Talky Tuesday: Navigating Language in a leaky boat, part 1

How certain terms that leaked out of academia have been misinterpreted by laypeople, making a giant mess of it.

There’s kind of an interesting problem going on in language nowadays, particularly in English speaking countries. But before I get into it specifically, I want you to try to think of any highly-jargoned language that has also managed to sneak out into common usage.

Probably the only common ones are those that people interact with regularly. For example, if you’ve ever gotten a loan or started a bank account, then you probably know APR. And if you got that loan to buy a car, then you probably paid very close attention to the EPA estimates for MPG on the make and model you chose.

If you’ve ever seriously tried to lose weight or bulk up at the gym, then you know BMI and what it stands for, as well as terms like keto, intermittent fasting, and leg day. And if you follow the news, then you probably know the meaning of terms like WaPo, the Squad, lame duck, recall, primary, and so on.

But, again, these are jargon terms that leak out because they affect a lot of people not in a particular profession, or at least become common in consumer-facing areas.

Let’s try some expressions from more specialized fields. Do ROI, CPM, ROS, total spend, sunk cost, Q score, persona, platforming, and soft launch mean anything to you?

What about POS display, header, end-cap, margin, up-sell, logistics chain, loss leader, and loss prevention team?

Table read, standards and practices, above the line, net points (aka “nyet points”), forced call, closed set, clearances, yellow draft, location, UPM, double up pay, show-runner.

Or these: Part A, Part B, supplemental plan, effective date, qualifying event, open enrollment, Part D penalty.

Unless you’ve worked in marketing, retail, TV production, or Medicare insurance, you probably won’t recognize many or any of these.

Okay, one more quiz. How many of these terms do you know the meaning of?

Triggered, gender neutral, non-binary, pronouns, safe space, critical race theory.

If you said you know the meaning of each of them but you haven’t been working in academia for at least a decade, then congratulations. Your understanding of each of these words is probably completely wrong.

That’s because none of them were created for muggles but, rather, were meant as terms to be kept within the field in order to teach the teachers how to be more aware and sensitive toward their students. Each one is very specifically defined and far too complicated and nuanced for the general public.

And yet… they leaked out, most likely via sloppy use of them in university settings, to be later parroted back to parents or blabbed to the media by students disgruntled over that “C” they got because they only showed up for four classes during the entire term.

Side note: So… if one can be disgruntled, can one ever be gruntled? I have the same question about the opposite of nonplused, actually.

But back to the subject… these academic terms leaked out into the wild, were plastered all over the media and completely misinterpreted. Let’s look at how they have been.

Triggered

Nowadays, people on both sides of the political spectrum misuse this word, whether it’s coming from the left to call out a Karen who has a meltdown at the slightest pushback on her white privilege or coming from the right when someone on the left has anything bad to say about any prominent Republican. Well, okay, one of them in particular.

However, this was not the intended use of the word. It very specifically refers to victims of PTSD, and the kind of language, event, or stimulus that will trigger a flashback to that traumatic episode.

For example, a veteran who was traumatized when they saw their best friends and squad members blown apart by an IED that they survived might be triggered to relive that event by loud noises, like a car backfiring, thunder, or fireworks, the smell of burnt gunpowder, or the sight of blood or the butcher counter in a grocery store.

A child who was sexually molested by a trusted family member might be triggered by smelling someone wearing the same cologne, or a certain sequence of words, or by being touched (even innocently) in a certain place, like someone taking their elbow to guide them.

A woman who was raped by some random stranger might be triggered by suddenly realizing that a man is walking behind her in the same direction on the sidewalk, or by any of a number of sounds and smells, or by other random jackasses on the street telling her to smile or commenting on how pretty she is.

And so on.

The point is that trauma imprints people — severely — and this damage hadn’t really been addressed until recently.

PTSD.

Post-traumatic shock syndrome. That’s the modern term, which also came out of academia, and while most people seem to associate it with veterans, it’s not limited to them. Survivors of rapes, sexual assault, assault in general, natural disasters, and so on, can all suffer from it.

Over its history, PTSD was called other things: shell shock, soldier’s heart, combat fatigue or war neurosis. Yeah, kind of obvious that none of those really apply to people who were traumatized outside of war zones.

Eventually, the definition was expanded by the American Psychiatric Association in the 1980s, at which point all the other sufferers were recognized, and the idea of a triggering event was defined.

