On Saturday, I posted different ways that words enter English. An important learning objective for my class is to understand what it really means to “know” a word, which from a linguistic perspective, is not as simple as it sounds. There are debates in the field about what a word really is, whether the parts of speech we all learned in school are adequate or useful scientific categories, and other debates that complicate the discussion. For the purposes of linguistics, really knowing a word goes far beyond giving a definition and an example sentence.
During our discussion of the new words recently adopted by the Oxford Dictionary Online, we came across the term ‘girl crush.’ I had only a vague sense of what it meant, and so we scrolled to the definition:
• girl crush, n. (informal): an intense and typically non-sexual liking or admiration felt by one woman or girl for another.
From this, I gathered some of the information that linguistics requires for full knowledge of a word. The phonological information, or pronunciation, was clear because this is comprised of two familiar words. There isn’t much going on morphologically with the phrase because it doesn’t have prefixes or suffixes, but I do assume that as with most nouns, I could add either of the inflectional morphemes necessary to make it a plural or a possessive noun. I can assume some syntactic knowledge, or how the phrase might be used in a grammatical sentence based on my understanding of where nouns and noun phrases can appear. Finally, the definition provides some semantic information, or what the word actually means.
“So,” I asked, “Can I have a girl crush on, say, Hillary Clinton?”
My students, through laughter and even some mild gagging, overwhelmingly said no. Even though I knew all of the above information about the word, I still used it so incorrectly as to gross them out, because I was lacking pragmatic information about the phrase, which is knowledge of the contexts in which a word can be used, partly because the definition (as is common with many words) did not include enough semantic information.
Sorry, Hillary Clinton, but when I asked why I couldn’t have a girl crush on you, my students informed me that the object of your crush should be at least a little pretty. “But if it’s non-sexual,” I began, and then noticing that some of my students were actually blushing, stopped myself. It’s not as though I had prepped for this discussion, after all, so was a bit wary of where this could all lead.
One of my students offered, “It’s someone that you’re, like, jealous of. It’s envy.” This led to some heated debate among students who disagreed, and we finally settled on the idea that you don’t envy your girl crush, but you do want to emulate her.
“It’s like bromance,” another student offered, and while I told them that synonyms were sometimes helpful semantic information and sometimes not, I wrote on the board:
Another raucous debate ensued in which the usefulness of ‘bromance’ as a synonym was rejected. “Bromances are between two friends, in the same peer and social group,” one student said, laughing, and then pointed at the friend sitting next to her. “I can’t have a girl crush on her.” Apparently, a girl crush requires a bit of social/class distance to work.
At the end of the discussion, I finally said, “So, can I have a girl crush on, say, Tina Fey or Amy Poehler?” And with a collective sigh of relief, my students said that yes, I could and that unlike my Hillary Clinton example, that would be neither gross nor weird.
To sum up, deep knowledge of a word requires information about phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Lack of pragmatic information about a word is what most often leads to communication breakdown. It’s usually funny and mildly embarrassing, like when your college instructor asks if she can have a girl crush on Hillary Clinton or when Jimmy Fallon asks for #momtexts during a comedy segment.
After class, a student sent me this link, which muddies the girl crush social distance waters. Also, it makes me wonder if I’m doing this whole teaching college thing right.
Sigh. I just gotta do me, you know?