Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Define Definition

This is kind of a long post, so bear with me. Or don't—your call.

Sometimes I think that people don't really know what they're saying. Or what the words they're using mean. And I'm talking, people who by all rights SHOULD know the definition of the words they're using. Because then they would understand why I look at them with a blank stare, thinking, "You're saying one thing, but it's not what you're meaning."

I have several examples of this happening in my life. Two very recent. One not so much. One of them is the first time I really noticed it happening. I will start with the most recent.


  [ri-kwest]  Show IPA
the act of asking for something to be given or done, esp. asa favor or courtesy; solicitation or petition: At his request,they left.
an instance of this: There have been many requests for theproduct.
a written statement of petition: If you need supplies, send ina request.
something asked for: to obtain one's request.
the state of being asked for; demand.

I recently got a speeding ticket—my first speeding ticket, actually. And I suppose it wasn't too recent. It happened on July 4th. (I know, I know. Like, one of the worst days to speed, right?) And I thought, "Oh super. Well, I'll request to take defensive driving, that way the ticket won't go on my driving record." So I paid what the ticket told me to and I sent off the appropriate paperwork, aptly titled, "Driver Safety Course Request." Then I waited.

And I waited.

And I waited.

Finally, yesterday, I called the Municipal Court of the city I was pulled over in and asked them why I hadn't yet received anything in the mail letting me know whether or not the court had granted my request to take Defensive Driving instead of having the ticket go onto my driving record.

The nice lady on the phone then informed me that I wouldn't be getting anything in the mail; that I wasn't supposed to get anything in the mail. That the paperwork clearly stated that I was to mail in the request and then within 90 days complete a Defensive Driving course and mail the court a certificate of completion along with a copy of my driving record.

Okay, fair enough—It's on the paperwork. I should have read more closely.

But look, I don't go around getting tickets often. And when I'm finding myself in dealings with a COURT, I don't exactly consider myself a high enough authority to say, "Look, Court, I know I got a ticket, but here's how this is gonna go down. I'm taking defensive driving, and you're not putting this on my record." See, when you have me fill out paperwork that's called Driver Safety Course Request, I assume that the word request is actually being used appropriately. And as you can see from the definition above, the word request implies that an answer, either yes or no, will follow.

So, Municipal Court, I hereby suggest that you trash the title of your "Driver Safety Course Request" form in favor of the following: "Intent to Complete Driver Safety Course." Because that implies that by sending in the proper paperwork, I am stating my intent to complete a course and my intent to send in the certificate and driving record so that none of this will go on my record.

I believe my recommended form title is much clearer than your own.

Thank you.


  [piv-uht]  Show IPA
a pin, point, or short shaft on the end of which somethingrests and turns, or upon and about which something rotatesor oscillates.
the end of a shaft or arbor, resting and turning in a bearing.
any thing or person on which something or someonefunctions or depends vitally: He is the pivot of my life.
the person in a line, as of troops on parade, whom theothers use as a point about which to wheel or maneuver.
a whirling about on one foot.
Basketball the act of keeping one foot in place whileholding the ball and moving the other foot one step in anydirection, so as not to be charged with walking.

Next occurred in my Business Math class. My professor was trying to explain some steps involved in using matrices and the Gauss Jordan Elimination Method (don't quote me on that...). The word he used for this particular step was pivot. I spent a lot of time working on the homework, trying to figure out how exactly I was supposed to pivot, and what exactly it meant. When I use the word pivot, I define it like the above definition. I was trying to figure out which numbers shifted around which number, and why. And how.

I had very little luck. And by very little, I mean absolutely none. Even after recruiting my math savvy friend to help me out.

So today, after class, I went to my professor and asked him kindly to explain what in the world he meant by pivot.

He tells me he's not really sure why they use that word easily because apparently it's just fancy mathematician speak for, "Make x number equal 1, and make the remaining numbers in its column equal 0."

Yeah, I don't get why in the world they're calling that pivot, either.


