Here’s a most unique idea

As a retired teacher, I recall attending endless workshops in which publishers would send their reps to peddle old wine wrapped in new skins.


     Every workshop I attended while a part of the Gallup-McKinley County Schools featured a genial agent for the company who would lecture us on how only the products his company produced could guarantee learning success for our young-uns. Traditional grammar, parts of speech, usage and idiomatic expressions invariably were being taught wrong, the reps would say. But “only our program carries a guarantee.”
     Then zillions hands went up from the teachers fortunate enough to have been selected to attend this particular workshop: “How much does it cost?” “How soon can we get it?”
     And order they did. All of the books and equipment filled audio-visual rooms across the country, and we waited and waited to produce geniuses. Today, who even remembers terms like Distar, or Controlled Reader or Tachistoscopic Machine? Soon, the expensive equipment got checked out less and less and eventually became a mere reminder of technology of the sixties.
     All of this has convinced me that if you teach the same stuff, but give it a different name, you’re likely to sell your product.
     Last year I picked up my wife at the end of an out-of-town teacher workshop and sat through a half hour of a closing lecture (now with a glitzier term, “convocation,” which seems to imply something special.)
     The presenter (speaker) shared (talked about) treasures (information) about information assimilation (learning). So many of these terms serve to mask the more common terms we grew up with. And the result often is: Give it a fancy wrapping and people will be impressed.
     Strangely coined words misfire often. When did these words replace the vernacular (oh, oh, watch it Art; you can use a simpler expression like “common words” for “vernacular”).
     Some words don’t convey exactly what the speakers and writers intend. Once, at a banquet, the keynote speaker said, “At this time I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce my most charming wife.”
     Wow! He said little in a lot of words. Instead of all that verbiage, why not simply say, “I’d like to introduce . . .”? But what really slew a bunch of us who listened was the “opposed to what” factor. That is, if that woman with him is his most charming wife, what is his least charming wife like?
     And notice how people toss around “unique,” giving it several qualities. “This is quite unique” just won’t cut it. You see, something is unique or is not, but never somewhat unique or very unique.” It’s like “pregnant.” A woman can’t be just a little bit pregnant.
     While it is true that no one is being injured by the way language gets mangled, we still have to think about what we mean. The owners of a now-closed restaurant in town, known for its good American, apparently got many requests for more ethnic foods and quickly expanded their menu. Accordingly, they painted a notice on the window: “We also specialize in pizza, Mexican food and seafood.”
     Now how can restaurateurs specialize in so many things? By derivation, “specialize” means to particularize, to limit, in this case, the menu to burgers, or steaks and not include the entire gastronomical galaxy.
     Mom-and-pop businesses are the most likely to slip, that is, to place the wrong word on their marquees. As a youngster I remember telling others why I avoided the Las Vegas Drive-In Theater, located on north Grand. Why? The marquee listed the price of admission at $500 a car (without the crucial decimal point). Well in those days, $500 would buy a working used car.
     In the recently published Highlands University Strategic Plan, the phrases “quality education,” “quality university” and “quality faculty” are sprinkled throughout the document, the idea being that Highlands promises a good education to all. Unfortunately, “quality” is one of those words that don’t necessarily denote goodness. You can have goods of a low quality or spend poor-quality time with your kids because that word says nothing to attest to good quality. Everything has a quality. Quality is simply a trait or characteristic of something, and it needs modifiers.
The document also mentions serving “Hispanics, Native Americans, other minority students, majority culture students, and international students.” Has anyone been omitted? It also hopes to att4ract quality graduate and undergraduate students. Is there any other kind? Why not just recruit men – and women too? It’s when educators begin getting sloppy with the language that the rest of us despair of ever having (high) quality role models.
     We already expect certain verbal misfiring bureaucratese from, well, bureaucrats, as in the recent assertion by President Bush that “the enemy disassembles.” Well, Mr. President, is that the word you want? “Disassemble” (with an “a”) means to take apart. “Dissemble” means to disguise or conceal.
     All of us concerned about the war can agree the president’s pronouncement was most unique. In fact, it was a quality announcement. And apparently, we have a president who specializes in everything.
     And evidently Highlands will specialize in recruiting Hispanics, but they’ll also specialize in attracting Native Americans, and other minorities, and members of majority groups. Now that’s a most unique, quality idea.

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