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Deconstructing Harvard-Speak

By Beth L. Pinsker

I AM an English concentrator. In order to graduate, I must study semiotics and other language-oriented theories. Every paper I write must tear apart (i.e. deconstruct) the language of a text.

And for what good? At least for me, the hope is that some day I will have the kind of understanding of words that has allowed New York Times collumnist William Safire to define the terms of Reagan-speak and Quayle-twisters for the past 10 years.

Of course, Safire has been writing for more than 10 years, but before fourth grade, I didn't read anything that wasn't on the comic's page. After I moved up from Garfield--but before I ever read the famed deconstructionist Jacques Derrida--I was intrigued by Safire's dissection of political jargon and other cultural terms.

I have always wondered what he would do with the language he heard around Harvard.

Harvard students, with our 700-plus SAT verbal scores, like to think that we speak more refined English than the rest of the country. But even we fall for colloquialisms as much as any other community. Harvard-speak is not exemplary academic usage.

Everyone has stood in line in a dining hall behind a conversation that goes something like this:

"So, did you see that guy, like, talking to me?"

"Yeah, it was like, weird you know."

"He goes `Hello, how are you' to me and I was like `Hi.' I didn't know what to say at all; I was like, floored."

In a single breath, like can be used as an adjective, adverb, noun and verb. In Harvard-speak, "to be like" and "to go" are perfectly acceptable alternatives to the verb "to say." What exactly does it mean when one says, "He went like..."?

I rest my case about the sophistication of language at Harvard.

But this still leaves me with some questions that only an expert like Safire could answer. I have been sending him anonymous letters for years about the confusing terminology of my peers, but with no response. I think it is time to open this debate to the public.

FOR instance, when did things become so random here at Harvard? Since the Great Housing Lottery Debate, this seems to have become a significant word in almost every student's vocabulary. But "random" has more to do with entropy than with diversity and housing choices.

Safire himself commented on how "Boston-area colleges" have re-invented the meaning of a word once used mostly in the context of probability theory and state lotteries.

For example: someone calls on the phone and doesn't leave a message. Your roommate screams, "That was so random. Some random guy just called and didn't leave a message. How random!"

What every happened to "weird," or "strange" or even plain old "unusual"?

If a person calls your room and asks for you, it obviously isn't a wrong number. So it isn't random. It is just unexplainable. So is the unexplainable random? I think that only my "Space, Time and Motion" section leader--who spent an entire year trying to convince me that the universe is completely random in an orderly way--would buy that argument.

ANOTHER strange--pardon me, random--system of terminology at Harvard is the ever-growing "romantic encounter" slang. In a true melting-pot method, every student has brought a way of referring to the process of seduction from his or her high school. In a true Harvard semiotic (and pathetic) argument, the number of signifiers far outstrips the mystical signified object. (In other words, we have a lot of words for it, but it doesn't happen much.)

First you scope. If you find something you like, you try to hook up. If you are successful, you move on to scamming, otherwise known as messing around.

If any of the above are perpetrated under the influence of (illegally obtained) alcohol, you may have beer goggled. (Drinking habits, by the way, open up a whole new chapter in the study of Harvard slang, including at least 50 words for the act of imbibing and the condition of intoxication, not to mention about 100 more words to describe the regurgitation that follows. Even the word party, which most of us grew up thinking was a noun meaning "celebration," is now a euphemistic verb for "to drink.")

The eskimos have a lot of words for snow, but they have a lot of snow. I am not convinced that we have cultural justification for matching up every step of the very well-defined process of hooking up with a word from every part of speech.

When residents of the Real World go strolling through the Yard, wondering in awe of the brilliant students they see sitting on the steps of Widener (students who are probably blowing off work and bagging classes), they must be perplexed by the unfamiliar vocabulary they over-hear. The tourists are probably under the mistaken impression that our diction is just too sophisticated for them to understand--that it has something to do with Kant, Nietzsche or Wittgenstein.

Who knows, perhaps they really did listen in on a genuine, brilliant intellectual converstaion. That would be completely random.

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