The Curse of the Eraser

Why, oh why do our fifth grade English textbooks insist on teaching kids that this is called a “rubber”?

Now “rubber” is not wrong, but “eraser” is the far more common term for the object in question. Nor is “eraser” overly difficult, at least not compared to the other words fifth graders are forced to memorize. Really, they can handle three syllables.

Besides, teaching kids that an eraser is called “rubber” leads to potentially embarrassing misunderstandings down the line. Because while “rubber” of course refers to the raw material the eraser is made from, it also commonly refers to this.

So now imagine that fifth grader a few years later on a school exchange, innocently asking the kid at the next desk for a rubber… Oops, big embarrassment. And when you’re a teenager, that sort of embarrassment is even worse.

And yes, the above actually happened more than twenty years ago to a friend of mine. A friend of mine who tended to attract misfortune and after whom I named the inofficial prize awarded to students who repeatedly manage to topple their chairs. Because that friend of mine was a notorious chair toppler. I’m not naming him here, because last I heard he was studying law and if someone googles him, they don’t need to find that he used to be a notorious chair toppler. Indeed, I sometimes imagine him in court, wearing a lawyer’s robe but otherwise still looking like the long-haired metal head he was at fifteen. And then, into the silence of the courtroom comes the crash of a toppling chair, followed by “Sorry, sorry, sorry…”

More than twenty years ago, when I was a student, it was still all right to call an eraser a “rubber”, because the other meaning of the term was not all that common back then, though it would become far more common by sad necessity. But in the year 2011, what is the excuse of textbook compilers to expose students to the possible humiliation of using a word that has a slightly risqué doublemeaning?

My solution to the dilemma is to teach the fifth graders the word “eraser” along with the “rubber” the textbook insists upon. And if they’re older, I tell them why “eraser” is the more unambiguous word, which usually results in a lot of giggling.

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12 Responses to The Curse of the Eraser

  1. Kaz Augustin says:

    You must be teaching from UK English books because “eraser” is the US English term for it.

    In other news, Cora, I discovered that I was #8 on XinXii with WAR GAMES last week. By your reckoning, that must mean I sold one copy! ROFL Better than nothing! 🙂

  2. Naut says: says that “rubber” is British English while “eraser” is the proper US term. So I think that this is less a problem of outdated text books but rather of the German schools insisting to teach British English for whatever reasons.

    • Cora says:

      The insistence of the German school system on British English as the only correct form is very annoying (except for grade 8, when we’re doing the US). I ran afoul of that as a student and it’s still present. Just this week I had a student who was very confused whether “got” or “gotten” was the correct past participle of “get”, because apparently previous teacher (she changed schools recently) had insisted on different versions. I told her and the rest of the class that both are correct.

  3. As Kaz and Naut have said, “rubber” is UK usage and as far as I’m aware, we never/rarely refer to condoms as “rubbers” so for us that usage isn’t slightly risqué. If you were using a textbook which taught them US English, they might use “pants” instead of “trousers” and then they might say things which would make people in the UK think someone was wandering around in their underwear.

    • Rosario says:

      Or they would talk about “fanny packs”. *shudders*

    • Cora says:

      Our textbooks insist on UK usage except in eighth grade when they confuse everybody with introducing US usage. I usually teach my students both versions, when there are two (e.g. chips and fries or pants and trousers). Though a lot of the older teachers still insist that British English (and posh RP at that) is the only correct version and that US English is an aberration. As a student, I actually had teacher mark up American spellings and word usage as errors, even though they knew I had learned English in the US and spoke primarily American English at the time.

  4. Kaz Augustin says:

    Aw gawd, Rosario! “Fanny packs”!!! I couldn’t believe the first American who used the term in front of me! “They’re such a prudish people and they talk about FANNY packs,” was my thought. I was scandalised! ROFL

    (Because, of course, “fanny” refers to the vaginal area in UK English but the buttocks in US English.)

    And, just to steer this back to more innocuous lines, how about “purse”? “I put the ereader in my purse.” Really? Your PURSE is that big? What Americans are really referring to is “handbag”. Their “wallet” is our “purse”. But “purse” gets me every time. I dissolve into mental giggles whenever I hear it.

    • I thought their “purse” meant “handbag”? To me, a wallet is like a purse, but is only for paper money, whereas a purse can take both notes and change.

    • Cora says:

      I think I knew what a fanny pack was before I knew that it had a potentially rude double meaning, since schools and universities don’t commonly teach slang terms for genitals.

      I always stumble over “pocketbook” used for “handbag” in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, because I keep picturing Stephanie carrying around a paperback book (the literal translation of the German term for paperback is “pocket book”) and pulling her gun out of it.

  5. Susan says:

    Yeah, that does seem a little naive/irresponsible on the part of the publisher. On the other hand, I have no idea whether or not the average English person knows that rubber is going to mean condom to anyone who learned American English.

    When I learned German, it became clear quickly that I could get away with using English words and pronouncing them as if they were German- especially modern words (‘computer’ ‘intensive’ ‘jog’)- when I didn’t know the German word. That’s how I wound up telling a table full of people in a restaurant, “Igit, das schmeckt wie Preservative,” or, “Yuck, this tastes like preservatives.” Not.

    • I remember my French teacher issuing warnings against assuming that “préservatif ” meant the same as “preservative.”

    • Cora says:

      I bet that got you – depending upon the company – either a lot of giggles or some very strange looks.

      My aunt, a German immigrant in the US in the 1960s, famously told a police officer that a cup of police station coffee tasted like “Muckefuck”, which is a German colloquial term for inferior coffee substitute used during WWII but sounds like something very different in English.

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