Someone says something to me. Relays information about an upcoming event, gives insight on the latest happenings in their life, warns me about some menial inconvenient in my foreseeable future. And regardless of how intently I’m listening, whether I’m making eye contact or I’m dosing off, I reply the same. With a simple, single-word response.
Of course, the tone of voice and the stress on certain syllables does alter the meaning of the word but other than that, it’s the same word. The Googled definition of the word “great” varies depending on context, but overall it basically means a large amount of something or excellence. Ergo, it doesn’t mean “an empty response to show understanding of information being received, to display mild annoyance or to suggest the listener is paying attention when in reality they’re planning out their blog post for tonight” which is essentially how I and a majority of the American population use it. This meaningless use of the word would never of crossed my mind had it not been for Americanah.
As Ifemelu comes to America and is attempting to adjust to life on her own, she is faced with a whole crop of American “customs” or behaviors that she doesn’t understand and as she lists and explains them, I realize these are things I do on a daily basis. To quote Ifemelu, “People who lived in exclamation points. ‘Great!’ they said often. ‘That’s great!” (156). And there’s the tie in to my almost two full paragraphs on my usage of the word “great”. Continuing from a later quote, “Some of the expressions she heard every day astonished her, jarred her, and she wondered what Obinze’s mother would make of them. You shouldn’t of done that. There is three things. I had a apple. A couple days. I want to lay down.” (165). I think what shocked me the most about these phrases was that for a at least two of them, I had to think about what was so wrong with them. Here we are in America, with this stereotype that people from other countries aren’t as well educated as we are and yet we fill our vocabulary with slang words that don’t make sense and horribly grammatically incorrect phrases.
I think, overall what I realized from seeing Ifemelu’s genuinely surprised and confused reactions to these “quirks” in American society is that these things don’t seem strange to me because I was raised around them. The same can be said for traditions or behaviors in any other country that Western society doesn’t understand. Some countries teach their children division by first grade and some instate the word “excited” too frequently in their vocabulary. Not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving, just like how not everyone celebrates Chinese New Year. It’s too easy to forget that other countries with their own holidays and social norms and cultures and behaviors exist.
That’s it for now.
Note: If you look at the word “great” long enough, it starts to look like it shouldn’t be a real word.