EXPAT LIFE: Although Australians speak the English language, like any overseas place you go to, the USA has its own unique terms for many things. Getting to know these can be a bit like learning a foreign language to new expats.
The funny part comes from the cultural mismatch of having different meanings for the same word or even interpreting a word or phrase the wrong way. As a parent of school children in New Jersey, here are some that are a bit strange or a least a bit humorous for an Aussie expat. I hope you get a couple of laughs out of them too.
1. Book sock
This is a stretchy material cover that is used to protect books. Schools may request these be used for textbooks instead of covering them with plastic. A very sensible idea really.
While there’s nothing technically wrong with this term… I just can’t help finding this funny. It reminds me of a rather unfortunate and politically incorrect joke that we used to tell when we were younger and insensitive. Give me a break here… ‘book sock’ does sound just a bit strange, don’t you think?
Sorry but I can’t think of anything else except the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie when I hear this word. Unfortunately, our term for this useful school tool, the ‘rubber’, has its own double meaning in the US. So, not to offend others, you should probably convert to American lingo ASAP on this one.
3. Field Trip
American school excursions are called field trips. When my first permission note for one of these came home, I immediately had visions of the children in khakis, tools in hand, off to start an archaeological expedition or something scientific. Turns out, it’s nothing so interesting.
My daughter went on another ‘field trip’ today-they toured around our local town in the yellow school bus. I’m sure it is going to be fun but there’s probably not too much ‘field’ in the trip though.
4. Magnet school (or district)
‘What the hell is a magnet school?’ This was what I wondered when planning to come to Montclair in New Jersey, one of the few school districts with this type of public school system. Are they called that because they draw lots of parents to them? I still don’t know why they call it this name, to be honest.
But, fyi, these are public schools that follow a theme such as performing arts, technology etc. They still teach the normal curriculum but offer classes across theme subjects.
5. Moving Up Ceremony
This is a ceremony to mark the graduation of elementary school students who are moving up to another school, whether it’s another elementary school or middle school. It certainly is a bit of an occasion on the school calendar.
I don’t exactly know why I find this humorous. Perhaps because it seems a bit too grandiose a title for this change in children’s lives…. Perhaps I just don’t value the milestones in my children’s lives as much as I should. Regardless, it makes me want to burst into song whenever I hear it. There’s a popular song with a similar title from a while back….
I first saw these on a PTA order form that came home in the school backpack. “Mums for Sale Now!“ What? I had to re-read it a couple of times. Were they selling mum volunteers to other parents? I know the PTA takes volunteering seriously but that’s going a bit far, isn’t it?
But wait…. they spelled ‘mom’ as we do in Australia… ‘mum’. So if it’s not ‘mom volunteers for sale’…..What on earth could this be? It turns out that a mum is a pretty type of yellow marigold-like flowered plant. These are commonly displayed during fall (autumn) and sold to parents as fundraisers.
What a shame. I could have used another pair of hands around the place to help me keep my unkempt shambles-of-a-house in order.
7. NJ ASK
No, this is not a state-wide request for a charity donation. Nor is it a quiz show in New Jersey.
It is a set of formal tests run by State of New Jersey Department of Education in all public schools from 3rd-8th Grade. The purpose is to measure student skills and competencies in core subjects compared with other students within their own school and against the state as a whole.
After four long days of non-stop testing though, I’m sure my children would call it the NJ Big ASK!
8. Potluck dinner
This is the American term to describe a dinner where everyone brings a plate of food to make up a smorgasbord of mixed dishes (usually for fundraising).
But what sort of phrase is this to use? It certainly doesn’t make me feel too motivated to eat anything at one of these events! It sounds as appetising as Kate Capshaw’s meals in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!
And what do they call the rest of the meal? Russian roulette entrees? Lucky Dip desserts? Geez….
This is a brand of Texta pens. Like Texta, the brand name in the US, has become a generic word for all similar marker pens. Sharpie for me, though, conjures up something else: that unique sub-culture of Australian cities from the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne from the 1970’s. You can get an idea of what this looks like from the comic genius of Australian, Magda Szubanski, who has immortalised forever this term in her clever ‘Sharpie Dance’ takeoff from the 1980’s. Sharpie Dance Video
I’m sure that the writers of the ‘Walking Dead’ program on AMC in the USA decided to use their term for a zombie (‘walker’) after watching the behaviour of school kids/teenagers as they come out of school at the end of the day.
Think about it. They come out of the building in a herd; they have glassed-over eyes from too many tests (especially after the NJ ASK – see above). And the high-schoolers here, have a frightening habit of wandering all over the roads, as if there is no traffic driving by.
Oh.. and school children are scary ravenous at dismissal time… so ravenous that they threaten violence if you don’t stop at a store on the way home to feed them!
After only becoming a recent convert to the Walking Dead’ program, I’ll never be able to hear that word again without thinking of my kids as zombies.
By the way, a “walker” is a child who is picked up after school or (when older) walk home themselves, as opposed to bus-riders.
Do you have a favourite American school word that bewilders or amuses you?
This has been the fifth article in a series on New Jersey Public schools.