“Last night when I was having interpersonal communication with my boyfriend…”

From a journal entry some years ago.

It was the same year a colleague in the Communications Department began a memo “So happy for this chance to interact with you.”

I believe the combination places these examples in the ‘eighties, probably the early ‘eighties.

Jump to centuries ago: the naming of a town in Pennsylvania that was, in its heyday, a modest crossroads of travel and probably of trade. People met, dealt, exchanged news and views…and gave each other good old Amish social and spiritual support. In those days, these activities were referred to as “intercourse.” In MY day, as you’ve immediately guessed, the town was a mecca for frat boys eager to purchase souvenirs, especially hats, marked “INTERCOURSE.” (Here are a map of Pennsylvania showing the town, nestled in Amish country, and also facts and history.) (It isn’t very far from the town of Blue Ball, but that has nothing to do with this post, I think…)

This little excursion into Pennsy tourism is just to say that the meanings of words are not fixed and static in a living language, and English is a particularly lively living language. And the jargon of trades enters the language constantly, and often remains even after the trades have disappeared. Not that I expect the study of Communications to disappear any time soon. Jargon also changes within professions. AND people outside those professions like to pick up and embrace professional terminology, because…well, because they want to seem sophisticated, or educated, or au courant, or because the words enter the public vocabulary so forcefully that nobody can remember the plain old words.

Still, my field is English language and literature, and as any English major can tell you, part of the attraction is what we used to refer to as “the underlined parts.” Trained to, and willing to, read on more than one level, we sometimes see more than the author intended.

Given free choice of subject matter for journal entries, a lot of students are surprisingly willing to confide very intimate information on journal pages even though they know the professor is going to be reading them. For this reason, professors who read students’ “personal” journals sometimes blush but are rarely surprised.

All this is preamble to what you already probably know. In an office conversation with this student about her writing (and the journals were intended primarily as writing exercises as far as I was concerned—this type of journal was also very trendy in those days, and I was very young!) I raised the subject of vague language and used “having interpersonal communication” as an example. “Oh,” she said; “I meant we were talking.” Ah. And why had she not simply said “Last night when I was talking with my boyfriend…”? “Well, ‘having interpersonal communication’ is a better way of saying that, isn’t it? We learned that in Communications class.” (As somewhere along their way many have also “learned” that myself is a more sophisticated word than me. They’re not the only ones: I have received many a memo from a colleague ending “Please forward your report to John or myself.”

We all try. Writing students, especially first-year students, try very hard indeed to sound mature, sophisticated, knowledgeable. Bizarre historical generalizations are one result; stilted and vague phraseology is another. I appreciate the effort and sympathize with the desire. But that doesn’t prevent those moments when I imagine that boyfriend, moist and hungry, murmuring into my student’s ear “Ooooh, baby—wanna have interpersonal communication?”


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

24 responses to ““Last night when I was having interpersonal communication with my boyfriend…”

  • Susan P


    I lived in Lancaster County for some years and have visited those places. You left out Paradise, though. You have to go through Intercourse to get there.;)

    • RAB

      Ah! I KNEW there was a third town! That part of Pennsylvania is lovely despite, or maybe partly because of, the town names ;-} (I went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, close enough for a visit!)

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    When I was a grad student at NYU, there was a rather good-looking young man who kept checking me out, as we used to say, in the cafeteria. One day he came up to me and started chatting me up (do we still say that? Have we ever said that, unless we had just finished reading an English novel?). I thought he was asking me for a date. But, no, he wanted more. He wanted to “relate intensely.” As in “I want to relate intensely now.” Even I understood what he meant. He was rather a hunk but, alas, a clod.

  • Janice Wald

    I am Janice. Can we have some interpersonal communication? =) I blog over at Reflections, also at WordPress.com. I am writing a post on communication and whether it’s understood depending on geographical location. I will be linking to your post in my conclusion. Nice to meet you. It was fun having interpersonal communcation with you! =)

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    College: no point in using one perfectly good simple word when one can spill out a flood of intelligent sounding ones?
    Ah, summer is so needed.

    • RAB

      That’s how you know it’s college, of course–big words, pompous phrases, vague but elaborate circumlocutions: you have to love them for trying to grow up, but oh, if only they READ closely enough to catch the actual tone, or THOUGHT carefully enough to be sure what they were trying to say! Like children clomping around in Mommy’s high heels… Yes, ah summer.

  • Ally Bean

    philmouse said what I was thinking. This post made me laugh… or should I say: “made me intensely feel the longing to express myself in a guttural utterance that often is a precursor to the sharing of a moment of laughter amongst those with whom I am associated with.” 😉

  • Heidi Wilson

    Ah, dear old Intercourse! I remember it well from my days at Bryn Mawr College. The introductory geology course always took a field trip to the area, and, as the students gleefully reported, “spent the night in Intercourse.”

    Here’s a usage tidbit from the past: my mother (born 1908) maintained that to substitute “myself” for “me” was vulgar. One of those U-, non-U things, I guess. So many things were vulgar in 1908.

    Finally, I need, really need, to relieve myself of a burden encountered in today’s paper. I wrote to you a while ago about the mangling of proverbial expressions, like saying “the proof is in the pudding” rather than “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I found a great one this morning. The old expression “a lot of water has passed over the dam (or under the bridge) since….” has now become “a lot of water has passed since….” Thank you for listening. I have now relieved myself.

    • RAB

      LOVE your mother’s precept. And today some of my students evidently think just the opposite–that “myself” is superior to “me” as a word.
      I’ve been hearing “water over the bridge,” actually (maybe “under the dam” too?); “A lot of water has passed since…” is new to me. Evidently a LOT of people are relieving themselves! ;-} Thanks for this!

  • Khushboo Singh

    You gave me the feels! 🙂 haha

  • Khushboo Singh

    Also, I am new in this blogging business. can You please follow my blog1 thanks!

  • dearlilyjune

    I once worked in a Writing Center where the Director gave the example of a student he had who, in a desperate attempt to both sound sophisticated AND avoid cliche wrote that he didn’t want to “flog the deceased equine.” That’s one hell of a way to avoid “beating a dead horse!”

    • RAB

      Ah, I LOVE it. Back in my pseudo-intellectual high school days my friends and I would chant at football games “Progress! Progress! Perambulate the ball across the field!” (NOT original with us, alas.) Also sang “Propel, propel, propel your craft Placily through the liquid solution; Ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically, Existence is but an illusion.” Thank you for those memories, dearlilyjune!

  • thestressedmess

    hey! i am new to wordpress and absolutely hooked on to your blog! i just love the way you write. i actually published my first post only yesterday and i was hoping you would give it a quick look and give me an unbiased opinion on it? i would really appreciate it!

  • Stars Of Life

    Beautifully Written!

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