The words we choose matter.

It makes a difference whether I say, “What do you want to eat tonight?” or “Where would you care to dine this evening?” even though both of those questions supposedly  mean the same thing. Language doesn’t just impart meaning, it tells us something about who the speaker (or writer) is, what communities they are a part of.

We’re all members of a multiple communities, each with their own specific language rules. For this unit, we’ll look at an excerpt from The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in which  Junot Diaz looks at one word from his community (“fuku”) that has so much power it rules his whole country. He wants his readers to know the importance of this word because he thinks it affects them too. Queen Latifah writes about how important it is to her to be called a “queen” and not a “b**ch,” even though so many rappers think it’s fine to talk about women that way.

What is a word or phrase unique to your community that people outside the community should know about? Why?

In Essay One, you will write about the language of a community you are a part of. You’ll do this, as Diaz and Latifah have, by focusing largely on a particular word or phrase that is at the heart of this community. Tell your readers, mostly outsiders from this community, why this word MATTERS (and in so doing, teach us about the community itself.) 

This should be a word that many of your readers are somewhat unfamiliar with– at least the way you use it. So this isn’t a word like “family” or “love,” but an insider word, one that some people can use or others can’t–or a word that means different things when different people use it. This word might be in a different language, or it may be a slang word.

Show us the word in action– tell us a story or two about it. Show it being used!

You might write about the language of your community by outright explaining it to us, or you might just… use the language of your community in writing to show us how it’s done! In other words, you are free to write in any way that feels natural to you and that you think best expresses the importance and meaning of the word you choose. You may write in what you consider the language of your community. You may write in “standard written English,” (SWE) if you like. Either way, even if you write in SWE, you should be able to explain why you’ve chosen the language you have. Why is this language the best tool for the job?

Remember: you need to make a point, not just ramble about the word or phrase you’ve chosen.  Diaz’ point is that the fuku came from the Dominican Republic and to the US, and American readers should pay attention, lest they get cursed with a fuku too! Latifah’s point is that language matters– she’s not a bi**ch, she’s a queen.

What will I get graded on?

  • AUDIENCE: Aside from me, who would you want to read an article about your  community? Are you writing in a way that would reach that audience?
  • ORGANIZATION/ STRUCTURE: Now, consider your audience further. What can you do to keep them reading? Nobody on this earth will read an essay that is one three-page long paragraph or just a random list of thoughts about this word. You wouldn’t!  So, strive for an engaging, clear article with a point that readers can follow.
  • PURPOSE: KEEP thinking about your audience. Is your essay teaching your readers something or helping them see something in a new way? Do your readers know why we are talking about the word or phrase you’ve chosen?  DO YOU HAVE A MAIN POINT or are you just rambling about the word/phrase?
  • DICTION (language choice): You can write with whatever diction (style of language) you choose, but it must be the best language for the job– as you see it. It also must be at least partially in English. That is, you may write in Spanglish if you want, but I am not able to read a whole paper in Urdu. (Some Urdu is great, though!) Take note of the way Diaz goes in between Spanish and English, though he is writing for an English-speaking audience.
  • ENGAGEMENT WITH “MENTOR TEXTS”: I’m not asking you to quote from Diaz or Abdurraqib in your final essay—you are just using them as examples of ways you could go with this type of assignment. I do expect you to read the articles closely as a writer and choose at least one technique or style of their writing that you would like to emulate.
  • WORD COUNT: At least 1000 words

Here are some questions and ideas to think about before you begin writing. This may give you some ideas!

  1. What was your first experience of this word/ phrase? What was your first impression of its meaning? Has its meaning changed for you over time?
  2. Why is this word important to you and your community?
  3. Is there a way using this word correctly indicates membership in the community?
  4. Who is allowed to use this word and who is not? Or how does this word change when people from outside the  community use the word?
  5. Who do you think needs to know about this word? What do they need to know? Why?
  6. Brainstorm scenes and memories, important events having to do with this word. This will help you construct your essay.