But… a trigger does not refer to something trivial like a Karen melting down over her favorite Starbucks not having Pumpkin Spice everything ready to go at opening on October 1, nor does it apply to Young Debbie Democrat freaking out over the latest trolling tweet from the two stupidest Republican members of Congress — and you know who I mean.

Neither of those events is going to send Karen or Debbie into a panic attack that sends them fleeing the room. Neither one is going to make it difficult for them to breathe, or to trust anyone around them. In short, neither one is going to bring back a trauma that their privileged asses never experienced.

Which is why the term “triggered” should have been left in academia, where people know how to use it.

Safe space

Another term that has been misused and abused, the idea behind safe spaces originally referred to children on the spectrum, and how to teach them. In universities, it eventually expanded to on-campus rooms and professors’ offices where BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people were welcome to come and be free of abuse and bigotry — but the real function of those spaces was ideally to teach those students to go out into the world with no need for safe spaces.

Irony alert: This term is often bandied about by conservatives to imply that leftists are little weaklings, but I don’t recall the existence of safe spaces IRL among my leftist friends. Well, not officially mandated ones, anyway. We tend to create our own safe spaces, and then the Trumpeteers are too afraid to even approach, because there are so many more of us than them.

“Safe space” indicates a person or place with no value judgments of an individual, as well as respect for their needs — for example, special showings of movies for children on the spectrum with lowered volume and reduced stimulation are safe spaces.

So are straight LGBTQ+ allies who welcome people from those groups into their homes and lives without judgement, treating them just like everyone else.

Gender neutral

Academically, this is strictly aimed at removing gendered language in general, but without really drawing attention to it. It involves things like replacing terms like “waiter” and “waitress” with “server,” and so on, and writing textbooks using non-gendered pronouns, like they and them.

And yes, those pronouns have been singular since the 14th century, so fake language purists who don’t know what they’re talking about can just STFU.

However, in muggle minds, this gets conflated with gender neutral as a term for restrooms, and the less enlightened somehow twist this into “OMG — men in dresses going into the girls’ room to rape our daughters!”

I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling.

This, of course, couldn’t be farther from the truth.

But settle your jets, transphobes. Gender neutral only refers to language, not restrooms, because humans are definitely not gender neutral. That’s part of the whole reason for people defining their pronouns in the first place — because we need to.

And in not choosing between either, “non-binary” is still a gender choice, so calling a non-binary person “gender neutral” is still showing them a lot of disrespect. “Non-binary” just means “not limited to two options.” It most certainly does not mean, “No options chosen.”

Latinx

Here’s a case where academia came up with a term that actually pissed off the community it was aimed at. Why? Simply because Latin (or Romance) languages — Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian — are gendered. All of them have two linguistic genders except Romanian, which has three.

And then along comes “latinx,” which, unfortunately, comes from mostly privileged white academics, and Latinos have a problem with that. For one thing, it erases the genders in the Spanish and Portuguese languages, but really does it as a callback to colonialization.

Translation: White, western Europeans telling all the brown people in the Americas what they should call themselves.

And there are better ways to do this without angloparlantes creating an unpronounceable term into Spanish — latin-eks? Latinequis? Nah…

Latin@ is a kind of typographic possibility because it puts to “o” and “a” endings into one character but, again, how do you pronounce it? Latinao? Latinhão in Portuguese?

Hopefully never “Latinat.” And remember that “at” in Spanish is “a,” so we wind up back at the female term trying to encompass everyone, which is exactly the opposite of how grammatical genders in these languages work.

The most organic terms possible? Latine and latinos.

The former is a generally accepted gender-neutral ending for Spanish nouns. The latter is the plural and gender-neutral term that indicates there are a shitload of girls but at least one boy. Sexist as fuck? Oh, sure. But at least more respectful of the colonial overtones of all that other shit.

Although go for the gender-neutral Latista if you really have las pelotas for it. Él es un latista; ella es una latista.  

Pelotas — balls. And yes, those kinds of balls, and yet their gender is feminine. Go figure.

Not that “latinx” isn’t used by a number of Latinos in the U.S., but a lot of them are several generations removed from being immigrants, so the term doesn’t strike them the same way that it would someone who is first generation or an immigrant, or who lives in a Spanish-speaking country in the Americas.

But, again, as with pronouns — it’s up to the individual to decide what term they want to apply to themselves, and no one’s place to tell them what they can or can’t call themselves — and especially not the place of someone who does not belong to the group.

