Out of context: Language barriers.


Has anyone ever called you “thick” before?

Well, according to more updated slang, it doesn’t mean stupid or dumb.

We (teachers) know there is power in words and word choices. What I think we forget sometimes (and perhaps I am just speaking for myself) is that we adults lose the magic pixie dust power of invented language. Adolescents will always create new uses of words to suit their own time and needs. They have their own codes.  By the time we grown-ups start to use the word in our everyday vernacular,  that word or phrase has disappeared in a puff of smoke.

It’s not attractive or necessary for anyone over the age of 30…35…40…to keep up with current slang, per se. It doesn’t seem natural or dignified; in fact, it’s somewhat dorky and awkward. But if you live in that world, how do you negotiate the language of youth? Think back to when you were a teenager, using slang and code to create a communication barrier between you and your parents, and how quaint and cute you may have thought your own parents to be when they tried to use a word/phrase? I have become that doddering old fool.

In the past week, I have misused or misunderstood the following:

“QQ” – means crying eyes

“Thick” – means a Rubenesque feminine beauty (and kids — if you don’t know what Rubenesque means – look it up — got one on you!)

Zerg: Means a bee-like swarm

One word I have an issue with is students’ use of the “n” word. And now a publisher has sanitized Huckleberry Finn so as not to “offend” and get that book back in the hands of high school students. Slang can be hateful, and isn’t always a barrier. Sometimes it’s crystal clear what someone is saying: the slang is a racial, religious, or ethnic slur. And it’s our job to make those reasons clear, and expose the hate. When a student uses that word as slang, even in an affectionate, friendly context, I ask: 1. Is that even possible, and 2. Does that take the power out of a word, more or less effectively, than a nanny-mother hen publisher?

I don’t have any simple answers – just more questions. In the meantime, I’ll try to swallow my own pride and keep referring to Urban Dictionary or asking my own sons and students. Even if they laugh at me, (which they have) at least I’ll know.

Because ignorance is even less funny.

2 thoughts on “Out of context: Language barriers.

  1. I had an argument with a colleague about the changes in language. I really believe in knowing the etymology, not so that you can recover its “real meaning” but so that you can see the story of a word, watching it change with the context. It’s as if the word itself is a character and as the setting changes, the plot changes and the character itself changes, but to know the character, the whole character, is to understand this story.

    I tried to explain that in the staff lounge.

    I’m either insane or the staff lounge isn’t the best place to explain my ideas.


    1. Love the idea of the ‘story of a word.’ That’s it exactly – beautifully put, John. Now, as far as your defense of your thoughts in the staff lounge: sometimes we don’t always choose the best moments to take our swords out of our scabbards. Love to know your thoughts on the whole Huckleberry thing. Whatever I have thought, I am mostlhy saddened that ‘we’ don’t seem to be up to the challenge to effectively teach/discuss this novel in any kind of context or allow it to have its own narrative and development. I feel the neutering will end its effectiveness and power, and be lost for generations to come: those same generations who use the ‘n’ word so freely. I have no issue with owning a word, to either end its power or shine a light on it, but I’ll be darne if people don’t understand its history.


Comments are closed.