Whose meaning is it anyway?*

“What’s the meaning of…” seems to be a perfectly innocent question. But language is never innocent, is it? 
 
I give you exhibit A, the word white-shoe:
According to The American Heritage,
“white-shoe adj. Of or being a long-established business known for reputable service and a wealthy clientele: “took a job at… [a] pronouncedly white-shoe investment-banking firm” (Connie Bruck)”
 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines it as:
“US denoting a company (esp. a law firm) owned and run by white upper-class Americans and typically regarded as cautious and conservative
And now exhibit B: bleeding heart
The American Heritage considers a bleeding heart to be “a person who is considered excessively sympathetic toward those who claim to be underprivileged or exploited,” while their counterpart to the North, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, glosses the expression as an informal term to “a person perceived as overly sentimental, esp. in regard to social problems.”
A translator I know brought these different definitions to my attention. Undoubtedly, they offer compelling evidence of  how ideology(ies) can influence the product of a reference work… And of ideology in language.
If languages are ideological, it follows that teaching one is necessarily so. That is why, of all the acronyms in TESOL, my least favorite one is certainly “PARSNIP”. Each letter stands for an allegedly forbidden topic in the EFL classroom: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (e.g.: feminism, socialism), and pork. Of course there are topics wise and sensitive teachers would avoid for certain groups, but the idea that language teaching can be at all “neutral” or “sanitized” has always baffled me. It is language, after all. And it is teaching. Neutrality is the opposite of what we set out to do.
But perhaps this is just the opinion of a bleeding heart on white-shoe establishments.
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*First published on TESOLornothing.blogspot.com

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics (Language Testing & Language Program Evaluation) from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected to the BRAZ-TESOL Advisory Council for the 2017-2018 term.

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