Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vocabulary Fun!

The English language is great. It has more words than any other language on earth. There are rules that are routinely broken. And the language is constantly in flux. Add to that the richness of idioms and "Bob's your uncle!" you have expressions that are non-sensical the majority of English speakers, but make perfect sense to small segments of the population.

I never did like learning about English. It was the most mind numbing subject I had in school. Unfortunately, going to public school I had to have English each and every year all the way through high school (thank goodness I tested out of all English classes for college). As such, I worked to have fun in English.

It started in 4th grade. I remember for one extra credit assignment we were given a list of 30 some odd words and told to see how many we could use in a single sentence. Not paragraph, sentence. Oh yeah, and the sentence had to make sense. That was my kind of assignment. Basically, the teacher has challenged me with something that cannot be done. So, having a problem with authority figures, I set out to prove him wrong. And I did. It took me about an hour to formulate the words into a sentence (we could use extra words like articles and conjunctions just no extra "substantive" words), but I did it. It was a monstrosity of a sentence that definitely could be divided up into multiple sentences, but it made logical sense and used all of the words.

Boredom in English class followed me throughout middle school. In seventh grade I remember writing a report entirely from the perspective a lamppost. Probably much to my teacher's chagrin, I used creative writing as an outlet. Yeah, I could be given a creative writing assignment and be completed with it in 10 minutes. And frequently they were over the top. The kind of stuff that if you put them all together you would swear that I had schizophrenia. Not only that, I was very prodigious in my work. Where someone would be satisfied with 5 pages, I would turn in an assignment that was 10 pages.

In eighth and ninth grade I had a class "Autonomous Learner" that was perfect for my attitude. Basically, we got to learn about what we wanted for the semester. Each student presented a plan to the teacher at the beginning of the semester and then we got to run with it for the semester. I'm not sure what other projects I did but one was on Iraq and the other was about DisneyWorld (can you see the schizophrenia?).

The report on Iraq was written the semester before they invaded Kuwait, and it in I predicted that they would invade Kuwait. Now before you thing I am some sort of national security genius, there were a lot of people predicting that Iraq would invade Kuwait. Reviewing over the news sources available at the time gave all the facts one needed to draw that conclusion. I followed this up with a riveting short story about the US ambassador to Kuwait having his daughter kidnapped by the Iraqi Republican Guard. The DisneyWorld semester was not near as exciting, but I know far more about DisneyWorld than I ever thought possible.

I'm not sure my 10th grade English teacher knew what to do with me. The one piece of writing that stuck out was a Japanese Epic about the descendent of a ninja who must return to his roots in order to save the world. The girl that I traded stories with to grade (she read mine and I read hers), was not at all impressed. In fact, she didn't understand it at all. That's OK, I didn't understand hers. In World History, she also didn't understand how my friend and I (who were playing the role of Israel) were able to conquer the entire Middle East (minus Egypt because they played nice), all while the students playing the part of the Americans were trying to decide whether to come to the aid of Israel after we took a pre-emptive strike. It was a risk like game that our teacher had made up complete with 4 ft x 8 ft game board.

Anyway, later in high school I would definitely reach an apex. In the Bible Belt of Oklahoma, one of my first English writing assignments included a requirement to include a reference of religious literature (aka Bible - it was unspoken but clearly understood that is what the teacher meant). Again, having the problem with authority that I do, I decided to outdo myself. I included references from the Torah, New Testament, Koran, Book of Mormon, Bagavad Gita, a saying of Confucius, and a Navajo legend. I mentioned to the teacher that there were at least a dozen other references I could have used, but felt that they were too esoteric. No other assignment that year required a religious literature reference. Not sure if that was by design or because of my turpitude.

Twelfth grade saw an explosion of writings. At one point a friend of mine had collected all of them into a binder as the pre-cursor of a book. They involved everything from ramblings of a drug crazed insomniac, to the description of a Pyrrhic battle between a troll and an ogre, to poetry that described what the underlying meaning of the peom was (there was none - which is what the closing line said). My favorites though, were for the asinine books we had to read. Jane Eyre is the only one that comes to mind (probably since I have blocked the memories of the others out of my mind). I never read Jane Eyre. I admit it. I couldn't even get through the Cliff Notes on it. I did however write a fantastic report "The Roller-Blade Conspiracy." It was a detailed account (from a first person perspective) on how some of my friends had colluded to keep me from reading the book so that I would fail. The teacher loved it and even read it in class. Alas, since I didn't do the actual assignment, I still got an F.

