Learning to talk the talk

April 28, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

At the Naval Academy, a "Joe Mid" is a student who sticks too closely to rules and regulations. Too closely, that is, to be cool.

A Joe Mid typically wears a lot of "flare" (awards and ribbons). He avoids raucous activities such as "Dive School" (tossing live mice into toilets to see if they can swim) and often acts as a "Hall Rat" (a student who spends weekends in Bancroft Hall, the academy's dormitory).

At the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, required reading for cadets is a pocket guide called Contrails, which lists academy terms including "Zoo," a nickname for the school, and "Stealth," an adjective used to describe a cadet who maintains a low profile to avoid extra work.

At West Point, an active duty officer is a "green-suiter" and junior students are called "cows."

American colleges and universities have always been breeding grounds for slang, but none quite so distinct and colorful as its military academies.

Col. Edith A. Disler, an Air Force officer studying military discourse in the linguistics department at Georgetown University, said that from Day One, talking the talk is essential to the military college curriculum.

"The first thing that happens to these students is that they lose the right to say whatever they want," said Disler, who taught English at the Air Force Academy. "Then they are bombarded with new terms referring not only to the academy itself, but where they will sleep, what they will wear, when they will wear [it], where they're going to sleep, etc."

In addition to creating camaraderie, Disler said, military schools call attention to the chain of command with their internal languages - all of them rich with terms that place students and faculty in a pecking order.

"It's an instant initiation into the whole notion of hierarchy," she said, noting that the first phrases students at all military academies learn to address superiors are `Sir' and `Ma'am.' "It places students in the context of subordinates and superiors."

While all military colleges have their own language, none boasts such an extensive internal dialect as the Naval Academy, where entering freshmen are given a copy of Reef Points, a guide to the school's culture and language. For a more colorful, expansive glossary of academy vernacular, there is also its spinoff: Brief Points: An Almanac for Parents and Friends of U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen.

According to the new, updated version of Brief Points, Midspeak - the language of the Naval Academy - has continued to expand since the school's founding in 1845.

Author Ross Mackenzie, a 1994 graduate of the academy, set out to overhaul the guide his father first wrote a decade ago. In the process, the younger Mackenzie saw that even Midspeak - a language strictly confined to the academy's milieu - transforms with the times.

"Like all languages, it's a fluid, alive thing that will continue to change," said Mackenzie, a former English teacher at the academy.

When Brief Points was first published, a Joe Mid was called a "Joe Gish," and his awards "Chest Candy."

Thanks to the 1999 film Office Space, however, Chest Candy became "flare" - a term adapted from the character played by Jennifer Aniston, a waitress for a chain restaurant that requires its staff to wear buttons (flare) on their uniforms.

Whether derived from popular culture or the front lines, the language of military schools has always been more extensive than the slang at other colleges and universities because it builds solidarity among future military leaders, according to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Stanford University.

"It reflects the esprit de corps that military students feel - one that's much deeper than students at a school like Stanford," he said.

To make room for the Naval Academy's ever-expanding vocabulary, Mackenzie added 40 pages to the third edition of Brief Points (the book was revised slightly in 1996), most of them to the glossary - an indispensable section, even for Mids.

According to Mackenzie, learning the lingo of the Annapolis campus can be challenging. Although his older brother attended the academy and taught him some useful terms, Mackenzie said his Midspeak was makeshift as a plebe.

"When I showed up at the academy, it seemed like people were speaking in tongues," said Mackenzie, a resident of Jacksonville, Fla., on a recent visit.

By his first Parents Weekend, however, he said he was fluent.

"I was talking the talk, and it was cool," he said. "It meant that my brother and I were both in the know."

In addition to defining new terms in the glossary of Brief Points, Mackenzie removed words that had become outdated, like the many Star Wars references that used to be commonplace. Years ago, a male midshipmen who dated a female Mid was said to have ventured to the "Dark Side," and a Mid who dated too many fellow students was called "Lord Vader."

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