Beyond the Word

Check out my recent interview with a former student of mine! So exciting to see our work pay off as these young folk really start to make positive impacts on their own communities – and the larger world!

RhetComp @ Stony Brook

by Joe Labriola

I recently sat down with Stony Brook University’s Undergraduate Student President, Ayyan Zubair – before his speech to the campus community about the recent ending of DACA – to discuss the role of writing, rhetoric, and effective communication as a student, activist, and emerging global citizen.

Photo credit: Ayyan Zubair and the SB Statesman

What do you think the value of writing and rhetoric is for students across academic disciplines?

I have a lot of friends who are pre-med – I’m a math and economics major. And if you can’t write, you really can’t speak that well either. For example, whether you like Obama or not, you can’t deny that he’s a brilliant speaker. And why is he a brilliant speaker? Well, he’s able to write. I’m actually reading his book right now, The Audacity of Hope. His story’s amazing. I’m waiting for his next one after…

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That Time in my Life When Grammar Met Poetry

Dear gods! (yes, gods plural) I just stumbled upon this old undergraduate final project of mine! While I’m not sure what English and or writing class it was for, it certainly must have been a doozy for the professor to grade. There might even be some errors here that undergraduate me overlooked – there’s certainly some nauseating verse – but also some entertaining gems. Ahh…to be an undergraduate who thinks he knows grammar again… Do you notice anything out of sorts here? (besides for butchered rhymes and meter). Please leave any in the comments below!

For the much more readable pdf, click here:


Rhyming Reason
to a God-Awful, Boring Subject
2009 By Joe Labriola


Table of Contents
1. Introduction……………………………………………………………..p. 3 – 4
2. “Imply” vs. “Infer” ……………………………………………………..p. 4 – 5
3. “Then” vs. “Than” ………………………………………………………p. 5
4. “Lay” vs. “Lie”………………………………………………………….p. 5 – 6
5. “Between” vs. “Among”…………………………………………………p. 6 – 7
6. “Affect” vs. “Effect”…………………………………………………….p. 7
7. Quick snares……………………………………………………………..p. 7 – 8
8. “Who” vs. “Whom”………………………………………………………p. 8 – 9
9. “Whoever” vs. “Whomever”…………………………………………….p. 9
10. “Me” vs. “I”………………………………………………………………p. 10 – 11
11. “Neither nor”…………………………………………………………….p. 11 – 12
12. “Tense”…………………………………………………………………..p. 12
13. “Me” vs. “Myself”……………………………………………………….p. 12 – 13
14. “Fewer” vs. “Less Than”…………………………………………………p. 13 – 14
15. Subjunctive………………………………………………………………p. 14
16. “Lying” vs. “Laying”…………………………………………………….p. 15
17. “Lain” vs. “Laid”…………………………………………………………p. 15
18. Superlatives……..………………………………………………………..p. 16
19. “Hopefully”……….………………………………………………………p. 16 – 17
20. Conclusion……………………………………………………………….p. 17 – 19
21. Works Cited………………………………………………………………p. 20


Gather all those who wish to know
about the rights and wrongs of prose;
of how to write in song and script;
and use the rules you’ve often skipped.
I’ll speak of words that are misused
and teach you how they are abused.
And by the end I hope you’ll know
enough to make your papers flow.
Now this might seem against all sense
to teach such tools within such tense,
but rules are dumb and not much fun
and rhymes are cool when they’re well spun.


I seek to teach all those who try
in school and life to just pass by,
and right the wrongs you often make,
and point out your most made mistakes.
Now let’s begin with how to use
the words that we most often choose
and turn out wrong and make us fail;
that give us F’s and turn us pale.

Sometimes you say or write, “imply”,
but you are wrong although you try.
“My words imply that she is mean
because she said she will not clean.”
What you instead “infer” from her
is that she’s mean since she won’t stir.
And, “I infer from what she said,”
is how you use this word instead.
When you “imply” it’s often you
who others say says something true.


When you “infer”, you are the one
who hears others and claims a pun.

Now “then” and “than” are often mixed.
I know adults who need this fixed.
They say, “I am smarter then her,”
but this is wrong, you can infer.
Because “then” moves time, space, and plot,
while “than” compares, contrasts what’s not.
“I am smarter than all of those….”,
is how to use “than” in your prose.
“I went to Kate’s and then to Ken’s,”
is how you say you saw your friends,
because you moved and don’t compare.
The worth of friends you do not care.

