GenEd: “Real Words”

Ordering minority groups to “speak proper English” suppresses and negates their culture and identity.

On Mondays, we read or write silently because cultivating a passion for lifelong reading is among the pillars of my personal and professional mission as an educator.

Plus, we’re too tired to do anything else.

We also introduce the week’s vocabulary words. My classes compete for vocabulary use through a marble system (I use pompoms), and the winning class is rewarded with food and celebration. I derive my word lists from first-year college texts and SAT vocabulary. I also periodically include common words that students might run into.

So, they were delighted and shocked last Monday when they came to class and found this on the board:


4-22-19 Vocab

Is!: (interjection) an exclamation of sarcasm.

Lowkey: (adverb) signifying secrecy or keeping things from public attention.

Bet: (interjection) an exclamation of excitement or agreement.

‪ (interjection) expressing dismissiveness or carelessness.

Clout chaser: (noun) one who feigns importance to gain attention or approval…


“What’s this?” students cried.

“Student-selected vocab,” I replied.

They racked up points every hour, firing back and forth at one another in a strange, distinct, and flagrantly negative but admittedly hilarious vernacular which I can only categorize as “Modern Fordson Slang”. Examples include:

“Lemme see your eraser.”

“I’m scooping you tomorrow.”

“…that’s why Capitalism is better than Communism.”
“He’s such a clout chaser!”

“Lowkey, I have to go it’s an EMERGENCYYYYYYY—”

“This week, everyone, we’re going to be working on a project—”
“Misterrrrrrr don’t worryyyyyyyyyyyyyy we’re gonna do it!”

Not even I was spared their ruthless wit.

But after all the fun had settled, a student said, “Yeah, but these aren’t real words.”

Real words? “Why not?” I asked.

“Well, they’re not in the dictionary.”

“So what?”

We don’t use words because they’re in the dictionary; words are in the dictionary because we use them.


This same notion was repeated in each of my classes, in one form or another. Although amused, students indicated that these words—which they use regularly and ubiquitously—don’t qualify as “real” or “proper” English because they’re not in the dictionary. Their reasoning reflects a common misconception about how language develops, for although dictionaries attempt to compile the vocabulary of a language, they don’t invent it.

In other words, we don’t use words because they’re in the dictionary; words are in the dictionary because we use them.

On average, dictionaries tend to lag behind a language’s cutting-edge evolution by about 10 to 15 years. As we rant and rave on social media, complain and gossip via text message, and debate and discuss in bars and coffee shops, dictionary publishers scramble to document our reinventions and coinages. Sometimes, language communities have long moved on from certain words and phrases by the time they appear in dictionaries.

(Thus, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss President Trump as a moronic lingtard, because in theory, if he tweets “covfefe” and “bigly” frequently enough, they’d eventually end up in the dictionary.

The same goes for “bet” and “is”.)

As I explained this to my students, many became visibly animated, exuding excitement and pride. One in particular declared with a dignified air, “So, we’re trendsetters.”

She’s right; they are. One thing that is impossible to ignore in East Dearborn is the undeniably unique and self-cultivated “style” of its residents. Language, customs, homes, cars, and clothes are all quintessentially “Dearborn”.

But this was just as much a lesson on vocabulary as on human value. They may not realize it, but my students genuinely believe that their language is inferior to that of conventional American English, thus internalizing an invalidity toward their own language. Tragically, this notion transcends Arab Muslim teen culture in southeast Michigan; it is common among minorities, and is also troublesome and false. Vast numbers of communities, nations, and civilizations have been convinced of the inferiority of their languages, which effectively negates their personal and cultural value.

My students genuinely believe that their language is inferior to that of conventional American English.


To command Hispanics to “speak English” and African-Americans to “speak proper English” is, intentionally or otherwise, to suppress and negate their identity and culture. Language makes us human and brings us together, and its relationship to thought and identity cannot be overstated. Therefore, we must beware the dangers of destroying or suppressing human expression by dismissing or invalidating it.

After all, William Shakespeare wouldn’t approve. Credited with coining over 1,700 different words and terms, he almost single-handedly invented modern English by defying the language norms and conventions of his time. The same can be said for Snoop Dogg, Cardi B, and President Trump.

In short, my students’ colloquial lexicon is just as much “real words” as anything else on a bookshelf, and perhaps the most important pillar of my personal and professional mission as an educator is ensuring that they understand that.

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