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The Truth, Mainly - 07/01/1996

Stressing out: An English teacher spells 'aphrodisac'

Oh sure, I know that other professions are under lots of stress too.

Air traffic controllers, window-washers hanging from the sides of skyscrapers, politicians trying to keep their stories straight—they all have tough jobs. And we all feel sorry for them.

But who feels the pain of tightwad English teachers? Who appreciates the constant stress of the heavy cultural load we carry as we're always on the lookout for linguistic outrages to be indignant about?

For example, I always get stressed out over those homemade signs that advertise "FREE" KITTEN'S.

"Why do they put quotation marks around 'free'?" I indignantly ask my wife. "Are they ironic quotation marks indicating awareness of how much it's going to cost for vet care and kitty litter and carpet cleaning? And why the apostrophe in 'kitten's'? Apostrophes are for possessives, not plurals, so it's apparently just one free kitten in possession of something not named. Whatever can the sign mean?"

"Good grief," my wife says, rolling her eyes. "It means these people have several small cats they want to foist off on tightwads who might take one because it's free. Only English teachers get indignant about signs like that. Just take a deep breath."

That's another thing that causes English teacher stress: Our spouses rarely share our indignation over linguistic outrages. Instead they become convinced they're married to fuddy-duddies. So they roll their eyes a lot.

OK, so you're still sceptical. You still think English teachers must lead pretty relaxed lives. Listen to this:

Last week I'm in my favorite frozen yogurt shop, see, to get a small vanilla cone. It's my favorite shop because the yogurt is the cheapest in town. I go there several times a week. The proprietor takes jovial offense because I never get anything but small vanilla cones.

"Here's the big spender," he says. "He wants a small vanilla cone."

"Small vanilla cone," I say, counting out the exact change.

He rolls his eyes. My pulse rate goes up a beat or two.

"We have other things," he says. "You ought to try the banana smoothie. Costs a little more, but you might like it."

He points to a hand-lettered sign saying the banana smoothie should be taken in moderation because it's a known "aphrodisiac."

Did I mention that English teachers pride themselves on their carnality? I take what he says as a slight on my libido, and I reply as forthrightly as I can: I question his spelling.

"You misspelled 'aphrodisiac,'" I say. "First i should be an e ."

"My wife made the sign," he says, "and she was an English major."

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"Well," I say, my hands a little clammy, "I'm an English teacher, and she misspelled it. If she wants, we can have a little chat about spelling."

That's the way English teachers talk when they're under stress.

Two days later, I'm back.

"Small vanilla cone," I say, counting out my change.

"It's spelled right," he says. "Look here."

He shows me a news clipping with "aphrodisiac" spelled the way he wife spells it. My scalp beings to tingle.

"There's probably not one copy editor in ten who knows how to spell that word," I say. "The clipping doesn't prove anything."

"The word comes from Aphrodite," he says. "Greek goddess of love."

"I know that," I say, rolling my eyes.

"I think we've got it spelled right," he says. "I think you're wrong."

"We'll see," I say, taking a deep breath and puffing out my cheeks. "Maybe I am and maybe I'm not."

I go home and run aphrodisiac" with an i instead of an e through the spell-check on my wife's computer. It doesn't object.

I say the only thing I know how to say when computers go wrong: "Garbage in, garbage out."

"What's wrong with you?" my wife says. "Your eyes are bulging and you're panting. And why are your checking the spelling of 'aphrodisiac'?"

I ignore her and look it up in Webster's. It's an i instead of an e there, too. The vein in my forehead throbs.

I go to the ultimate authority, the Oxford English Dictionary, get out my magnifying glass, and look it up again. Even the OED is wrong.

"O, O, O," I say, dropping the h to indicate strong feeling.

My stomach acid is giving me terrible heartburn. The only remedy is frozen yogurt. I need a small vanilla cone and I need it now. Do I go back to my favorite shop to to the more expensive one down the street?

My hands shake. My pulse zooms. I take a deep breath and visualize myself hanging from the side of a skyscraper with a squeegee.

That helps.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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