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Talk the Talk:
English Speech Is Within Your Reach

This week: Talking College

by Victor Greeson

Welcome once again to Talk the Talk, iStudentCity's weekly column on slang and informal spoken American English. This week's column looks at some language you will definitely need to know - the language of colleges and campus life. This is a topic I'll return to many times in the future, so if you don't find what you're looking for this time, send me an email, and I'll try to include it in the next "college edition" of Talk the Talk. And please, feel free to ask slang questions on our Slang Channel - I'll be looking for you!


If any word or phrase below is new to you, just click on it. While reading, try to notice the sarcastic, ironic tone used by both speakers - especially Sophia. And, as always, remember that Talk the Talk does not try to teach you "correct" English, but only tries to explain how Americans often speak, informally, in their daily lives.


Carlos is walking across campus one afternoon when he sees Sophia, who is taking a study break. Carlos walks over to where she is sitting, and waves to her.

Sophia: Hey, Carlos, 'sup?
Carlos: Not a lot. How ya doin'?
Sophia: Don't ask! I hate school - It's so dull.
Carlos: You slacker! It's interesting if you get involved enough.
Sophia: Listen to you! You sound like a total grind. Like you never skipped a class the day after a kegger.
Carlos: Whatever... Hey, look at those frat rats over on the other side of the quad.
Sophia: Where?
Carlos: Over there, between the caf' and the student union.
Sophia: Oh yeah! What are they doing to those frosh?
Carlos: I can't tell for sure, but it looks pretty sketchy.
Sophia: Those must be their pledges. Some sort of hazing thing.
Carlos: Wow. You couldn't pay me enough to put up with that crap.
Sophia: I bet they don't do that in, like, Phi Beta Kappa. I'm surprised the Provost doesn't do something about it. Oh well. Not my prob.
Carlos: Hey, uh, are you ready for the mid-term in Saltman's baby bio class?
Sophia: No - I'm looking at an all-nighter on that one. And I can't flunk, or I'm going to have to drop.
Carlos: Yeah, I've gotta cram too, or I'm going to low-grade it big time. We're hatin' life, huh?
Sophia: Well, I guess you'll be "involved enough" now!
Carlos: You're so nice! Hey - Have you got notes from last time? I need them to make up my cheat sheet. I've got to whale on this one. But I'm so overloaded!
Sophia: I feel your pain. Hmm, let me check... Yeah, I've got my notes right here. Excuse my chicken scratches!
Carlos: Thanks - you rock.
Sophia: No, Carlos, you rock - really. Listen, I've got to bail. Hasta la bye-bye!
Carlos: Later days...


A study break is usually a form of procrastination. It means exactly what you might guess - a period of rest (a break) that interrupts (or breaks up) a period of study. Usually, we say that you take a break. Oddly enough, a coffee break does not mean a break taken in order to get away from coffee, but a break taken with coffee.

People have to greet each other all the time, so there are many ways to do it. Hey, like hi, is a variation on hello. Often, a greeting comes in the form of a question, with a standard answer. For example, what's up?, which is sometimes shortened to 'sup, means something like "What's happening?" or "What's going on?", but as a greeting it mostly just means "Hello." Not a lot, not much, and the usual, among many others, are all acceptable answers, and may be followed by a similar question. How ya doin'? is short for How are you doing? and works the same as 'sup most of the time - that is, it doesn't require an honest or detailed answer.

A slacker is, broadly speaking, any person who doesn't work hard, or doesn't want to work hard. In other words, a slacker is someone who slacks off. Slack is what you have when no-one is making you do anything that you don't want to do. This usage comes from the image of a rope that is held loosely - for rope, slack is the opposite of tight. Give me some slack! can either mean that you want someone to pass you more rope (or cable, cord, etc.), or that you want them to leave you alone and not demand so much of you.

American slang is full of words that don't do much but fill space. For example, oh, hey, well, uh, um, and like are all basically meaningless. However, all of them - hey, well and like in particular - can change the rhythm of a sentence, and in this and other ways, they do affect the "feel" of a sentence. Huh? makes a statement more intense by implying that the listener already agrees with the speaker, but aside from that, it doesn't actually mean much.

