Posts Tagged ‘Words’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Every night before bed I read at least two books to my girls. I have been doing this since they were born.  As such, I have become a bit of connoisseur of children’s books.  Like every other area of literature, some books are good and some are 51Ny20bi-eLnot so good (I’m looking at you Rainbow Magic Series!). I have my favorites, and sometimes, but not always, these favorites are the same as my daughters.

As they have grown their tastes have changed and so have mine.  At this point of fatherhood, I think I can safely say the worst genre are the books intended for the smallest of babies. These books can be cute, but there are only so many times you can read ‘Goodnight Moon’ by Margaret Wise Brown, or ‘The Going to Bed Book’, by Sandra Boynton before you want to scream.  Luckily the toddler books are a bit better.  The ‘Olivia’ books by Ian Falconer, ‘Madeline’ by Ludwig Behelmans, and Jon Muth’s ‘Zen Shorts’ were some of our favorites.

Finally, in the last couple years we have started with chapter books.  We’ve completed some classics, such as Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’, and E.B. White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’. But most commonly these days we read more recently published series. Usually these series have female protagonists, such as ‘Judy Moody’ by Megan McDonald, ‘Nancy Clancy’ by Jane O’Connor and Annie Burrows’ ‘Ivy and Bean’. All three of these sets are pretty enjoyable, but I highly doubt the ‘Ivy and Bean’ or ‘Judy Moody’ books will have the same classic cache as the works of E.B. White. Most are just a bit too formulaic to live on beyond one generation of kids.

imagesStill, there is something incredible about children’s books nowadays. In one way at least, modern books have a leg up on the works of Dahl and White. Though perhaps not as strong in the area of story-telling, the newer books seem to be more pedagogical.  I have noticed that many books written during the last decade deliberately, though not obviously or annoyingly, attempt to assist children in growing a large vocabulary.

Let me give you just the latest example from our nightly readings:

During the last week, the girls and I have been reading a book called ‘Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible.’  Yes, it is not exactly Dickens or Hemingway, but it is a pretty fun read. Plowing through it, I have been awed by the number of college-level words sprinkled within an elementary school level book.  Here are just a couple of examples of words that forced my girls to ask, ‘what does that word mean’ as we were reading:

  • Ethereal.
  • Melancholy
  • Deportment
  • Praetor
  • Cower
  • Thwarted
  • Crone
  • Blighted
  • Snit
  • Haughtily
  • Dubiously

And this list is just from a quick glance through the book as I sit at my keyboard. I think it is realistic to say that there is a ‘vocab’ word each page or 618dqurp5PL._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_so.

So why the change from those old classics?  Well, I think authors of children’s books have an understanding of how important reading and hearing words are to developing the minds of children.  As I mentioned in a post a couple years ago, ‘it has been estimated that children who have parents that read books to them  will have heard 30 million more words in their lives by the time they start school than those that have non-reading parents.’  If this is the case, why not use as many words as possible?  Instead of ‘witch’, why not use ‘crone’; instead of ‘run-down’, why not use ‘blighted’; instead of ‘sad’, why not use ‘melancholy’?

At the very least, it keeps us parents on our word-definition toes.

Words, Words

Posted: July 16, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

words

Librarians love reference books.

The acquisition of words is remarkable to behold. Lately, I have been in the happy company of one incredibly curious and eager new reader and learner. A few days back, he asked what “superstition” meant. I suggested we look it up, because he enjoys looking up words (is this a great kid, or what?) He read the definition aloud, after which I provided relevant examples to help him understand more fully. I taught him how superstitions include “knocking on wood” when hoping for a reprieve, and throwing salt over a left shoulder was thought to stave off evil spirits. His pragmatic father added the insight that “superstition” is nonsense, which is also true, and the word means much more. One word can encompass an awfully long lesson.

Flaubert famously searched for “le mot juste,” a heroic quest. What is at stake is not only what we know and experience but how we might communicate those myriad meanings.

The tension between abstract ideas and concrete specifics permeates the nature of words, communication, meaning, connection. The tremendous complexities of words and diction were a recent topic in NPR’s piece, “The Magic of Words.” The intangible quality of ideas when compared to the tangibility of specific examples I typically associate with the duality of experiences: intellectual (or cerebral) and visceral (or physiological), two facets of being, developed and augmented by and through words.

language-tree

Seems simple enough.

The instability of definition inherent in abstractions practically demands elaboration, clarification, qualification. I start here, encouraging a balance of abstract ideas and concrete example in my writing and writing classes, believing that the best writing creates equilibrium between these impulses. Conveniently, thesis statements and topic sentences tend to be populated by ideas, appropriate space for abstract words and concepts. Then the rest of the paragraph can be “fleshed out” with concrete, specific, tangible examples. I could stay in this territory for weeks, navigating the nuance of implication, the complexities of denotation and connotation. The private, local, regional, national, and global meanings; the notion of words as living things, evolving in content and purpose: awesome!

success

Follow me!

I ask my students to create a list of abstractions in order to practice constructing illustrative examples. Since college students yearn to succeed, the abstract idea “success” is a constant companion, one they attempt to embody with a college degree, a high-paying job, a fancy car, a big house. Success invades their days and nights, but will often remain as ethereal as most undiscovered dreams.

Experiences can resist definition. In such moments, I pause and think. As I struggle to describe, I arrive at these words: intense, overwhelming, amazing, all of which are insufficient.

Art can provide new names to call the matter of life. Poetry and song powerfully express love and longing, see Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. The multitude universes alive in the eyes of love, only poetry or song can manage to convey.

As a teacher and student of all things literary, I am in the business of grappling with words. I marvel at their power and writhe in frustration at their inefficiencies, and my own.

All our words are as tangible as the light from the stars; still, I am a lover of words.