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Someone stop me from saying “liminality” in casual conversation

Sometimes impressive, always ostentatious — breaking down the humanities lexicon
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MAKENA MWENDA/THE VARSITY
MAKENA MWENDA/THE VARSITY

If you’re like me, you often find yourself slipping pretentious academic words into everyday conservations. Somehow, I manage to use terms like ‘self-mythologizing’ and ‘democratization’ in a conversation about fruit — the humanities are to blame.

If you’ve been an arts student at UTSG for a considerable amount of time, you’ve probably noticed that our world — framed by St. George Street, Bloor Street, College Street, and Spadina Avenue — sounds different from the world beyond.

The humanities seem to have their own lexicon — a specific set of expressions rooted in esoteric knowledge. Whether you’re entering university or heading off to graduate school, one must not languish learning the vocabulary of the humanities.

Oh, the ‘ologies.’ You’ve probably noticed academia’s love affair with Greek and Latin words:  ‘ontology,’ ‘epistemology,’ ‘tautology,’ ‘phenomenology.’ Academia just can’t get enough of that satisfying Greek suffix. You’re bound to encounter these terms during your undergraduate career, so it is important to understand — at least vaguely — what they mean. 

Perhaps the most vexing of these is ‘ontological,’ sheerly because of how often it is deployed. Encountering the term ‘ontology’ is pretty much unavoidable. Many university courses will toss around this vowel-heavy monolith whenever they can, but the actual definition eludes many.  

Outside of a directly philosophical context, professors say ‘ontology’ to consider the position of an object of study in the larger universe. They want you to ask yourself: how does this exist, at a fundamental level?  

If that sounds frustratingly unspecific, that’s because it is. For this reason, ‘ontology’ must be one of the most overused words in academia. You can easily find a way to deploy the adjective ‘ontological’ whenever the stakes of your argument are broad and metaphysical. I’m afraid you’re not going to stop hearing it any time soon.

To say a lot with very little, academic writers sometimes make adjectives out of names — for example, by adding the suffix ‘ian’ to them: ‘Hegelian,’ ‘Brechtian,’ ‘Proustian.’ Not only is the author bragging about how well-read they are, they are also filtering out readers who aren’t familiar with the individual referenced. 

This kind of grammatical manipulation is the tailor-made suit of academia. Calling out the reader’s sensibilities and past cultural exposure is a simple way for scholars to establish an audience.

But be warned: if you are an undergraduate, do not attempt this in your own writing unless you plan on explicitly explaining the referenced author. Teaching assistants often jump at the opportunity to remove marks if an undergraduate tries to be too showy in their writing. 

There is a group of words so shielded in ivory that, outside of academia, people will scarcely understand you if you use them: ‘delineate,’ ‘discursive,’ ‘dialectic,’ ‘diachronic.’ Strangely, ‘synchronic’ seems to have made its way into mainstream usage, but ‘diachronic’ is reserved for dusty bookshelves.

University has certainly stained the walls of our minds. Years from now, in casual conversations with strangers and acquaintances, we’ll let one of these ostentatious words slip. The person we’re talking to may be impressed, but they will likely think to themselves: “Oh God, they studied liberal arts.”