It’s Like Learning a New Language…

…except for it’s English.  Well, I think it’s English, at least.  Since we don’t follow popular culture at all, every time we come back from overseas there’s a little bit of a culture shift that’s happened.  Even when we’re here in the U.S., we don’t really follow the culture, but since that’s our melieu, we pick up some of what’s going on just by osmosis, or free-floating cultural memes, or something of the like.  Just until you get immersed into it, there are certain turns of phrase or words that jangle a little bit when you hear them the first few times.  It really is like when you hear a new idiom in a foreign language, and definitely know the words individually, but not in that particular combination, and cannot for the life of you piece together what it actually means (which may be the opposite of what you would infer from just dictionary definitions of the words, or something completely unrelated).

The last time I came back to the U.S., “hot mess” really stuck out at me because I had never heard it, and it seemed like everyone was using it all the time.  Now, that may just have been my office, but I heard it other places, too.  “Fidelity” as in, “We need greater fidelity on that issue before we can make a decision” is one that cropped up last time, and continues to rear its head all the time.  I sort of think that if you need more information you should ask for the details, rather than make a pompous sounding statement that could be mistaken for a moral commentary.

This go around, though, there was one that really confused me.  The first time, I thought it was just the way the person spoke, but when someone else used it as well, it caught my attention.  The third time made it clear that I had somehow missed when the idiom entered the lexicon.  Before a couple of months ago, I had never heard the phase “this one’s a foot stomper,” especially not to mean “needs heavy emphasis, and is something I’m willing to hold up a conversation over to ensure that my point is understood.”  The first time I heard it the context was such that it could have been taken as “this was a ridiculous assertion, akin to a funny joke” when it was supposed to mean “carried emphasis.”  Color me puzzled about it, but there you are.

Finally, if I could vote to expunge a word from the dictionary, my vote would be for “impactful.”  This one caught up with me all the way in Liberia, and now that I’m here I hear it quite often.  Every time it makes me cringe because it means precisely nothing and could possibly make a hearer think of faulty digestion, rather than significant results.  When I hear it, it seems to be used to cast a positive light, but impact itself carries a neutral connotation, so the positive light seems somewhat incorrect.

Not that I’m an expert philologist or linguist, far be it from one (never took a linguistics course in my life), but I’d like to think my ear is pretty well tuned to new turns of phrase.  Some of them, even in my native tongue, are just a little more puzzling than others, especially if you’re outside the development zone for the new terms.