Tools for the college vocabulary

What do garden hoes, hammers, men in designer jeans and class suck-ups have in common? They’re all tools, according to many GW students.

Just as popular ’90s flicks like “Clueless” integrated the Valley Girl phrases “whatever” and “as if” into last decade’s vernacular, a new generation of young adults has again refreshed the English language. The campus’s overly-zealous scholars, overly-fashion conscious or overly school spirited embody what many GW students call tools. And if you’re a GW tool, that’s totally lame – duh.

Although many students said they could immediately recognize a tool walking down the street or sitting in lecture, trying to define the term was more difficult than using the word accurately in a sentence. Students said they relate the word to pretentiousness, conformists, intensity and awkward social skills.

“(A tool) is one who has no more immediate goals than just pleasing one’s immediate higher-ups. Like all I want to do is make people like me and do my job to the best of my ability and that is my only goal,” senior John Bulava said.

Sophomore Kelly Colligan said tools exude an air of unwarranted arrogance.

“If someone at, say, a party is using very, very bad pick-up lines, that would be a tool. A person purposely trying to be funny and is not – tool,” Colligan said. “They just have this arrogance, this kind of attitude that we are above all, beyond reproach as we sashay down the street wearing our popped collars and Seven jeans thinking, ‘Hey, every chick wants me.'”

Dr. Caroyln Adger, director of the Language and Society Division at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, said young people are extremely active “innovators” of language, and are one of the most influential demographics to introduce new words or phrases.

“They are more interested in following the language fashion just as they are more interested in fashions in other areas,” she said.

Young people often develop slang to describe new things that don’t yet have a word, like Palm Pilots or simply Palms. But they also use slang to distinguish themselves from other generations, giving language a social identity function, Adger said.

“As a human matures they go through predictable stages … when (they) are searching to find their place in the world,” Adger said, citing adolescence as an example. “One way to do this is to engage in behavior typical of their age group. Language is a pretty innocuous form of separating from an older generation.”

Sophomore Kate Gregory said she began calling people tools because she heard other kids using the phrase during her freshman year of boarding school in Connecticut, and the very fact she imitated the habit makes her a tool as well.

“You’ve got to speak the language,” Gregory said.

Today it has become difficult to pinpoint the geographic origins of some slang. Adger said today’s increased travel has facilitated the national spread of dialects, where in the past words usually would stay where they originated. Gregory attended boarding school in New England but lives in Texas and now attends GW, a mid-Atlantic school. She said her friends from each region use the word with its same meaning.

However, she associates tools with an East Coast mentality.

“I don’t think you would call a California guy a tool,” Gregory said. “Tool I think is associated with intenseness. Usually you don’t call somebody who is more laid back a tool, and you think California, you think laid back. Or Wyoming, I don’t think tool.”

Bulava and Colligan both said they heard the word in high school in New Jersey and New York, respectively, but the term became more prevalent at GW. Colligan said she thinks “tool” simply better describes the average GW student rather than kids from her high school.

In fact, every student interviewed indicated that “tools” share a common style strongly associated with GW – designer clothes. Tools are the men walking down the street with pastel Polo, Lacoste or Burberry plaid (collar popped); designer jeans by Diesel, Miss Sixty or Seven; argyle patterned sweaters with ties; and blazers. Though most indicated they think men more often epitomize the typical tool, they described the female tool as the girl in a mini-denim skirt paired with furry Ugg boots, aviator sunglasses even at night, and a Polo shirt with the signature popped collar.

“Tools are kind of like metrosexuals,” said Colligan, referring to the term coined by the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” cast to describe a straight man with fashion expertise. “You see a person dressed a certain way and you think, punk. You see a person dressed another way and they’re preppy. And tool, I feel, is for the obvious need to show the world you are wearing a designer label.”

Gregory described a classmate, “Ivy Leaguer,” to represent the tool. “He’s that guy you see all dressed up in class Monday morning reading the paper. He’s so completely pretentious, he always wears these wool argyle sweaters with a tie. Like he thinks he’s going to Harvard, but he really goes to GW. Maybe he should figure that out.”

University of North Carolina English professor Connie Eble wrote a book published in 1996 on college slang terms called “Slang and Sociability: In-group Language Among College Students.” She could not be reached for an interview but wrote in an e-mail that the word “tool” has actually been in and out of style on college campuses since the 1960s and originally referred to the penis. It transformed into a general derogatory word for anyone considered “a loser, socially inept, or not with it in some way,” Eble said. She added that many other slang words followed a similar pattern of development, including “dickhead” and “prick.”

But regardless of its phallic origins, tool seems to make sense to others.

“My computer does what I tell it to, it’s basically a tool because I just use it. So I guess in that sense a person (who is a tool) is used to do stuff,” Bulava said.

Slang can take months or even years to catch on to the general public, and celebrities or other influential people can instantly popularize catch phrases. But Adger said there’s nothing to promise or predict a word’s staying power. People have described anything in style to be “cool” for over 40 years. Adger said a slang term can be introduced into a language and prove useful so it will “hang around,” but useful words don’t necessarily evolve into common slang.

“People just have a sense of what words get to be real words in a language,” Adger said.

Students said they foresee themselves growing out of the phrase after college because of the transition from student life to a career and family, or because it’s a fad like New Kids on the Block.

“It’s like anything. My parents probably said groovy and far out. It seems like one of those things that are cool in the moment,” Colligan said. “I feel like there will be a new word for tool. Someone will say something in a movie, and it’ll kind of be like, oh snap – something that people say for 10 minutes.”

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