Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Wonder of Words

This entry will be only loosely related to reading.
Yesterday in class, I had one of those serendipitious "teaching moments" arise. We were going through an analysis of an argument about U.S. policy toward Israel, when one of the students said, "What does 'boon' mean?" Ever eager to show off my vocabulary skills (ha ha), I defined it for him as a "gift, or a windfall." He responded, "So why didn't the guy just say 'gift'?"

What a wonderful opportunity to talk about the writer's most valuable tool! We discussed how the choice of a particular word influences the image the writer projects to his/her audience, and also how language choices allow us to be more precise in conveying our exact meaning. As one young woman in the class pointed out, there is a difference between being "scared" or "afraid" (I added "fearful," "anxious," and "terrified"). Although that little side discussion meant we didn't get as much done during that class period as I had planned to, I think it was very productive, both in terms of just what they learned about vocabulary AND in terms of what language can do for them in an argument. So, I can ease my guilt that the day wasn't wasted!

They all looked at me like I was either pulling their legs or purely nutty when I told them the best gift I got last Christmas was a dictionary. I'm serious, though! I enjoy poring through it, looking at word meanings and word origins, synonyms and proper usage. One feature I was especially pleased with in the version my husband gave me was the effort to give a date for the word. The entry for a word will include the date when the word (or at least its first definition) first appeared in a dictionary. That has been very helpful to me in editing my little historical novel. There were several times when I found that a word I'd used didn't exist (or at least wasn't in common usage) until maybe decades after my story is supposed to take place. Call me obsessed if you must, but that kind of detail matters to me - I went back and changed the words to something that was more historically accurate. Sometime maybe I'll write a post about what I learned from that experience; words that entered the dictionary during a particular time period seem to reflect the general mindset of the period (which suddenly sounds quite obvious, but really isn't as simple as it sounds).

I think I'm going to offer my students an extra-credit assignment about vocabulary. Maybe I can be the matchmaker who leads them to their own love affair with words...

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