catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 16 :: 2006.09.08 — 2006.09.22


Squeezing the grape, acidic urine and the intentional fallacy

I have a new vocabulary.  In the last week, everyday, I have used at least five terms that I have seldom used before in my life, at least in their current context: prompt, teachable moment, core curriculum, rubric, and rhetorical strategies.  Some future trends in vocabulary I can predict: ethos, logos, pathos, cluster and brainstorm.  What is the cause of these additions to my vocabulary, you may ask?  I am a part of a new community, a community of composition teachers.  And with each new community comes a new social life, new responsibilities, and a whole new set of terms.

In high school I never really felt that we had communities; only cliques.  But when I look back on the vocabulary of high school, it occurs to me that there were distinct communities as well.  For example, I was in every school-sponsored non-athletic activity known to man and, while there was a good deal of cross-over between the groups, they all had their own inherent vocabulary that separated themselves from each other.  For instance, in the marching band we had your typical musical vocabulary, including terms such as chords, scales, percussion, brass, woodwinds, contest and quarter notes.  We even had some terms unique to all marching bands across the country, like roll step, cummerbund, section line, hideous uniform with annoying and fashion-less feather sticking out the top.  But there was also a vocabulary unique to the BTHS West Marching Maroons of ’89-’93 under the direction of Mr. S. 

During band camp, my freshman year, while trying to explain to us how to stand up straight and maintain a uniform appearance, Mr. S told us to pretend there was a grape placed between our buttocks and that we should squeeze that grape in order to keep from dropping it.  Then, throughout the rest of the week, he would yell at random intervals “Squeeze the grape!”  This term became a ritual cry for my fellow band members and me.  A term such as this, “Squeeze the grape,” could hardly be contained to the marching field.  In French class, history club, choir, during the spring musical, the words would seep into the conversation or just be yelled out for no apparent reason, and if members of the marching band community were in the vicinity (which they hopefully were, or it might just sound foolish) they would look up, grin, chuckle, and share a moment with the speaker that the others couldn’t comprehend.  All of my high school groups had these anomalies of vocabulary that defined them as a community.  For the theater fags (that’s what we called ourselves), it was mostly any reference to Rocky Horror Picture Show or one of the Vice Principals smoking pot in the backstage bathroom.  For the history club, it was the constant referencing of Mickey Mouse because the teacher who ran the program apparently hated Mickey Mouse.  This phenomenon is commonly known as the “inside joke.”  But isn’t it more than just that?

Toward the end of my college career, I fell in with an unruly crowd known as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.  They already had their own inside vocabulary before I joined.  On a mission trip, one girl dropped her boss' camera into a toilet bowl and, apparently as words of comfort, one boy offered up the interesting yet completely irrelevant fact that “You know, urine is acidic.”  More terms were formed during my time there.  For instance, two roommates decided that instead of taxing their brains to retrieve a word that just won’t come to mind, they would just substitute the word “guy” in its place.  The phrase “do you know where I put the guy” was heard at least a dozen times a day.  Some words were just given up on completely and replaced with “guy.”  I still request a “hair guy” when I need to pull my hair back and don’t have any means within reach.  There were even a few terms that only came about because I was a member of the community.  The first time we all went to Denny’s, for instance, to everyone’s amusement I ordered a “Moons Over My Hammy” meal; a request that would lead to many unusual jokes, particularly the placement of a piece of carpet with a butt-print drawn on it being placed over a trash can and appropriately dubbed “Moons over my trashy!”  Phrases such as these don’t just create inside jokes, but foster a sense of belonging for people “in” on the inside joke.  There is an inherent awareness which is particularly clear when an outsider is present that these jokes, these community phrases create bonds between people.

Even work communities have their own vocabularies.  I worked at a bookstore that used common enough bookseller terms like ISBN (International Standard Book Number), remainders (sale books), and lay-down dates (scheduled dates for release of books or CDs).  I actually worked for a Borders, which also has its own unique way of communicating through numbers.  The BINC number is the number assigned to every book which breaks down exactly what genre and location the book can be found in.  When I worked there, I could look at the back of any book and tell you what section to find it in down to the smallest detail just based on a series of numbers.  The particular Borders that I worked at had a term that I’ve never heard used anywhere else: mixo (for mix o’ books) which referred to the books that customers left laying around and needed to be restocked.  The first time I went to a “sort” (original stocking of a new store) in my local area, I asked someone where the mixo pile was and they gave me a blank stare.  Sometimes, using community language outside the community can be a bit embarrassing.

When you first join a new community, the vocabulary can be a somewhat overwhelming.  When I first started working at the American Red Cross (ARC) I spent the greater part of my day asking people to please stop speaking in abbreviations.  I thought I would never be able to communicate with anyone.  It probably only took me about three months to be able to understand the statement “Check the GK truck to make sure they have the right LOP and SOP manuals and then see if CSR has any 2×2s and BDRs while you’re at it.  Let RSS know what you find out ASAP.”  The move from confusion to understanding was gradual, as was the move from outsider to insider, from stranger to friend.  At approximately the same time that I caught onto the lingo, I found myself speaking it easily in the lunchroom or at happy hour with my coworkers.  Once I knew the language, I was a part of the community.

I find myself becoming ensconced in a new community now.  I have recently moved to a new town where I am one of over 30 new graduate assistants in an English program.  There are three different types of English students at this level: literature, writing composition, and creative writing.  As a previous member of the English literature community, I come with a preset common vocabulary that I share with my new colleagues.  We all toss around terms such as modernism, hegemony, binary oppositions and intentional fallacy.  These words automatically bond the literature GAs.  And since all of us are lovers of the English language, we can bond as a larger community with words like syntax, grammar and dangling participle.  Surely most of us were even familiar with the words that I began this essay with before coming here, though I for one didn’t use them on a regular basis.  But as we, the newbies, meld into the new community of GAs we have taken on those terms in our daily lives, along with some other terms unique to the department such as DSP (Directed Self Placement) and CATS (a computerized attendance reporting system).  

I have only been a part of this community for less than a month, so the inside vocabulary is still daunting to me.  I have heard many of the terms, and they make me painfully aware of the fact that I am an outsider.  But I also know that it is just a matter of time before I, too, will share in the amusement.  And when that day comes, I will know I am at home in the community.  In the meantime, I just need to comfort myself by hanging onto the vocabulary of my old communities, and maybe bring a little bit of that flavor to my new one.  I’ve already made one inadvertent attempt.  On the third day of training for my new job, in the sweltering heat of the day, I asked the girl next to me for a hair guy. 

“Oh, hair tie!  I thought you said hair guy!”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought she said too.”

”Same here.”

“Yeah,” I laughed, “I know.  That is what I said.  It’s sort of an inside joke with some of my friends back home.  You’ll just have to get used to it.”

If I’m successful incorporating that phrase into the English department, perhaps I’ll try some others.  Oh, how I long to hear someone say “Squeeze the grape!”

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