Teachers at Work

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Queue up, Sweets! Reflections on a Personal Vocabulary

"How long did you have to queue up?" I asked my brother about a concert he'd attended, just after I got back from a trip to the UK. "You're back in America now, Shannon," he teased me. "We don't queue up here, we line up!" He had a point, but I'd like to think my word choice was not merely the result of my Anglophile tendencies. I hope that my word choices reflect what I've come to think of as my personal vocabulary, those words and phrases that may stand out from the norm of the dialect wherever I happen to be living, but which reflect the experiences, places and people of my life.

Or, maybe I'm just pretentious. However, I bet that if you look at your vocabulary, and more specifically at the words you choose to say or write every day, consciously or unexamined, you'll find that you have a personal vocabulary, too, one that reflects your unique life so far.

There are Places I Remember

Much of our personal vocabulary comes from the geographic areas in which we lived. Today, we live in a time of widespread migration, wherein we routinely move across cities, states, countries and around the world. When we leave an area after living there for a portion of time significant enough to affect our speech, we inevitably carry little verbal hallmarks of that place with us, revealing to others who listen closely that we've come from Somewhere Else. If we don't chose to eradicate them (read Kenneth Branagh's memoir, Beginnings, for an excellently lucid account of how he worked at removing all Irish phrasings and accent from his speech once he moved to England), they remain with us, as part of our personal vocabularies.

When I was 12, my family moved from Central to Western Pennsylvania. Although those who haven't had the joy of driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike don't realize it, my home state is quite large and possesses several entirely separate cultures. I found myself negotiating a transition from one to another, often in the smallest of ways. For example, in Central Pennsylvania, we called "whoopee pies" just that, but in Johnstown, they were the euphonious "gobs." For the next 10 years, I insisted on calling these treats "whoopee pies" even though none of my friends did, until I moved to New York City, and suddenly insisted just as vehemently on calling them "gobs." (Note: They're both entirely ridiculous names to insist upon.) Both insistences came from a desire to keep those words in my repertoire, unique (but to my mind, correct) markers of where I'd come from. And while I am told that I do not have a strong accent, there are other tics in my vocabulary that I allow to remain, proud to show my roots.

The reverse can be true too, because at times I've picked up phrases and words from places I've only visited. "Queue up" for example, is not merely at attempt to sound more like Benedict Cumberbatch, but also my vocabulary's attempt to find a way out of the mental turmoil I face in choosing between "standing in line" (which I grew up saying) and "standing on line" (which the vast majority of people in New York City say, and which galls me greatly). Similarly, a trip to Hawaii a few years back brought me the phrase "no worries." I suspect I might sound a little foolish saying it, but I do love it, as it captures the "Thanks for apologizing, but really, it's not a big deal to me" vibe that I'm trying to hit.

After all, humanity's been borrowing phrases and words from other cultures for as long as we've had spoken language. It makes sense. We need a word like "Schadenfreude" in America, and since the Germans came up with the perfect one, why not borrow it?

Is Your Vocabulary Experienced?

I bet that if you look at your personal vocabulary, you'll see words and phrases that reflect your life's experiences. We pick up bits of jargon from our schooling and jobs, and then carry them with us if they serve a purpose or suit us in some particular way.

When I was a radio news reporter, the meteorologist we used (recording from some far off state), always called the weather "Wx" in her calls and emails. I've done the same ever since, and morphed it into "Tx" for "thanks" as well. Clearly, this doesn't save me much time, but I enjoy the brief crackle in the back of my brain when I type it, reminding me that once I was a radio news reporter, which seems like several lifetimes ago.

I was also once a preschool teacher, and, along with the words to dozens of songs about farm animals, that job gave me the verb "to program" meaning "to write on or prepare," as in "Program the flashcards with the vowels you wish to teach." I don't even especially like this phrasing, but I still use it from time to time.

And, of course, teaching in a high school in South Brooklyn gave me two verbal tics, which I've written about here before: "Word" and "My bad." I still reflexively say them when I mean something along the lines of "That's so true" or "Oh, I did something wrong. I'm sorry." They're so elegant and simple, they've earned a permanent spot in my vocabulary, even if the middle schoolers I work with in Pittsburgh sometimes look at me oddly after I say them.

If the words that we take with us on our moves or pick up on our travels remind us where we've been, the words we take from our jobs remind us who we've been. This brings us to the last of these reservoirs for personal vocabularies…

People. People Who Copy Other People.