The closest my tall, white ass gets is the dash of Basque that slipped into my DNA at some point, but they’re no relation to any Latinos, and the “close” part is literally because the Basque homeland is jammed in between France and Spain.

Again, this got a bit long for one piece, so come back next week for the rest of these misunderstood words.

Sunday nibble #82: Talk of the town

I really knew nothing about Everyone’s Talking about Jamie before I saw a trailer on Instagram, but I was intrigued immediately. It promised the story of a high school student in England who was already openly gay, but was about to go through a second coming out, revealing his desire to be a drag queen.

Take a look at that trailer here:

The comments on the post were mostly positive with, of course, the obligatory homophobic and transphobic jabs tossed in — although maybe someday people will realize that drag queens/kings and transwomen and transmen are not the same thing.

Anyway, the trailer got me really excited about seeing the film, which I did over last weekend, and I was not disappointed. Based on a musical that premiered in Sheffield, Yorkshire, the setting of the story, eventually transferring to London’s West End (aka British Broadway), it tells the true story of Jamie Campbell — who played himself when the show premiered — a kid from a working class neighborhood in Sheffield who had dreams of being a drag queen.

It was an instant hit in Sheffield, and a production company approached the producers about turning it into a film after representatives had come to the tenth performance. Like most projects from 2020, the film’s release was delayed due to COVID, finally receiving a limited theatrical release in September 2021 before debuting on Amazon Prime.

The stage version will be appearing in Los Angeles as part of Center Theatre Group’s 2021-22 season, premiering in January 2022.

As for the film version — it won me over from the opening moments, largely due to the sheer charisma and likeability of newcomer Max Harwood, who embodies Jamie with an enthusiastic and positive energy, whether he’s setting off on his early morning paper-route in the rain, greeting his mom as he comes home while she’s heading off to work, or appreciating the little messages she’s left for him.

Oh, right. One important detail is that today is Jamie’s 16th birthday, and everyone seems to know that — his mom, obviously, and his bestie Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), the half-Muslim, half-Hindi girl who lives in her own world of not fitting in.

After Jamie’s mom gives him a very special birthday gift that lets us know she is 100% accepting of her son no matter who he is, Jamie comes out to Pritti to reveal his deepest desire — to be a drag queen.

Throughout, the film is full of amazing and colorful musical numbers that spring out of nowhere but not without motivation — largely a lot of Jamie’s fantasies, but not always, especially after he meets his mentor, retired drag queen Loco Chanelle, aka Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant), who becomes Jamie’s mentor after the boy wanders into Hugo’s costume/clothing shop.

Of course, Jamie’s journey could not be without setbacks and adversaries, the biggest one being a single moment in his childhood when his father Wayne (Ralph Ineson; now his mother’s ex) caught him playing dress-up and called him “disgusting,” a wound that has yet to heel, but he also has to contend with Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), the Year 11 practical teacher — i.e. the one who is supposed to talk them out of dreams of being social media influencers and into dead-end jobs in Sheffield, and Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley), the somewhat homophobic school bully who is considered a cool kid by some.

I do find the casting of an actor named “Bottomley” as the homophobic bully to be hilarious, by the way — but he, like everyone else on screen, is just amazing in their role.

As is typical of British actors, everyone commits and everyone nails it, and every single performer absolutely embodies their roles from start to finish, which is what makes the film so damn engaging.

The real standouts are Harwood, whose vulnerability turned fierceness makes us root for him from the first instant; the amazing Sarah Lancashire as his mother, Margaret, who will do anything for her boy, including lying about his father Wayne showing up for the party but having to leave; Richard E. Grant, who’s practically a British institution by now, but comes on with all of the gravitas and camp necessary to make his role a show-stopper; Horgan’s Miss Hedge, who toes that always fine line of making us hate her character without playing into the stereotype, so we understand her even as we want to throw rotten tomatoes; and Bottomley, who torments Jamie throughout and yet finally reaches a détente with him.

The big pre-prom scene between the two of them in particular skates a really fine line and, like most of the movie, avoids the stereotyped and obvious conclusion.

Reportedly, the film version cut seven songs from the stage version — not a surprise — so I can’t give a full report on the music, other than to say that it does suffer from one of the great drawbacks of a lot of early 2000s musicals written by people not named Lin-Manuel: the music gets poppy and repetitious, with no really strong themes or melodies, so that nothing stands out.

