Please don’t let me be misunderstood

When I was still actively teaching, I would occasionally experience one of those moments when I couldn’t quite say whether I felt annoyed or amused: when I would receive an essay, or exam answer, or some other student contribution that would make it clear that the student had not understood a word I was saying. One student, for example, gave me a essay which included some discussion of what he termed ‘the industrial relations practice of piggoting’. I was intrigued by this (after all, anyone can get a spelling wrong), but the word was used in this form repeatedly, and the narrative suggested to me he didn’t know what he was actually talking about.

So I called him in. ‘Tom’ (name changed), I said, ‘you write a fair bit about “piggoting” – what do you think that is?’ He started to answer in very vague terms, but perhaps seeing my quizzical look he stopped himself and said much more decisively: ‘It’s very quick action in an industrial dispute.’ Okayyyee – and where do you think the word comes from? Now somewhat uneasy, he hummed and hawed, and then suggested it was derived from the name of the jockey Lester Piggott. Right! And then I realised that my whole course was probably a total mystery to this poor guy. To this day I wonder whether he has ever been asked to stop at a ‘piggot line’.

But it is not just in universities. I have a copy somewhere of a debate in the late 1970s in the European Parliament. The official record shows that a member of the Parliament asked a question about the European market for ‘farmers’ uticles’. You might spend some time wondering about what ‘uticles’ could be or how farmers use them. But if you keep reading the debate it will eventually dawn on you that the question was actually about ‘pharmaceuticals’, and the stenographer clearly had no idea what this was about and just wrote down something that sounded right.

But my own favourite was the examination answer written for me by a student in the early 1980s, who stated with great confidence that decrees of annulment for marriages were most commonly based on ‘impudence’. Quite right.

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6 Comments on “Please don’t let me be misunderstood”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Are you sure it wasn’t about farmers’ cuticles – which often take quite a battering in their line of work?

  2. Vincent Says:

    Surely he had the makings, as for certain he had not neared a word of a reading list and had turned up to the one of your lectures more that half cut. But to dream up a definition of a word on the fly, that’s bordering on brilliance.


  3. Yes, Vincent, I did kind of admire him also.


  4. I’d argue it is even worse when you teach a mathematics course, as I often do, and the students behave this way!

  5. costelon Says:

    It reminds me of an old school Civil Servant from the southern counties who frequently spoke of: “The Walluma Trade”.

    I believe he had quite a nice sideline trading wallumas.

  6. belfield Says:

    I remember a considerable amount of confusion breaking out once when a group of us out hillwalking were asked to help move a casualty to a nearby ‘way hickal’ by two very stressed members of the Kerry Mountain Rescue team.


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