In honor of Father’s Day, I thought I’d write a bit about language and my dad. It’s a relevant topic because, for a middle-class, monolingual, white American male, language and communication styles are highly salient characteristics of my dad. The four most noteworthy traits I can think of are: his penchant to correct people for their language use, his vocabulary knowledge, his public speaking skills, and his ease in talking to strangers.
Correcting people. To some people, my dad can come off as intimidating. I’ll admit it: I can be one of those people. One of the reasons is no doubt because he’s not afraid to correct people, anybody as far as I can tell, when they make a language “error” (in scare quotes because we linguists tend not to think of things in terms of errors, but rather as, say, non-canonical constructions). Hell, I am a grown woman with a Ph.D. in linguistics, and he still corrects me if I say something “wrong”. Example: for the longest time after I came back from living in France, I would use the word majoritarily. It is a clear transfer from the French majoritairement, meaning, well, majoritarily (okay, if you really want to know, it means something like predominantly). Nobody else said anything when I would say majoritarily, which was quite common as I remember thinking it was le mot juste in several occasions. Perhaps this was because they understood it just fine — it is, after all, a fairly morphologically transparent coinage — or perhaps it’s because they thought it was a word that they just weren’t familiar with. I remember my shock, and also exactly where we were (on a walk coming up the hill back to the house), when Dad just came out and said it: “Majoritarily isn’t a word, Paula.” What? Was he kidding? “I’m sure it is, Dad.” I proceeded to do the derivation orally: “You know, majority, and then majoritary, and then majoritarily.” Alas, the French had influenced my English too much: the only English word that comes close to what I had in mind is majoritarian, which has a much more restricted meaning than I had in mind: the Oxford American defines it as “governed by or believing in decision by a majority”. I do not remember if we looked up majoritarily together as soon as we got home, or if I looked it up myself. I do remember, however, feeling crushed when I discovered that it was not, in fact, an English word. I hate to be wrong, and the fact that it’s a domain so close to home, words, just drives the knife in a little harder.
That said, I am happy my dad alerts me to the idiosyncrasies of my language, shall we say. Most people will not tell you about your flaws, linguistic or otherwise. It is a bitter pill to swallow when such flaws are made apparent, but in the end I would much rather be made aware of them than not, and the fact that it’s my father who clues me in means that the correction comes from a place of love, in a setting in which I am not judged (well, at least not too judged). Had Dad not alerted me to the fact that majoritarily isn’t a word, I might still be using it with any and all anglophones. Which, mind you, is just a perfectly natural phenomenon and in fact is the kind of stuff I study, but in professional contexts, it might come off as weird to be using made-up words that, well, aren’t deliberately made-up. So, thank you Dad for letting me know about majoritarily.
Vocabulary. My dad has a fairly extensive vocabulary. I’m talking both active vocabulary (the words he himself uses) and passive vocabulary (the words he knows, as is evidenced by the many definitions he has cited for us kids over the years). To varying extents, people moderate their choice of words according to the context or the words they think their listeners will know. My dad does this less than most people, I’d say — either that, or he is seeking to expose his children to new words. Just last weekend, he busted out ersatz in talking about a food item we all felt to be of inferior quality than normal. Of course I know what ersatz means. But my 19-year-old sister who’s not the bookish type, not so much. We then proceeded to discuss ersatz for at least a couple of minutes, going over several plausible and implausible examples, so it was nice a learning opportunity. The word ersatz has the potential to be a running family joke for quite some time.
Another word that has made its way into family lore is esoteric. One night, my step-mom, dad, and I were at a bar, where he was talking with an acquaintance of theirs. He asked her what she had been up to lately, and she said, “I’ve been reading a lot of books on Jewish mysticism.” Dad said, “Oh, that’s pretty esoteric.” At which point I gave Dad a nudge under the table. “Dad!” “What?” he said. “You can’t just say that somebody’s reading preferences are esoteric! Esoteric has kind of a negative connotation, you know, like when you say ‘That’s so esoteric’, it never means it’s a good thing.” Most times I hear esoteric, it’s in a context of something being so limited in scope that it’s not interesting to the general population, and by extension that it’s not interesting at all, except for nerds.
“I disagree,” he said. “I think it’s got a pretty objective connotation and just has to do with specialized knowledge.” “Oh really?” I responded, inviting a scenario that would come to haunt me. “I’m pretty sure it does have a negative sense. Would you care to place a wager on that, and we can figure it out when we get home?” (This was before the iPhone era.) We settled on a bet of lunch and decided that we would use the home dictionary to settle the matter. A dictionary was not, I felt, the best way to get at the connotation of a word, but such subtleties are sometimes included, and anyway, my family was not going to think a usage query with e.g. Google would be legit.
