I have very few classroom horror stories from my college days. Of course I remember a lot of petty behavior, some arguable decisions, and I witnessed at least one case of genuine abuse to a classmate, …okay two. But it was pretty rare that I personally felt any significant discomfort as a result of anything the teachers did in the classroom.
My statistics textbook took a Hell of a beating, but that’s a different issue. I liked that teacher. I just hated statistics.
But there was one really awful lecture that I remember in detail. Lucky you, dear reader, because I am going to share the misery.
It was my last semester in college and I was finishing up the credits for a second major, linguistics. In those days, the linguistics program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas was interdisciplinary. So, I had taken plenty of classes in linguistic anthropology, sociolingistics, psycholinguistics, logic, philosophy of language, etc. …all really great stuff! I enjoyed every minute of it. But that did leave one really huge gap in the knowledge that a guy graduating with a degree in linguistics ought to have. I hadn’t yet taken a full course in grammar. I didn’t even need it to graduate, at least according to the degree requirements, but that didn’t sit right with me. How could I graduate with a degree in this subject without the benefit of a full course in grammar? I’d heard good things about the lady who taught grammar in the English Department, and so I signed up and prepared to get down and dirty in the realm of syntax.
I knew something was wrong when I found a middle-aged man standing at the head of the classroom on the first day. I do remember his name, but let’s just call him Mr. H. Mr. H. passed out index cards and asked all of us to fill in some personal information while he explained that the usual instructor was on sabbatical that semester. He would be teaching the grammar classes.
For the next few minutes everything seemed pretty standard. No red flags went up as Mr. H. reviewed the syllabus, and I felt pretty confident I was going to learn a lot in his class. I grew even more pleased when he explained that he would sometimes venture outside the narrow bounds of grammar to discuss other aspects of language use.
It was as though he had promised to have strippers pass candy out during class.
I couldn’t wait for some of those discussions. Luckily I didn’t have to, as Mr. H. proudly announced his first slightly-off-topic lecture for the semester. He wanted to talk about euphemisms.
I was a happy guy.
He began by telling the story of his first job, working in a mom&pop grocery store somewhere in Texas. Mr. H. talked about the time some yankee had come in and asked for some jalapenos, (pronouncing the ‘j’ about like you would ‘jam’). His reply, as Mr. H. explained it was; “Sir I believe the Spanish call them jalapenos (pronouncing the ‘j’ like the ‘h’ in ham).” He then proceeded to explain that this was a terrible thing to do and that no-one should ever make fun of the way anyone else speaks, ever.
I wasn’t entirely sure that he had described an act of mockery, but that was a detail I could easily overlook. On the main point, the man was preaching to the choir as far as I was concerned. I was really glad I had signed up for the class.
And that’s when things took a bad turn.
Within just a couple minutes of announcing this principle that one shouldn’t make fun of other people’s speech, Mr. H. began to tell us all about the decline of the English language as a result of recent trends. Mr. H. was quite concerned that folks had begun to water the English language down with a variety of euphemisms. It was a terrible situation as our great medium of communication had been harmed a great deal by this trend.
Mr. H. had quite a few examples, but the first one that I can remember was the term ‘African-American’. Mind you, this was 1990 and the battles over political correctness were picking up steam fast. This topic had not yet run its full course in the public sphere; it hadn’t yet bored everyone to tears. My classmates sat on the edge of their seats while Mr. H. proceeded to explain that he had nothing but love for all God’s people, but he didn’t believe in calling people by the wrong word. You had to call people what they were, not what they weren’t. I sat back just a little disappointed and waited for Mr. H. to explain that ‘black’ was the proper name for the people in question.
Instead he proceeded to tell the class that ‘negro’ was what ‘they’ were and that was what folks ought to call them. I sat back up. He had at least surprised me. I had to give him that, but did I hear the man right?
Had I heard correctly. Was he actually skipping right past the common usage to rescue a sordid vocabulary choice out of a distant era? I listened on as Mr. H. insisted that he meant no disrespect by this term and that it had no insulting implications. ‘Negro” was the right word and nothing else would do. Those using the term ‘African-American’ were engaged in a full-scale assault on the English language, and she suffered terribly at their abusive treatment.
The rest of the class ate this message up. I mean they loved it! For my own part, I dropped right out of that choir he was preaching to.
