Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Otherize Part 2: Some Thoughts on America

So a while back I wrote a blog post about the word otherize. This post is an extension of the first and sort of an informal mind dump about the topic. When talking about the word otherize, I generally associate the “other” as someone from a different culture/nationality. What happens when the other is just someone who goes against the norms of their country? What if the social norms of a society don’t reflect the majority (ie America is seen as a male nation but the majority of the population is women. Or, Americans are typically associated with businessmen but the majority of employees are not businessmen)?

Today James C. Kenny, the former US Ambassador to Ireland, visited my history class. In his opening comments Kenny, having read part of a political science textbook used at my school, said that the book had important knowledge about how to be an American. Maybe he said something about being a good American. Readers, what qualities do you think define any/all American or makes a “good” American?

After Kenny’s comment I began to think about all the people in America who don’t know political science and all of their constitutional freedoms. They can be good Americans too, and that portion of the population probably makes up the majority. Maybe Americans should begin to reshape their norms, and maybe Americans could be better represented as not knowing their own history (sorry if that was offensive). Ambassador Kenny said that his job was to serve represent America. I understand what he meant politically, but most Americans don’t have the same knowledge of U.S. laws and history.

Take a look at this survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The elite college history survey says, “ACTA commissioned the Roper organization — The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut — to survey college seniors from the nation’s best colleges and universities as identified by the U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings. The top 55 liberal arts colleges and research universities were sampled during
December 1999. (For a list, see Appendix A.)

How did seniors from our nation’s top colleges and universities do? They flunked. Four
out of five — 81% — of seniors from the top 55 colleges and universities in the United States
received a grade of D or F. They could not identify Valley Forge, or words from the Gettysburg
Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.
• Scarcely more than half knew general information about American democracy and the
• Only 34% of the students surveyed could identify George Washington as an American
general at the battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution.
• Only 42% were able to identify George Washington as “First in war, first in peace, first in the
hearts of his countrymen.”
• Less than one quarter (23%) correctly identified James Madison as the “father of the
• Even fewer — 22% of the college seniors — were able to identify “Government of the
people, by the people, for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address — arguably one
of the three most important documents underlying the American system of government.
• Over one-third were unable to identify the U.S. Constitution as establishing the division of
power in American government.
• Little more than half (52%) knew George Washington’s Farewell Address warned against
permanent alliances with foreign governments.
What do they know? They get an A+ in contemporary popular culture.
• 99% know who the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead are.
• 98% can identify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg.” (Full Article)

Are most American’s unaware that we value freedom and education but don’t seem to understand the core teachings of United States history? Understanding political science is an ideal for the “good” American, but is this ideal attainable. Maybe be the other, more pop culture oriented American, is a more applicable contemporary representation of most Americans. I would say this is a major blow to United States legitimacy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Veil and Associated Lingo

So to connect the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, the book I'm reading in my senior english class, to current events like burqa bans in France, I decided to post about the veil. There are several options of veils including the hijab, niqab, burqa, and chador.

Here is a BBC link depicting the numerous varieties of veils: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/05/europe_muslim_veils/html/1.stm

Below are links to blog posts and a video that feature interviews with muslim women about their views on veiling:




(I give credit to Muslimah Media watch for finding such great links about the hijab. Check out this blog/site at http://muslimahmediawatch.org/)

Finally, here are some quotes about the veil from Azar Nafisi's book Reading Lolita in Tehran

"She wore the scarf even before the revolution, and in her class diary, she wrote about the lonely mornings when she went to a fashionalbe girl's college, where she felt neglected and ignored- ironically, because of her then-conspicuous attire" (13).

"It was meant to make the girls ordinary and invisible. Instead, it brought them into focus and turned them into objects of curiosity" (30).

"No ma'am, you have to have a head cover- new orders. That's my problem, I said, not yours. but he wouldn't let it rest. I am authorized to stop any woman who- at this point I interrupted him. I am not any woman! I said with all the authority I could muster" (161).

So I went through these sources and tried to find some commonly used terms and ideas. Here's the list:
modesty (outward expression)
beauty as inward (in the home)
please my creator
too conservative
spiritual choice
allows strangers to know your personality and contribution to society instead of just looks
treated as less of an object
independence (women have their own opinions and own choice)

Some reactions non-Muslims had to veils:
take the women more seriously

I would like to take special note of one interview question in the Vancouver observation link. A few hijab wearing girls where asked why they wear the hijab. The responses included personal choice and it's the norm/a lot of people in my community wear them. In my opinion, the most interesting response was given by a woman named Naima who said, "I’ve always wanted to try it, but just didn’t know how." It never occured to me that some Muslim women don't have access to information about veiling. For a practice that some view as forced, not having access seems out of the ordinary.