Now that your mind has been prepared
it’s time for words that often scare
like “lay” and “lie” and how they’re used,
and now learn why they are confused.


Now both are verbs and both are right;
when used correct they should not fright.
To “lay” is to put something down.
To “lie” is when you’re on the ground.
“The boy will lay it on the floor,”
and “I lie down nearby the door.”
But “I lay down in bed to rest,”
and “I laid down my failing test.”

So try all those and you will see
which one is right out of those three.
Speaking of which, which do you guess?
“Between”, “among”, which sounds the best?
“I choose between the two of you.”
“I pick among the six I view.”
“Between” is when there’s only two.
“Among” you use when more than few.
“Between these groups,” if you mean two.
If plural, but two, then still it’s true.
And leave “amongst”. It doesn’t flow


unless Britain you choose to go.

Another one we often mix:
“Affect,” “effect,” which one to pick?
Now, “I affect how you all learn.”
Is that right or cause for concern?
That line is right and this is why:
because “affect” is when you try
to do the act that makes the change,
and makes “effects” from your exchange.
“I felt effects from your knife.”
This is correct cause you’re in strife.
The “knife” “affects” and you receive
“effects” that pain and badly grieve.

That was a stretch but made my point.
I’m trying not to disappoint.
Admit it’s not as bad as school
with lazy lines and boring rules.
Compose yourself; you’re almost there.


Perhaps I’ll list some simple snares
to ease your mind and give you break;
to help your mind again awake.
“Its there’s,” is wrong “It’s theirs” is true,
and “your” you own, and “you’re” is you.
And don’t use “ain’t” in any case
cause “ain’t” “ain’t” right in any place.

Now that’s enough so let’s move on.
There’s more to do before I’m gone,
like “who” and “whom” and when they’re used
and why they both are so confused.
Know: “who” is “he” and “whom” is “him”
and take a line and make it slim.
Like, “Don’t you wish that we could find
out who shot John and made him blind?”
So lose the words before the “who”
and answer like you have a clue.
Like: “He shot John and made him die?”
The “he” to “who” you here apply.


Now, “John’s the one whom I despise.”
You read this line and then revise.
“I despise him,” not “He I hate.”
And so it’s “whom” without debate.
The same for when you add “ever”
Like, “Whoever said that never….”
“He said never…” and that is right.
“Whomever you pick, we will like.”
So, “We like him,” is what should seem
the correct choice within this scheme.
“Whomever you chose, we will kill,”
“We will kill him,” is right, though ill.

Geez, this is long and drawing on.
Although my goal that you won’t yawn
I think has worked so far indeed.
If you’re still here then you still read.
I must admit that this is hard.
It’s left my mind and heart both scarred.


It’s fun for you but pain for me
but through these rhymes I hope you’ll see.
So what of “me” and “I” to do?
What rules to know to make these true?
Well, “I” it does and “me” allows.
Of how it’s done, I’ll show you now.

“I” first person, pronoun subject
while “me” receives what you inflect.
So “I” can do and “me” can act
from prepositions. This is fact.
“I wish to go to sleep today,”
is the sentence that you should say.
And, “Me cannot think what to do,”
is not a line you should construe.
Like “who” and “whom” you can replace
with one question within its space.
Like, “He asked Bob and I to go,”
make, “He asked I to go,” to show.


Now that line’s wrong, and “me” is right.
That, “He asked me,” instead you cite.
The same goes for with “we” and “us”.
Replace them when you need success.
So say, “Between just you and I,”
you take the “I” and “us” apply.
“Between just us,” does that sound good?
Or “we” seem right and understood?
If “us” sounds right, then that you use.
What word sounds right is what you choose.
So, “He asked me how it begins,”
replace the “me” to see which wins.

Now there is also “neither nor”,
the rules of which can be a bore.
“Neither I nor Chris understands,”
is the right line although it’s bland.
But note the verb and how it’s used;
how it’s not plural. Don’t be confused.
The word that’s by the verb the most


that is the tense that you should host.
“Neither I nor them can decide,”
look to the “them” to be your guide,
and since it’s plural you know the way:
the verb after is plural today.

