If you really get into it – think of purchasing the hard cover. But I’ll warn you, they are tough. Think of them like a crossword that needs to be solved. There are proper referents, I do “mean” something. You just have to look deeper, think apart – it’ll come to you, what I meant.
I’ll only say thank you to my niece Gabriella, who painstakingly went over the copy and edited everything. Thank you! Here, I’ve reprinted the short forward (the print book will contain a much longer and well researched essay on the topic of “the dictionary”).
Enjoy and comments, your fav. definitions, welcomed!
About this book
This book was written over 20 years ago, over a few days. A result of my own “Foerster’s Syndrome”, a kind of lexical illness which I suffer gladly. Both an incessant need to pun and an uncontrollable reflex of seeing meaning within words. A kind of inability to see the forest (word) for the trees (the sounds / meanings).
But I’ve lived with it and learned to control it. Still, ever so often, this Jabberwooky, this moloch and primordial beast attacks and I’m back in the land of the idiot’s dictionary ……
I’ve written a lot about the power of words over the years. See my previous book – “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Teacher” for those. I’ve studied and been influenced by all the creative writers / poets who’ve pushed the frame of reference in which language lives. Valery, Mallarme, Stein, Breton, Borges, Gass, Calvino, e.e. cummings to name just a very, very few. The Gagaism manifesto, born of the same time as the dictionary (at the end of this book) – stands as my own theory of language in the world.
I also must emphasize my own use of the word “dictionary”. This book is my belief that “We, the people” should have control of the language – not the Websters and Murdochs of the world. A dictionary is not a definitive source but rather, an interpretation. This book, my small attempt to put a dent in the prescriptive armor we wear as we walk the world, in the flesh born of “the word”.
I’ll end with this wonderful passionate appeal of McKean for a new kind of dictionary, a new participatory and living dictionary of meaning and metaphor.
I’ve been noticing more and more, teachers and especially those acknowledged as “leaders”, sharing sites where learners learn “words”. These sites usually involve games or tools that allow the user to have fun with words.
These can be useful, just like the odd game of hangman in the classroom. However, I think it encumbent on those listing these sites, to also remind teachers that teaching “words” IS NOT teaching language. Language is MORE than words. It isn’t as simple as believing ” a student has more words therefore they are better at English”. I really think teacher trainers and those sharing online need to really focus on promoting sites which offer a fuller set of communicative possibility.
That’s all I want to say – a word to the wise! We all need this reminder, me thinks.
I’ve used poetry a lot over the years in class. It can be done quite simply and doesn’t need to be any stuffy exercise. It is all about the power of expression. Simply handing out slips of paper and asking students to write one sentence based on your prompt, then collecting them and reading them out loud – is a wonderful activity and a great intro to poetry. Even songs are poems too! Just cut out the music and go for it….
Words, words, words. Sometimes I feel like becoming a monk solely for the reason to be beyond words, of no need of words, away from words and their slinking skullduggery. They are cruel and they often don’t mean what they mean.
I know I’m groping for trout. I’ll get to that point in a moment. First, let me tell you what set off this minor mental meandering.
My wife has been doing some translation work and she asked me about this sentence -
“The watch is going”
I immediately told her that it meant the watch was “dying” or almost finished.
She looked at me puzzled and asked if it might mean something else. I thought about it and couldn’t think of anything else it might mean (so clouded we are by the force of WORDS).
She said, “might it mean that it is working?” And then it hit me, of course, that is what it does mean! And then it hit me again, blyme – isn’t that the exact opposite of the first meaning?
You see, words have got us by the throat and they won’t let us go. They are our are our arrrr arrrr real taskmasters. It is us who are groping for trout.
And that brings me to the title of this little piece.
You see, often when I get confused, I seek refugee with those who have even got more confused by the same demons. So I took down my newly unpacked volumes of William Gass and cracked open an essay or two. More exactly, his essay on “Groping for Trout” where he elaborates on how we create our own meaning of things and there is no center that holds….
“No, we can put order anywhere we like. There’s not a trout we can’t tickle, a fish for which we can’t contrive a net. We can find forms in ink blots, clouds, the tubercular painter’s spit: and to the ants we can impute designs which Alexander would have thought himself vainglorious to dream of. But to think of order and chaos in this relative way is not to confuse them, or put conditions out of the reach of judgement. there are clashes between orders, confusions of realms. Not every arrangement is equally effective. And we must keep in mind the relation of any order to the chosen good.”
Hmmm. What I think good, great Gass is saying is that we create the meaning, not the words! I guess, I see this point. And time, that destroyer of all things is the worst culprit. It changes the meaning and let’s some things endure, others die. And our words get full of confusion. We now drive on a parkway and park in a driveway.
