On volunteers and quoniam

03Dec08

Shortly after I posted about the new language police at Queen’s University, I got an e-mail from Vice-Principal Patrick Deane. Well, I got a bulk e-mail sent out to alumni to reassure them that our alma mater hasn’t formed its own KGB and that they can feel free to keep those donations rolling in.

This e-mail made one odd claim about the program: “It does not exist to force or even encourage consensus on any issue, except one: that freedom of speech and thought is impossible without respect, consideration, and a commitment to mutual understanding.”

Of course, as I noted while immediately jabbing the Reply button, this is ridiculous. Freedom of speech is very much possible without respect. It explicitly includes my freedom to voice my disrespect — for example, for the administration, for the student facilitators, and for anyone else who thinks that it’s a good idea to create a squad of thought police and reward them for spying on their neighbors with free room and board, a strong incentive to make sure they earn their keep by doing a thorough job.

The interesting thing is that the administration hasn’t managed to disinfect the vocabularies of the university faculty, let alone the students.

My girlfriend, who’s back at Queen’s in teachers’ college, has a professor who used to write those Heritage Minutes that air on Canadian television. She played the one about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway by Chinese laborers, which says there’s one dead Chinese man for every mile of the track. Even though Chinese men aren’t nearly so rare as they used to be, we no longer consider this a good exchange rate at all. In this Heritage Minute, a laborer is sent into a tunnel with a charge of nitroglycerin and promptly explodes. “Get another volunteer,” sighs the head gweilo before the laborer emerges from the tunnel, blackened like Wile E. Coyote by the explosion but miraculously unharmed.

“Of course, they wouldn’t have used the word ‘volunteer’ back then,” said the professor after the Heritage Minute had ended. “Can anyone tell me what they would have said?”

No one said anything.

“Well, they would have said ‘chink’, right?” she asked after a minute.

No one said anything.

The word “chink”, like “niggardly“, is much like nitroglycerin itself: occasionally useful but still always dangerously explosive. This is especially the case in a classroom; I once had an instructor whose career ended prematurely after he said that, having had his car hit by two different Asian female drivers, they now made him a little extra nervous.1 So when my girlfriend excitedly reported that her professor had said “chink”, I assumed it had been followed by “in his armor” or something like that. But I wasn’t too surprised by the real story.

It’s nothing next to what I heard my English professor say when I was in first year, when we were studying “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Quoth the Wife:2

As help me God, I was a lusty oon,
And faire, and riche, and yong, and wel bigon,
And trewely, as myne housbondes tolde me,
I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be
.

Most of that’s easy enough to understand, though our professor had to walk us through the odd bit of Middle English that might stump a modern reader. Wel bigon evidently means “well fixed”, for example, though I’m still not totally sure what’s meant by that; it could be that she’s financially secure, but maybe it’s that she has a big rack.

“And of course,” explained my professor in her low monotone, “quoniam means ‘cunt’.”

I immediately straightened up at my desk, though she’d just dropped such a powerful linguistic atom bomb that I should have ducked and covered under it. My eyes widened, my mouth gaped, my head swiveled around to see if my classmates had just heard what I couldn’t possibly have heard.

Everyone else seemed completely unruffled. A few dutifully jotted notes. Maybe they just weren’t paying attention. On the other hand, my professor had said that “of course” quoniam meant what it did. Maybe everyone else in the class already knew this unremarkable fact. Maybe I was the only unsophisticated rube who had gone to such a jerkwater high school that our teachers never even used crude terms for vaginas like they usually do in high-level academic discourse.

I mean, I did have that one class in Grade 7 when they talked about vaginas and some other stuff, but they never actually swore.3 I wonder what else I missed out on.

* * *

1. His intended point was that, despite our noblest efforts, prejudice exists within us all. He wasn’t fired, but he declined to return the next year, having become definitely prejudiced against grim, humourless, overly politically correct students. Also, I thought it was interesting that, during the investigation, the program coördinator came to me for my opinion, with the apparent reasoning that if even the most offensive person in the class thought he’d crossed the line, then he’d definitely done so.

2. This reminds me: I have two friends whose recent breakup was precipitated when he referred to her as his “wife”. If your girlfriend dumps you for calling her your wife, it’s probably a fairly clear indication that she doesn’t want to be your wife. So I think this was for the best. But, after she showed up unexpectedly on his home turf, in front of a lot of people he knew, on the arm of a new boyfriend he hadn’t known about, she received an e-mail shortly thereafter calling her a lot of other things, including a C-word mentioned in this post (but one that isn’t “chink”). “I guess ‘wife’ wasn’t the worst four-letter word he could call you,” I remarked to her. She did not find this funny.

3. I vaguely recall an embarrassed pantomime involving a doughnut and a hot dog wiener, but no actual talking. Also, this might have been during my lunch period rather than health class. Also, I just made this up and none of this actually happened.



2 Responses to “On volunteers and quoniam”

  1. 1 MC

    I was taking a class on the Harlem Renaissance in university, a class that was made up of me, a white male and 10 black women. I did an oral presentation of the related movement of Negritude… and in the course of it, I had to say a particular word (one starting with N) more than once… that was one of the most uncomfortable moments in my academic life.


  1. 1 A bare-assed hero « Man vs. Clown!

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