The guitar player strums or picks. The turtle does not scuttle or bumble. The sink drips, while the sirens . . . the sirens . . . holler? Hoot? Sound off?! What describes the sound a siren makes?
It’s important to have the right vocabulary, especially when communicating important things to other people. Unfortunately, most of us are using the wrong words to describe the right things. When you ask for a raise, for example, how come your boss just hears about “an increase in costs”? Or when you drop a sexy pick up line on Tinder, how come she just sees “another dude” and scrolls to the next one? Probably because you aren’t communicating that you are the exception, that you want to prove this software can lead to a love story — or because, probably, you aren’t stating the fact that you are up for a raise in productivity, hand in hand with fairer compensation!
So how do you use (or utilize, or deploy, or deliver) the right word at the right time? You can’t always rely on the first thing that comes to mind, especially if you are anything like me, and you call a woman’s top a dress or you call a pen a pencil, without thinking of course. So, what should we think of? How can we improve?
In this video that blew my mind yesterday — with the director of the creative writing department at the University of Chicago telling a group of students what is wrong with their approach to writing, as well as with 100% of unpublished academicians — I heard a lot about codes. Code words. Secret passwords. Stepping stones to a reader’s heart and mind.
To enter the mind of a reader, that is, you must fundamentally provide the value she seeks. Nevertheless, to dish out said value, one must write (or employ, or express) key words that resonate in the audience. Failing to do so is to risk losing their attention, is to risk never helping anyone at all.
Example: in the case of this video itself, if you are going to give a seminar to hopeful academicians, tell stories about failed Oxford and Yale professors, then detail your solution.
Example: if you are going to sell your idea to your boss, then don’t call it an “idea,” but a proposition, making sure to state what problem the business is having, and how you are going to improve it.
Example: if you are going to run for public office, do it by repeating the issues brought to you by your constituency, promising to fix them — don’t talk about subjects they know little about, care little about, or can’t understand. Rather, use their code.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a CUNY professor in the cramped student office closet of my graduate university. I told him I was considering a PhD in creative writing, but couldn’t think of a timely and important dissertation topic. “What should I write about?” He kindly asked what I was interested in, saying, “Start there.” When I replied “Multilingual writing,” pretty excited myself, he got excited too.
“Look up Translanguaging.”
“Translanguaging?” I had a vague notion, trans means “through, between,” while languaging is a zombie verb made from the noun “language,” ok, and? “Why not call it multilingual writing?” I asked. Like a good professor, he explained.
Citing studies done, papers published, and the contemporary conversation about being from multiple worlds, he was like, “Code-switching is dead, no one talks about that. And so is the concept of multilingualism.” And I nodded. “Everyone wants to talk about Translingualism. Of course, only because it has the word trans in it. Who knows, in the future, we will be calling the same concept something else.”
Story unpacked: in the 80s and 90s, when computers were taking off, it was cool to use words like “code” to describe your theory. In the early 00s I suppose people were super into the idea of global villages and multiculturalism, so “multi” was the hottest thing. Can’t say I wasn’t stuck in that past. Whereas now, in the 10s and now 20s, the word “trans” has gained plenty of traction. How many concepts in the 21st century can you think of with that word?
Transient, for one.
Another story: when Xerox was all the rage a marketing “guru” came to my elementary to promote a competition. “If you can guess the next popular letter in business, you will win $100 dollars and a trip to Disney!” She meant that the letter “X” was cropping up everywhere, like a weed, in the 90s, and early 00s — so what will the next letter be? IF ONLY I HAD RAISED MY HAND AND SHOUTED, “Miss, miss! The next popular letter will be I!” Maybe everyone would have looked at me like some narcissistic 9 year old, but at least I would have predicted the letter that would rule the next twenty years. iPhone, iCandy, iWTF.
Where were we going with this? Ah yes, codes and vocabulary!
Last story, promise: a school bus driver was taking my brother and I to our stop, which was the last stop on the route, at which point he used to talk to us about his life and about his struggles. We would listen to his rambles with an odd combination of strange curiosity and respectful attention to a grown up that has always been rare among youth, especially today. But we listened. This one time he was really understanding himself as he spoke, and reached a point in his revelation where everything that had happened to him, every single decision that lead up to him becoming a bus driver had always to been made according to the situation presented him, yet it all made sense and was fair. “And it’s because I grew up in . . . I grew up in a certain . . . everything around me was . . . what do you call someone’s surroundings?” My brother and I looked at each other and then looked at the driver. “Environment.”
The driver let go of the wheel for a second to exclaim, “Yes! That’s the word. Because of my environment . . .” and he sped down the highway with thrill.
Moral: use the right word, pierce the heart, reach the mind.
Caveat: the right word depends on the audience. Meaning, with techies you want to hack the heart; with trekies you want to reach intergalactic peace; and with me, just call me by my name, or talk to me about love.
Lastly, the name of this post: AGLET. What the heck is that? Well it’s the name of the thing I used to bully my students with, bully in a good sense, as in when I had to tell them “Don’t worry about not knowing everything; natives don’t even know the name of this thing . . .” and I would lift up my shoe in class and pinch the end of a shoelace, “. . . this plastic thing here, no one knows what this is called.” Well, I learned what it’s called. Aglet. No excuse not to teach that now.
Thanks to this video on YouTube, I must admit, from a new favorite channel, suggesting tips on how to improve vocabulary. (Spoiler: it’s to keep a vocab journal, the same advice my father gave me once while listening to NPR on the way to high school, and him not answering my question “what does that mean,” but instead doing the fatherly thing, which is making me find out on my own.)