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Decoding American vocabulary—and politics—for Czech students



Students of English as a foreign language are often overwhelmed by the semantic possibilities of the verb "to get." In English, it is possible to get home, to get hungry, to get a snack, to get seated, to get fed, to get full, and to get indigestion in less than five minutes. We are able to get indoctrinated or enlightened and to get religion in the same way as we get a joke.

Following the White House's announcement that President Bush would no longer "stay the course" but rather "get the job done," classmates in my U.S.-European Union relations seminar at Univerzita Palackeho in Olomouc, Czech Republic, asked me why the United States believes it is always entitled "to get" things. I replied that I am not sure people in the U.S. want to get so much more than people anywhere else. However, our affinity for expressing ourselves in terms of getting is, at the very least, curious.

More so than a host of pithier verbs, "to get" puts our paws on objects both concrete and abstract. It creates a tactile connection with the other side of our actions, allowing us to grocery shop for items and ideas; to sniff them and squeeze them and add them to the cart. Even when what's gotten is gotten rid of, over with, or around, the subject is still a getter.

But "to get" can also get us out of the responsibility to analyze a thought or plan before we communicate it. To say we are going "to get the job done" doesn't exactly get the job done in terms of fostering dialogue about strategy. Rather, it suggests that our goal is in some way material—a task to scratch off the list or a certificate to be tacked on the wall—and that the inquirer should kindly get lost. Communication through language is an attempt—perhaps even an obligation—to translate our thoughts into a form accessible to other people.

People understand getting. Thus, the president sure got his point across at last week's press conference "We've got a lot of issues with Iran," he elucidated. And on the Republican's fate in the upcoming election: "We've got the issues on our side." And: "I believe Iraq will be able to defend, govern, and sustain itself; otherwise I'd pull our troops out. See, you all got to understand that ... we'll work as fast as we can to get the job done.... People got to trust elected leaders in order for democracy to work to its fullest extent."

It's nice to feel like we can get our hands on something as slippery as our current political situation. And as illusions of control must slip away from him daily, certainly the president would like to get a grip as well.

Even if the president were to acquire, say, a thesaurus, his statements would not become any more meaningful. So in order to deliver that explanation he admits that he owes us, perhaps what's necessary is better dialogue—dialogue with people who might help him clarify what he's getting at. That applies to the rest of us as well. Until then, U.S. ideas—especially those expressed in terms of getting—may prompt our neighbors to believe we see the world as our superstore.

We would all get something from assessing the implications of the words we choose to communicate with, the president not least of all. And to prompt him toward that end, we might borrow the request of P.G. Wodehouse's Piccadilly Jim: "I get you not, friend. Please supply a few footnotes." Either that, or "Get real."

The writer is a Chapel Hill resident studying in the Czech Republic on a Fulbright grant.

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