I grew up aware that my parents’ and grandparents’ generation considered taking a hat off as a way for a man to communicate respect. I can’t say I completely bought in to the custom. Or conversely, that women were supposed to have their heads covered in church to indicate respect, or reverence. Apparently, this skepticism would have made my life a complete disaster in Victorian England where, according to the historian of manners informing the PBS series Downton Abbey, not only did the location of your hat speak volumes, even the style of hat communicated worlds. Clothes were apparently a go-to communication tool across the board for the close-mouthed British. Who knew that when Edith went to Michael Gregson’s apartment and removed her gloves, she was basically saying, come and get it?
But when I teach English to non-native speaking women, accompanied by our class tutors, we’re not talking about the subtleties of a nod of a bare head or the glimpse of a wrist; we’re talking about literal words and their meanings, and that’s complicated enough! We are a melting pot country with a melting-pot language that seems to boast as many exceptions as rules.
Spend an evening dissecting American idioms and American slang, and one could wonder how anyone could learn this language and not completely bungle what they are trying to say regularly. In a recent class, we began by discussing taking a rain check, cookie cutter, and then on to cougar. Describing a cougar as an older woman who dates younger men was insufficient we quickly realized, as one of our women tried it in a sentence that she might use in conversation. Time out! Calling someone a cougar would not necessarily be considered a compliment. In fact, one definition we found describes a cougar as “a middle-aged woman who preys on younger men.” Ah, now the women understood.
Moving on, we next found ourselves as teachers attempting to explain “cooties.” What were they? When would you use the common expression (at least common if you’re five years old), “Ew, cooties!” And most importantly, at what age would you stop any involvement, and mention, of cooties forever?
We veered toward subterranean levels with slang phrases using the word blow. A woman might say someone blew up, blew it, or she could suggest to a colleague to blow off an unfortunate overheard remark, but certain other slang uses of blow, such as…I paused. As much as possible, I did want to prepare these women for any eventuality. One of the tutors, eying me with trepidation, clearly afraid I was going to plunge into the sub cellar of American slang right here in front of this group of avidly-engaged women, and perhaps trying to preserve some dignity for this language, stopped the fall. “Other uses have sexual connotations and you wouldn’t want to use them. ”
Following a line of questioning, we next segued into a mini-review of some English pronunciation rules (there’s an oxymoron for you). When I offered that the e on the end of the word generally signifies a long vowel, the word mope came up, and we fielded the question, “Can you mope if you are by yourself?” If a tree falls in the woods… Yes, we were fairly certain; you can mope by yourself. But the more we thought about it, moping, although defined simply as becoming dull or listless, in common usage tends to mean dragging on a poor-is-me attitude over some perceived slight or unfortunate event way beyond what the event warrants. So does moping require another person around to judge that this droopy attitude has gone on way too long? We still decided no, not just because the dictionary definition is more straight forward, but because I believe some of us can indeed be prescient enough to identify our own mope.
We finished our class with the very simple, and very valid, pronunciation question, why do we not pronounce the b in lamb? Why is there even a b there? Ditto climb, comb, bomb, and limb. We don’t know; it just is. Yet we are supposed to pronounce the p in limp, blimp, lamp, and chimp? Oops; chimp. What’s a chimp, the women ask? Oh, sorry. Short for chimpanzee; we call them chimps. And yes, pronounce the p.
Teaching English is a never-ending conundrum! My fascination with these words and how we string them together to communication one thing or a vastly different other thing is great, but even greater is my respect for adult students of the language. Non-native speakers who come to this country and unflaggingly tackle our language in all its shades and hues? You are my forever heroes.