No Informal Words, Please. But Why?

ONE of the greatest disservice English language teachers in school can do to young minds is to taint the value of informal words. No informal words, please. Stay away from informal words. The poor students hear so much of this, they’ve all developed a kind of paranoia, a built-in lexical thermometer that makes them cringe at the sound of informal words. Take “crazy” or “junkie” for instance, or phrases like “two thumbs up.” Don’t ever dream of suggesting words of this flavor if you’re ever working on an essay with them. No, these words can’t—I mean, cannot—appear in written form. Continue reading

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When “Stupid” and “Idiot” Are Fine Words Indeed

STUPID and idiot aren’t two words you would hear in an interview or see in a news article often, but when you do, they tend to send shudders that could either trigger shock and outrage on the one hand, or pleasure and approval on the other.

Last week, I came across these two words uttered by two very different people—one, a German fashion icon, and the other, a retired four-star general. Continue reading

Mister Dore (III): You Mean You Don’t Know ‘Ejaculation’?

HE always took the time to scan every single line of a poem with us, didn’t matter if it was Owen or Larkin. He always explained too, without judgment or condescension, words we were expected to know, such as “ejaculation”—we all did, except one of our classmates: What’s with you, M.G.? Where’ve you been?  No, he didn’t sneer at her like we did; he just gave her a blow-by-blow account of what happens in the male anatomy, amid titters, so that she eventually understood what the “wet spark” in Philip Larkin’s Dry Point meant, and how, when it came, “the bright blown walls collapse” and everything after was just “sad scapes,” “ashen hills!” and “salted, shrunken lakes!”

Don’t know what “bollocks” means? Yes, he’d explain. Don’t know how to describe someone who’s temperamental and unpredictable, he’d supply the word: mercurial. Don’t know how to portray words that have an edge and a bite? Continue reading

Mister Dore (Part II): Explain, Explain, and Leave Nothing To Chance

WHATEVER it takes for us to see, feel, hear, taste, smell, and above all, understand, it would be part of his class, not some go-look-it-up-yourself initiative dedicated for a later hour—at home, in the library, at MacDonald’s, or none of the above if you happened to be just plain lazy, like P. and K., the two students who gave us all the honor of learning the word “indisposed”—the word Mr. Dore would invariably utter when he looked up from his attendance register and not find their shadows. The Dore philosophy, then, was simply this: “Explain, explain, and leave nothing to chance.”

That’s why it pains me to see how students could study a poem in school, say Billy Collins’s On Turning Ten, for instance, and come away not knowing what mumps or measles or psyche means.

Hello, Sir! Hello-o-o-h, Ma’am!

Continue reading

Mister Dore (Part I): The Meaning of Cud

WHO ever knew cows had more than one stomach? I didn’t, not until the day Timothy Dore did his cow act, chewing on grass, ruminating, chewing some more, lulled into a faraway gaze of utter contentment. No, his subject was not geography or agriculture; it was the pity of war, and the word in question: cud.

This was thirty years ago, perhaps twenty-nine, when I was a first- or second-year student in Raffles Junior College. A Wilfred Owen class was in session, and our poem was Dulce Et Decorum Est. Continue reading