  [suhm-uh-ree]  Show IPAnoun, plural -ries, adjective
a comprehensive and usually brief abstract, recapitulation,or compendium of previously stated facts or statements.
brief and comprehensive; concise.
direct and prompt; unceremoniously fast: to treat someonewith summary dispatch.

This last, summary, occurred in—of all places—my AP English class during my senior year of High School. That's right, my Advanced Placement English class. This teacher did NOT know the proper definition of the word, "Summary."

Best friend and fellow Blogger, Matt Bukaty, was in this class with me. He'll corroborate my story.

Our first assignment of the year was to read whichever chapter of Dante's Inferno our teacher assigned to us and present a summary of it in front of the class.

Easy, right?

So we went home, read our respective chapters, and prepared a "brief and comprehensive; concise" summary.

The next day, we started presenting. And actually, Matt was the one who got to go first. So he stood up, gave his summary, and very well I might add—he touched on the main points, giving us the run-down, as it were.

When he took his seat, our teacher quickly corrected him, more or less saying that his presentation didn't include enough detail. That she was looking for a detailed and descriptive play-by-play of a summary, more or less. The rest of us—no exaggeration; literally everyone else in the class looked at each other like, "Oh great, that's not what I did AT ALL."—ended up being allowed to take our copy of the book up with us. I remember that I took my book, my notes, and more or less skimmed the book and gave a real time account of what I was skimming. In great detail.

I made an A.

Matt did not.

And all because our Advanced Placement English teacher did not know the definition of an admittedly easy word.

Come on, really?? You teach English! You should know what a summary is. Just sayin'.

What really bothers me about all the above instances is that none of those words—request, pivot, summary—are "big" words, or "hard" words. On the contrary, they're words that I expect most people know and could casually use in a sentence. Appropriately.

I know that, as an English major, I have a tendency to be kind of a word Nazi. I like to use big words, I like to expand my vocabulary whenever possible. But again, those aren't difficult words. There's no reason that the people in question—Municipal Court, the people who WROTE my math book, an English teacher—shouldn't know those words.

Sometimes I worry that with all of the new and ridiculous words getting added to the dictionary (staycation, bromance, frenemy, chillax, tweetup, defriend...) we're actually forgetting that words really do mean something. They're not just something to say that arbitrarily changes based on context. 

I weep for a lazy generation who LOL their way to ROFL until they have to BRB or TTYL but likely have no earthly idea what "abbreviate" means. Not that it isn't fast to text, not that I completely judge anyone who does this—I do it, my Mom does it, it's fine. I just hate to know that some kids are literally brought up on this way of communicating.

Curious to know just how many lazy abbreviations text messaging and instant messaging have created? Check out this overwhelming and ridiculous list. I call it language devolution.


Matt Bukaty said...

f*ck that b*tch! I'm still bitter about that. cuz my poster board for that presentation was totally BA...it was on the canto with the harpies and I had blood dripping down the board and everything. I think I got a C on that project. I still don't understand why everyone else was allowed to revise, but I wasn't. I hope she burns in that circle of hell I summarized. those harpies will rip her a new one. literally. the end. goodbye. *twitch*


Sarah Thomas said...

Yes! Your poster was awesome! You're probably one of the few of us in class that actually had a good poster board. It was so ridiculous she wouldn't let you go again, even though she let ALL of us take our books and NONE of us would have done it the way she wanted without her tearing down your presentation.

She was my least favorite English teacher EVER. Did NOT inspire any love for the subject in me at all. She set a bad tone for the whole semester with that project. *thumbs down* DISLIKE.

Is she still teaching there? I don't even know.

Matt Bukaty said...

uh, knowing that school and that town...probably. I don't think I had ANY teachers throughout all of high school in any class that actually inspired me. Maybe momma Brown those first 3 years of theater...

Sarah Thomas said...

I LOVED Mrs. Barksdale. But none of the others instilled a love of English at all. It's amazing, really, that I do love English now. It must have been in me all along, because it certainly wasn't a taste cultivated during high school. Gag.

Polly said...

You must be related to someone else I know.

Sarah Thomas said...

Hey! I think I know who you're talking about! ;-)