Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Slinging slang

Vocabulary is boring.

At least, that's what many of my college test-prep students tell me. Those words make me sad, but I understand what they are saying. Difficult vocabulary, on the page, can be tricky. Students must ascertain the meaning of a word without the benefit of facial expression, tone of voice, or body language. For that reason, I enjoy expanding their vocabulary as much as possible.

On the flip side, they have a few things to teach me; namely, slang. There are times when I feel like Doc Brown in "Back to the Future":

Marty McFly (upon finding out that his mom from the past has a crush on him:) "Whoa, this is heavy."

Doc: "There's that word again, heavy. Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the earth's gravitational pull?"

I have to ask my students point-blank what a slang word means, which makes me, by definition, very un-cool. I see a lot of eye-rolling and hear giggles. But they are kind enough to humor me.

During a certain lesson of mine, the verbal section becomes quite dense with vocabulary. I can pinpoint it to the exact same question every time. I see their legs start to twitch, their eyes drift to the window, or their fingers itch to dig out their cell phones. That's when I pull out all the stops. I arrive at the word incendiary.

"Hey guys, has anyone heard of a Molotov cocktail?" I chirp.

They perk up. Maybe they think they'll get a funny drunken anecdote. If they only knew.

That's when I launch into a detailed description of how to make the world's first IED. My sign language interpreter alter-ego appears as I mime shoving a rag into the mouth of a glass bottle. By the time I throw my arms into the air to mimic the gas-fueled explosion, they are on the edge of their seats. Then, silence. And wicked smiles.

Once, a petite blond student declared in satisfied response,

"That's tight."

Ah, my Doc Brown moment! I knew that the usual meaning of the word didn't apply here. But unlike my students who have to grapple with just words on a page, I had the benefit of her tone of voice and her approving smile. She liked it.

Vocabulary can be exciting.