Care to Define That?

For all of our supposed intellectual prowess, Harvard students often sound like we are speaking nonsense. The fact that we have our own set of vocabulary to describe ordinary actions and events—“comp,” “concentrate,” and “punch”—makes us incomprehensible to the outside world after we graduate until we realize that these words aren’t recognized elsewhere. Going into the real world, Harvard students need to understand that there are some words that do not exist outside of the Harvard sphere. Insisting on their use—especially without explanation—can be irritating and unnecessary.

When I first arrived at Harvard, I felt like Harry at Hogwarts—and not in the good way. Like Harry, who questioned the meanings of words like, “quidditch” and “platform 9 ¾,” I constantly felt surrounded by a strange dialect that no one was willing to explain. I was lost. My conversations would go something like the this:

“You’re comping the Crimson?”

“Um,  I’m trying out. What’s ‘comp’?”

“Oh you’re such a freshman!”

“Well yes, thanks, I get that. But really, what is a ‘comp’?”

Granted, all schools have words, places, and people specific to their culture and lifestyle. It is impossible to fully grasp the unique identity of a school until you are fully immersed in its traditions and get to know its students, abbreviations, and classes. But Harvard is unique in its lack of any real explanation for freshmen on Harvard diction. Freshmen are left on their own to flounder through the first few weeks of essentially learning a new language without any direction. Many Harvard students unthinkingly bring their newfound vocabulary words into the world outside of Harvard. Here, however, no one cares to hear them—and rightfully so.

In my experience, when friends from other schools use abbreviations or unknown phrases, they often explain them. “I’m working for Colby’s SAA this semester—their Student Alumni Association,” I’ve been told, with the consideration that I would not automatically understand what SAA stood for. Harvard students, on the other hand, often tend to barrel on as if their audience is instantly expected to know what “IOP” or “Pfoho” are (I mean, how could they not?). By the end of the conversation, the only “punching” this audience likely understands is the kind that is directed at the speaker’s face.

Freshmen need to have crucial words explained to them upon arrival or upon use in conversation. Peer Advising Fellow (PAF) meeting number one should tell us that concentration means major, that a House is a dorm for upperclassmen. It may sound silly, petty, and condescending, but it’s hard to feel part of a community as a freshman when you don’t know what on earth anyone is talking about. For the first few weeks of freshmen year, I thought the abbreviation for Freshman Arts Program, or FAP, was a type of soft drink.

One could argue that freshmen ought to do their research and figure these things out before their arrival. However, this is unrealistic: it is a well-accepted truth that you cannot expect to know everything you need to know about a school until you begin attending classes there.  On the other hand, it doesn’t seem nearly as unreasonable to expect that someone at the school would explain the terminology of the school to students once they have begun attending.

Here’s one word everyone understands: obnoxious. Let’s stop acting that way, and learn to use words that are universally accepted.


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