To my dismay, the definition of esoteric that we looked up corresponds to that of m-w.com, given below:
None of the definitions included anything about a negative connotation, but I still felt (and still feel to this day) that esoteric has a negative connotation. So, I graciously admitted defeat — at least I thought I was being gracious — by saying something like, “Dad, you win. By our dictionary criterion, esoteric does not have a negative connotation, and therefore I am happy to take you out to lunch. However, I maintain that esoteric does in fact have a negative connotation, so perhaps this is a feature of language change and younger people might be likely to think more like me. Let’s check The Google for usage patterns.” This response did not go over well. I was labeled a “sore loser” by my family, yet from my perspective, I had admitted defeat, and all I wanted to do was get to the bottom of the question by checking out usage data. I suppose you could say I was being stubborn, but this is a recurring issue between my family and me (excluding my brother, who has a tendency to nerd out like me). They think, “Give it up already, Paula”, and I think such an attitude does not encourage deeper learning or appreciation of an issue. Over the years, I have come to accept their side of things, and it’s not a major problem. It just means I don’t share that aspect of my personality with them, and that I do my Google searches furtively.
My dad very much enjoys learning new slang. About a year ago, he learned the more recent use of random, meaning something like “odd, strange, or out of the blue”. When my dad heard my sister and I using random in that sense, he said, “Now, you two are using random in a way I’m not familiar with. You’re not referring to something that is governed by chance in the mathematical sense, right?” We told him about the new meaning of the word. I for one have memories of when random did not have this newer meaning, but my 23-year-old sister does not. In my most recent visit with him, Dad learned the corresponding rando (a person who behaves in the new sense of randomly). Dad said, “Now, I’ve heard of random, but what is rando?” So cute. We also recently taught him baller and ballin’. I don’t quite think he gets them yet, but he will. Words take time to sink in.
Public speaking. At various points I have seen my dad give speeches to groups of people. He’s very good at it. This is no doubt a result of his job: at one point he was a public defender. Now he doesn’t do trial law any more, but he does still give talks and teaches occasionally. For me, his public speaking skills are one sign of his deep professional commitment. I feel like at least professionally I’ve grown up with my dad: I’ve been to all his offices except the first one he had, and I remember each one. When my parents divorced and I only saw my dad every other weekend, we would still go to his office on Saturdays while he did a bit of work. I don’t remember what I did there; I probably read as reading was my default childhood activity. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to see both my parents on the job as it has probably contributed to me having a strong work ethic. Anyway, I don’t have any memorable moments of my father giving a talk (those are more reserved for his late mother), I simply appreciate his ease of addressing the audience, his jokes, and his conversational tone. Whenever I have to give a talk for which I am nervous, my mantra beforehand is, “I am my father’s daughter.” It helps give me confidence.
Talking to strangers. No conversation of language and my father would be complete if it didn’t mention my dad’s facility (or, as my siblings might say, “habit”) for talking with strangers. Dad will very often initiate conversations with people we don’t know, like the waitress, the cab driver, the person ahead of us in line. He does it more than most people, I’d say. This used to embarrass my siblings to no end when they were teenagers (“Oh god, he’s doing it again”), perhaps particularly because he often shakes hands and introduces himself with not only his first but his last name. I have come to appreciate it though, and perhaps they will too. Perhaps they already do. In this respect too am I my father’s daughter: I talk to strangers all the time. With the hand-shaking and saying his last name when it’s not strictly necessary, he again serves as a model for us in professional contexts.
I used to think talking to strangers came easily to him, as he looks quite natural when doing it, and comes across as very sincere. I was pretty surprised a couple of years ago when my step-mom told us engaging strangers in conversation is something he’s had to devote explicit attention to, because he didn’t feel it came easily for him and he wanted to be better at this skill for professional reasons. But at the end of the day, my dad is not really at home in large groups of people.
Of all my parents (I think of myself as having three, my mom, my dad, and my step-mom), I communicate the least with my dad. Perhaps like many men, the best way to catch up with him is not by talking via distance, but by sharing time and space with him. For my dad, the best time together is probably spent on the golf course, and since I don’t play golf, I feel there is a part of my dad that I miss out on. Not that being on the golf course would mean we would talk a lot though: as I recently told him, “Dad, I would go golfing with you just to watch, but I don’t like getting shushed all the time.” On the golf course, my dad has pretty strict rules about when you can and can’t talk. So it’s not like the bonding is that verbal there either. Silent bonding doesn’t come naturally to me: I am after all a linguist. Yet I am trying to appreciate silent time spent with others more, and so in this sense as well my dad is again a great teacher.