breasts."  That has to hurt!

We also can dismember our neighbors, although the only example I could come up with for this is, "He talked her ears off," unless we want to include a ship's captain calling for "all hands on deck," when he really wants the entire sailor.  Mark Antony recognized the separability of the hearing organ when he asked his friends, Romans and country men to "lend me your ears."

Our ability to understand language like the previous examples drives artificial intelligence engineers to distraction.  How do you get a computer to recognize the difference between "He shouted his head off" and "He chopped his head off"?

It's a problem.


A-Holes of the World, Unite!

Someone broke into a teacher's classroom at the high school last night and vandalized it.  Fortunately they didn't do any structural damage or spray paint the walls, but they tore up papers, tossed desks and generally made a mess.

The info about the vandalism came while I was teaching my incredibly clever A.P. English students.

One of my students said, "What is going through someone's head that they would do that?"

Another student said, "You don't want to look too closely into the mind of an a-hole.  You need to do a brain rinse afterward."

A third student said, "Calling someone who would vandalized a classroom an a-hole is an insult to a-holes everywhere."

"You have to be careful," another said.  "The A-Hole Anti-defamation League will sue you."

I love hanging around with witty people.

They were all taken by the idea of an A-Hole Anti-defamation League.  I was too.  Who would the members be?  Would there be activist a-holes?  Would they wear "I'm an A-hole and Proud of It" buttons?  What groups are actually below the level of an a-hole?

The mind reels with the possibilities.

The Language of (Teenage) Love

My brain goes in weird directions, so it's no surprise that about a week ago I started to wonder what was the current equivalent of asking a girl to go to a drive-in.  In 1972, asking a girl to the drive-in to see a movie was fairly obvious code for "let's make out."  I once went to a drive-in on a date and heard all of Fiddler on the Roof, but saw no part of the movie.  Drive-ins, though, have disappeared.

The problem for a fifty-six year old English teacher trying to investigate this pressing language issue is how can I ask the question without looking like a creeper?  The answer is "very carefully."

I like language problems, and the high school is a great place to watch language come and go.  I've had the privilege of watching the great "dude" wave crest, and we all remember the couple of years of valley girl speak, you know, like, totally.  In backwater Fruita, Colorado, where I teach, we suffered through a brief inner-city hip hop phase.  There's no linguistic equivalent to hearing the very rural son of a long-time western Colorado rancher say in surreal fashion, "I'm going to bust a cap in your ass, bro," like he grew up on Detroit's mean streets.

So, back to the language of love.  My sources tell me that some phrases that were familiar to me are alien to them.  To "neck," for example, as a way to describe a make-out session, doesn't make it into their idiomatic phrase books.  "Petting" also is mostly meaningless.  They understand the concept of "going steady," but never use that phrase.  Of course, even older terms, like "spooning," don't make sense at all.  They also don't relate to the verb "park" as a euphemism for going to some lonely place in the car to make out.

"Make out," by the way, is an interesting idiom.  How did that become a phrase that meant extended kissing?  How old is it?

"Make out" is a milder term and can mean no more than kissing, although not necessarily.  This is opposed to the more explicit "mess around," another oddly figurative idiom of unclear origin.
They're still familiar with the "base" system for describing metaphorically how far they went on a date.  There's a very funny if not accurate XKCD on the base system. (this is an R-rated cartoon)

"Going all the way" still means "going all the way" as it did to me in 1972, and my 81-year old mother knew the term in 1942, as well as the phrase "we did 'it'," which is a nicely suggestive use of what is normally a benign pronoun.

In a related matter, when I was in junior high, my mom told me that slow dancing was "a vertical fulfillment of horizontal desires."  It took me a couple of years to figure out what she meant by that.

The car, evidently, which is still a viable way for a young couple to get some alone time, has lost a bit of its allure.  I read somewhere (I can't find the source now), that the most popular place, day of the week and time of day that teenagers lost their virginity in the 50s and 60s was in a car, between 10:00 and midnight on a Friday or Saturday.  Now, though, the place is in a house between 3:00 and 5:00 on a weekday.  The shift was caused by stay-at-home moms getting jobs, leaving the much more comfortable house empty.

So, back to the original question.  My sources tell me that the new code phrase for "would you like to go to the drive-in?" is "do you want to hang out?"  The question is more open ended than the drive-in one, and can be fairly innocent.  So, a guy could ask a girl if she wanted to go to the mall and hang out, and it would just mean that he's asking her if she would like to spend some time with him.  It's a low-commitment question, but when it is first asked implies that their relationship has taken a step closer.  If he/she asks, though, if she/he would like to come over to the house to "hang out," the question is much more loaded and is more like the drive-in question.  In the right situation, asking someone to come to the house to watch DVDs can also be cover language, like asking someone to your room to see your "wood cuts" or "etchings" used to be a hundred years ago.

There is more language related to teen guy/girl relationships that I know less about, and I suspect that some of this language can be regional, meaning less or more or something completely different depending on what part of the country the speakers are in.

It's an idiomatic, colloquial jungle out here.

* There is a short discussion of "hooking up" in the comments below

Good Well Good

I have a student teacher this semester.  She is doing 1/2 of my classes and 1/2 of another teachers.  There truly is nothing harder I did in my life than my student teaching (which I did twice because I decided to be an English teacher after having already student taught in History).  So, I understand the stress she is under, and I think she's doing a great job.

Little things get my attention, however.  For example, we did parent/teacher conferences last week, and during the conferences she consistently misused "good" for "well," as in, "Your student is doing good."

It's a tiny thing, but it drove me bats.  Since then, I've heard her switch good for well consistently.  I flinch every time.

I talked to her about it, finally, because I think that parents expect a level of correctness from English teachers when the teachers speak.  Saying, "I think he did good on his assignments," might make a parent wonder about other areas of that teacher's expertise.

Her defense was interesting.  She said that language evolves (which it does), and that the usage of "good" for "well" is becoming much more accepted.  In ten or twenty years, it may be the norm, just as pronoun/antecedent agreement rules are relaxing, sentences are more often ending with prepositions, and almost no one becomes apoplectic about splitting infinitives as they once did.

My ending argument was that it is true that language evolves, and also true that some time in the future "good" and "well" may be interchangeable in the way she interchanges them, in the meantime she can't say to a parent, "Your student is doing good in his studies.  My usage of the colloquial 'good,' instead of the more commonly accepted 'well,' is a demonstration of my belief that language is malleable, in case you were wondering."

She also, as she pointed out, flip flops "bring" and "take."

On the other hand, I may be anal, crotchety and behind the leading edge.


Saturn Ring Blues

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