Thong or, like, THON

On the “Intro to Blog” page I mentioned the unexpected language barrier I experienced during the first semester of college. I expected the academic world to have its own terminology and of course there would be new words in the textbooks. But, I did not expect  to have a problem understanding the casual conversation of my classmates.

The mysterious letters and words started the first day.

What was up with the unusual way my classmates used the word like? Why exactly, would they, like, insert it into every sentence or tack it onto the end, like? It seemed to add, like, both emphasis, like, as well as serve as a substitute, like, for a comma or an ah or um. Overall, though, it was an annoying filler word; why didn’t they just spit out what they wanted to say?

The first time I heard it I whipped my instinctual grammar-police flag out and threw it into the air. The instructor, as the official referee in this college game, didn’t call it. Deflated, I sank back into my chair. Who was I to call it if the ‘referee’ didn’t?

As the weeks turned into months, my instinctual grammar-police tendencies threw out flag after flay but only two ‘referees’ ever called a penalty. Michelle said, “Oh, and by the way, I do not want to see the word like misused in your papers as it is in your speech.”

Kristen said, “If you use the word like incorrectly in your classroom speeches, I will deduct points.”

In addition to the confusingly mysterious misuse of the word like, there were the acronyms and initialisms. Acronyms such as MBA and NFL are familiar to most of us who live in the USA, as are the familiar initialisms such as NASA, AIDS, and so on. But others, such as ANGEL, JPEG, MLA, APA, or PSU and many more, were not something I’d heard before. Their definitions, though, were usually easy enough to find.

But the real humdinger was an initialism I heard as thong. It remained a mystery for months.

“Are you going to thong this weekend,” I heard one classmate ask another. The response, “I don’t think so, I don’t have time” wasn’t enlightening. But because it was not my business and I wasn’t part of the conversation, I ignored it. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard something that didn’t make sense to me.

Later, I heard it again, “I signed up for four hours at thong, what about you?”

“Oh, I’m gonna try for all night.” Again, the words flowed through my brain with no more than a passing thought.

But then Michelle started the first class of the next week with the question, “So, how many of you will be propping your heads in your hands before class is over? Or, in other words, how many of you danced the night away at thong over the weekend?”

Now I was curious. Did I ask or didn’t I?

I sat there considering the definitions of thong—a narrow strip of leather or other material, or the twenty-first century version of underwear—neither fit with the way it was being used. I decided there were too many sexual connotations tangled into it to initiate a discussion about underwear or components of a whip in a university classroom. I would not risk embarrassing myself unless it turned out to be something I needed to remember. It did not.

Homework assignment piled on homework assignment and I forgot about it.

Then one day I inadvertently discovered the letters THON. Aha! I thought, I bet that’s what they were saying when I heard thong. So I did what anyone would do, I went home and googled it.

Sure enough, at I found:

“Welcome to, the online home of the largest student-run philanthropy in the world! The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, affectionately known as THON, is a yearlong effort to raise funds and awareness for the fight against pediatric cancer. Since 1977, THON has raised more than $127 million for the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.”

Huh, a dance marathon. Well, that explains it. One mystery solved.

The confusingly mysterious use of the word like, however, has never been explained. Although googling this mystery tells me that others are as puzzled and confused as I am, I have not yet found anyone who can offer a good reason for starting the habit. Even after eight semesters and a BA in English, it still makes no sense to me.

Then again, I’m not sure that a doctorate degree in psychology, sociology, and anthropology would adequately explain the idiosyncrasies of the human species.

Maybe I’ll, like, eventually become, like, accustomed to it.


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