Monday, June 01, 2009

Words That Mean Nothing

Living in a place where most people do not speak English as a first language serves to bring my own use of the English language under a microscope. How fast am I speaking? How big of words am I using? How clearly am I articulating my words? And the like. My wonderful roommate Simona speaks excellent English, but as with anyone who learns a language in a classroom setting (or even from movies/cartoons as many Romanians do), there are slang phrases and colloquialisms that just don’t translate. I have already written about American slang but now I would just like to touch on a few American words that I have discovered are devoid of meaning. And by that I mean they are used so broadly and generally and have such a vast array of connotations, that one cannot actually be sure that they mean anything. Yet they are as prevalent in our everyday speech as corn in Nebraska.

Take the word ‘Interesting’ for example. What does it mean? Think about how you use it and how other people use it. Someone tells you a story and you respond, “Oh that’s interesting.” Or you try food someone has made you and respond, “Oooohh… iiinteresting.” WHAT are you saying? Nothing. Nothing at all. Interesting good? Interesting bad? Interesting because you have nothing specific to say? Interesting because you are genuinely intrigued by what I am saying and find it fascinating? Interesting because you’re just being polite? All of these are possible connotations of the word. And so in essence, because it can mean everything, it means nothing. I think the word ‘Nice’ falls into this category. What a weak and wimpy word. Nice. Ick. Just knowing how much I use it makes me sick, because I can’t even tell you how many people here have pointed out how lame of a word it is.

Two other words that fall into this category, but kind of in a different way are ‘Awesome’ and ‘Cool.’ Don’t get me wrong, I use them all the time, but I swear if I hear one more taxi driver say to me “Totally awesome man. That’s so cool” when he finds out I’m from America, I may vomit. Projectile style. Ooh that rhymed. The English language is so rich, and adjectives abound, yet so many Americans (myself the chief of sinners on this one) resort to these bland and “trendy” words.

The final word I would like to discuss is ‘Fun.’ The reason this came to my attention is through the following scenario: I meet someone new (as I do) and I am trying to make conversation, get to know the person. Invariably in America the question of “What do you do for fun?” comes into the mix. But time after time when I have asked this question, people look at me confused and say “What do you mean by fun?” Do you know why? Because “fun” is unbelievably American. The idea of doing something purely for entertainment or pleasure's sake, and the idea of it being a frequent enough occurrence that it would warrant a question about what one habitually does for “fun” is just so incredibly… American. Do you know what the Romanian word for fun is? Distractiv. I’m no linguistic, but that looks an awful lot like Distraction. Chew on that. The Romanian word that most closely translates to “fun” is distraction

Kind of punches you right in the gut when you think about it. And that's really what it comes down to. That little twang of ooohh, that's an uncomfortable realization. A lot of the more "noticeable" exports of America, linguistic contributions being one example, kind of knock the air out of me when I actually think about them. And then I need to share about them online. Interesting, no?


Anonymous said...

you're right, you're no linguist! there is more than one word for FUN in Romanian. distractiv is one, but the Romanian for distraction is basically "ceva ce distrage atentia" (to distract attention). distractiv is an adjective, while your "distraction" is a noun, right?. the conclusion is that some words might mean something in English, and something else in Romanian...
and don't get me started on linguist and linguistic:)))...
borrrow a dictionary pls.

Becky said...

Wow, anonymous - way to split hairs! Well, I am a linguist and since Romanian has a Latin root, and English also derives many of its words from the same root, it's totally reasonable (and correct) to assume that the Romanian 'distractiv' is derived from the same root word as the English verb 'to distract' from which we get the noun 'distraction', adj. 'distracting'. And since the Romanian verb meaning 'to distract' is 'a distrage', clearly from the same root, I think a perfectly valid point is being made here!

Anyway, I know you'll probably never come back here and read this, but really!!

Liz, keep on learning Romanian - you're doing great :)

ancris said...

"The Romanian word that most closely translates to “fun” is distraction."...
anonymous didn't misread. she/he was just too thorough :))...and i am sure such funny inter-cultural grammar games are often. that would be a nice post for Liz, if she ever undertakes romanian.
p.s. am i the only one that got the linguist/linguistic thing? ;)

ancris said...

and yeah! the anonymous he/she was not all correct. apparently the Romanian dictionary thinks that distractie can also mean to be distracted, to be out of focus....oops! maybe next time.
apparently he/she does better at english :)). at least he/she got that one right :P.
gosh! romanian is hard...good luck to anyone attempting to conquer it :)