Total is used casually to mean "utter" or "complete." It make the word that follows it stronger. Being a total fool is much worse than just being a fool.

A grind is a student who studies too much (at least in the opinion of other students).

If you didn't attend a class, but you had no reason for missing it, you probably just skipped class. Sometimes, especially in high schools, this is also called ditching class. High school students often have an unofficial tradition of declaring one ditch day each school year, on which everyone ditches school all day. Sometimes this only applies to seniors. Too bad you're too old for that now, huh?

A kegger is a party featuring at least one keg of beer, and usually (hopefully?) a lot of mayhem.

Whatever often seems meaningless (like um) to people learning English, but it's really rather complicated. If you say something that I don't agree with, but I don't want to fight about it, I might respond whatever. Or, if I don't particularly want to argue, but I want to let you know that I think you're wrong (and I may be willing to argue) I might say whatever! more forcefully. Usually, the point of using whatever is to indicate that you don't think that what was just said is worth responding to, and you quietly refuse to engage with it. Oh well is similar - it mean that you resign, quietly, from struggling. But with oh well, you are probably responding to the state of the world, rather than to a particular person. It's not my problem (shortened to not my prob above) is still less committed - it implies that you don't even care anymore.

Fraternities and sororities are college-based social clubs which have a long history and a mixed reputation. Sororities are for women (members are called sisters), and fraternities, or frats, are for men (brothers). Frats tend to be more visible, and sometimes more notorious. The membership of both sorts of clubs are called greeks, because of the tradition of using Greek letters to identify them. To join, students usually have to apply (or pledge), and undergo a period of testing and ordeals - sometimes frightening or humiliating - called hazing. Guys trying to get in to a frat are called pledges. Hazing has been controversial recently. Terms like fratboy and frat rat are considered insulting.

Places on campus have their own distinctive names. The caf' is short for the cafeteria, which is the students' dining room. A quad is an open, often square, area, like a courtyard, usually surrounded by buildings. The student union is a building or group of buildings, usually in the center of campus, where there are many services for students. It is usually a meeting-place.

There are traditional names for students in each of the four undergraduate years. First-year students are called freshmen, or (more informally) frosh. Second-year students are called sophomores, a word which originally meant "wise fools." Third- and fourth-year students are called juniors and seniors respectively. freshmen and sophomores are collectively referred to as underclassmen; juniors and seniors are collectively referred to as upperclassmen. These same terms are also used to refer to the four years of high school.

Pretty has much the same meaning as sort of, and kind of - often, all three of these expression mean very, but sometimes, if they are said with the right emotion, they may mean the opposite. For example, if I say that I'm sort of hungry, this would usually mean that I want to eat, but if I make a dismissive wave of my hand at the same time, I may be trying to say that I'm not hungry enough to bother with eating yet.

If some situation or place is sketchy, it is suspicious, it is dangerous, it has a bad reputation, or in some other sense it is not acceptable.

Informally, thing might be used to refer to situations, processes, events, organizations, and other things. Similarly, crap is also used informally as an all-purpose noun, though it literally means "feces." Obviously, calling anything crap implies disrespect. Stuff is much more respectful. Unlike thing, which refers to things that come in separate units (like eggs), crap and stuff refer to stuff that is continuous (like water). So there is no such word as "stuffs."

Wow! is an exclamation, expressing surprise or amazement.

Money is a pretty good measure of values in America, so if I find something impossible to endure, I may say that you couldn't pay me enough to put up with it - in other words, there is nothing that could make me accept it. (To put up with something is just to endure, accept, or suffer through it.)

If you really believe something is true, then you would bet that it is true. In other words, you are saying that you are confident enough in what you are saying that you would be willing to risk your money that you are correct. I bet is short for I would bet that...

Phi Beta Kappa is the best-known honor society, and among the most prestigious. Membership is very selective, and by invitation only, in recognition of superior achievement. (Or that's what they tell us, anyway.) It is not a frat.

The words provost and dean have slightly different meanings, depending on what college you are attending, but they always refer to high-ranking members of the college administration. Sometimes, they apply to the highest-ranking member of the administration, but usually that person is called the president or chancellor.