The pinnacle of my writing for the year was near the end of the year. We had been reading (in my case casually glancing over) "great" works of literature throughout the year. Now it was our turn to do a juxtaposition of three pieces of art. They could be any medium of art: music, movies, books, sculptures, etc. Our assignment was to identify similar themes between them and describe how those could be interrelated. We had about a month to work on it. After two weeks we had to turn in an outline to our teacher. I'll admit again, I procrastinated until the period before (not the day before, the class before). During Biology while the instructor was going over the ADP cycle of energy production, I wrote up my outline.

My three works of art were: 1) the book "Cardinal in the Kremlin" by Tom Clancy, 2) the movie "Dave", and the song "Blood on Blood" by Bon Jovi. From the description above, you might guess that a lot of thought was meant to be put into selecting "art" that was related. I basically wanted to prove the point that looking for symbolism and themes was worthless, since the descriptions and ideas that constituted one's analysis were so amorphous that they could reliably be applied to just about anything. The reason I chose the three was, I had just finished reading the book, the movie was the most recent movie I had seen, and I love Bon Jovi so included one of my favorite songs that I don't think was ever released as a single.

My teacher was skeptical to say the least of my outline, but let me proceed. True to form, the night before the report was due, I wrote it. The entire thing. And I still was in bed by midnight. And this was in the days before the internet could be used for research. My report ended up being 5 pages longer than the next longest report. I'm not sure if the teacher read it or just weighed it and assumed there must be some substance to it. But I received an A+! (Which probably helped me pass that class).

Now, in spite of not having English in college, I still had plenty of opportunities to have fun. I remember one activity I was at where we were writing stories en masse. Basically, for 2 minutes (or five minutes) you write a story and then pass on the paper to the next person to continue on the story, and on, and on ... It was rather humorous because we were sitting boy-girl-boy-girl and by coincidence most of the girls were liberal arts, education or business majors and all of the guys except one were engineering or computer science majors. Without coordinating our efforts, the guys managed to sabotage the frilly love stories that the girls started with and confuse them with our technical jargon about nuclear reactor theory and the operation of MOSFETs. It was a blast to read the stories out loud in the end.

The crowning writing achievement of my college career took place in my final semester. It was senior project and because of when I graduated, I got stuck on a project I didn't want. So I picked the team that was most applicable across other industries: fasteners. I already knew a lot about fasteners as I had become the "thread expert" at work (threads as in screws, nuts, and bolts). Now, most of the senior project reports were made up of 5-6 teams and entailed a final report that was about 200-300 pages long. At the mid-term, our fastener team dropped off our copy of the fastener section to the team lead. He asked how long it was (hoping for somewhere around 20 pages). "67 pages, without the charts and graphs that go in the appendix." His mouth dropped open and then he said, "You guys wrote 67 pages about screws?" Yep, and that was only the half of it.

My wife was due to give birth at the end of the semester so I had convinced my team that it was in all of our best interest to finish our section of the report in as short an amount of time as possible. So the day before Thanksgiving, our section was done: 131 single spaced pages of the report with an additional 75 pages of charts, graphs, and references to boot. All about screws, nuts and bolts (and various other fasteners that were going to be used on the project).

So, after loathing English for all of my elementary and secondary schooling, now I find myself writing more in one month for work than I wrote in all of high school. But it is not without it's fun. One time in high school, I was able to convince everyone in the class to use the word "plethora" in a short composition that would be read at the front of the class. In a play on that, most of my writings are written at about a 10th grade level (by design). I always try to push the envelope and include words or phrases that are not commonly used. Words like "ergo," "heft", or "complicit." Usually these get axed in someone's review of the report before it gets published. A month ago, I wrote up one 2 page report with the phrase "post hoc." Latin phrases never get through and my associates all agreed that it would get changed before publishing. However, on the day of publishing, I looked at it and "post hoc" was still in the published report. Victory to me!

Today, a co-worker and I were discussing the acronym SMART in relation to goals (specific, measureable, accountable, reasonable, timely). We decided that there should be an acronym for DUMB that is opposite to describe bad goals. I took it upon myself to create one. In 20 minutes I had it ready:
Dispensable - can be eliminated with little or no consequence
Unrealistic - the goal is not a reflection of reality based on the resources and circumstances
Mal apropos - it is out of place and untimely
Boundless - there are no true limits to it

After seeing this I have decided on two new goals: 1) get "mal apropos" published in a report and 2) use the acronym DUMB in a published report. These cannot be done by trial and error as the editors have memories and after they have rejected a word in one report, they are not likely to allow it again; so I have to wait for the right moment when there is no other way to describe it. "Mal apropos" will be much easier (although difficult nonetheless) because it is French phrase and doesn't have the derogatory tone the DUMB has. But I will try and report back on my success!

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