By now anyone who reads student writing has been treated to the observation that “It’s a doggy-dog world,” but I believe I was among the first (long before the now-famous rap musician embraced it for his own in ’92 as Snoop Doggy Dogg). My astonished colleagues and I laughed as we tried to picture what a doggy dog world would be like: probably a lot of wet noses, panting, and furry romping. I suppose it’s nice to imagine that our students’ imaginations are populated not by cannibalistic brutes but by rowdily affectionate puppies.
When we hear an unfamiliar term, we try to “read” it with the vocabulary we have. This tendency has resulted in a lot of bizarre versions of rock lyrics (I myself puzzled over why anyone would sing that “There’s a bathroom on the right”–did anyone else interpolate these helpful directions into “Bad Moon Rising”?).
For me, and at least for readers whose experience of text has not been limited to illustrated editions, language makes mental images. Poets depend on this!
Unfortunately, some of the errors my students have made in translating aural experience conjure up images that are fantastic, impossible, baffling, absurd; I have a lot of examples of those.
But sometimes the image is workable–is, arguably, defensible, even useful. I think “lame-man’s terms” is one of those. Trying to read literature with a limited vocabulary and an unfocused mind’s eye must be something like trying to take a long hike with a sprained ankle.
I knew what he meant, anyway; and several years later, another student explained the word “intercourse” this way: “In lame man’s terms, sex.” So, that makes twice. Perhaps this phrase and concept will someday find their way into the language, or into rapper nomenclature.