13 March 2009

A little while back, I was made happy when a friend sent me a note signed, Miss you oodles.

Speak international lingua franca English long enough, and you begin to strip eccentricity & unusual construction from your speech. You learn to avoid folk sayings, dialect, obscure words, americanisms; the accent alone is hard enough for people to understand. Nobody but you cares about the difference between a picture hung & a man hanged, or that the collective noun for larks is an exaltation, for apes a shrewdness.

You lose too the semiprivate language we all develop with friends and family. I can’t remember the last time I said, Let’s blow this popsicle stand or See you later, alligator.

And so it becomes a rare kind of pleasure, finally, to speak or to hear or to read interesting English. Oodles — you smile. You’d forgotten you even knew the word at all.

“But what,” asks the Polish university student* at the high school, “does it mean?”

This is where things get tricky.

*(European students studying English philology at the University of Jaén through the Erasmus grant are offered three month stints, with shorter hours & reduced pay, doing essentially the same thing I’m doing: assisting in English classes, or tutoring bilingual subject teachers.)

One of the habits you also end up having, aside from avoiding nonstandard language, aside from learning to say sofa instead of couch, sweets rather than candy, chemist’s not pharmacy, is learning to think in terms of rules for usage – particularly with regards to words that are basically synonyms.

So what does it mean? I shrug. “Lots,” I say. But, of course, it doesn’t mean lots. Not quite. And why is it so funny? Oodles. It just sounds funny.

(As a native speaker, you are alone in this – in thinking words have this natural essence. And words that second language speakers like the sound of can be completely mundane or unremarkable to native speakers. A few weeks later, she & I will talk about an English-Spanish translation class she is taking, & she will tell me she’s frustrated – translating Spanish into Polish, she can tell when something is clumsy, or off – the taste of it. But even though she’s fluent in English, she still can’t tell just by the taste of a sentence if it’s right or not.)

So what is the rule for oodles? It means lots – it’s a collective noun, rarely used, a little quaint, used for humorous effect. Oodles of what? You can’t use it for just anything.

Sitting there, at the brasero in the teacher’s lounge, early afternoon – I’m stumped. Oodles of noodles. Of course. Nonce word, comes from noodles. Collective noun, used to describe . . . any noodle-y mass. Miss you . . . Or abstractions? Emotions? Hate you oodles. Impossible.

Is the difference countable/uncountable?, I’m asked. No – can’t be that. Noodles is uncountable, but so is, I don’t know, coal. And you just can’t say oodles of coal.

“Sounds right.” This is not a way to teach usage. And how many ways do we use oodles, anyway? It sounds strange no matter what word you add. The repetition alone begins to confuse me. Maybe it’s used more as a response? “Do you have any such-and-such?” “Yes, oodles of it.” There are no English dictionaries in the school – just English-Spanish references. None of them have the word “oodles.” We have no appeal to authority.

Oodles. It can’t be paired with serious things, except to deliberately undercut them. Emotions, yes, but positive ones. Silly things. In the end, I throw up my hands. Oodles. Nonce-word, from noodles. Means “lots.” Rarely used. Practically useless for a non-native speaker. An unusual word, but not anachronistic – just rare. (Spellcheck recognizes it.) Made me smile.

How odd, that there can be a word that any native speaker would recognize – not an obscure word, not difficult to understand, just rarely used – that, by virtue of being unteachable, without utility, uncommon, almost no non-native speaker would have ever heard or know to recognize. What a curiously unbridgeable gap.

I think of all the things that I will never know in Spanish.

A few weeks later, I realize another reason why I liked the note so much. Oodles, usually a collective noun, has been repurposed here as an adverb – How do I miss you? Oodles.

Words bent out of shape, plucked from obscurity & rearranged, parts of speech changed, nouns verbed – all of the things that you are taught makes good writing, that you enjoy reading. All of the things you don’t teach as a foreign language, things to be avoided, things that add nothing but unnecessary confusion, that do not serve tourism, nor the hospitality industry, nor international communications. Miss you oodles.

3 Responses to “Oodles”

  1. Cordelia Says:

    Sounds like a case for Language Hat (http://www.languagehat.com). I wonder what they’d come up with over there.

    • Jim Sligh Says:


      Thanks for referring me over; I’m enjoying it very much. (And it’s healthy to be reminded of my complete lack of professional qualifications by reading people who know what they’re talking about.)

  2. Cordelia Says:

    I am continually humbled by Language Hat, but I learn a lot, too. I hope you do write to him with your “oodles” conundrum. I think you’d get some interesting answers from the crowd that hangs out there.

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