It is fun while it’s happening, but you won’t be humming it on the way to your car unlike a show like, e.g. Chicago or Evita.

On the other hand, you will be enjoying it while you’re watching it. Bonus points: If you grew LGBTQ+, there are several points during the film where you will just bawl your eyes out, guaranteed.

Bonus points: During the later credits, we get to see the real Jamie and his mother Margaret, and it is absolutely striking how closely Max Harwood resembles Jamie Campbell while Lancashire and Mom… not so much. It’s not just the physical resemblance in casting. It’s quite clear that Max just absorbed and embodied Jamie 100% — which makes me think that this kid is going places.

Ride with pride

Today would have marked the 70th birthday of American astronaut Sally Ride, who has so many firsts or near-firsts associated with her that it’s nothing short of remarkable.

Born in 1951, she joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space five years later in 1983. She was third woman in space overall after Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, who had gone up in 1962 and 1983 respectively.

She was also the youngest American astronaut to ever go into space, achieving the record with her first flight, when she was 32. She served with NASA until 1987 but still racked up another first — she was the only person to serve on both of the committees that investigated the disastrous losses of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

And that may be where you had a Mandela effect moment and said to yourself, “Wait. Didn’t she die in the Columbia crash?” While she is dead, the answer is “No.” I think a lot of people get her confused with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher-astronaut, who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, at the age of 61, but she did leave another first as her legacy.

She had been married to a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, for the five years leading up to her leaving NASA, but her obituary revealed that she had been with her partner, children’s book author and women’s tennis professional Tam O’Shaughnessy, for 27 years.

In other words, not only was she the first American woman in space, but she was also the first member of the LGBTQ+ community (that we know of) to have been in space.

The “that we know of” is significant there, since Ride was not out while with NASA or, indeed, in her lifetime — at least not publicly. And, due to circumstances, that has been the case with all astronauts for all of NASA’s history but it also extends to China, the USSR, and later, Russia.

There may have been other astronauts that fell into one of the LGBTQ+ categories, but if so, none of them has ever said a word about it. It also didn’t help that a lot of NASA’s operations were centered in Texas (thank LBJ for that) where sodomy was illegal up until 2003.

And the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — have not been very gay- or lesbian-friendly, let alone any other member of the community. The fields have traditionally been male-dominated, particularly through most of the previous century.

That’s because science, et. al, was focused on big developments for society-at-large. There was also the built-in misogyny of expectations: Men would become the breadwinners, and women would take care of the homes and children.

Complete and utter bullshit, yes, but for decades, women rarely got the chance to even go to college. If they did, it might be “only” a junior college or secretarial school where they would pick up just the skills necessary to work some menial support job in an office or factory, along with all those necessary skills to keep a tidy, functioning household, handle the shopping and budget, and manage the kids along with the housework.

The shorthand code for this was “learning to keep your husband happy,” and that was the whole point. Shortly before that wedding but definitely around the time of the first baby, Mom was out of the workforce and she even added a new, inanimate spouse, going from just “wife” to “housewife.”

I wish I were kidding.

This really started to hit its peak from the 1920s onward, ironically (or maybe not) because of improvements in technology. Home appliances made big advances going into the 1930s, and suddenly it was possible for one woman to do all of the cooking and cleaning and sewing and whatever all by herself, without a fleet of servants.

Not that poorer households had servants, of course. That’s what daughters were for once they were old enough to wield a mop and change a diaper.

There was a brief glimmer of light during WW II, oddly enough, and to this day the image of Rosie the Riveter, actually based on a real person, is still held up as a progressive icon on many fronts. She stands for not only gender equality, but for the power inherent and the change possible when members of marginalized and oppressed groups work together and speak out.

The original “Rosie the Riveter,” as an abstract concept represented all of those “housewives” who went on to take factory jobs in positions more directly involved with STEM because there were not enough men of the right ages to do it. As a song from the era lamented, They’re Either Too Young or Too Old, and that was exactly the case.

It’s all spelled out in this song from 1943, written for the movie Thank Your Lucky Stars, which was one of those late-war feel-good films showcasing a bunch of Hollywood stars as sort of a USO show for the home front.

Her number is absolutely hilarious, by the way, and the lyrics are quite clever. It’s worth a watch.

Anyway, all of these women (plus people of color who couldn’t get in) experienced a few brief years in the workforce, and realized that, well, “Yes, we can!” And then were promptly put right back where they’d been beforehand when the men came back.