And what of tense? What should be said?
When you have two to write instead.
Know, “She and Chris went to the store.”
And, “She and them, they all ignore.”
“He comes to fight and write for us.”
“They come because they know they must.”
You see my point of how this goes?
A few more lines I will compose.
“I do these rhymes because I must,
although my heart and head will bust.
Next time a game or something bland.
Such epic verse I cannot stand.”

Go back to “me” for just a bit.


“Me” or “myself” how to commit?
The rule of thumb is pretty good:
When you use “I”, “myself” you should.
So, “I myself cannot believe,”
is the right line you should perceive.
And, “He returned the book to me,”
is what is right, now do you see?
“I went myself before the court.”
“Myself” you here want to resort.
And, “They killed me after this verse,”
is how you should write and converse.

We’re almost done so don’t complain.
A few more rules are left to name.
“Fewer” “less than”, which way to go?
Which way to make your words most flow?
If you can count then use “fewer”.
Like, “I have five fewer than her.”
But if unknown and cannot view,
then use “less than” for all you do.


Say, “I have less money than them,”
Or, “I’m less glad, you see, than when
I hadn’t done these stupid rhymes
that seem no less than the worst crimes.”

I think that you should know as well
“subjunctive” tense and how to tell
when you should use this form and why;
of where and when you should apply.
When in a mood or are unsure,
instead of “was” you should use “were”.
Like, “I wish that these rhymes were done,”
because you wish for other fun.
“If I was you,” is incorrect.
Instead it’s “were”, you can’t object
because you think and do not state
facts that you cannot debate.

Now I could end right here and now
or keep going and teaching how


you use the rules I’ve taught so far
to make your words seem less bizarre.
Like “lie” and “lay”, remember those?
I taught you how to use in prose.
“Lying” “laying” we should speak of.
I left these out before above.
“I am lying within the jail,”
is what to use so not to fail.
And, “I’m laying down to rest,”
This is the act that sounds the best.

And what of “lain” and “laid” to do?
You thought it done, but we’re not through.
“My friend has lain for many hours,”
and, “I have laid down the flowers.”
Use “lain” for “lie” and “laid” for “lay”.
This is the rule you must obey.
Say, “I have lain in bed to rest,”
and, “I laid down my grammar test.”
Get it? Got it? It’s not that bad.


There’s two more left so don’t be mad.
I’m proud you’ve gone so long this long.
You’re almost there so please stay strong!

Superlatives are also mixed,
but I’ll show how to get them fixed.
Unique, perfect, the best, divine,
are all the words you can’t malign.
So, “He’s the most unique of us,”
is not a line that you should trust,
because unique, it is the most;
it is the best that you can boast.
You either are or aren’t best;
just know this for speech and tests.
“It is unique unlike the rest.”
Now there’s a line I can digest!

So finally we come at last
to one I think is most harassed.
“Hopefully I think we are done.”


Now there’s a line that you should shun.
Cause “hopefully” is when with “hope”.
We’re almost done so do not mope.
“I really hope this is the end.”
Now there’s a line you can defend.
Just know with “hope” you wish for good.
This is often misunderstood.
And so I hope that now you see
all of these rules I do decree.

So now all you who gathered here
have nothing left to learn or fear.
I chose eighteen and this is why
cause these are ones to get you by.
Eighteen seemed right for you adults,
and now my rhymes you can consult
in case you wish to write or speak
just look to my rhyming technique.
But just to make myself most clear,
please let me end with you still here.


And list some rules that I did break
to make these rhymes keep you awake.

Like “and” and “but” I did begin
certain lines, which some say is sin.
Do not do that unless you must.
This is one rule that you should trust.
Some rhymes I stretched and other’s made,
and lots of rules and words I played.
But that’s poems and epic verse
so please praise me and do not curse!
I still feel like I do deserve
some praise, some rest, for all my nerve.
So with this said, let me be done
before my words you truly shun.

Thank all of you for coming by
and hearing what I said and why.
I do believe Shakespeare would say,
“Oh, what a great rhyming display!”


I hope you had great fun like I,
now that I wish you all good-bye.
Farewell my friends and take this verse
and use it to write and converse.
And as for me, my job now done,
new works I soon will have begun.
But no more verse for learning words.
I leave such laws to fellow nerds.


Works Cited
“Commonly Confused Words.” University of Richmond Writing Center & WAC
Program. Web. 26 Nov. 2009.

Oxford English Dictionary: The definitive record of the English language. Web. 26 Nov.