Just as wearing a veil is sometimes viewed as a personal choice, readers, before making personal judgments on the veil, take into consideration all of these perspectives.

Monday, November 29, 2010


So today in English class we held a discussion about the book Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book, written by Azar Nafisi, alludes to Lolita, a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov. In both Reading Lolita in Tehran and Lolita there are situations of oppressor and victim. In Reading Lolita Nafisi describes the brutal and sometimes arbitrary rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran. One harsh law includes forcing women to wear the chador (veil) in public. The government even confiscated many satellite dishes (that seems to be one of the stranger regulations, especially to people like me… of western culture). One big idea came to mind: censorship. Limiting what people can do, hear, see, or know. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert is the oppressor and Lolita the victim. It is important to note that Humbert is the narrator of the Lolita; therefore, we only see Lolita through the perspective of Humbert. He limits what the reader can know about Lolita. Humbert is another censor. Wow, that was a lot of background info.

So through the course of our discussion of both books, I noticed that the terms we were using to describe censorship and restrictive laws weren’t very precise (I’m guilty too). I paged through Reading Lolita and found this gem of a word, solipsization (Nafisi 37). Now solipsization may not be a dictionary acceptable word (see my previous post about dictionaries!), but solipsism is. Merriam Webster defines solipsism as a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing. Another definition was extreme egocentrism.

Here is an exemplary quote from Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi writes, “They had tried to shape others according to their own dreams and desires, but Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humber, had exposed all solipsists who take over other people’s lives” (Nafisi 33).

I really liked this quote because it proved that solipsism is very self-serving and pejorative because you are forcing your ideals on others and your ideas are the only ideas that exist (that seems extreme). Another topic that comes to mind is Descartes’ I think therefore I am. If many people claim that they “think” what does that mean for a community. What if every person is a radical solipsist? There would be a lot of opposing viewpoints on who is right (I just realized that these questions are coming from a perspective that solipsism is invalid and unfounded). The world would be made up of a lot of angry individuals who would definitely not be able to inflict their power/ideas onto others.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Dictionary

So I’ve decided it’s time to analyze where I’m getting my information about the words I’ve been posting. One main source is dictionaries. Very controversial right? Well actually, yes. I must admit that when I think of dictionaries I usually picture a giant brick of a book that I would rather not approach. Since this blogging experience began, I have realized that online dictionaries come in all shapes and sizes. You have the OED, very traditional, and sites like Urban Dictionary that are more contemporary and offer information on modern slang. For people who share my same stigma towards “The Dictionary” and its inapproachability, sites like Urban Dictionary can be helpful. It’s really great to know that reputable literary blogs like Beyond Words recognize the need for the inclusion of modern words in the dictionary. Take this post for example; words like retweet and zumba are even being included in the dictionary, even though my spell check on word still puts that nasty ret line under them.

In my bit of dictionary research I found a wonderful TED Talks video by Erin McKean, a lexicographer for the online dictionary Wordnik. I recommend watching the video for those extremely interested in the topic of this blog. Here’s a short summary:

· The dictionary comes across as very old and stagnant

· Although the internet seems to have helped, the internet merely speeds up the search process. Online dictionaries still have a Victorian era form. The internet improves search-ability but the con to that is the decrease in serendipity. You are less likely to stumble upon new words because the search process is now extremely direct and easy.

· There is a stigma that words not in the dictionary are “bad words” (McKean thinks that all words that are used should be good word) If a word isn’t in the dictionary, then it’s probably a bad dictionary without a broad enough scope.

· How do you know what a “real” word is… love and usage make words real

· Words are like archeological artifacts, without a source and origin they just become “pretty things to look at.” This shows the importance of links, especially with internet capability.

To wrap up this post… I know the words I select may not be the rarest. I think the words we use in everyday language demand more attention and analyzing so that speakers are aware of the implications behind their word choice.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


For this blog post I’m going to deviate from my usual pick one word and analyze it format. The title of this blog post is the Congolese word for name. A defining part of any person, place, or thing is its name; so, a blog about names is equally important as a blog about a verb or adjective.

Recently my English class finished the book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (I’ve made several connections to the book in previous post, but here is a summary one last time). The book spans some history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, especially the troublesome post-colonial era. For a little bit of background knowledge… in 1965 a man by the name of Mobutu became president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1971, through his authoritarian regime, Mobutu tried to rid the Congo of the remnants of colonial rule. He changed the name of the Congo to Zaire to reflect a more pro-African culture. Mobutu also changed the names of many cities and street names to more indigenous names. The main characters in The Poisonwood Bible have trouble adapting to the change because they’ve only experienced the Congo with colonial names.

