Just because you don’t get it doesn’t mean it’s vague

“What about slang words and acronyms, aren’t they vague language?” Someone asked me this recently, and I wanted to say no right away, but I had to think about why. After thinking on it, I say no, slang words and acronyms are not vague language because they do not have inherently vague meanings; if anything, they are very specific. Vague words have inherently vague meanings– vague language is language you know, but can never be sure of. Take the word noonish– we know it means sometime around noon; we just don’t know exactly when. We also don’t know how late someone might be when they say they’ll meet you at noonish: 12:05? 12:10? What about quarter past– is that noonish anymore, or just plain late? I don’t think a dictionary, slang or otherwise, will ever tie noonish down to the hands of a clock. When people talk with each other in front of you in a language you don’t understand, they’re being cryptic, not vague. Or maybe you’re just being paranoid.

The many meanings of “hot” and other short words

I was ordering one of those new chicken-and-salad McWraps today, and I asked if the chicken were hot. I had to clarify I meant “hot as in temperature,” not “hot as in spicy.” It got me to thinking about how many meanings there are to the word hot:

  1. High-temperature
  2. Spicy
  3. Stolen
  4. Sexy
  5. Turned on (both sexually and, in the case of a microphone, electronically)
  6. Bright, neon color (like hot pink)
  7. Currently popular (like products that “are really hot right now” or a “hot topic”)
  8. Angry

Thinking about the many meanings of hot (or the “polysemy” of hot, if you will) got me to thinking about other words that are polysemic. Those that came to mind were all one-syllable words: on, cold, run, pan, out… It makes me wonder if it is natural for people to glom onto one-syllable words and load them with meanings so they can use them a lot. After all, it is quicker to use monosyllabic words; they have a punch to them (punch itself being both monosyllabic and polysemous). Polysyllabic words, like extemporaneous and entomological, don’t tend to be polysemic. I Googled “polysemous monosyllabic words” just now to see if linguists have recognized and written about this tendency in language, and I found this:

Because of the well known association between frequency and polysemy on the one hand and frequency and shortness on the other, polysemy should also be a frequent phenomenon in monosyllabic words. (Fenk-Oczlon & Fenk, 2008, p. 59)

So there. I’m not the only one who’s ever noticed this. 🙂

How about you? Have you noticed this phenomenon?


Fenk-Oczlon, G. & Fenk, A. (2008). Complexity trade-offs between the subsystems of language. In M. Miestamo, K. Sinnemäki, & F. Karlsson (Eds.) Language complexity: Typology, contact, change, pp. 43-65. Amsterdam, NL: John Benjamins Publishing Co.


The -isms & -ists of Oralism & Oralists

Since so many people responded on my blog to the first video about this topic, “Re Oralism vs Speaking” that I embedded in a blog post, I have been responding and thinking about this issue. One thing that stands out for me is the meaning of the suffices -ism and -ist. These can simply mean “system” or “practitioner” but they also have loaded connotations of strong belief systems and prejudices– and the people who espouse such attitudes and prejudices.

My view is that there is nothing wrong with any mode of communication, be it ASL, signed English, or speaking and speechreading. Although I realize that “oralism” is a hot-button issue with many deaf people for whom it carries heavy emotional associations, I believe that if all of that emotional baggage is put aside, it can be seen that speaking and speechreading are simply ways of communicating. (To quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “…there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”)

Far be it from me to tell oral deaf what to call themselves, but (more…)


Re Oralism vs Speaking

This is my response to Ella Mae Lentz’s vlog about the difference between the philosophy of oralism and the mere act of speaking, either by deaf or hearing people. In this video, signed in ASL—PSE (along the continuum), I tell of my experience as an interpreter with oral deaf, English-oriented deaf, and strongly ASL deaf people. In my experience, I have not found oral deaf people to be against signing deaf or condescending toward culturally deaf people who choose to use sign language instead of speaking and lipreading. I share my experience being an oral transliterator for certain deaf people who were able to read almost 100% of what I mouthed, despite the “myth” that oral deaf people understand only 30–40% of what the get from reading lips. I also share my experience of having a deaf boyfriend who was culturally deaf and very strong in ASL, not so strong in English. When his mother came to visit, she insisted that he could read her lips even when she wasn’t facing him. He looked to me for interpretation, and I thought, “Why should I have to interpret for my boyfriend and his mother? Come on, Mom, learn sign!”

My basic message echoes what Ella said in her blog: (more…)


I Don’t Represent the Deaf Community

I was criticized by a deaf person for posting a one-minute long closed-captioned spoken video on YouTube the other day. The deaf person said that they were disappointed that I didn’t sign my video and that, being a sign language interpreter, I “represent the deaf community.” This is my response, signed and closed-captioned.