By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between two friends in a restaurant. As you read through their conversation, make note of any and all vocabulary that you don’t think you would have heard or used ten or fifteen years ago the way they’re being used in this chat. Then we’ll compare notes.
Ann: Hmm … Everything looks so interesting on the menu.
Kim: I think we should start off with edamame. It’s delicious and so nutritious.
Ann: Yes, they certainly are nutritious.
Kim: What are?
Ann: The edamame. I was agreeing with you that they’re nutritious.
Kim: You mean, it is nutritious, not they are nutritious.
Ann: Huh? No, I think you’re supposed to say they are nutritious.
Kim: Whatever. Edamame is certainly one of today’s iconic foods, don’t you think?
Kim: Oh, there’s the server. Excuse me. Could you bring us some plain water, please?
Server: Certainly. I’ll be right back.
Ann: So how is Julie enjoying her summer vacation?
Kim: Oh, she’s having a wonderful time staying with her grand uncle Tim.
Ann: Nice of him to look after her all summer.
Kim: And you know what? She’s joined the girl scouts.
Ann: That’s terrific. That’ll be a good experience for her.
Kim: Absolutely. And she’s getting involved in a girls’ softball team.
Ann: Oh? That must be hard for her since she’s so new at the sport.
Kim: They’re giving her some weightage in each match because of that.
Ann: That’s considerate of them.
Kim: I’m glad we got here early enough to enjoy a leisurely lunch.
Ann: So am I. This way we won’t have to rush to catch that reading of Under Milkwood.
Kim: I’m so glad the theatrette is just a block away. Okay, let’s order.
One way that I know I’m getting older is that I notice more and more how many words or expressions I hear quite often that I probably wouldn’t have heard and definitely wouldn’t have used the way they’re used today when I was younger. In one way, it’s nice to witness how my language keeps evolving, to see how it can generate new vocabulary so handily. In another way, it can be somewhat disconcerting or even disorienting to hear familiar words used unfamiliarly in everyday conversation. After all, it is my language, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I feel comfortable with what’s being said?
Keeping up with new words and expressions can be a daunting task for ESOL teachers, but I suppose it can be a fun activity, too. Here are the items that I know I wouldn’t have heard or used in this way just ten or fifteen years ago: edamame, whatever, server, plain water, grand uncle, girl guides, absolutely, weightage, and theatrette.
Interesting, eh? “Eda-what?” Edamame! It’s the Japanese word for soy beans. They’re served in the pod in a bowl along with drinks.
Did you use the adjective iconic years ago the way Kim used it in the conversation? I didn’t. I understood what it meant the first time I heard it, and that’s one of the wonderful things about language. It can generate words we’ve never heard before or used in ways we’ve never heard, and yet we can understand them. Amazing! But what’s even more amazing is how the noun icon has been turned around from the days when I used it many years ago. Here are the definitions given by the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online. Note especially the order that the definitions are given:
1. a small sign or picture on a computer screen that is used to start a particular operation:
To open a new file, click on the icon.
2. someone famous who is admired by many people and is thought to represent an important idea:
a 60s cultural icon
3. also ikon: a picture or figure of a holy person that is used in worship in the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church
— iconic adjective
Isn’t that fascinating? For me, no. 3 would have been the first meaning, but now it’s been relegated to the last meaning on the list of definitions. Wow! And the adjective would only have referred to a painting or mosaic found in a religious setting like a church. How word usage has changed!
And what about that rejoinder Whatever? Was that usage part of your vocabulary ten or fifteen years ago? It wasn’t part of mine. I understand, of course, that it means I really don’t care too much about what we’ve been discussing or debating or what you’ve just said. It’s a kind of curt way to end that discussion.
As for server, I still have a problem with that one. I have no problem saying “Waiter!” or “Waitress!” or calling the waitress “Miss!” but saying “Server”? Nope, I just can’t get into that.
The first time I heard somebody ask for plain water, I almost laughed out loud. What on earth is that? I had to ask of course, and found out it means the customer doesn’t want bottled water or mineral water. I would have said tap water, but I guess that doesn’t sound nice enough, so now it’s plain water.
Grand uncle. Now that was a new one on me. It means the same thing as great uncle, in other words, the brother of one of your grandparents. And, of course, there’s also grand aunt besides great aunt. I’m sure these two terms have been around for a very long time, but until recently I’d never heard them. I guess the reasoning for saying grand uncle and grand aunt is that if you have a grandparent, you should also have a grand uncle and a grand aunt. We don’t say *greatparent, so why should we say great uncle/aunt? Of course I can see the logic in it.
Was I surprised to learn about grand uncle and grand aunt? Absolutely! Oops! There’s another word used in a relatively new way. Isn’t it amazing how often people use this adverb as a rejoinder nowadays? I try to use it sparingly, because I’ve noticed that one person can use it an outrageous number of times during just one short conversation, which starts to get on my nerves. It seems like every other word out of the person’s mouth is “Absolutely!” That can get absolutely irritating!
Another term that makes me exclaim “Live and learn” is weightage. According to Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, Preview Edition, 2003-2008, weightage is defined as “a weighing factor assigned to compensate for a perceived disadvantage.” I suppose it’s starting to take the place of the term handicap, which was the term used in my day. I’m told that it’s still something heard more often in British English than North American English.
And last, but not least, we come to one of my favorites, theatrette, an offering from our cousins “down under” in Australia. We can easily figure out that it means, a relatively small theater, and I think it’s a great term. I first heard it not long ago while talking to a friend of mine from Perth. I’m not sure it’ll catch on throughout the English-speak
ing world, but I, for one, like it. And at least I didn’t have to squirm to figure out what my Australian friend was talking about when she used it! I can’t find this term in dictionaries yet, but I’m sure it’ll make its way into some in the near future.
So there you have it, a sampling of words and expressions that have either changed the way they’re used or have been created to fill a need that some speakers perceived was there. And the beat goes on! If this should teach us anything, it should be to react with interest and curiosity when we hear something new or something old that’s used in a new way. In the long run, that’ll make us better, more “with it” language teachers.