Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Saying what you mean

Mastering the English language nowadays isn't just about grammar and pronunciation, it's also about understanding slang. Slang is a pretty hard concept to explain to my boys, because I don't use a ton of slang and I don't really encounter a lot of street lingo, day to day.

Gripping the gunwhales
I do enjoy learning the words that are unique to a line of work. When we went crabbing on the Choptank River with Cap'n Ernie, I loved helping my boys learn what you might call "boating slang." We learned that the sides of the boat are called the gunwhales, but are pronounced "gunnels." We talked about fore, aft, port and starboard. I thought we were walking on the boat's deck, but Cap'n Ernie told me on his working boat, it's called the ceiling. Who knew? Not me. Knowing these words means you could be part of the Waterman's gang. However, the lack of leathery skin and gnarled hands would be a dead giveaway that my kids are land lubbers.

But as a parent, I struggle with my reactions when I hear my boys using words or phrases that have a more R-rated connotation. If I discourage it, their unending curiosity is sparked and it's likely to  make using the language a very enticing way to get a reaction from their mom. But if I ignore it, I run the risk of seriously awkward social situations.

My three current dilemmas:

My 6 year old has been shouting, "that's the money shot!" as he kicks the football around the backyard. He just means it was a perfect kick and that it went exactly where he wanted it to go. I mean, his contextual use is completely accurate, but he's also totally ignorant of the origin of that phrase. Our neighbors are outdoors a lot. They are going to think we let him watch Boogie Nights.

Similarly, when we were driving in Oakland near the Carnegie Museum complex, my husband was paralyzed with laughter when the same son shouted, "Look Dad, a whale tail!" To my 6 year old (and me) the only possible definition could be the tail of a real whale, and in this case, it was the huge poster advertising the whale exhibit at the museum. But to my street-savvy spouse, it referenced a rather questionable fashion choice. Luckily the car windows were up, or quite a few Pitt students would've been disappointed that there wasn't a "real" whale tail for their viewing pleasure.

Who loves nuts?

Finally, my 4-year-old was crying last night, very loudly, and saying, "I need my nuts!" It's really just his undying love of pistachios as his before-bed snack. He really loves those nuts. But what if he starts mentioning to other kids how much he loves his nuts? How am I going to explain that to the parents from daycare? Surely they've been in the same boat, wondering how they are going to explain that the phrase "poop deck" doesn't mean this actually where you poop and no, no one's pooped on this deck. It's just a phrase, and no I don't know where it came from. Just eat your nuts.