Lectern

By Steve Kelman

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Our changing language: Hidden meanings and generation gaps

I suppose it is an occupational disease of professors to care about words -- given that they are so important to what we do. In managing a class discussion, I need to pay attention to the words students use, because words often hide information about how people are thinking.

For example, in a class about the advantages and disadvantages of using lots of rules in the design of government organizations, I ask students to discuss how rules help provide employees with knowledge that helps them do their jobs better. But in answering the question, senior government executives often use words more associated with providing oversight and control of employees (such as "we need consistency") than with providing employees with useful knowledge. These answers are indicative of the reality that the large number of rules in a government environment reflects a lack of trust of employees and a desire to control them, even at the expense of demotivating them and restricting any desire to shine or excel.

At any rate, I bring up my interest in language for a somewhat more light-hearted reason, which is to report that I have had occasion to notice this year that there are a number of words, phrases and references commonly known by an older generation that many young people are unaware of. As I have become more sensitive to this phenomenon, I have asked my younger master's students more and more about examples.

In a recent class, I illustrated the change in language with aphorism, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." People of (more or less) my generation are likely to recognize this reference as a take-off on the phrase of John Paul Jones, the Revolutionary War Navy commander, "We have met the enemy, and he is ours" -- which we all learned in our American history classes. The take-off, as again my generation would recognize, is a quote from the cartoon character Pogo.

Well, I asked my classes about this. A few had heard the phrase, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." But surprisingly few had ever heard of John Paul Jones or knew the phrase he was (in my generation) famous for. Virtually nobody had heard of the cartoon character Pogo.

As another example, I asked my students whether they knew that the phrase "green eyeshade type" refers to an accountant sensitive to the price of everything but the value of nothing -- to use an Oscar Wilde quote that probably few of my students know either. Very few had ever heard this expression.

It is difficult not to be aware of the accretion of new expressions in the English language, often starting as slang but after a while entering into conventional speech -- be it words such as "random" (what my generation would have called "without rhyme or reason") or new phrases such as texting to sexting.

What I suspect many people don't think about is that language changes don't just add new words and expressions. Some old ones gradually disappear as well. Older people every once in a while should check to make sure that phrases they might without reflection think of using in, say, the workplace might not be understood by younger listeners.

Posted on Nov 02, 2010 at 7:26 PM


Reader Comments

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 Vern Edwards

Steve: Your point about language is well taken. We in acquisition are experiencing a flood of new interns. They are coming into a world of highly specialized official terminology and jargon. There are more than 700 official definitions in the FAR alone, and more in other titles of the Code of Federal Regulations that bear on acquisition. Moreover, there are many special terms that have no official definition, such as equitable adjustment. The slang can be daunting. I remember that as an intern in a weapons development organization being befuddled by terms like "interface" (You will interface with people in many different organizations."), and "behind the power curve" (He's always behind the power curve.). It's fun to teach the interns that they must learn new languages in order to be able to communicate and function. In addition to Government acquisition terminology, they must also learn something of the language of the law. They must learn the general language of government: What's an agency? What's an appropriation? Finally, they must learn the languages of the industries and markets from which they acquire supplies and services. Taught the right way, students get a kick out of it.

Mon, Nov 8, 2010 Steve Kelman

Thanks for the correction! Steve

Sat, Nov 6, 2010 Vern Edwards

I meant Oliver Hazard Perry. He sent his message to William Henry Harrison.

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 Vern Edwards

John Paul Jones did not say "We have met the enemy and he is ours." William Hazard Perry said it in 1813 after defeating the British fleet at the battle of Lake Erie. He sent a message to General William Henry Harrison, which actually read: "Dear Gen'l: We have met the enemy, and they are ours, two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem. H. Perry." Somebody wasn't paying attention in his American history class.

Wed, Nov 3, 2010 Steve Kelman

Painfully honest, thanks for your post and reaction. I do my best to motivate, inspire, and challenge these students every day. That they don't know some of the language of the older generation is not a criticism of them (or praise of them), but was intended actually mostly as a reminder to my generation that language changes don't just involve additions of new slang or expressions, but also the disappearance of old ones.

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