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Campus Colloquial: taking a closer look at the words we use

Arts & Culture | February 28, 2011

It’s a Friday afternoon. I’ve been sitting in Tisch for about an hour now, brushing shoulders with other post-morning recitation goers who have come here to get some work done before the weekend. A series of “We Hate Valentine’s Day” party facebook event invitations have assured me that tonight is guaranteed be the “MOST EPIC NIGHT EVER,” so I figure I should get some work done before the evening festivities.  As I sit working, I hear the classic Friday-fever question among students about half a dozen times: “Are you going out tonight?”

Have you ever noticed how ambiguous that phrase is? Going out where? Going out for what? On college campuses, of course, the common usage of the term refers to going out partying, most usually at frats or on-campus houses.  However, we’re not really ‘going out’ anywhere, spatially speaking; at least no more than we would be going out to the library or to the dining hall.  This suggests, then, that ‘going out’ isn’t so much a locational concept as an abstract sociological idea.

Let’s look first at the ambiguity of the term. If you add a simple preposition such as ‘for’ or ‘to’ to the end of the term ‘going out,’ it loses its party connotations. “I’m going out for dinner” or “I’m going out to a movie” explicitly states what the speaker plans on doing, whereas ‘going out’ on its own needs no further explanation; most people understand that it refers to attending any kind of large social function. This ambiguity allows for the term to be adapted to specific definitions within different social groups. For example, one of my friends who goes to Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson (rural New York) explained to me that, for Bard students, ‘going out’ can mean anything from playing drinking games in the dorm with people outside your immediate friend group to going to a small music show on campus where there is dancing. For University of Georgia students, on the other hand, ‘going out’ almost always means exploring the bars of downtown Athens—literally, ‘going out on the town.’ And here at Tufts, ‘going out’ references can vary from frat house escapades to Boston nightlife experiences.

What can be said about all these unique takes on the term ‘going out’ is that they all share one thing in common: the element of the unknown.   The idea of going out—it seems to almost always involve venturing outside social boundaries into a public world where you can see and be seen by those around you. Freshman Neil Aronson explains, “Going out is a state of mind. It doesn’t matter where you’re going or what the technical conditions are necessarily; it’s more about the perceived conditions of the night.” So perhaps, at its core, the essence of going out is the pursuit of possibility. The allure of being somewhere where you may not know everyone means that there are virtually unlimited possibilities with each new person you encounter—anyone could be a potential new friend or romantic interest. Even you yourself have the potential to be any kind of character for the night.

Your behavior and the behavior of others are set upon a kind of theatrical stage where anything goes. The whole idea of ‘going out’ does not entail any specific location; in fact, the factor of location is pretty much arbitrary. More important is the notion of the public stage that is involved— the endeavor to venture into an abstract social world to seek out the excitement of its seemingly boundless possibilities.

So what at first may seem a simple term at face value may suggest more about the nature of our social interactions than we realize.  The ambiguous linguistics of the term is no mistake. Going out where? Going out for what?  Well, we don’t really know. But, in the end, I think we’ll find that knowledge of our purpose isn’t all that important anyway.