Name games with the seedies and neds

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Survey by the publisher Penguin has identified the most popular buzz-words among seven to 15-year olds. In Scotland, these include cool, wicked, brill, funky, minted, heavy, class and beezer. There are some interesting regional variations. "Minging", surprisingly, appears in the UK list but not the Scottish one, as do the dismissive "whatever" and "kerr-ching" (the last meaning money, as in the sound of a till).

The desire of young people to have a "private" lexicon of terms, outwith the control of adults, is perfectly natural. It is an assertion of their identity and a claim to verbal "space" that is their own. Many youthful coinages show wit and creativity and an appreciation of the fun that language can provide.

Adult attempts to prohibit such usages are futile. Objections of this kind merely make the outlawed terms even more attractive. As far as teachers are concerned, they need to be aware of children's language but not necessarily to reveal their knowledge and certainly not to use the favoured terms themselves. From a youthful perspective, few things are more embarrassing or pathetic than adult attempts to tune into their terminology. It represents a failure to respect boundaries as well as a misguided effort to seek approval.

Adults, of course, have their own private languages. Most professions have characteristic jargon which, as well as serving as convenient shorthand, functions as a way of putting "outsiders" at a disadvantage. In teaching, the official discourse is fashioned and promoted by the Scottish Executive, assisted by senior members of the policy community. The national priorities, with their emphasis on achievement and attainment, inclusion and equality, and values and citizenship, indicate clearly the buzz-words that aspirants for promotion should employ.

In most staffrooms, there is a counter-culture in evidence, whose members are sceptical about official policies and the language that goes with them.

They employ their own robust alternatives. It would be interesting to conduct a survey, similar to the one for seven to 15-year-olds, seeking to identify the slang terms most frequently invoked. I have a suspicion that "mince" might be heard regularly - and not in the context of school dinners. There might also be mention of the "con" in consultation and the "ass" in assessment.

When the term "articulation" became fashionable in referring to links between modules, assessments and qualifications, I adopted the practice of substituting the word "jackknifing" every time I encountered it in official documents. My alternative often made as much sense as the original. I have a couple of other suggestions I hope may catch on. The acronym for the Scottish Executive Education Department is SEED and it is a short linguistic step from SEED to SEEDy. Teachers might start to use the term "seedy" to refer to policies that are out of touch and bureaucratic. The more usual associations of seedy would give it an added piquancy.

Within SEED there is a division called New Educational Developments (NED).

The acronym here is irresistible for anyone brought up in the west of Scotland. The notion that those responsible for some educational initiatives are a bunch of "neds" from the east is strangely attractive.

And if it offends the social pretensions of the Edinburgh elite, there is a double dividend.

The inventiveness of children's language has something to teach adults. We give in too readily to the predictable, the pedestrian and the platitudinous.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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