Why Sometimes it’s Better to be ‘Savvy’ Than ‘Smart’

Don’t let this savvy/smart sounding title fool you – I hardly consider myself to be either ideal here, but even an average Joe finds the right answer once in awhile. And in my experience, it can certainly help to recognize the merit of both concepts, those being that of ‘smarts’ and ‘savviness’ respectively.

Last week I found myself at Craft – a charming little local craft beer store – sampling some very fine brews. On the counter sat a clear glass jar, filled to the sealed top with what else but fresh, Earthy-green hops.


Hops are a vital ingredient in many a-manner of brews, specifically the now wildly popular IPAs (Indian Pale Ales). There’s quite a long history and culture surrounding when and why hops were introduced to the brewing process – as well as how that process has evolved over the centuries. But perhaps I’ll save that chronicle for another post or several. The point is that these green little flower buds are indeed a vital element within the brewing world, often noted for the distinctly bitter and or citrusy zeal they can impart upon any given drink.

Next to the hop jar was another jar with white paper slips inside. The beertender explained the contest: simply guess how many hops were in the larger container. There was some discussion about what the number might be – and many guesses – but as these answers were scribbled down, I continued to drink, and think: what equation might work to make a close guesstimate?

I say guesstimate because I’m not confident enough in my mathematical skills to call it anything else. In fact, I’m so unconfident that I don’t even call what I do ‘math’, but rather ‘maff’, which is, according to the self-dictionary inside my head: “Joe’s method of numerical processing rooted in subjoetivity rather than in consistent mathematical modes of calculation.”

This is not to say that I don’t use actual tried-and-true formulas, but rather that I don’t trust that they’re always the right ones, or that I carry them through correctly, resulting in my need to substitute some elements of any given mathematical process whenever I feel the need to adjust an equation by thinking, eh, seems closer to what’s probably right by adding or subtracting ________ instead.

It pays – in this case, more or less literally – to be ‘savvy smart’.

To give some further context, I remember talking to my teacher after my 10th grade state math exam. I was rightfully nervous as to whether or not I passed. “I’ve gotta say,” she began, raising an eyebrow. “This is probably the most interesting test I’ve ever seen.”

“Is that…good?” I asked, brows equally uneven.

“Well, you passed,” she said to my exhaling relief, and then continued, “’cause you got enough of the answers right, even though you used all the wrong formulas.”

“I did?”

“Yeah, mostly. But you showed your work too, so, two out of three still counts as passing. I’m more impressed how you somehow got enough answers right.”

I shrugged. “I guess they just seemed right.”

This ‘lesson’ stuck with me through the rest of high school, then college, and all the way more than a decade later to this craft beer store counter with its hop jar. I knew enough to try to calculate its volume. π r2, or something, right? I used my phone – which I know from the model type to be about 7 and 1/2 inches long – to approximate the radius, and height. Ah! That was the other part of the equation! Volume =  π r2h

One might even call me…crafty…….

Subtracting a few dozen for the slightly narrower neck of the jar, I came up with a solid sounding number: 580. But staring at the thumb-sized pieces I realized a problem: solid, or rather, full, which the inside of this vessel was far from. Each hop’s similar yet still unique shape created far too many gaps among them to total 580. It was time to adjust my calculation. It was time for maff.

A “smarter” guesser might have been able to employ an equation among a small sample set(s) of hops to calculate the total volume of space in-between said set(s) and then just multiply that by the total sets to come up with a number of units to subtract from the original total. This explanatory sentence alone, however, was a struggle enough for me to write and even then doesn’t seem entirely right – and so creating an actual calculation along these lines was far from a practical option. Instead, I dug back into my 10th grade math skill sets, tilted my head in study of the jar, took another sip, and thought: eh, fifty fewer should do the trick.

My final tally came out to 520. I was the closest without going over by ten hops.

Now that’s some savvy maff for you.

Do you have maff stories of your own? Savvy tricks? Please feel free to like, comment, and share! And subscribe for future musings by entering your email on the right!

How My Family Pantry Taught Me the Art of the Compromise

Legions of proud chips stand at attention, ready to serve the common human.

Walk down any chip aisle in grocery store anywhere in America, and what do you see? Well, chips, first of all. But after that? Sealed bags. Puffy, perfectly pressured plastic cocoons all set to the same measure of industry sealing standard – whatever that might be. We take these bags home, tear them open, and indulge in their salty, sweet, and barbequey innards until we’ve reached our fill. But afterwards? After the ideal seal has been torn asunder? How do we reseal our remaining bounty now that its uniform containment is compromised? And what does that say about us as snackers?

