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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

For The Love Of Language

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon reflects on his visit to talk to 5th and 6th graders.

Are we born with a natural fear of reference books or does it have to be taught to us? This was the question on my mind last week as I was visiting my old grammar school to talk to the 5th and 6th grade classes about dictionaries.

I don’t remember who taught me how to use a dictionary, or when it happened, or at what point I began to feel apprehensive about this use. But I know that for many of the years between when I first learned to spell and when I realized that I’d been misinterpreting the usage label ‘colloquial’ in the dictionary that I had been plagued by feelings of uncertainty whenever I went to consult a reference work. I’ve been trying to come up with a workshop of sorts that will dispel this uncertainty make the dictionary enjoyable for children, and I hoped that talking with the 11 and 12 year olds would help me in this.

The 5th and 6th graders were considerably more engaged, engaging, and educated that I had thought they would be. I suppose it is common for people who have not done much teaching to make mistakes in gauging the educational level of their subjects, but I still was fairly surprised. Especially when I was talking to the 6th graders about how the meanings of certain words shift over time, and asked if any of them know the word maverick. I knew that some of them would know what it meant, but was not prepared for the 11 year old in the back row who piped up with “Well…I know that today maverick means someone who doesn’t follow convention…but wasn’t it originally an eponymous 19th century word from a cattle rancher in the West who refused to brand his livestock?” Suddenly afraid that I was talking to an entire classroom of etymologists specializing in regionalisms I decided to change the subject and asked what their favorite words were.

It appears that this particular group of sixth graders had been eagerly waiting for someone to come by to ask them about their favorite words, as the next ten minutes were taken up with a cacophony on shouted examples: “Wicked!” “Fer-shizzle!!” “Erudite!!!”

Both classes were highly enthusiastic about discussing language, and needed only the slightest provocation from me (as when I asked ‘what’s a word?’) and they would leap into a classroom-wide shouted argument about meaning and context that resembled a scrum of either befuddled or drunk semanticists:

“A word is a thing.”
“A word is not a thing – a word is the title of a thing.”
“But…what about the word ‘the’…is that the title of a thing?”
“Of course ‘the’ is a title…’the’ title – duh.”
“What about word…is word a word?”
“Oh…my…God…you are such an idiot!”
“Yeah, but what does idiot mean?”

I have no way of knowing whether the children to whom I spoke are representative of their age, but it was certain that they have not yet had their irrepressible enjoyment of language scolded out of them, or a fear of dictionaries bred in. They would make up new words constantly (Socko – a taco made with old socks), ask questions that were unencumbered by embarrassment (‘Doesn’t the word dude also mean butt-hair?’), and had no qualms about being excited about the dictionary (as was evidenced by the 5th grade teacher having to yell at the entire class that they had to put away their dictionaries).

There may indeed be some small grain of truth to the definition of ‘dictionary’ that is provided by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary (‘A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic’), but if so, it would appear to not take effect for these students until high school at least.

Recent Comments

  1. Brokenwhole

    It’s always great to come across a blog that writes about your own interests. I love that you say about kids “that they have not yet had their irrepressible enjoyment of language scolded out of them”. That’s exactly what happens in schools, not just with language, but with most scholarly subjects.

    I write occasionally about words, in particular, my desire to fit in my own private collection of sweet words such as “crie de coeur, “retroussé” and “Auto da fe”. Coincidentally, I just wrote a blog entry yesterday about my favorite German words that have worked their way into occasional usage in the English language (http://brokenwholeblog.blogspot.com/2009/03/sehnsucht.html).

    I hope you never loose your joy in words. Take care, Keith

  2. Brokenwhole

    Oh, by the way, I’m adding your blog to my (short) blogroll. Keith

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