I gave background to U Chicago’s Application Essay Prompt 2 in my last post; in this post, I will provide some more specific suggestions and sources for essay inspiration. Before I do, here is the prompt, again:
Essay Option 2.
In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
— Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018
Alrighty. So my first suggestion is not to accept Ms. Driscoll’s argument that some words are untranslatable, because they are all translatable. However, even once they have been translated, a foreign person still may not really get it. One reason: culture, which includes language but also history, philosophy, geography, weather, technology, etc, etc, etc. A concept like the Chinese idea of Chi is actually pretty easy to translate but not so easy to fully understand–it can best be translated as energy but also can have to do with a person’s temperament and mood, with the weather and time of year and its influence on the person, with the “energy” or nature of food a person eats–and the chi of food alters as well, depending on the way food is cooked. A fever manifests a disturbance in chi, but is also a kind of chi in itself, and a martial artist of skill will use a person’s chi against him.
Notice that much of this does not fit the western concept of energy, though electricity is a also a kind of chi. A nonnative speaker of Mandarin can become fairly fluent in the language but would need to, for example, study some martial arts under a master, maybe do some qi gong and learn about Chinese cookery, architecture and art in order to have a decent grip on Chi, on its meanings and manifestations in Chinese thought and experience. So looking at language as an expression of culture, and at culture as a kind of closed room that must be entered and explored before many words–many concepts–can be fully understood . . . is a good way to approach this essay. There are also personal and familial reasons why a person may not be equipped to understand a word–even a native Mandarin speaker may not have the understanding of Chi that, say, a Taoist master who is also an acupuncturist and painter would have.
My second suggestion is to look at idiomatic expressions. You might want to start with your own language, Oh Native English Speakers. Of course, given the different varieties of English, it can be argued that we Americans are speaking a foreign tongue to those Brits. Or vice-versa. A famous Brit whose name escapes my data banks once claimed that American speech is slang. Contrasting the Queen’s English and the Colonies’ English is a fun exercise in itself–you can start with those slang and idioms that do translate, pairing them, then find idioms that do not translate at all; for example:
American English/Queens English
a dust up/argy bargy
biscuit or bikky/Cookie
technical expert (or geek, in some uses)/boffin
opportunist, schemer or swindler/chancer
chat or gossip/chinwag
reconnoiter or check out/dekko
old man or boss or old and the boss (and dreary and annoying)/gaffer
The next step is not just to look at what the equivalent expression is, but to try to figure out why/from what the term came. Again, notice that they are translateable, but there is a cultural flavor and flair with many slang expressions. A good example is dekko, which is not English in origin; it comes from British military slang and derived from the Hindustani dhek/dekho meaning “to see”. It is also less commonly decco, deccie, deek, deeks. It is also an example of what I mean about language and culture. The British Empire ruled over India for well over a century, and in the process of garrisoning India, it brought back more than chutney and curry. It brought back many words and forever altered British culture. Given that many of British soldiers were also working class, you find quite a bit of this new language entering through more street or slang dialects, like Cockney, which also has a lot of Romany (these people are commonly called gypsy) words. Like this: Put up your dukes, pal. Look the last two words up for more. They are Romany in origin.
Cockney itself would be an excellent place for you to look for inspiration, though you should keep in mind that Cockney has just about died out–the last true Cockney speakers were fading away by the 1990’s, pretty much as the East End of London faded as a stronghold of working class whites/Cockneys. Notice how slang evolution is tied into history and slang, as well as “proper” language evolves over time. So slang and idioms are a great source for an essay like this, and you can use the wonders of the internet to look for ideas, making lists of words and looking for ways to connect words and concepts that say something larger about culture.
To start working with idioms, try British slang, Cockney, and American slang as search terms and give it some time. There are many sites and posts devoted to this, and quality varies. Make lists and double-check definitions against other sources and sites–I will provide some good dictionaries and other sources for looking up and crosschecking, below. What makes you laugh would probably also make your essay reader laugh, which is a good thing (as long as they are not laughing at you.)
To recap and add an example: the history of language and word meanings, whether they are considered idiomatic or otherwise, is a great place to look for essay ideas and content–words do change meanings over time, just as words are born and words die. In the 13th Century, the word gay meant bright (brightly colored), cheerful, et al. It had nothing remotely to do with sexual orientation. Then, in 1890’s America, it gained a slang meaning–a gay lady was a prostitute (I guess somebody was happy.) Then, in the 20th Century, the term, which already had a double meaning associated with being happy or bright, and with suspect or illicit sex, was assigned to homosexuals, then adopted by the homosexual rights movement; but this change in meaning then led to suburban youth by the 1990’s referring to something suspect or bad as “gay” –a change that illustrates the adolescent fear of being different, especially sexually, and conversely, of punishing those who are different. This is an example of a psycho-sociological effect that is reflected in the change in a word’s meaning. Words change all the time, but not always this drastically–fear and prejudice are powerful influences, even on words. When you write your essay, your focus might be on how the history of language is closely tied to sociology and psychology. Our words say a lot about us.
To close things out, I am going to recommend some source materials, and as part of that paste in a recent article that shows a good way to open an essay like this . . . Hello loyal readers. This is the second post on this Chicago prompt, and you have to pay a subscription to my private blog to get full access to this post and quite a few other posts, past and future. You have about half of the post available in this sample. If this seems unfair, that’s probably because you have been taught to disrespect the value of written work, due to the parasitic nature of most of the big internet companies, which offer creators little compensation while essentially giving the creative work of others away for free. A subscription for full access to all of my posts is available for the small price of $15. You send me an e-mail, with the subject heading “subscription, please,” and I will send you an invoice for $15. After you pay it, I will give you access to my private blog, which has all of my posts available in full, including the rest of this post.
One more thing–a caveat emptor–I do not delete old posts from other application years, partly as a matter of historical record, but also because many universities repeat the same prompts, or use prompts that are similar to prompts used in the past. If you see that a post was put up during the last application season, you need to double-check to be sure about the prompts for this year’s applications at your specific universities–we are currently in the 2014-2015 application season. The software of this site will link “related” posts, but they are sometimes from previous years. Be sure to visit the university website to check on application requirements and timelines for this year.
Speaking of which, I am still accepting some college advising and application essay editing clients. E-mail me soon to inquire and to secure a spot. As of this writing, July 10, 2014, I am fully booked in early August, but can accept college application editing business in July and from the latter part of August on. This will change in the coming weeks, of course, as new clients take up existing space in my schedule, so it’s better not to wait too long. I only have so much time. . . See you soon.
P.S. The ads you sometimes see below some of my posts are inserted by the WordPress people. Allowing them to advertise allows me to save expenses on this platform, and by keeping my fixed costs down, I am able to offer not only the most effective editing service you are likely to find, I am also cheaper than all those big operations you may have heard of. I myself do not see the ads unless I access my own site via an outside search. If you do dislike one of the ads, please let me know at the e-mail above, and I will have a look and contact WordPress, if necessary. Thanks.