Top dogs and fat cats

STUDENTS in my American business history classes are about to drive me crazy. One reason is that my American-born students can't spell. ``Basically,'' wrote one student on a recent exam, ``all of these companies are out to either brake into the market or rise to the top of the industry.'' Sometimes the students double the consonants in words, perhaps to fill a bit more of the exam book:

``Evaluation of managers was implemented as well as a sollution for routinized jobs called `Flexi-time.' ''

Then there's the tactic of making up words. ``All of this amounted to a huge capital unvestment,'' concluded a student who really didn't know the answer. Another, uncertain of the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, contended that the legislation ``placed curves on unions.'' A more artful strategy is obfuscation: ``The actual number laid off is not precisely approximated.''

But the real hang-ups are induced by foreign students who have such a difficult time understanding American idioms. For instance, they don't know what is meant by a corporation going ``belly up.'' When I talk about companies on the ``cutting edge,'' their foreheads crease into a washboard configuration. Then there's the term ``tunnel vision,'' which one simply can't explain standing up in a fluorescent-lit classroom. ``Golden parachutes'' open up the eyes, but somehow the linguistic rip cord gets tangled. And I wouldn't even try to illustrate how ``GM sweats the details.''

My worst moment came in trying to unravel the origin of ``blue-chip stocks.'' On another occasion, in spite of all kinds of gesticulation, I failed to convey what is meant by chief executive officers being ``in over their heads.'' I thought I knew a great deal about pets until I tried to hold forth one afternoon on why a ``top dog'' in the business world merits respect, while a ``fat cat'' does not. And I'll never forget the time when my all-temperature disposition lost its cool when my seminar on ``body language'' was received, unbeknown to my foreign students, with ``cold shoulders.''

I tell you I wish someone would come up with a good primer on spelling and idioms for my students. I really do -- from the bottum of my heart.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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