July 16, 1998
Learning ‘Romance’ Language
Learning 'Romance' Language
Berlitz won't help. You can't listen to tapes in the car. And the Foreign Service programs ignore it completely.
It's a "romance" language, but the subjunctive is the least of your problems.
We can call it "Personal-ese." When you achieve fluency, you'll be "personally speaking."
"Personally speaking" can be tricky because personal ads combine the two areas where human beings are most likely to lie: dating and advertising.
It's easy to learn the basic vocabulary, such as "SJM," meaning "Single, Jewish Male." The real obstacles to fluency are the subtle nuances and hidden meanings of words and phrases.
As with other romance languages, gender requires special attention. Take, for example, ad writers who say that they are "seeking adventure." When a man says this, he's dreaming of a ski weekend at Tahoe, a hiking trip to the Grand Canyon, and a week on the beaches of Maui, not all necessarily with the same woman.
In a woman's ad, on the other hand, the meaning of "seeking adventure" is closer to "seeking a long-term relationship, preferably with a guy who likes to ski and hike."
Another example of a gender-specific term, and one that can cause misunderstanding, is "sensual." It appears exclusively in women's ads as a self-description. According to my trusty Funk & Wagnalls dictionary, "sensual" means "unduly indulging the appetites or sexual pleasure; lewd." I'm pretty sure that this is not what most women have in mind when they put the word in their ads. Men aren't really sure what the word means either, but they have the vague impression it could involve Swedish massage.
Women who use "sensual" probably are thinking of "sensuous," which means "keenly appreciative of beauty, refinement or luxury." Rather than exotic massage, these women are picturing cocktail hour at a fine-art exhibit.
As in most languages, men and women commonly interpret Personal-ese quite differently.
An important word form distinctive to Personal-ese is the "defensive adjective." Among the most common are "attractive," "fit" and "professional." These terms do not carry much specific meaning but, rather, are intended only to rule out their opposites.
For example, in their ads, many men describe themselves as "attractive." In conversation, men almost never use the word "attractive," unless they're referring to fishing bait or good colors for a car. Ad inflation, however, takes its toll. Lots of personals include the word, so men are afraid that leaving it out will suggest they have a face that terrifies small children.
Similarly, ad writers seeking someone who is "fit," are not really interested in their date's time in the triathlon. It's just that it could sound shallow to say you'd like your date to be "thin." "Active" and "athletic" are common stand-in's for "fit." People figure that these terms are more polite than saying, "Please do not weigh more than a piano."
"Professional" is a fuzzy term. People who write that they want to meet a "professional," may have particular types of jobs in mind. But any folks who show up for work and give it their best, probably consider themselves professionals. And why not? The only people who clearly aren't "professionals" are the unemployed, and they're "free-lancers."
Just as the Eskimos have innumerable ways to say "snow," Personal-ese is chock full of words for "money." Ad writers may say, for example, that they seek a mate who is "successful," "ambitious" or "accomplished," or that they want to enjoy "the finer things in life." Slightly less subtle is the popular "financially secure" requirement. Sometimes, you'll even see the much less subtle "wealthy" or "rich." Hey, you've got to give credit for getting right to the point.
The definition of broad terms, such as "successful," may depend on the context. But other phrases are more specific. For example, any reference to wanting to be "pampered," has a precise meaning: "Place your wallet on the table, put your hands over your head, and no one has to get hurt."
Of course, it's not possible to learn any language overnight. Eventually, perhaps we can get high schools and colleges to accept course work in Personal-ese, in lieu of more "traditional" courses such as Latin and French. Until then, we're on our own.
As with other languages, the most effective approach is immersion. Place an ad, respond to ads, and read, read, read. Follow that program, and you're guaranteed to be "personally speaking" in no time.
Stephen A. Simon writes for Washington Jewish Week.