When a name has been used for so long, and people begin to associate with that name, can a change like Congo to Zaire make the population more authentically African? I think that the actions or events that happen to a person/country define them more than a name. To me names are just used for designation but can acquire meaning over time. Mobutu’s radical shift wasn’t widely supported by the population of the DRC. His attempt at representing African culture was forced and to me the new names seem inauthentic. Colonialism was a defining moment in the Congo’s history and the Congolese didn’t relate to the indigenous names; therefore, the colonial names like Leopoldville did represent the Democratic Republic of Congo more. In cases like the DRC/Zaire, Mobutu acted dictatorially and didn’t take into consideration the population’s reaction. As a ending-side note, I do think that a name change can have a positive effect on a person, especially if they choose the name.

Questions for consideration: What are the reasons for changing a name? How long does it take for a name to “stick”? Can society function without names? What are the implications of parents choosing names for their children instead of kids picking their own names?

Monday, October 25, 2010


Now readers, you might be thinking that otherize isn’t a “real” word according to Merriam Webster’s or the Oxford English Dictionary, but otherize is a very valid word when dealing with conflicts.

In history class we got a recap of the genocide in Rwanda to prepare for a guest speaker (Carl Wilkens, the only American witness of the genocide, for those curious people out there). The discussion mainly focused on the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, two ethnic/racial groups in Rwanda. We got to talking about Belgians preferencing the Tutsi during the Rwandan colonial period. The Belgians provided education and jobs for the Tutsi while largely ignoring the needs of the Hutu, who actually made up the majority of the population. By placing the Tutsi in power, the Belgians divided a naturally integrated ethnic community. Long story short, Rwanda gained its independence in 1962 and the Hutu’s, making up the majority of the population, win the elections. The Hutus then worked to eliminate the Tutsi from Rwanda.

The word otherize first came up in the lecture when the Tutsi were given power from the Belgians. The Hutu were resentful of the Tutsi who had once been their equal. The Hutu claimed the Tutsi were not Rwandan but more Nilotic (from the Nile River Basin) and therefore didn’t deserve to rule. Otherize was a word that my teacher used to describe the attempt at alienating the Tutsi. The Hutu created an “us and them” situation.

Being a little hesitant since otherize isn’t in the dictionary, I was wondering what other words could be used to replace otherize but keep the same meaning. I was immediately drawn to words like segregation, classification, and distinguish. While these words share the same negative connotation as otherize, they don’t encompass a meaning of taking something familiar and making it foreign or turning something into an enemy. These three words embody division, but not the process of alienation. For me, the best synonym from “otherize” is dissociate. The only issue with dissociate is that it doesn’t imply one group is estranging another group.

Some questions to think about: Is otherization present in all genocides? Can otherize ever have a positive connotation? How does the media use the word otherize (see this article about otherizing Obama based on religion and race during the 2008 election)?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


As an activity in English last week the class elected important words from the book The Poisonwood Bible. We spent the latter half of class narrowing down the list to the ten most pertinent words to the book. Father was the first word selected. There was much debate over which word was more encompassing: Father or Fatherly. In the end we chose Father. It was argued that the word Father is more exemplary of the themes in the Poisonwood Bible. Father alludes to religion in the book because the main characters are on an Evangelical Baptist mission trip to the Congo. Father also evokes a notion of patriarchy which is very central to The Poisonwood Bible because a main character Nathan is very strict and sometimes cruel towards his wife, daughters, and even the Congolese.

With all this talk about fathers, I began to think about how a father affects the upbringing of his children. What can a father teach? What happens when a father isn’t around or doesn’t invest time in his children’s lives. In Poisonwood Bible, Nathan is so focused on converting the Congolese to Christianity that he often ignores his daughters.

Come Sunday, I got a different perspective on the role of fathers and parents. I went to a local seminar type event to see a few Lost Boys of Sudan talk. If you are unfamiliar with the history of the Lost Boys, click here. Anyways, one of the speakers, Kuek Garang, told the story of his relocation to Chicago. Until recently, he hadn’t seen his parents in 22 years. The resolution to Garang’s story was his trip back to the Sudan to visit with his parents. First Garang reunited with his mother. Garang’s experiences fleeing Sudan forced him to grow up rather quickly. He mentioned feeling like a kid again for the first time since the civil war in Sudan.

