Wednesday, January 7, 2009

words that tag&teach





I've been called several things in my lifetime, some good and some not so good. During the holidays year before last, at the college, I sort of snuck in a party while coworkers from other admin departments were playing some kind of guess word game. I think you get a label and then you have to guess what you are. A group acts it out. Well, just as I was hurrying out with a napkin of cookies and a glass of punch, my then female supervisor with whom I had a so-so relationship slapped a sticker on the back of my back.

Vixen: A quarrelsome woman, a shrew, perhaps from the fierceness of the she-fox with cubs. This word has been applied to female foxes (from the Anglo-Saxon fyxe, the feminine of 'fox') since the 15th c. and to the female humans since the 16th c.

Of course I didn't stick around to let others help me guess what I was.

A funny thing--we got along perfectly until she tried to force me to get out and socialize with other coworkers from other departments and attend holidays gatherings. I told her I was full of work-parties from my law firm days and any free time I had, I would spend either with my students or at home with my family. The fight was on, but then died down quickly. I'm not a social butterfly and I don't do schmoozing. Furthermore, I have never gotten along well with female supervisors. She's since retired on a bitter note.

Other names I've been called:

Twit: A stupid person, an insignificant one.

A legal secretary once called me this because again, I wouldn't do something she wanted me to do, was not required of me and I challenged her. I was defiant. It took everything nice about me not to immediately respond "Twat." We got over it later on though. She was, at the time, I think going through menopause. But in her use of this term, you can probably believe I really pissed her off.

As a literature guru, I tend to relate life back to literature and literature back to life, no brilliance to this, right? But these two name-calling, name-labeling instances remind me so of the narrator in Chopin's Story of An Hour, a story I teach way too often just to get a reaction out of students:

"...she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature."

Other names I've been called:

Yellow: Chiefly the color representing cowardice, but with many other noxious associations, e.g., diseases, treachery (Judas' clothes), heresy. Yellow was also used to single out Jews, who were required to wear the yellow badge. A Mongolian or, in the United States, a black (often as yeller, a light-skinned black, from 1834). The term's connotations in the racial context extend beyond the mere perception of color, however. Yellowfish, a Chinese who has entered the United States illegally; comparable to the Wetback from Mexico.

Redbone, and some other names, not necessarily related to my light olive tone or defiant personality.

I think back on these terms and wonder about words my great grandmother used to use to describe or name something. Not only that, but funny sounding words have been created for just about any and everything.

Scalawag: A reprobate, a rascal; historically, a white Republican in the South who supported the congressional plan of reconstruction after the Civil War

Wetblanket: Someone or something that spoils an occasion or ruins the fun for others; a person so gloomy that he depresses others

Rube: A resident of a rural area, a rustic, especially a dim-witted one

Ribbon clerk: An amateur; an ineffectual person

Schvartze: A black person

Skinflint: A contemptible person

Windbag: A person who talks a lot, especially one who doesn't know what he is talking about

Wisenheimer: One who pretends to know more than others

Nookie: Sexual intercourse or a woman considered as a sexual partner

Biddy: A variant of Bridget, generic from the 18th c. to the early 20th century for an Irish serving girl; gradually extended to include maids of any ethnic extraction and then to women of any occupation, usually as old biddies, elderly gossips or fussbudgets

Lummox: A big, clumsy person; often a stupid one as well

Lily-livered: Cowardly

Piffle: Nonsense foolish talk

Pettifogger A quibbling lawyer, especially an unscrupulous one

Pogey bait: Candy, sweets, specifically a treat that is used to lure a young male-the pogue-into a homosexual encounter

Poontang: Sexual intercourse or a woman regarded as a sex object

Mollycoddle: A pampered, overprotected weakling; an effeminate man or boy

Okay, now I understand the title of the book Wicked Words by Hugh Rawson. Most of the words are negative in connotation--rarely decent. I do like that some of these are old like "biddy"--my great grandmother used to use this term to refer to my daughter when she was a little crawling baby. Unfortunately, I heard my uncle use the very negative term, peckerwoord, a white person originally and especially a poor, white, Southern farmer; black use. This is just as bad as the word nigger or wetback or spade. I'm glad times have changed, for the most and our younger generation will laugh at another who might attempt to use such degrading words. I say 'laugh' because the minute you hear these latter, derogatory terms, the sayer is dated and makes him look puny, old and insignificant.

I think it's pretty amazing how some of the other terms come to be what they are.

Sorehead: A constant (loud) complainer; a malcontent

Swellhead: A vain person; one with delusions of grandeur. Mugwump is synonymous.

Stepin Fetchit: A gofer, an errand boy; specifically, a black male in a menial position.

Remember the Human Stain by Philip Roth...an entire novel built around one term: spook. Incredible.

And last for now, a shoat: an idler, a worthless person; an Americanism

Shirker: One who evades work or other responsibilities.

I haven't had much time to think about it, but I wonder what funny sounding words, derogatory or not, our recent past and current century has invented...

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