Monday, January 21, 2008

My Words

As someone who was an English lit major in college, I confess to loving words. In fact, I collect them. It's true--right now I have a list in the back of my white notebook (where I jot down blogging ideas) where I write down great words that I come upon. Top of that list right now--quotidian.

Words that appeal to me are those that have a great sound and are packed with meaning. I have gathered this pile of words partly to use them in poems someday, and partly just because. There's no other rhyme or reason for them.

Here are two more favorite words--facetious and abstemious. Why? Because these two words use all the vowels in the English language and use them in alphabetical order. I have been looking for another word that does that, but no luck so far.

There are also words I avoid--catchphrases that are cliched, over-used. Or jargon. Every now and then I catch myself saying something like--"the bottom line" (shudder) or "a new paradigm" (shudder shudder).

There are words that I despise--many of which are bandied about on television. Since when did "impact" become a verb?

I try to pay attention to the words I use. Sometimes I use a phrase in response to everyday situations. I catch myself falling into regular use of these phrases. In fact, I go through cycles of these phrases.

Here's a sampling.

"This too shall pass"--I said this frequently when I first began teaching 40 years ago. Maybe I was overwhelmed--but I noticed one day that I kept saying "this too shall pass."

Then I went through a phase of announcing "it's not my problem." I worked in an organization at the time where work would build up--so the announcement of "it's not my problem" was not me shirking work, but a delineation of boundaries.

Recently, I have caught myself saying "it's not the end of the world." Maybe that phrase comes to mind as I contemplate some of the unsettling news stories--stock markets going haywire; protracted fighting in Iraq; global climate change. Maybe my repeating "it's not the end of the world" is a little like whistling past the graveyard.

Classes have begun again at our local community college, and I am trying once more to get students interested in and excited about words. I challenge them to make sure they understand all the words in any essay they read, and to look words up if they don't know them. I even try to shock them a little.

One of my favorite word exercises is to get students thinking about the emotional content that some words have. Words have denotative or connotative meaning. Denotative is essentially the dictionary definition, where connotative is the emotional load a word carries. To help students grasp the difference between denotative and connotative, I will look at one of the female students, and ask if she would be insulted if I called her a "hussy." Of course, she is always shocked and begins to take umbrage. I quickly point out that at one time "hussy" meant nothing more than "housewife"--and in fact that is its word origin. "Hussy" is a shortened version of "housewife." So, there's no need to be insulted.

Words, words, words. My words. We load them up, we throw them around, we let them slip out when we shouldn't, we can't take them back. And, yet. . . And, yet. . .Where would we be without words?


Beverly said...

I love this post about words. We really have created some crazy ones over the years, haven't we.

Anonymous said...

I love words too. One of my goals is to help my students love words as much as I do. I'm enjoying playing "" and am amazed at how many words I can figure out the meaning of just because I understand words so well. It's very, very cool. I'm going to try to bring some connotative and denotative discussions to my 5th graders. Should be a fun exercise for them. Thanks!

Mary said...

There are several blogs which require me to open up Merriam Webster On-line and this is one of them :o) Can't go a day without an on-line dictionary and a thesaurus can occupy me for a long time. I enjoy words, too, especially when they are used so cleverly in posts like this one.

Ruth said...

Great post! The interesting thing about language is that it is always changing. Yet words remain powerful and are carelessly used too often. I like word games, especially Scrabble.

Anvilcloud said...

"Rede oft is found at the rising of the sun."

That was a new word to me last night in LOTR. I had to look it up, and it means in this case something like a plan or advice. I think. There's no shortage of words in this language, and I guess that's good.

Anonymous said...

I guess I must weigh in here too, daughter of mine. Talk about hackneyed phrases; when did “transition” become an active verb? Or do I show my ignorance in asking that? I think of other words that are changing meaning too. But I will resist giving examples. Love, father “C:

Anonymous said...

I wish I was better with my grammar but I am as I am! I honor those who have such good english like yourself!

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I enjoy words also. I cannot resist buying books on unusual words.

Words used incorrectly on TV lesves me correcting them out loud, even as I sit alone.!

denverdoc said...

I'd love to throw out quotidian in my quotidian life, but I'd probably mispronounce it. Still waiting for the nerve and the moment to use segue, one of my favorite words.

dguzman said...

Beautiful! I love words too, and "facetious" has always been one of my favorite words. I used to play a game I called "Wordy Gurdy" with my students, where I'd give them a word and they had to come up with synonyms for it, antonyms, etc. That's one thing I miss about teaching!