Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What’s in a Name?

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

What’s in a Name?

That’s what Juliet asks in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I can’t argue with that, but I can point out that the different names by which something can be called may be problematic for our students. It’s something worth considering when you teach vocabulary. If you know that many of your students may be going for education, for business, or for a new life to English-speaking countries, you can be assured that there will be some unique vocabulary they’ll encounter. Countries like the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the US all contain regional variations on what we consider more standard vocabulary. For that reason, you’ll be doing your students a great service if you have lists on hand that focus on the most common regional variations in vocabulary the students will encounter in order to supplement your lessons on more standard words.

I’m a Brooklyn boy, so I know very well that New York City English has a character all its own, mostly to do with its vocabulary.

To bring home my point, let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between two retired ladies who are friends and live in the same apartment building. They happen to meet one morning at the garbage chute on their floor. (You know what a garbage chute is, right?)

Mavis: Mornin’, Yetta. How ya doin’?

Yetta:  Okay, Mavis. Had breakfast yet?

Mavis: Nope. Wanna go to the diner with me? I wouldn’t mind a bagel with a schmear.

Yetta: Sounds good, but first I gotta schlep some stuff to the laundromat.

Mavis: No problem. I’ll sit on the stoop and wait for ya.

Yetta:  Okay. Say, after breakfast, wanna go with me to Finlay’s Antiques? I gotta look for a gift for my sister. Her birthday’s comin’ up.                           

Mavis: You really wanna go to Finlay’s? That shlub only sells schlock.

Yetta: Yeah, mostly, but maybe I can find a nice enough tchotchke for her. It’s not like my sister’s got the Queen of England’s taste, ya know.

Mavis: Dollars to donuts you won’t find anything. Finlay’s so funny. Every time that Weisenheimer thinks people will stand on line to get into his store whenever he has a so-called ‘sale,’ it never happens, but he keeps on havin’ those ‘sales’ anyway. He’s such a putz!

Yetta:  I know, but it’ll still be somethin’ to pass the time. On the way back, we can stop off at Nicky’s and pick up a couple of heroes to bring home. I think I’ll get a slice, too. Okay with you?

Mavis: Sure. I haven’t had a hero in a long time.

Anybody need translating? I wouldn’t be surprised. Here’s a brief run-through of the New-Yorkisms that Mavis and Yetta used:

a schmear: some cream cheese

to schlep: to carry, bring, take something a bit heavy

the stoop: the front steps leading up to the front door of an brownstone building, an older style apartment house

a shlub: a sloppy, unkempt man

schlock: cheap, tasteless merchandise

a tchotchke: a nicknack, small object used to decorate a room

Dollars to donuts: I’m very sure that …  I bet that …

funny: odd, peculiar, eccentric

a Weisenheimer: smart aleck, know-it-all, somebody who has a superior attitude because he thinks he knows everything

on line: in line, in a queue (NOT on the Internet)

a  putz: an idiot

a hero: a sandwich made with a long roll and filled with meat, cheese, lettuce, etc.; a sub(marine), a hoagie, a grinder

a slice: a wedge-shaped slice of pizza, usually 1/6 of the whole pizza

My first ESOL teaching assignment was right out of college back in the late 1960s, and I clearly remember teaching my students to say stand/wait on line. It never dawned on me that this wasn’t standard English, that I should have taught them to say in line. I realized this only a long time later when I started traveling and heard everybody outside of New York say in line, not on line. I also remember trying to deal with the words faucet, tap, spigot, and spicket, all of which mean the same thing. Then there was frying pan, fry pan, skillet, and spider. Yes, spider! Because I was a native English speaker, it was more of an amusement to come across these regional variations, but if I hadn’t been a native speaker, I’m sure that regionalisms like the ones in our New York dialogue would have added to my discomfort in trying to do my best to feel “at home” in my new language.

Each and every tool we can offer our students to make their transition into using English more comfortable and enjoyable is a tool worth having. And these days, with the use of the Internet, the job of creating lists of regional variations has become much easier. I hope you’ll consider having such lists available for students who will be using English in English-speaking countries.


Comment from suzanne sullivan
July 9, 2014 at 4:17 pm

Hi Richard! Great post! I’m from New Jersey and have a host of Jewish friends so I do know most of the Yiddish but question…do “we” really call a sub a hero? Anyway, love the advice to teach regionalisms. Thanks!

Comment from Richard Firsten
July 9, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Hi, Suzanne. I’m glad you like this post and that you find it useful. That’s gratifying.

Actually, only four of the terms listed are from Yiddish (schmear, schlep, shlub, schlock). One is Dutch (stoop), one originally Polish (tchotchke), and two from German derivation (putz, Weisenheimer).

As for ‘hero,’ you can even find it with the meaning of that yummy, long sandwich in the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary and in Wikipedia, and yes, Suzanne, that’s what it’s called in Noo-Yawk. They list it as a synonym for ‘submarine’ along with ‘sub,’ ‘grinder,’ ‘hoagie,’ ‘torpedo,’ and ‘po’boy,’ depending on what part of the US you’re in. If you’d like, please check this out:

Thanks again for commenting on my post, Suzanne.

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