The English Pedant – The language of deception

One of the dangers of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is not having the time, not having the courage, or failing in some other way to correct a student’s enthusiastic misunderstanding of a potentially sensitive word.

I was recently challenged by a teenage girl on the meaning of the verb to  cheat. We were on the subject of school and she was telling me how a friend of hers had done much better than she had in a test because he had  smuggled a crib sheet in, placed it in his lap below the desk and was referring to it throughout.

“Cheating,” I said.

“No,” she responded with the smirking satisfaction of having outsmarted the teacher. “That means… you cheat on your boyfriend with another boy. Like you kiss somebody else or…”

She was right in that that word has come to mean what used to be called “being unfaithful”, a term too cumbersome and uncool for the TV  movie generation. It reached epidemic proportions in the US and then, like the grey squirrel, was introduced to other English-speaking areas including the UK and proceeded to take over, sweeping the local population aside.

My explanation that cheating meant generally taking an unfair advantage by devious means was received unwillingly; the student’s understanding of the word had been drummed into her through every dimwitted teenage vampire series and unhappy, unpleasant depiction of romantic liaisons that seeps like glucose into the systems of the young.

She couldn’t offer an alternative single word for the idea of cheating at cards or at school, because there isn’t one, but it was hard for her to accept that the term  could exist without sexual overtones.

If you examine it in that unfaithfulness context, it doesn’t really match the photofit, because the conventional idea of cheating is that the cheat is achieving success in an area where someone or several people are also trying to succeed.

But, like a lazy songwriter who rhymes happen with Clapham, common with forgotten and basement with engagement because they’re close enough if not exact (all these and more in Up The Junction by Squeeze), this one word has come to be accepted as describing the act of having sex with someone other than one’s partner.

Short, puny alcoholic

Coincidentally, other words concerning deception have crept into the language in recent years, by way of internet dating sites. Before the internet existed, dating or “matrimonial” agencies would describe clients in plain English, but since the advent of doing it ourselves, those who feel their physical attributes are not  what is required have become creative. Enter the word “curvaceous”, to describe a woman with an undulating landscape. In the real but unkind world, she is fat, but she’s not going to say that about herself, and there is no conventional adjective that sounds any less critical. Overweight? Negative. Obese? Do you want a slap?

So the choice is between calling your body shape “average” and watching the look on your date’s face when he sees the truth, or using the C word: curvaceous. That or the evocative but ridiculous “volumptious”, a hybrid of voluptuous and scrumptious.

The current favourite is the acronym BBW, which can mean big breasted woman, big beautiful woman or even big black woman. At least your date knows not to expect a stick insect. It’s just a shame that body weight should be an issue at all, but preferences are preferences.

Meanwhile, few men would ever describe themselves as short, so the world must be full of internet dating descriptions claiming “average height”.

And that, when you’re only a shade over 5ft. tall, is cheating. Actually, no – it’s an attempt at cheating through just plain lying.

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