Several types of tests (or examinations) may be given in a class. Small, frequent tests that don't affect your grade much are usually called quizzes. If there are a couple of larger tests during the semester that count toward a larger part of your grade, they will probably be called mid-terms, because they are usually given near the middle of the term. The largest, most important test in a class is usually given at the end of the course, and is called the final examination, or final exam (or simply the final. A small sheet of paper used to take crucial information into a test is called a crib sheet or cheat sheet, even if it is allowed by your professor.

Many common fields of study (which are also usually the names of departments of most colleges) have common abbreviations used in college slang. Some examples include: sosh for sociology; anthro for anthropology; CS for computer science, and also for cognitive science (though a BS in CS always refers to a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science); phil for philosophy; IS for information science (whatever that is); EEfor electrical engineering; bio for biology; chem for chemistry; biochem for biochemistry (big surprise, huh?); psych for psychology; ed for education; PE for physical education; econ for economics; poli sci (pronounced "polly sigh") for political science; math for mathematics (never "maths," as in Europe); and lit for literature.

For specific courses, we have: stats for statistics; DEs for differential equations; linear for linear algebra; comp for English composition (i.e., introductory writing); you will hear other names, but these will probably be specific to courses at your college. Baby or bonehead usually mean introductory or remedial courses - e.g., baby stats for the lowest-level statistics course offered. Frosh may be used to indicate freshman-level classes - e.g., frosh chem.

Sometimes, looking at can mean "anticipating," or "expecting," usually not happily.

To cram is to study a lot, in a very short time, usually just before a test. If you crammed all night without sleeping, then congratulations! You just pulled an all-nighter. To whale on someone is to beat them up badly. But, violent images are often used for non-physical struggles. So if you whaled on a homework assignment, you worked hard on it, and succeeded. You might even say that you kicked its ass, but that's not a very nice thing to say, is it?

Passing and failing classes is a big topic of coversation, so there are a lot of options. To flunk a class or test means to fail it. To low-grade it means to get an "F" grade (or maybe a "D"), and to ace a test or class is to get an "A" grade.

To drop is short for drop the class - to resign from a course you are taking. This is very different from dropping out, which means leaving school without completing a degree.

Big time is another expression of intensity. It's bad to to lose, but it's worse to lose big time.

If you're hating life, then, obviously, things are going badly for you.

The amount of work that you are committed to doing is often compared to a "load," like that carried by a donkey or mule. The number of classes you are taking is called your course load, or courseload. If you have too much to do, and too little time, you are overloaded.

Once, during a speech, President Clinton said "I feel your pain." For whatever reason, many people found this humorous, and the expression has become an ironic way of commenting on someone else's habit of complaining about their troubles. Something similar happened to the expression "Oh, the humanity!" which was used by a reporter at the scene of the tragic crash of the doomed blimp, the Hindenberg. Who said that irony had to be nice?

Really bad handwriting is sometimes compared to chicken scratches.

You rock comes from the language of rock music, where a good band is one that rocks - i.e., is good. Since no-one over the age of 16 actually talks this way, the expression is usually meant to be humorous.

To bail is to leave. I gotta is short for "I've got to," meaning "I must." So, I gotta bail means "I must leave."

People get bored saying "goodbye" all the time. So, there are a hundred ways to say it. Bye-bye is one, usually used by children. In spanish, there are many expressions used to say "goodbye" which start with the word hasta, meaning "until." For example, hasta la vista means, roughly, "until the seeing" - i.e., "goodbye until wee see each other again." So, hasta la bye-bye is an example of a humorous imitation of the Spanish expression. I'll see you later also means "goodbye," and is shortened to see you later or even later. Later days is a variation of this, and is mostly heard in Southern California.


Well, I gotta bail. Later days!


Do you still have unanswered questions about this topic - or about anything else? Is there something that you would like to see an article about? Do you have advice, ideas, or experiences you would like to share with other international students? Let us know - send us a message at: CityHall@istudentcity.com


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Spanish Roots: Why American English Is American (II)

Talking College

Native Roots: Why American English Is American (I)

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