This is the biggest source of personal vocabulary quirks for me, because, like many people, I adore my friends and family and feel some sort of primal urge to reflect that in my speech. I am a magpie, picking up words from what the people I care about say to and around me.

Examples? From Melissa, my dear friend from South Carolina, I've added "I just about fell out" and "It'll take a coupla three days." From my beloved grandmother, I gleaned "Great day in the morning!" as an expression of genuine surprise. My friend Danielle emphasizes something by saying, "I have to say…" so I sometimes do, too. A few years back, my best friend Andrew and I decided to use "fortnight" on a regular basis; every time I do so, I think fondly of him. Another friend, Magda, and I decided that we hated the term "LOL" and came up with "COL" (for "Chortling Out Loud") as the better substitute. I use it, and happily think of her. A former colleague always used to call her female students "sweets." One day I did the same at a different school, and it's stuck. My dad is notorious for declaring someone to be "a nice guy" as his highest form of praise, and I've caught myself doing the same thing, too. (It really is a encompassing  term!) And my dear mother has a way of saying "We'll see" that is so decisive at ending further discussion that ever since I started teaching, I found it quite handy indeed.

It's really no different from what happens when we culturally decide we're going to mimic a catchphrase from a movie, commercial or TV show, just on a smaller scale. I like these people, and I like the way they've put something, so I'm going to snatch it up for how I put things, too.

Creatively Speaking

As a writer, I probably pay more attention to these verbal quirks than many people, because on some level, I'm always thinking of how to squirrel them away and keep them for my characters. Just one word, correctly deployed, can tell my readers what would take me many sentences to try to get across.

But I don't think that personal vocabularies are only of interest for writers. I often hear people bemoan their lack of creativity, or wish that they were more so. Yet, here is an example of how creative we all really are. All of us have built unique, personal vocabularies as the result of our lives, our taste and our desire to express what we need to say. We do this regularly, often unconsciously and with great success. What could be more creative than that?


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 26th 2013, 7:59 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I enjoyed this article very much. Shannon has caught my attention for years with her logical and perceptive writing. Hooray!
Wednesday June 26th 2013, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Bonnie E. (Collegedale, TN)
This article especially resonated with me, because I have lived in so many different areas of the country. When I get together with family members that have stayed in one location, I am aware of how much my vocabulary has "morphed" over the decades.
Wednesday June 26th 2013, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Wow, good job, Shannon! You get an "A" on your article! I think most people reading VT love working with words (Free tools!), and playing with them (Free toys, everywhere, all the time! Yay!). Now we have a term, "personal vocabulary", for our collections of new ones that we discover and love to use - free souvenirs! Woohoo!

This article was enjoyable, and educational as well: I looked up the definition of Whoopie Pie and gob.

Does "Word!" as an expression or exclamation always express agreement, as you indicate? When I hear it, it seems to mean "bad word", a way of saying "I'm angry and I feel like swearing but I'm not going to." Maybe it's a regional thing, and both meanings (and some others!) are "correct"!

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday June 26th 2013, 1:30 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Kristine, I've not heard "word" used to mean anything except agreement (usually firm agreement, but sometimes more of an "uh-huh" reflexively) but maybe it is a regional thing. That certainly goes with my thesis! :)
Wednesday June 26th 2013, 2:35 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I, too, have never heard "Word" used in any other meaning except "truth" or "agreement." I wonder where you hear it, Kristine R.--I mean what region uses it that way?
Wednesday June 26th 2013, 4:07 PM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
I have never heard "word" used alone. In my neck of the woods, it was always "My word!" And usually it expressed negative surprise.
Thursday June 27th 2013, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Shannon, your essays are always a delight! Personal vocabulary hits the mark and is a great way to express that unique set of words we each use, and the way we say them.

Our verbal quirks tell the story, much as Professor Henry Higgins averred, and stamp us with the story of our travels, our friends (if, like you, we mimic them in admiration), and our readings.

As to "Word" - here's an amusing definition from the Urban Dictionary: "Word" has no single meaning, but is used to convey a casual sense of affirmation, acknowledgement, agreement, or to indicate that something has impressed you favorably. Its usage among young blacks has been parodied ad nauseam among clueless suburban whites. [COL]

And so, the key here is intent, parody or admiration, which I admit has not always been distinguished by receiving audiences when I adopt phrases from cultures not natively my own. I still think it's a richer pool when we throw it all in, lovingly.

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