My concern wasn’t entirely with the politics at hand. I was never fully on board with the PC approach to vocabulary, and I could think of reasonable concerns about a lot of the verbal practices at hand. But Mr. H. wasn’t producing reasonable arguments. In fact, he was demonstrating a level naïveté that I didn’t expect from someone who was about to teach a class in descriptive linguistics. Objections were crowding their way into my thoughts in such numbers I feared my mind might burst if I listened anymore.
- Mr. H’s assertion that there was a right word for this or any other topic and that anything else was poor use stood out like a sore thumb. By ‘sore thumb, I mean a completely unsupported premise. Worse than that; this assumption flew in the face of pretty much everything lexicographers had to say about the subject. Words had multiple meanings, and topics could be referred to in a variety of different ways. You could argue pros and cons of different word choices, but Mr. H. just insisted there was a right word and the public wasn’t using it anymore. This was a bit like discovering your geography teacher was a flat earther.
- ‘Negro’? Seriously, ‘Negro’?
- Details aside, declensionist narratives about the state of a given language are tired and damned lame. Untold prophets have warned about the decline of English, each with a different sin on their minds, and each cherry-picking the evidence with all the shame of a child stealing fruit from a neighbors tree. In this case, there was the additional absurdity that Mr. H. wanted us to feel for the abuse of the English language even as he minimized concerns about the abuse of actual people. This was personification with an agenda, and that agenda had little room for concerns about folks who really could feel the effects of abuse.
- I really couldn’t square the entire theme of the lecture with the lesson Mr. H. had drawn from his first example. Were we not making fun of the way some folks talked? I suppose he was suggestijng that advocates of politically correct speech were making fun of others, but he had gone well past correcting that and right into the realm of mocking their own vocabulary preferences.
- A bit depends on the presentation, but the notion that words like ‘African American’ are euphemisms contains at least one really ugly implication. If a euphemism is a word that makes something ugly sound better than it is, and that did seem to be the way Mr. H. defined it, then what did that say about his thoughts about the people this term was applied to? Was he not suggesting that the right word really did convey something bad. He denied this of course, but that really seemed to be the station to which his particular train of thought had been headed.
All of these thoughts and others crowded into my head and screamed for me to let them out. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this crap from a guy who studied language for a living.
I looked around and I saw over 20 students falling in love with this man.
It’s okay, I thought. I’m here for the lessons on grammar. This doesn’t have to matter. Who knows. Maybe, Mr. H. will respond well to challenging opinions. Should I say something now and see how he responds? But where to start? I thought about whether or not to field an objection as I just sat there and took in the horror show.
The straw that broke this camels back came when Mr. H. took up the use of the term ‘gay’.
Yep. He was against it.
Mr. H. told us that he would never use that word. He went on to explain that he would never condemn a man for being what God made him, but he believed in calling people what they really were. I thought surely that he was going to tell us the proper term was ‘homosexuals’.
What these people were, Mr. H. informed us was ‘faggots’.
No other word would do.
And Mr. H.’s fan club fell over themselves to show their appreciation for this point. It was quite the surreal experience for me, watching my classmates nod and stare lovingly at this performance. I thought surely I would soon be sick.
At this point, I felt like Mr. H. had enough rope. If I couldn’t hang him with it, I should at least be able to reign in the message a bit. And anyway, I really needed to see how he would respond to disagreement. So, up went my hand. Mr. H. called on me. And I proceeded to ask him if he didn’t think it more appropriate to consider ‘faggot’ a dysphemism (in retrospect, I should have just said ‘insult’). I went on to ask if he didn’t think the English language was growing new insults at about the same pace that it was growing euphemisms, or if he had specific reasons for thinking the one trend was outpacing the other. I think I managed to keep a respectful tone, but I definitely expressed my disagreement.
And the class grew silent.
The man literally scowled at me. In falling tones, Mr. H. asked me for my name. He then proceeded to dig the pile of index cards from the beginning of class out of his shirt pocket and slowly flip through the until he found mine. He then studied my card for a minute or two, all of this in utter silence. No-one said anything.
With a heavy sigh, Mr. H. finally placed the cards back in his pocket and looked back at me. “What I am truing to say is…” He then proceeded to restate his general thesis that English had been watered down through excessive euphemisms. He did this without responding to any of my points at all. It was amazing. There was no reference to anything I had just said, no answers whatsoever to my questions. No counterarguments. Nothing!
Mr. H. then asked me if that message was okay with me.
After a brief pause, I said ‘yes’.
By ‘yes’ I meant that I would be graduating without the benefit of a full course in grammar.