But from that point, it didn’t take long for things to come bubbling back, it’s no coincidence that the sexual revolution, the gay liberation movement, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and all the others began about a generation after the war ended.

Well, okay. The Civil Rights movement began pretty much immediately, but the others started with their own baby steps in the 1950s, and followed the model of the CRM.

Certain groups snuck under the STEM barrier earlier than others of course. For example, the film Hidden Figures finally brought to wide attention the important role a group of African-American women played in the American Space Flight effort from the beginning of the 1960s — although it’s easy to forget that while these women were doing the complex calculations that made sure we put humans into space and brought them back safely, it really wasn’t an appreciated skill.

They were referred to as “computers,” and not as a compliment. It was still the boys having all the fun with the engineering and mechanics and actually building stuff. They never seemed to notice that most of it probably would have come flaming back to Earth without the help of their “computers.”

Still… women and people of color did find wider acceptance in STEM. Openly LGBTQ+ people? Rarer, even up until the middle of the 2010s. This is visible every time there’s some scientific study done with a strong heteronormative bias.

There are plenty of studies on why straight men look at women’s boobs, as well as studies on why, but damn little on things like do straight women look at women’s boobs? Do gay men? Do lesbians look at women’s boobs as much as straight men? And so on.

Unfortunately, the subject of LGBTQ+ experience only entered via the so-called soft sciences, like sociology, psychology, and anthropology. They’re considered “soft” because it’s much more difficult to come up with absolute and concrete measurements in these fields.

These sciences are based on statistics rather than discrete data points. Sure, the entire field of calculus, which underlies much of modern physics, aeronautics, and the like, is sort of statistical in one sense, but it’s a kind of statistics that is narrowed down to such a small degree — and which doesn’t rely on human variables — that it’s not at all mushy.

In case you’re wondering, calculus deals with changes in systems based on vectors of movement; e.g. “If we launch a missile at x degrees, it weighs m kilos with fuel at launch, lifts off accelerating at a meters per second per second squared, and burns fuel at a rate of r liters per second while accelerating, at what height will the missile run out of fuel, and what will its trajectory be when the force of gravity, G, reacts with the remaining mass, m-(r-r1), how fast will it be pulled back to Earth, at what angle and what velocity, and where will it hit?

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? And it is, and this is the kind of thing those human “computers” had to do by hand. But here’s the thing… each step of the way, there is a specific value to plug in, and exact rules that determine behavior.

Thomas Pynchon called this Gravity’s Rainbow, and he wasn’t really wrong even if he did write a completely incomprehensible book. It’s a phrase that describes ballistic travel and pays homage to the inventor of calculus, Isaac Newton, who also pioneered optics, hence the rainbow.

But, when it comes to the “soft” sciences, there is no rainbow because things cannot be plugged in as neatly. That’s because those equations may evolve things like, “We tried to determine how many men have had homosexual experiences, and out of a sample of X, we determined that the percentage is p.

The big problem, of course, is that there are so many possibilities not only for the number in X, but the source, so the p could wind up being anything.

Start with the question “Have you ever?” and only ask 5,000 males who attended British boarding schools between, say, 1900 and 1950, and you might get something like 75% or higher.

Start with the question “Do you now?” and limit it to 500 American males regardless of school status, and a lot depends on timing. Ask that question in 2021 among people agreed 13 to 23, and you might get a really high percentage. Ask that question in 1990 but only among men over 40, and you might get single digit percentages.

Also don’t forget… the rules of physics and things you can measure on a scale or with a ruler don’t lie. Humans do. So any study in the soft sciences is going to have a huge margin of error because it all depends on whether someone actually answers the questions honestly.

And, come on, when it comes to sex and sexuality, very few people have the gonads necessary to just answer the questions honestly without trying to put themselves in the best light.

So… we really don’t know how many LGBTQ+ astronauts there have been. We could have had half a dozen by now, or Sally could be truly the only example. (Though I doubt it.) The only thing we do know is that there are definitely a ton of LGBTQ+ people in the sciences, and The Advocate recently compiled this self-reported list of 500 Queer Scientists in STEM fields.

Enjoy!

THIS JUST IN! Announced right before publish time, Sally Ride and Maya Angelou to be the first two women depicted on American quarters. Of course, the linked article mentions nothing about Sally being gay.

Image source: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons