Achieving mastery of a graduate-level lexicon

Cretinize. On the first night of class, my Introduction to Literary Theory professor asked us to state our research interests. I scanned the room for other perplexed faces but didn’t find any. It appeared no one else expected to be told what to study. I glanced at the door just a few steps away. Flee! I thought.

Denigrate. A woman raised her hand: “Bill, how specific would you like us to be?” Bill? I slunk further into my seat. He’d introduced himself to the rest of us as “Professor.”

Obsequious. Professor Bill’s in-crowd discussed hermeneutics and debated the difference between criticism and theory. They used words like phenomenological and exegesis while chatting with “Bill” as if they’d have beers together after class.

Countenance. Two hours into my second Melville class, I tilted my wrist toward my face without breaking my straightforward gaze: 9:30 PM. I rubbed my pounding forehead, then caught myself and directed a look of interest at the professor. A classmate called a Melville character “rapacious.” The professor’s chalk clicked and scraped as he wrote the word in foot-high letters across the board. Then he asked us to comment further. Rapacious?

Transmogrify. Two weeks earlier, I ran a customer service meeting for executives at the telecom company where I’d worked for four years. When I quit to attend graduate school, I marched out of the building like a drum major strutting off the field. Now, I slumped down in my chair and avoided eye contact. Who the hell were Baudrillard? Barthes? Derrida? Everyone put a lot of stock in these men. I didn’t even know how to pronounce their names.

Lexicon. I babysat my niece and nephew for extra money. Both were toddlers with speech delays, so as we played, they spoke their own postmodernish language of fragmented words and sentences. My mind whirled as I deciphered the babbling of toddlers, the babbling of my classmates, and the babbling of Boundary 2, the journal of postmodern literature I’d been assigned to study for the semester. What was everyone talking about? If something didn’t change, I would drown in a sea of words. I bought a thin spiral notepad and labeled every other page with a letter of the alphabet. I would make my own dictionary; I would build a boat.

Jargon. I kept my homemade dictionary a secret. During classes, I scrawled words like reification and epistemology in furtive strokes along the margins of my paper. At home I copied them into my notepad. I collected words from my readings, too: abrogate, anthracite, avocation; bifurcation, bivouac, bower. I also gathered definitions, but Merriam-Webster could not help me decipher words like deconstruction without their proper contexts. So much language invented in the course of conversation, understandable only in the framework of its invention. It both crushed and mesmerized me.

Masticate. I hung on to words like a heifer with her cud, chewing on them for weeks as I listened for their function in classroom discussions and looked for their use in criticism and fiction. I chewed and chewed, hoping to spit them back out with confidence. When my niece and nephew fought over their toys, grabbing rubbery pieces of pretend pizza out of each other’s hands, I admonished, “Don’t be so rapacious!” just for practice.

Indomitable. But in those first months, I couldn’t remember what I read. If I wanted a place in this academic world, I had to remember the words. I chastised myself. What had I been thinking as I read Moby-Dick? Had the phone rung when Ishmael climbed into bed with Queequeg? Had I dozed off when Ahab nailed the gold doubloon to the mast? I decided I was reading too quickly, or too late at night, or with too much distraction. As the weeks progressed, I experimented with different routines, reading in the morning, after a cup of coffee, more slowly, out loud. Still, the information slipped away.

Inscrutable. I blamed my forgetfulness on the vocabulary. I studied the lists of words in my notebook harder and more often: punctilious, prehensile, pertinacious; solicitude, supine, sublime. Still, I forgot. Reading was like pulling a ribbon through water. As long as I kept moving, the ribbon slid across the surface in plain sight, but if I stopped, it would sink into the shadows and disappear. I’d end up with general impressions and concepts, but few details of character or plot. I reread everything—even Moby-Dick—to no avail. My chest compressed with the weight of water rising up thick and heavy around it.

Askesis. I read in the car, in the bathroom, and on the nanny job. I read out loud because it helped me understand. I took copious notes. Then I reread the text, studied the notes, and made outlines. I studied the outlines, too. I assumed my peers did the same. Then a classmate mentioned a movie she saw the previous Friday. A movie? When I asked how she had time for that, she said, “Who studies on Friday night?” I did.

Ameliorate. I relished showers. I stood under the hot water each morning for thirty shameful minutes of wordless bliss.

Inception. Curled in the corner of my couch, I read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” my feet stuffed into itchy wool socks. The light waned. I scratched my ankles and yawned. Then I saw it: the word pernicious in the line, “I verily believe that buttoning himself up in so downy and blanket-like a coat had a pernicious effect upon him.” I knew how that coat made Turkey feel because I knew that word! I leapt off the couch, hopped over my backpack, and sprinted down the hall. I found my dictionary on the dresser and flipped it open to P. There it was, just three words down: “pernicious—harmful, deadly.” I’d written it in meticulous script. And I’d remembered it.

Solidarity. I sat in my class on women’s life histories scribbling notes on a piece of loose-leaf college-ruled paper. Language still flowed over me in a current, but I had begun to see how each new word adhered to the next to make a raft on which I could float. And I had discovered a community of students and professors who cared about art, beauty, materialism, and power. I imagined they worked together toward a greater good. With the right words, I thought, I could be part of that.

Semiotics. Summer semester, my poetry professor read Denise Levertov’s “Hypocrite Women” to the class. I slouched into my chair as he read,

And if at Mill Valley perched in the trees
the sweet rain drifting through western air
a white sweating bull of a poet told us

our cunts are ugly—why didn’t we
admit we have thought so too?

Afterward, the class acknowledged how the word cunt made us squirm; then we talked about how we preserved the power of that word by avoiding it. We speculated that perhaps we should say cunt more often.

Performative. In my African-American Male Writers class, my professor asked me to read from Amiri Baraka’s poem “Somebody’s Slow Is Another Body’s Fast (Preachment).” He wanted us to hear it. I began reading in my best poet’s voice, but the poem’s rhythm and dialect caught me off guard. Before I could lurch my way past the first few lines, the professor asked me to stop, please. We all laughed at my white girl’s attempt to rap like a 1970s Black Nationalist. I couldn’t master Black vernacular, but I wanted to try the new language I carried around in my homemade notebook. So I said conflate during a small group discussion later in the class. I felt as if I’d dropped a brick out of my mouth in the middle of a yawn. Did I sound casual? Or did it sound as if I was posturing? And was I?

Interpellate. On the night I’d present in my Toni Morrison class, I sat clutching my notes in anticipation. I’d devoured the course readings so far, fascinated by Morrison’s arguments about race. She points to a parade of muted black characters in American literature whom I’d never noticed before, and she argues they exist to define white protagonists as speaking, articulate, and American. A door in my head swung out wide. I’d never fully understood my racial identity because it didn’t line up with a singular ethnic or regional category. What did the word white signify? Morrison showed me how history has defined race in America—a history preoccupied with holding the line between whiteness as good, powerful, and beautiful, and blackness as bad, weak, and ugly. I couldn’t wait to share these ideas in my presentation. Did everyone else see what was going on? When the professor finally called my name, I straightened my papers and launched into my talk. After two semesters of near silence, the words poured out in a breathless torrent that gathered speed and volume as I went. When I finished, my classmates sat as if stunned. The professor just said, “Well!”

Relegate. My new vocabulary didn’t translate outside of school. At a cocktail party one night, I shared what I’d learned about surveillance from Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon, a type of prison where the inmates can always be watched. “A what?” asked my friend with a dismissive laugh. “You’re crazy. No one’s watching me.” I slugged down my beer and meandered away.

Emulous. At an end-of-semester party for my Foucault class, I chatted with a classmate and ate pesto on water crackers. We watched another classmate pour straight vodka into a coffee cup and wave it around as he spoke to another woman from our seminar. He wore a tweed jacket and a T-shirt to match his fat vocabulary. I resented his arrogance but envied his self-importance. I saw him as accomplished and erudite. I could not yet see how we both floundered in jargon—the language of insecurity. First, you must learn to understand it; then, you must learn to use it; then, you must learn to say the same thing without using it.

Heuristic. I watched Cinderella with my young charges, with bell hooks’s Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center opened on my lap. My niece grabbed a blanket and snuggled up to me, her eyes on my face. Was I watching? She didn’t like that I studied during TV time. When she looked toward the screen, I let my eyes fall to the book. When she checked on me, I blinked and refocused on the screen until she looked away again. We continued this dance for the full seventy-four minutes, each of us watching the film in intervals, each of us learning our separate lessons about whiteness, beauty, and power.

Persiflage. In summer, at a backyard barbecue, an acquaintance asked about my studies. I censored myself and withheld talk of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, the book I’d left sitting on the front seat of my car. Even so, when I mentioned my feminist theory class, he said, “Uh-oh. Look out!” as if I’d picked up a toy gun. I put a forkful of potato salad in my mouth to contain the logjam of words collecting there: objectification, phallocentrism, essentialism, agency. I thought about the stack of feminist texts I’d accumulated at home, by Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Anzaldúa, Mary Wollstonecraft, Angela Davis. I piled them around me like sandbags and perched upon them to look out over the world.

Proletariat. I ran out of my makeshift office in our guestroom, waving a fat red paperback copy of The Marx-Engels Reader over my head and hollering to my husband: “Listen to this! You’re not going to believe what Marx says about capital!” Later that week, I called from my place on the guestroom bed, “You have to hear this one point about labor!” And that night, I woke the dear man from a sound sleep and told him in earnest, “It’s just as I thought; there is no God!” I’d never read anything like this in my college business and economics classes. Professors paired the division of labor with words like efficiency and profitability, but no one had ever mentioned the word alienation.

Alienation. We needed money, so I switched to part-time studies and took a full-time office job. By night, I read Marx and Engels—my head on fire. By day, I tamped it down to an ember as I filed forms and wrote marketing copy while sitting in a stale office building, wearing the suffocating business clothes I thought I’d forever abandoned a year before. I walked the stairs to escape the monotony: down five stories to ground level, up to the eighth floor, and back down to my office on the fifth. I focused on the gritty shuffle of my leather flats on the concrete steps, the echo of my breath against the cinderblock walls, the tacky feel of painted iron railings under my fingers. I sometimes carried a manila file folder or a stack of papers so it looked as if I was going somewhere.

Ardor. After work, I raced to my rattletrap Jeep, threw my shoes on the passenger seat, stripped off my knee-highs at the first traffic light, then with my bare feet on the pedals and the wind in my hair, I raced home to Karl, who waited patiently for me on the guestroom bed.

Splenetic. Each week after my Frankfurt School class, I went out for drinks with a classmate to decompress. At a local dive famous for its rude waitresses, we traded notes and epiphanies while eating cheese fries and drinking draft beer out of flimsy plastic cups. When the waitress heard us trying to work out why you need negativism when rationalism ossifies into positivism, she threw her hands into the air and told us to “get a life!” I looked at my friend in surprise. Wasn’t that what we were trying to do?

Coxcomb. I sat in my last master’s class—a seminar on Shakespeare’s comedies. A classmate interrupted our debate about homoeroticism in The Tempest to say, “Everyone knows how it is, you know, like in high school, when you’re going down on a guy, and you’re thinking, ‘This really isn’t what I want to be doing.’” Silence, like water, engulfed the room. Didn’t she know the difference between literature and life? I scoffed and rolled my eyes. But after class, I checked myself and wondered: had I become the person with the tweed jacket and the fat vocabulary?

Equipoise. Master’s degree in hand, I stood outside the fine arts building. Dogwood petals swirled about my feet like spilled confetti. In my classes, I felt buoyant, electrified, connected. But away from school, I felt as if I was talking under water. A group of students passed me on the walk then disappeared into the building, their wake a bustle of chatter and laughter. My backpack, heavy with collected words, cut into the line of my shoulder. The weight ignited a familiar ache that threaded up the side of my neck. What did it mean to have a master’s degree in English? To relieve the pain, I shifted the bag to my other arm then turned from the building toward home.

About the Author

Deb Werrlein

Deb Werrlein is a former adjunct English professor, who now works as a freelance writer/editor and volunteer literacy tutor. Her writing has appeared in Blue Mesa Review, Literary Mama, and a variety of newspapers and academic journals.

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