At the Writers Workshop in Iowa City in 1950 the professor who taught my graduate English course said to me sternly after the big exam, “Young lady, Question 1 was obligatory. The other questions were optional. Why didn’t you do Question 1?”
“Because it was obligatory,” I replied innocently, terribly flustered. I had, of course, mixed the words up.
He was a kind man and let me do the exam over.
I am the same person I was then, so as a teacher I have always been sympathetic to such errors. In Remedial English classes, they are very frequent.
Firstable, I believe…” a freshman essay began, early in my teaching career. I held my breath, as I read to see his second enumeration. “Secondable,” and “Thirdable,” followed and then he decided to retreat; he circled his wagons and he re-grouped behind the more routine Arabic numerals: 1, 2, 3.
Another logician argued with intense sincerity: “The causes of the recession are manifold. The first fold is technology, the second fold…” he continued, and then proceeded through 8 folds on his laundry list, arriving at the glorious conclusion that “The more man excels in his scientific and educational advancement, the less God will be used as a crotch.”
It is not surprising that this sort of accidental and idiosyncratic locution occurs during essay exams as frantic students searching desperately for THE RIGHT WORDS choose THE WRONG WORDS – choices that are marvels of misinterpretation and invention.
In the years since I penpointed the Firstabler and the Manifolder, in brilliant red ink, I have continued to teach in the CUNY community college, which is indeed a melting pot. For many of our students, English is not their first language and others, though highly intelligent, have weak verbal skills. Summing up the situation perfectly is the lament of a young sophomore with strong political convictions: “Though I urge everyone to think for themselves and check things out, my words often fall upon death ears!”
Now being both a writer and an English teacher, I have strong feelings about language. I love words! I love neologisms and unexpected usages, for I believe that English is strong and vigorous, and I believe that non standard speech becomes standard only when it serves the speakers well; I know that language is alive and constantly changing. Old words are done away with as new ones replace them. No one need be scared; nothing sacred is threatened.
Over the years as I marked papers, my eyestrain and the tedium were often relieved by novel usage, metaphor, spelling and diction. I would rush into my husband’s study and share whatever verbal misadventure I’d come upon. I was entertained when an occasional humorous alternative came along on the page to relieve the monotony of ordinary speech.
I appreciated the eccentric beauty in the misuse of language, so much so that through the years with the help of colleagues, I have collected a bountiful bouquet of blunders. I‘ll publish a sample in another blog entry, but I shall close here with a sage political science observation from a student paper. He warns the reader sternly of dire consequences because “Communism is spreading its dangerous testicles all over western Europe!”