If you’re in college, and probably high school, you’ve heard the word “midterm” thrown around quite a bit. In fact, you’ve probably heard people claim they’re studying for 7 midterms, making your meager 3 midterms seem unworthy, and forcing you to shy away from any and all conversation about them.
But it turns out that your friend does not have 7 midterm exams. They have 7 something-or-others (sometimes actual exams, sometimes projects, and sometimes just homework assignments) that someone (often a professor) decided to call midterms. But you need not even pick up a dictionary to know that “midterm” means “in the middle of the term”, which would make the idea of having a “midterm” at any other point in the term seem suspect.
So when a classmate mentioned to me that he had 10 take-home “midterms”, equally distributed throughout the semester, I couldn’t help but feel like he was being disingenuous. Why was he calling homework assignments “midterms”?
It seemed both peculiar and disadvantageous. “Midterm” is certainly more ambiguous, seeing as it could mean literally any assignment you’ve ever received (other than a “final”, which is a whole different can of worms). Plus, it just sounds kind of gross and formal.
But it then struck me that this was its very advantage. Calling something a “midterm” makes it sound more formal; calling something a “midterm” legitimizes it. Suddenly, a “midterm” becomes an easy way to garner sympathy or to excuse yourself from something you don’t want to do.
When you feel like you need some validation for your hard work, mention you have a “midterm”, and we all reflexively dip our heads, scrunch our brows, and offer our condolences. When someone who you don’t really want to hang out with asks to get dinner, mention you have a “midterm”, and feel good about having a “valid” excuse to pass on the opportunity.
So why is this a bad thing? Legitimizing school work seems positive, surely. But if every piece of schoolwork is as legitimized as a midterm, suddenly none are. Suddenly the weight that the word once held is lost. Language is our most powerful currency, albeit intellectual, and to deflate the value of any word is to deflate the values of all words we speak. For instance, I’m now less inclined to believe that Mr. Homework-Is-Midterms-Guy really has “the biggest problem of his life” when I read his tweets about it.
There is a reason that different labels and categories exist for different types of school work (homework, quizzes, tests, midterm exams, final exams, etc.). These do not exist to belittle the work we do–I’ve definitely had quite a few homework assignments that were more difficult/stressful than midterms. Midterm exams should certainly still be called midterm exams. But homework assignments should still be called homework assignments for clarity, lingual precision, and also just plain-old honesty. Doing so does not belittle our hard work.
The only person who belittles the value of his work is the person who uses “midterm” to describe it.