I’ve ruminated about this matter – perhaps too much for my own mental comfort. But that hasn’t stopped me from making some specific observations, and thus, tangible conclusions in my twenty-some-odd years as a snacker.

I was raised with chips galore – and with that, competing household philosophies on bag resealing. For the sake of convenient chronological progression, let’s start with the least structured method.

The Half-Heart:

The Half-Heart

A staple in the average American household – well, it could probably use a staple or several as well.

This is certainly one of the more popular chip-sealing techniques – if not most effective. Practitioners of the Half-Heart will dismissively vouch for this method, however, attesting to its ease and accessibility for further chip indulgence.

While some may argue that the Half-Heart increases the rate of chip decay and exposes chips to the risk of antfestation, Half-Hearters argue (and rightfully so in their case) that their chips weren’t long for this world anyway.  Despite its positives and negatives, this method is certainly plausible for the snacker who knows in their heart and stomach “No worries. I’ll be back soon.”


The Grip of Death:

Nothing can escape the gripocalypse

The Grip of Death is as close to the original packaging seal as possible: stalwart and succinct, this rigorous method offers peace of mind that you’ll maintain the freshest and most pest-free of snack bites, despite your bag looking like an angry Muppet face. (Note: there are internal folds within the dense roll-down here).

The Compromise:

Eh, good enough. I just want chips now.

My more reasonable approach to chip bag sealage than the other two – at least in my opinion. The Compromise offers both peace of mind and relatively quick access. While it lacks the strengths of both the Half-Heart and the Grip of Death, it doesn’t suffer from their weaknesses – laziness and neurosis respectively.


What are your own chip resealing methods? Feel free to comment as I’m always ready to learn a new chip-preservation technique!


Join me on my narrative musings of my travels to, during, and from my second AP grading journey in Tampa, FL!

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I suppose the trip really started the day before, on the highway, my 2007 Suzuki Reno sputtering and squelching down to a laborsome roll. The vainful revving cried all the signs of transmission trauma, and so rather than risk trying to press on, I pulled over and did the only reasonable thing that an at best moderately mechanically-minded college writing professor who had to be 1,300 miles away in Tampa in less than 24 hours could do: I called upon our Lord and Highway Savior, Triple-A.

One could find oneself questioning one’s sanity, packed in ‘old Joe’s’ tow truck along with his tools and drive-thru soda cups.

“I don’t care. But they track me anyways,” old Joe said, about as New Yawk as they come. He was an odd yet even more oddly appropriate character for a tow-trucker. Tattooed and white-bearded, with a lean frame of someone who had clearly started doing ‘real’ work at an age that most kids today spent working at convincing mom and dad to buy them a Nintendo Switch.

“Fifty-two years as a mechanic,” as old Joe put it, hacking and rubbing his Santaesque face mane.

“So you’re retired?” I asked, bouncing along in my seat.

“Once upon a time.”

“So this is just part-time.”

“Eh, started that way,” he said. “And here we are.”

“Well, I guess it’s good to stay busy.”

Old Joe glanced at me and winked. There was a warm twinkle in his glistening blue eyes, almost as if he might really be Kris Kringle’s long lost whatever. “You got a long way to go before you retire.”

Ain’t that the truth.

The Advanced Placement grading attracts a wide range of educators: from high school teachers to college profs, poets to bloggers, and all other manner of interesting, eclectic, and creative people in-between. Perhaps what we most share in common, however, is the drive for adventure: to journey some place far from home, for a distinct goal that we can explore beyond on our own spare time.

That and compensation for our work, of course.

Last year had been my first AP grading, and while it’s hard to pin down exactly what lessons I took away from that week – if any – one fact of modern life that I did confirm was that it’s far better to travel at abnormal hours than common ones.

‘Travel’ sucks. Anyone who touts how much ‘I love to travel’ on their OkCupid profile really means ‘I love to take a Xanax nap and wake up some undefinable time later in awesome places.’ Granted, we’ve come a long way from Oregon Trailing our way through droughts, and snake bites, and dysentery, but whom among us doesn’t wish an ever-easier time of it all? Shorter lines and quicker flights and more inches of legroom than your stretching limbs could ever dream of what to do with.

