English language words can be hard to teach. Some words may be spelled the same yet have different meanings depending on pronunciation. Take Excuse for example: I may be excused for certain behaviour yet I may decide to make no excuses. In the former there is the Canadian zed sound for the letter s and in the latter Excuse you hear the es sound clearly.
The mental shift that comes about as one hears the word in context can be confusing for an ESL student. I somewhat shamefully admit that the challenges inherent in learning another language frighten me. My other excuse, lame though it may be, is that I am lazy. Language, of course, is more than just vocabulary. Language is a force in communicating culture.
When I was growing up it would be pretty common for someone to say, ‘Excuse my French’. Maybe this xenophobic phrase is still used as someone’s less than polite way of excusing the four letter swear word that had just come out of their mouth. When we endeavour to excuse ourselves it is a way to rationalize our way of thinking and/or to seek forgiveness. There are some among us who would never consider the need to make an excuse, much less an apology. The current President of the United States, Donald Trump, is a daily example of inexcusable behaviour. He once infamously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. Many would say he is just speaking his mind. But that, in itself, is another excuse.
Dinnertime, when I was a young father, was pretty formal (for the mores of the 1980’s anyway). We observed as much as possible the 50’s Canadian tradition of all gathering around the table for a meal and conversation. Our excuse was that my wife and I wanted to hang on to customs that we thought were important for raising children. As my boys got older I remember giving permission for them to leave the table if they had finished and had an important place to go by saying, “You’re excused.” I wonder if anyone says that anymore. Reading this over makes me sound so nineteenth century!
Canadians are often dubbed as being over-the-top polite. We are branded as always saying such things as ‘excuse me’ in front of almost anything: Is that seat taken? Are you reading that? Would you pass the salt? I was here first! Often we ask, in our embarrassment, to be excused for sneezes, farts or burps. I haven’t met too many Canadians who wish to make excuses for poor behaviour. Generally we try to own up to our mistakes.
“Excuses, Excuses.” Would be an admonishment from one of my teachers for not following through on a project. If I failed to live up to my parents expectations I would be asked, “What’s your excuse?” My childhood explanations would rarely pass muster. In those cases, I was likely excused to go to my room.