Sociolinguistics in Practice: Paper mill talk

Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1962), with its intuitive vocabulary, has inspired me to document my linguistic environments. I will write about a different environment each week without explaining any vocabulary used. My hope is that readers will gradually learn what these words mean as they read on and notice if I insert a word that does not belong. Through this, I will explore belonging: does knowing the words of an environment help increase belonging, even if one has never been in the environment themselves? 

The alarm goes off at 4:45 a.m. Or 2 p.m. Or 6 a.m. to remind me to fall asleep so I can wake up at 2 p.m. Or 8 p.m. so I can wake up at 4:45 a.m. My body can handle it. I am proud that I can do what others can’t. Even if the towmotor and the 12 hours of labor and the earplugs and the steel toes and the age difference and the forks stuck in the headers and the strange men are not exactly desirable. But the pay is, and when I’m off, I want to work. I want the community, the core cutting, the splicing, the specialty orders, the poly F-6, the thermal C-3. Three summers, three years, 18, 19, 20, I want to come back. Always. Even if I don’t, I do. I could quit everything and work in a dying industry. Some spend 40 years here; I should spend four summers. Or five? Grad school? Or splices, upenders, jumbo rolls, hoists, changing the battery? Not the flatbed, though. Or the steel core rack. Not the night shift, but I always grow to like it … more sleep, 10 p.m. at work, 3 a.m. getting ready to leave, 5:45 … now 6 a.m. … zoom out like a bat; not safe because my car is not like a towmotor, gas or electric, and my safety glasses are not like my glasses, and how did I make it home? Yes, sleep, I want you. Dvořák on the radio, ready to sleep, but they wake up, cut the lawn, annoy me. I want the mill. But I want free time. I want my summer. But I miss it. I miss gossip, Dan, Brenda, Ntxhuav, but not the rudeness or frustration. The mistakes, the breaking 7,000-pound rolls, the elevators, the stickers that go to the doctors. The uncertainty of security, of the paper industry, but also love for my old coworkers who make me laugh in the breakroom or the shack. I love 36, don’t like 34 and miss 45. No to the downstairs winders; seeing a damaged finger and water from the ceiling and the web breaking and breaking and breaking and rethreading and rethreading and rethreading were enough for me. Three weeks of nights too. But 45 was alright. Traumatic for 18-year-old me. But it showed my strength, my ability to manage Denise and strange men, to lift 20 52-inch headers onto the cart and bring them up on my forks and up the elevator and the white light on. 


Oh, and rolls coming up as my rolls done, back and forth backwards throughout the mill. Beep beep beep, I’m slow, not like the ASRS, and I have bad eyes. Twelve hours of back and forth backwards, 70-inch rolls up high, tired eyes, all night, cold and then warm and then cold. But 3 a.m.! Cold but good because almost daylight and time for sleep. But days, days are when we get 10-cuts and no driver, but maybe the Leader/Mentor, and you need to be careful or the bubble wrap will come out while the film is still going, or you miss a P-LOT or you forget to print off a label. Or put on special stickers. Or do 3pp instead of 2pp and 1pp. And they wait, but the glue breaks, and maintenance comes, and the operator needs to wait, so the second hand comes and helps, and I feel bad. But I am 18, young, short, new. Still, no excuses, says — screams — Denise, jaded by 45 years in the glorious prison, as young and short and new as me when she started. Mistakes mean Ops-support and Fred and maybe even OSHA. At least emails to everyone. My fault, scissor-lift wasn’t up when I hit the button, so roll fell in-between. Maintenance again. But 9 Coater crew nice, and reel operator come over and make me feel better; not my fault, she’s mean. Break in the air conditioning, bathroom or forklift. Noon lunch or midnight lunch at desk with 80’s on. I like it here.