Well, while most of that is as near fantastical of a hope as finding ‘the one of your dreams’ by flaunting your travel exploits via online dating, there are some smaller, perhaps more practical steps one can take to make the least out of their travel. And scheduling a 6AM flight – like I did – might be the most effective of options within your control.

As such, I was able to spend a good part of the first day before our actual work began on the beach in Florida, about 40 minutes from downtown Tampa where we’d be confined for the next seven days or so grading. But not that first day of cloudy sun and fine white sand, and floating in the salty waves with deep breaths of “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

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While I may not have had as much time as I’d like for exploring, relaxing, etceteraing, I did have plenty of mental opportunities to reflect on my surroundings. For starters, Tampa feels too far south for its size – then again most Florida cities feel this way to me. But the few skyscrapers here stick out like sore glass thumbs from the flat former swamplands, drained but not entirely forgotten. You can feel the natural wet in the air, as it certainly feels you. Always wet. Always sticking. The whole scene wanting to return to muck and marsh, to suck apart the baking pavement, and stucco walls, and black-painted stormproof streetlights.

It feels like a shell here. Not a sad place, but one void of rodents and bugs and all other creatures that seem like they should be skirting, slinking, buzzing to survive. Gods know if I counted more than 7 birds within the city during my stay – to be more precise: four crows, two tiny little guys, a white gullish thing soaring overhead, and a chicken clucking about the brick side alleys of Ybor City – not surprisingly the most charming part of Tampa.

Overall it is an overtly human imprint on the land, directly reflecting the whims of the gulf coast environment even while trying to press it away. In the sun, the whole place brightens awake, caramel shingles and golden decos spanning the city. At least until the moody, moony clouds roll on in from the steamy waters to the west, fed since dawn, daily, by that same smiley oppressor, who’s really more like a plane of heat bearing down on your head rather than a single source of muggy light. But by work day’s end, that light is gone – vanished behind the very swirl it’s been stewing over the bay, from here all the way clear across to Mexico. These clouds turn Mordor-dark as the day draws on, the light breeze soon whips up like a siren of even more monstrous gale still to come. The rain strikes, fast and heavy to signal the workday’s end at 5:00pm, eager to play its part in nature’s ongoing war to reclaim this land from societal order. To dissolve all here that’s not green.

There aren’t very many green-colored buildings in Tampa. But I guess that’s true for just about every city.

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The grading factory crew!

Still, there’s plenty good with this place. From the fine fresh brews of Cigar City, to the wavily wondrous works of the Dali Museum across the bay, to icepops gone wildflavor. If only there were more time to explore all these and more – but grading is grading. Work is work. And so we labored, almost in sight of those swaying palms. [Click here for the full photo album]

There’s plenty more to say, but this seems like enough observational ranting for one post. What I will mention about the reading is in echo to my concluding sentiment following last year’s; that is, while it’s a hell of a lot of arduous work, it’s also a damn good time too.

No automatic alt text available.

Will I be back in Tampa for next year’s AP grading? Good question. All I can think on that matter are the wise words of tow-truck Joe. I’m far from retired after all, and so my work future looks bright, even whenever and wherever the clouds roll in.

Thanks for taking some time to read a little about my AP grading journey. Feel free to share your own thoughts or any questions you might have about the event! Especially if you’re thinking about applying for next year!

Writerly Confessional

Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to pause to take stock of what words we actually understand and those that while we might have a hazy idea about their meanings, their actual definitions are often murky guesses at best.

I often see students employing the fairly rudimentary suspects within paper, after paper, after paper, and so on. Most commonly, their are the egregious examples of there’s that can butcher a sentence, and distract you’re reader from the intended purpose of whatever message your trying to relate. Point proven.

Before continuing, I should note that in no way do I mean to disparage my students’ writing abilities. On the contrary, I’m sure I’ve made/will make plenty of my own mistakes within this post. It’s easy as a professor to sometimes lose sight of how soul-crushingly terrifying it can be to have to ask for a definition in class or be called out in a paper by a tri-circle of bloody, blotty ink around a misused term. It’s easy as a professor-person to simply self-correct in the comfort of one’s own darkness.

In this sense I suppose that this is a gift, or payback, or simply an admission of understanding about how learning and growing starts by admitting that you don’t know everything, and that such confusion is perfectly fine as long as you’re willing to continue learning.