Still, I’m not quite sure if words don’t have their own “hold” and power. Not to do a Wittgenstein but as a teacher, honored to be a meister of words, I’ve seen how words have their own force, independent of human will or even Fromkin and Rodman.
Think of fAt and fit. Does the eye lie? Or what of all those gutteral sounds that all represent a disgUst? William Blood wrote a whole book on the poetic alphabet centuries ago and his point still stands – words (by default sound) have their own power independent of man. This is how the hole expands with slit – slat – slot (and even “slut”) as the vowel sound widens?
I guess I’m not making a lot of sense. But that is precisely the point. Words don’t make sense, so we do. Or we make sense and words do. Or perhaps the truth is somewhere between?
To end on a lighter note, a story. Long ago, teaching ESL to new immigrants to Canada, I received a note from Snezenka, a Serbian student (and I kid you not, her name means, “Snow White”). It was a letter apologizing for missing some classes. At the end it read, “P.S. Thank you for the massage. As I read it, I was really confused. She was a beautiful woman and had this really happened? I was working long hours and who knows…. but then, after some long thought, my mind started “going” – it dawned on me. It was simply a spelling mistake, “message” not “massage”.
I”m still like that, still groping for trout in the wonderful stream of words.
Today, I’d like to share my top Language related posts of 2010.
I believe it really helps a language teacher if they have a passion and “eye / ear” for the infinite beauty, complexity and subtlety of language. Language has me fascinated (and may I say “in love) and it energizes me as a teacher to no end.
Enjoy these posts on what Baudelaire might have said, “Your walk through the forest of symbols”.
Yes, if you caught the mistake in the title, you are well on your way to being a great speller! Almost everyone, native speaker or 2nd language learner, has a problem spelling certain words. It usually comes down to how we processed the word when we first “learned” the word. Not our first encounter with the word but the first time it was “acquired” and became part of our standard inventory of recallable language.
This list has some words children have difficulty spelling. I’m not sure of the veracity of this list – from my experience teaching grade 4 – kids are “all over the place” when it comes to the words they have difficulty spelling. But then again, I only have a couple of years under my belt and maybe veteran primary school teachers would know more.
Also try this quiz and see how you do. But remember, recognizing a word’s spelling it and spelling it are actually two different things/skills!
I find them haunting. So well done, so real. I kind of think I’m right there in the screen or like that Woody Allen movie, “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, the people on the screen will come right off and start “living” with me.
I hope you enjoy this video as much as I did – but most importantly, made a cool “watching” activity to go with it. Watch and keep replaying the different scenes for each “Word”. Check which words were “associated”.
Find a nice associated podcast from NPR about “Words” here.
VerbaLearn is a new site which does a lot of things well. I’m not usually a big fan of learning English through “word study”, however, it is a reality and it does work for many students. Also, VerbaLearn caters to those who are trying to pass all those significant tests….GRE / SAT / ACT and though not directly or yet – TOEFL.
On the site, you are prompted and can test yourself. The words you get wrong, are put into a word list for later study. You can then use that list to be tested upon continually until you’ve learned the words. If you get them right, absolutely (by hitting the “I know” prompt and not guessing), the word is eliminated from your study/test list.
This could be a great place to refer higher level students. And this is a major job of most teachers — we can’t really teach everything in class, there isn’t enough time to conquer the 6-7,000 words needed for academic success….
Also included here – a few word lists which will come in handy!!!! If you also haven’t checked it out on our Practice page – visit Word Count. A “real time” analysis of the most popular words in use on the internet! Maybe use it to get your students to guess what rank “X” word will be. Could be a fun game!
Please also see these other resources including an article on word lists/study by two of the top authorities in this area… Further, don’t forget to visit WORDAHEAD. A video vocab site with much the same high level vocab. I also highly recommend our Vocabulary discussion – loads of ideas and resources there!
We live in and by and through words. Baudelaire famously said, “Life is a forest of symbols”, meaning, we walk through life as we would walk through words.
Yet, though on one hand “words are mightier than the sword”. On the other hand, “Actions speak louder than words”. Which is it?
As a teacher, we face a similar dilemma in our classrooms. Do we teach students “words” or do we teach them “how to use words”. Which is more important? How to find the right balance? Ah, the tension of it all! And to wit, “Words – do they really matter?”. Doesn’t a lot else count and that past the first few thousand words, we get little pay off?
I’ve always found it fascinating how so many parents that I meet, want their children to have a large vocabulary. It is like a rooster and his comb. There is a strong belief that if you have a large vocabulary, the world is yours — all other kinds of problems are solved. You’ll make more money, you’ll climb up the social ladder, you’ll be healthier, you’ll have more friends, life is your oyster. Have a small vocabulary and you are a midget of the verbal world. Neglected and a circus oddity.
But is this true? And what does vocabulary size say for us teachers and our own practices? Let me know what you think.
