Saturday, June 18, 2005

Dear John

On Thursday in class some students were making up stories about what was happening in a picture in the textbook. In the picture, one man was reading a letter and looking very upset, and students were speculating about what the letter contained.

One of the students asked me how to say it was a letter from his girlfriend, breaking off the relationship. I explained, and then added,

"You could also call it a Dear John letter."

"Dear John letter?" said the student, looking puzzled.

"Yes. It means the same thing - a letter breaking off the relationship."

The student didn't believe me, or didn't get it, and looked it up in his dictionary. When he found the entry his eyes bugged and his jaw dropped. He looked at me, aghast.

"NO! No, Sensei! SHHH!" he said, glancing around the classroom. "Don't teach that! Don't tell us!"

He was clearly worried about what would happen if I taught this to the class. I asked to see the dictionary entry, but he hid it from me. He was looking very, very embarrassed.

"No! It's different! It's not what you mean! Shh! Terrible!"

Confused, I went back to my desk and looked it up in my own dictionary. I found two entries. One said Dear John and the other said Dear John (letter). I chose the second entry.

The Japanese entry had some kanji I didn't understand, so I had to look those up as well. (I love my electronic dictionary.) When I found the meaning I immediately understood why my student was so horrified and concerned at my attempt to teach this new expression. Here was a meaning of Dear John letter I had never come across before. The English/Japanese dictionary defined it as a letter sent to a lover breaking off the relationship AND explaining that the sender had given the recipient a sexually transmitted disease.

Where on earth did THAT come from? And how did it end up in one of the most authoritative bilingual dictionaries in Japan? I thanked the student for stopping me from making a fool of myself, and told him I was pretty sure the dictionary was wrong. I said I'd look it up. (The first entry, Dear John, is defined as I normally understand Dear John letter, weirdly.)

Last night I looked it up, and I can't find anything to justify the Japanese definition of Dear John letter. Does it make sense to anybody else?

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zandperl said...

That's hilarious! Is it just a case of Engrish, do you think? It was nice of your student to point out that you shouldn't be teaching that, instead of his encouraging the whole class to mock you. Is that typical of Japanese students?

Badaunt said...

I think it's a case of some Japanese dictionary writer getting the wrong end of the stick. God knows where he got the story from - maybe it was based on his own experience?!

The student's reaction was not really typical, and I appreciated it enormously. A more usual reaction would be to whisper about my bizarre vocabulary instruction but not tell me that there was a problem, I suspect. I'm wondering if I've ever taught this expression before and not realized... I can't remember!

Ghone said...

Great post!
Thanks for sharing.

Phil said...

Those electronic dictionaries! Bane of my really strikes a chord with me, the way you say "he didn't believe me..."

Anyway, nice work!

Badaunt said...

I don't think the electronic dictionaries are necessarily any worse than paper dictionaries. The main problem is that the students don't know how to use them properly, whether paper or electronic.

Some of them are pretty bad, though. I chose mine (Canon G50) on The Man's recommendation. He is a translator, and it contains many of the dictionaries he considers the most reliable. It also has the Oxford English-English learners dictionary, which I get the students using, and an English thesaurus (which I use), and has a really good Kanji look-up system for me - as well as a Kanji 'spell' feature, which shows you the order in which to write Kanji strokes. It also has the added bonus of a weirdly selective pictorial dictionary (in the Kojien dictionary), Japanese only, unfortunately. It's been VERY helpful, and I find it miles better than most of the electronic dictionaries my students use.

But now and again it slips up...

Megan said...

I haven't had anything quite like that happen with any students, though I've come close. First, though, I was impressed that the expression "Dear John letter" was something said by other English speakers (I had assumed it was an American saying). Secondly, I've NEVER heard the part about an STD! Hilarious!

tincanman said...

In the recesses of my mind there is a memory tugging at my subconscious in a desperate bid to escape.

Somehow I'm trying to tie the word "letter" to a STD.

I'm sure there is an olden English phrase that placed the two of them together.

Dagnabbit! What was that phrase ...

zandperl said...

Well, there is a website called inSPOT where you can (anonymously or not) tell your past lovers that you have an STD and they should get checked out...