Talking Turkey

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The class came to order around a conference table in a room of Washington's National Museum of American Art. Pamela Monder, the teacher, ticked off some of the items to be worked on. "Vaseline" was one. "Cut your teeth" was another. Then there were "first come, first served" and "Dunkin' Donuts" and . . .

Dunkin' Donuts? You betcha. The dozen students were caught up in a course on American lingo, an offering sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. Before their five weeks are up, those who enroll will study hundreds of words and phrases that are as easy as pie to the American on the street but off the wall to someone trained only in textbook English. Grass roots, for instance. And deejay. Far-out stuff like that.

Though designed for foreigners, the course would be an eye-opener to most Americans, who rarely reflect on the quantity of slang and colloquialisms they use. Even the President talks about making some foreign government "say uncle" (an expression from the Irish anacol, meaning mercy). Non-slang can baffle by its seeming want of logic. Is a billboard a board on which you stick a bill? Jingle? "Is that an Irish song?" a student asked. "What does it mean," another wondered, "to kick ass?"

The course concentrates on about 1,000 colloquialisms drawn from both scholarly sources (Gary Goshgarian's Exploring Language) and popular ones (Rolling Stone). It covers such categories as media talk (show biz, glitz), government lingo (lame duck, on the stump), business idioms (the fine print, three-martini lunch) and cocktail patter (networking, finger food, breaking the ice). The final exam: a mock bash at which students will knock down real cocktails, press the flesh and chat up guests.

Students will have been taught by a variety of experts, including Congressional Aide Christophe Tulou from Delaware, who is aware that Americans soak up colloquialisms by osmosis. "What we're doing," says Tulou, "is consolidating the osmosis process." How's that again?