I’m off on this diatribe and mental exercise after reading this morning’s New York Time’s, On Language column about vocabulary size. Also, after asking my students (teachers) about how many words they think a basically fluent second language speaker probably knows and getting answers no where near the mark!
IN short — here’s how the levels match up with vocabulary size for EFL (not ESL) students.
Level and Vocabulary Size
1500 – 2500
2750 – 3250
3250 – 3750
3750 – 4500
4500 – 5000
** But it takes getting to the magical 7-8,000 word level to really be advanced and fluent. Some studies have suggested that for studying in an English university where academic language is needed — we are looking at a vocabulary size of 12-13,000 words
I’ll begin by stating my own position. Probably different than all those lexicographers and vocab. specialists. I THINK VOCABULARY IS OVERRATED. I’m a big one for process and quality. How you say something is much more important than the words you use. Further, the majority of people on this planet DON”T have the vocabulary of Shakespeare or Eminem. And the goal being “communication”, does size really matter?
The growth of research into vocabulary frequency and corpus (here’s a good place to start) has truly been phenomenal. We now have an idea of word frequency in many settings. (Jonathan Harris’ Word Count for the internet is also very handy). But I think many researchers and teachers have become too enamored by words (and being a poet I know their ability to hypnotize, ensnare, enchant and woo). Here in Korea, I find too many students memorizing long lists of vocabulary in search of a holy grail. (given by teachers who also believe in this holy grail).
I’ve also witnessed the return of the lexical syllabus, books with sneaky agendas for “growing vocabularies”. Seems even the internet can be accused of promoting the view that vocabulary size = fluency. So many powerful sites dedicated just to learning vocabulary (many times out of context – here’s my list of bookmarks for some browsing).
Given all this – I still prefer a student with good communication skills and only 1,000 words of vocabulary over a student with a 5,000+ vocabulary that speaks choppily and with no “style”.
So my tips for the teachers in the trenches.
1. don’t focus on vocabulary size. Focus on meaningful production.
2. when learning words (as all beginners must), students should concentrate on verbs. They are the flypaper to which the flies (nouns) stick.
3. teach any vocabulary in context. Not randomly (like with a word search or a list). Teach it with a dialogue or by talking about a situation or using it for a real communicative act.
4. A word is not a word is not a word. Meaning, don’t teach just one definition. Use the same words in different contexts and environments. Knowing “x” number of words does not do anyone any good if they only think of a word as one thing. It isn’t. A word can mean many things, it collocates and is truly a camelion. Teach your students to appreciate this.
This video – though dated, is fascinating. What is a word. I’ll leave things at that…..nothing is certain in our field and I enjoy this marvelous feature of language!
I’ve long been one who “protests” the dictionary as a form of enslavement! It is a traffic cop, a false prophet saying and prescribing what words are “right” and which are “wrong”. BAAAAAAHHHHH
This delightful TED Talk is really entertaining and in her quirky way, this “lexicographer” pleads for technology to liberate words and give us a beautiful dictionary where words , ALL words are equal and beautiful and loved. It’s a great watch and you’ll pick up a few beautiful words. I love her wrapping up — “The internet like the dictionary is only words and enthusiasm!”. So true.
Recently there was a brouhah and huzza about the 1,000,000th English word. One was even plucked from the pantheon-Web 2.0 (I wonder who got the check/prize?). However, who cares how many? It is how they are used and most importantly, how words are sucked upon and LOVED! Dictionaries are just books written by people! Samuel Johnson’s collosus “A Dictionary of the English Language” comes foremost to mind – but whatever the effort, they are still human and just OPINION. I feel in love with his book and moreso his mind but the end result was I also began to see the dictionary for what it was – a fiction, a work of art (or trash).
If you are interested in challenging your own notion of “the dictionary” and thinking about how it really has harmed our language, the organic bloodwell of English – I’d recommend looking at a few of the earliest alternative dictionaries that challenged the institutionalized and imprisoned view of what is a word and how we should use it…. (and we still should challenge the OED – god! you even have to pay to look up one of the words they “own” – how can one own a word???) If I get the time, I’ll hunt up my own thrice almost published “Idiot’s Dictionary” and post an excerpt. Been awhile since I looked at this collosus I compiled during my poetic days……
Every year, thousands of new words enter the lexicon of the English language. That’s the power of English globally, its flexibility and malleability. However, each year, thousands of words die…. It is like life and death, an endless concerto.
But let’s look at life! These are the Buzz Words of 2008, from a very American perspective at the N.Y. Times. Also, see the Buzz Words of 2007! (which ones continue to live?). What’s your favorite buzzword. I really love “lipstick on a pig”. I’d never heard it before this year and now it is an idiom I use whenever the situation demands (Him! Get a job as a teacher! Might as well put lipstick on a pig!).