Anyway, there are the less obvious words whose meaning and usage are perhaps much more confusing and or unclear. Words that I semi-often hear on talk radio and read in news columns that have always – more or less – eluded me in their true meaning.

Should I simply look up these definitions to save myself the embarrassment? Duh. Yet here we are.  And I think this is an interesting exercise to compare what I’ve been able to cobble together out of the context of hearing and seeing these terms over and over and over again with whatever the hell they’re really supposed to mean. Surely my versions must be hilariously off-base in comparison with the correct “answers”, right?

Well, luckily for you, below I have listed ten words that I’ve spent far too much time wondering what in the hell they actually mean: first, my own patchwork interpretation. Then, what I’ve been able to find via some minor, long-overdue research. And finally, how to console my Joeisms with reality.

Ten Words I Should Probably Look Up But Have Always Been Too Lazy To (And Their Definitions):

“Zeitgeist” –

  • My definition: A fancy/academic way of identifying a cultural trend or ideal? Often heard said by fancy/academic folk on NPR who toss around the term as if we all obviously know this one. Also derived from German slang meaning “some sort of half-ghost, half-ghoul creature”
  • Actual definition: “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.” –
  • Closeness: Still think it sounds like a pretty baller German ghost-ghoul too.

“Flotsam” –

  • My definition: Shit (stuff) that floats.
  • Actual definition: Law. Such part of the wreckage of a ship or its cargo as is found floating on the surface of the sea.” –
  • Closeness: Fancy term for boat shit (stuff) that floats.

“Jetsam” –

  • My definition: Shit (stuff) that floats quickly?
  • Actual definition: “[Law.] Goods discarded from a ship and washed ashore; spec. such material thrown overboard in order to lighten a vessel.” –
  • Closeness: Well, if your ship is sinking, you’d probably want to jettison your shit (stuff) quickly rather than leisurely.

“Deus ex machina” –

  • My definition: Cool steampunk phrase when a pair of robots fall in love and together rebel against their enslaving human overlords.
  • Actual definition: “A power, event, person, or thing that comes in the nick of time to solve a difficulty; providential interposition, esp. in a novel or play.” –
  • Closeness: So…no robobellion? I actually kind of already knew this one, but I still think my definition wins.

“Bae” –

  • My definition: Too many definitions to define.
  • Actual definition: Too many definitions to list. So click here for the list.
  • Closeness: All I can say with confidence is that my french fries have not, are not, and never will be bae.

“Literally” –

  • My definition: I actually know this one too, but it gets tricky here as I can literally say (oops, I mean, write) that a great many people literally don’t know what “literally” literally means.
  • Actual definition: “In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.” –
  • Closeness: I am literally right on this one, literally according to the definition.

“Happenstance” –

  • My definition: Sounds like a fancy coincidence. I once wrote in a story about a “randomstance” which my professor at the time loved given the context. Is a “happenstance” a “coincidence” that is more likely? Like how a “randomstance” is less common? Aren’t these all just “coincidences”?
  • Actual definition: “Something that happens by chance, an event or circumstance considered to be influenced by chance; chance, luck. Also: a coincidence.” –
  • Closeness: And I requote: “Also: a coincidence” ….

“Moniker” –

  • My definition: Sounds like “monkier” when I read it. I know it’s not. But still, gotta be more entertaining than whatever the real definition is.
  • Actual definition: “A name (esp. an assumed one); a nickname, epithet.” –
  • Closeness: Wait, but what if I’m acting monkier than my brother?

“Ennui” –

  • My definition: A race of elves from the first age of the Lord of the Rings.
  • Actual definition: “The feeling of mental weariness and dissatisfaction produced by want of occupation, or by lack of interest in present surroundings or employments.” –
  • Closeness: I’m starting to feel a tad ennui from this blog post…

“Raft” –

  • My definition: I keep seeing this used in news articles. Like “a new raft of sanctions”. I always thought that a raft was haphazard little boat one drifted on, but I guess it’s now an abstractish term too?
  • Actual definition: “A number of logs, planks, etc., fastened together in the water for transportation by floating” or “A large amount; a lot of something.”
  • Closeness: So, both? Yeah, not confusing at all.

Well, we made it. And will you look at that? Still kicking/wording! I’m interested to hear if you have any other interpretations, definitions, jokes-at-my-expense, etc. based on these words/phrases – or others! Please feel free to comment with such translations below! Never stop questioning; never stop learning.