Occupational Hazard

The week before Christmas I was teaching my Tuesday evening class, when I saw that there was snow coming down outside. I was dewy-eyed with Christmas mirth. The students were engaged in a task, Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas twanged from the computer box, and I was looking forward to the university holiday party, at which I would ingest my bonus in the form of Moravian wine and smoked meats. I went to the window.

In the front lot, written in the snow by someone’s foot was the term: I Love Dick. I assumed that one of the pupils at the secondary school downstairs was either freeing their burdened souls in a yuletide inspired proclamation or making an immature joke.

Sure, it was crude and a bit off-putting, but I had to be impressed with the language. It was a really good collocation. Not to throw all of my linguistic eggs in one thematic basket, but I was also impressed the week before when one of my students said to another: “Dude, you’re such a dick.”

If you’re not into language this might not seem too special, but it’s a perfectly crafted collocation so natural that it could have been heard on a subway car in Long Island. Sans subsequent gunfire, of course.

This tendency to be impressed with language that should appall me is all part of the occupational hazard of being a language teacher. It happens to a lot of people. If you’re a police officer, you might spend an evening at a pub eyeing up possible transgressors. If you’re a dentist, you might not be able to not notice a waitress’s dental plaque. Or if you’re a Republican lawmaker you might spend your free evenings trying to crush the hopes and dreams of the other customers at your local Chick-fil-A. And we language workers and teachers often can’t turn off their langdar.

This does get in the way sometimes. While I might find myself impressed when I should be upset, I also find myself hyperaware of linguistic miscues or unnatural use. Watching a sitcom can be strenuous because the language can be too geared to set up the next joke. In an episode of Frasier I watched last week, Frasier and Niles were talking about getting a ticket to a play when the following interaction ensued:

Frasier: Please, just calm down. I’ve made a few well placed calls,

I haven’t heard back from a couple of people. Someone will


Niles: Well, someone better call. Because everyone who’s anyone

is seeing this play. And you know who you are if you’re

not anyone? You’re NO ONE. And I’ve been someone much too

long to start being no one now.

Martin comes in from the bedrooms.

Martin: Oh, hey, I thought no one was here. [Niles begins to throw

         another fit]

It was a joke whose punch line relied on the word no one and it delivered. However, I thought it would be more natural to say: I didn’t think anyone was here. Obviously the two are synonymous phrases and I wasn’t trying to nitpick, but if it sounds unnatural, it sounds unnatural.

Before you roll your eyes and mentally scold me, this is different from grammatical Nazism. Why? First, I typically keep my observations to myself. Second, I don’t correct people or raise the issue unless I am being paid to do so. Third, I am far more over analytical about my own language use than about the language of others. This means that a text message that might take another person ten seconds to write, takes me ten minutes as I tweak, cut, add, trim, and focus. My boss recently told me that to this day I am the only person she knows to use a semicolon in a text message.

The extent of this hazard has peaked on two occasions, both involving other language teachers and linguists. The first occasion came when a colleague and I were preparing to go to Istanbul to teach abroad for a week and we had to read emails from our contact person and then respond.

It didn’t help things that while I am American, he is British. This means that while I read her email as relatively straight forward, he read a Beowulf of subtext and inference into her three sentence email. After charting out her possible entendres, implications, and subterfuge, we crafted a two sentence response over the course of ninety minutes. Sitcoms had been written is less time.

The second time was while I was at a linguistics conference in Poland and visited a museum with some of my colleagues, all language experts. When we came across a wall of text, we naturally read along. After a moment we began realizing that the translation wasn’t the strongest and we summarily coursed out a smoother edited translation of the text. I wrote it out on my brochure, which I physically had to restrain myself from giving to the curator.

We are all slaves to our occupations in our own little ways. I suppose it’s part of the fun. Just to be clear, there were no dicks involved with this museum.

Have you noticed an occupational hazard in yourself?

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