For me, the most compelling part of the story was Garang’s view of his father. He said that he could not become a full child again until he reconnected with his Father. Garang said that most people take for granted how lucky they are to live with both of their parents in safety. He really valued the life lessons that his parents taught him. Garang’s final statement was that in the absence of parents, education is the most important “role model” for a child. He was so thankful for his opportunities to go to school in the U.S..

Although I realized that parents have a huge influence on their kids, I never thought about the alternatives to parents. Kuek Garang’s story opened my mind to the importance of parents and how children, like the daughters in Poisonwood Bible can be severely damaged by dismissive parents or a lack of parents.

If you are interested in Garang’s story, he has produced a documentary of his trip home entitle “22 Years from Home.” The Lost Boys of Sudan that I saw were a part of CALBOS the Chicago Association for the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of Sudanese refugees that were resettled in the Chicago land area.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Recently I’ve stumbled upon the word exceptional several times in literature and in current events. From my former knowledge I defined exceptional as superior, better than average. However, according to Merriam Webster, exceptional can alternatively mean having above or below average intelligence. Even more interesting, it can mean physically disabled. Oddly enough, physical disability and exceptionalism relate very closely a book I’m reading in my senior English class: The Poisonwood Bible written by Barbara Kingsolver. The story follows a family of Americans from Georgia on a missionary trip in the Congo (for a complete summary visit here). Briefly in class we discussed the American view of white supremacy over the Congolese or even the “white man’s burden” to bring salvation and Christianity to Africa (keep in mind the story takes place in 1959). It turns out the Congolese didn’t even want to adopt Christianity.

Although cultural superiority is a worthwhile discussion, I wanted to focus on the less prevalent definition of exceptionalism. The Poisonwood Bible is written as series of “books” separated into sections narrated by four daughters and the mother in the story. Adah, one of the daughters and more importantly a twin, suffers from hemiplegia. She is exceptional in the fact that she is disabled. She doesn’t talk but she is a very eloquent, quirky writer. Adah narrates a scene about her mother’s view of education as she explains,

“She is especially beset by Leah’s and my status as exceptional children. When we entered the first grade, we were examined by the spinster principal of Bethlehem Elementary, Miss Leep, who announced that we were gifted: Leah, on account of her nonchalant dazzling scores on reading comprehension tests, and myself by association, as I am presumed to have the same brain insofar as the intact parts go” (Kingsolver 56).

After finding the different definitions of exceptional I began to think that maybe the twins are different in more ways than what’s written on the page. Adah seems to view herself as exceptional in the negative, handicapped sense. Even though Adah is physically disabled, it has changed her view of the world. Of all the siblings I feel that she is most skeptical of missionary work and she is very perceptive in sensory ways. Adah learned from her handicap and ended up becoming a very insightful and independent young adult, whose opinions aren’t only those of her parents (like Leah who will believe anything their father says). Adah’s physical exception allows her to become more exceptional in school and she now has a clearer perspective of the Congo.

So readers, be forewarned when using the term exceptional. Even supposedly righteous causes like missionary work can be exceptional in a negative way from the perspective of the people being forced to convert. Don’t be too discouraged, sometimes we come across truly exceptional people like Adah who defy norms and overcome their physical ailments.


Thursday, September 23, 2010


Hello Blogosphere. I’m Lauren, a high school senior with a mind focused on organization, logic, math, and science. I’ve always considered literature and language to be my weakness in school. I struggle with word choice for essays, comma usage, and even verb conjugation for Spanish class. For AP Spanish Language class this year I began to confront my fear of vocabulary and language. I had to learn thousands of seemingly pointless words like suckling pig and stoplight (cochinillo and semáforo. I did my homework). The initial onslaught of words was too intimidating to handle, especially over the summer; so I procrastinated. I eventually approached the 18 vocab lists with surprising ease. To this date I’ll even admit that I actually liked learning wacky Spanish words. Now I want to take a more prolonged look into language.

Facing my fear of language is becoming increasingly important. College application deadlines are approaching. Succinct writing is key. To capture your personality in a 250 word essay is daunting. It requires the elimination of all extraneous words.

This blog could really help condense my writing through practice. Plus, I can explain my wild journey learning new words and emphasizing significant words already in my vocabulary. For this blog I’ll be selecting important conversational and educational words from my teachers, peers, reading assignments, and current events. I’ll investigate the effectiveness of a particular word. Is there a more concise replacement for that phrase? Does that word help the speaker get his/her point across? Are there connotations with certain words that clash with the point trying to be made? From a student’s perspective I want to analyze whether or not the language kids experience is at an appropriate level for their existing knowledge. My goal: enjoy scholarly vocabulary more and examine the use of language in the high school classroom.