Keep On Keepin' On

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 35

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Keep On Keepin' On

The first teaching gig I ever had was for a company called NOVA. You'd have between one and four students for about fifty minutes, with the goal of helping them learn to speak English better. You'd have a textbook and some notepaper and that was about it. After each lesson, you'd hightail it back to the teacher's room and fill out a short evaluation for each student you had just taught and then prepare for the next lesson. Which started in ten minutes. It was stressful and frantic and designed by someone who cared a lot more about making money than about either good teaching or creating a good work environment.

But, that was the job, so we did it, however grudgingly. Trouble was, writing comments for each student was not just time-consuming, it became exponentially harder to think of something new to write, especially once you had had the same students for a few lessons. So, we took shortcuts. And some of those shortcuts were too short and nearly incomprehensible to the other teachers and office staff. Like, keep on keepin' on, which I used so often that my boss had to take me aside and tell me to knock it off.

I protested that it was a perfectly good phrase and he challenged me to write out exactly what I meant by it. Uhm. Huh. I meant...

  • keep up the good work

  • continue on as you have been doing

  • don't change your current routine

And so on. My boss's point: each one of those phrases was simpler and easier for non-native English speakers to understand, not to mention being easier to decipher for native English speakers unfamiliar with American dialects. My point: none of those phrases were anywhere near as pithy or as catchy as keep on keepin' on.

I ended up changing what I wrote in the files, not least because I learned how to give much better, more useful learning feedback that the staff could pass on to the students.

There's a subreddit I like to browse through called /r/juststart. It's devoted to the idea that most of us talk our ideas to death. We get the same neurological rewards from discussing the idea as we do from working towards it, so the more we talk about it, the less we feel we need to actually do it. /r/juststart's advice is to shut up and, well, just start.

And that's great advice. But, getting started isn't really my problem. Staying started, on the other hand, is a huge issue. I get frustrated with a lack of visible progress, or stuck on a problem I can't solve right away, or just fed up with an inability to make something as good as I want it to be and so the project gets back-burnered until it goes away all on its own. Thus, keep on keepin' on. Don't get bogged down, keep at it until you get it finished.

I should note here, that, originally, from what I can tell, the phrase had more of a one day at a time feeling, the kind of motivational phrase geared more towards surviving and just getting through the day without falling prey to temptation than productivity or progress towards a goal, but I think it can be argued that these days, we can take that meaning as well.

After all, a lot of productivity advice can be boiled down to, "keep going." A lot of what you do now might be unsuitable, but you can fix it later. For now, just keep going. And then, keep going and keep on going until you get to the end. Musicians, writers, artists, craftspeople, cooks, just about anyone who makes anything, be it a meal or a business will tell you the same thing: step one is to start. Step two is to just keep on keepin' on. And step three…well, that’s a topic for a different day.

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Definition(s):

The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

to persevere in the face of all discouragement or misfortune

Origin(s):

The oldest example I could find was in The Business Philosopher: The Magazine of Practical Business Building, Volume 6, 1910, as the subtitle to an article called “The Race Not to the Swift” by Milton Bejach…and that’s all Google can show me.

However, this post on Word Wizard by Ken Greenwald cites Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang as also tracing the phrase back to the 1910s and adds that it was and is a popular expression in religious organizations like the Salvation Army.

Together, these citations suggest that the phrase is much older and was common in the vernacular of the late 1800s at least. So, there you go.

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Notable Events of 1910:

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7 Song Playlist: Truckin’

Several sources listed keep on keepin’ on a synonym for keep on truckin’. So, you know what that means: The Grateful Dead, Kris Kristofferson, and more in this week’s Seven Song Playlist.

Next time: That which doesn’t kill us... That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

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