This morning I had a discussion with my five-year-old granddaughter about believing in things. She believes in Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and Rapunzel. I explained why no human could have 14-foot-long hair like Rapunzel, not even the Sikhs who never cut their hair. As for Santa Claus, I told her I had never believed in him, except for fun. She was comfortable believing differently from me: “Some people believe in things, and some don’t,” she said.
She mentioned that she was afraid of “monsters,” and I asked her what she meant by that word. She brought up bats and walking mummies. As for the mummies, we agreed that they exist, but they don’t walk, so they are not worth worrying about. Regarding bats, her fear was based on the fact that “We can’t see them,” although I could inform her that if she were in the right place at the right time, she could indeed see bats. It is important for all of us, not only children, to clarify what we believe in and to investigate what we are afraid of. We made some progress through semantics this morning.
The Supreme Court will shortly rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage, which requires a definition of the word “marriage,” including whether the addition of the word “gay” to a standard definition redefines or simply clarifies the institution itself.
Dennis Baron has reviewed the Supreme Court’s use of dictionaries on his blog The Web of Language, including an instance when a liberal and a conservative Justice used the same dictionary definition to support opposing points of view. He also references the definition of “militia,” which drove decisions having to do with the right to bear arms.
I wish we would all agree on the definition of the term “Founding Fathers,” because this term leads directly into the word “Constitution” which is the bedrock of conservative judicial thinking these days. There were Unitarians and agnostics among the Founding Fathers who would not recognize opinions imposed upon them today when conservatives want to win a point by referencing them.
No matter what they do on the Supreme Court, we can keep a close eye on definitions in our daily lives.
David Brooks writes a column in the New York Times today about a Google database of books published since 1500 which can be used to tot up word usage. He notes that words such as virtue, decency, conscience, honesty, patience, compassion, bravery, fortitude, faith, wisdom, and evil have been used with declining frequency since 1930. He further notes that words such as preferences, self, unique, and many political words, such as economic justice, priorities, right-wing, and left wing have become more frequent. He facilely concludes from these lists that “…as [society] has become more individualistic it has also become less morally aware.”
This data set is not, in itself, informative. It is all in the interpretation, and I would reach different conclusions.
Who defines such words as virtue, faith, decency, and evil? After family, the first place that comes to mind is church; the second is political speeches. Recent studies have suggested that Americans have lost a measure of faith in both the church and the government, and we have refashioned the family. We are no longer sheep who flock to war when our government hails patriotism. A considerable segment of the American populace no longer reviles homosexuals or Jews because our churches tell us to. Many of us have noticed that formerly revered institutions like the church and the government are as likely to mislead as to lead, as likely to promote chaos as order. Somehow, we have claimed the confidence to think for ourselves, to construct our own conscience and behavioral guidelines, and in so doing, we have dropped definitions tailor-made by others. Many of us like and defend our gay cousins and our Jewish sisters-in-law, our Muslim neighbors, and our disabled classmates. We dare to set up companies functioning in new paradigms, marry whomever we please, and think new thoughts. In 1930, when Brooks’s favored set of words reigned, our behavior and even our thinking patterns were dictated by others.
Mr. Brooks is right about one thing — “gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture.” Mr. Brooks reviles the shifts that he detects, and I embrace the shifts that I detect. In academia, a battle of statistics, studies, and papers would ensue, but, according to my paradigm, it’s up to each of us to decide for him or herself what it all means.
You are, of course, invited to disagree…..
Naming things is an important concept in linguistics. People have cute, or crazy, or insulting names for people and things in their lives, and that is an area for productive study. Grandmother names are my present fixation — I am called Granna. I remember the struggle after 9/11 to find a name for the event that had just happened. In the end, we gave up and just use the date of a unique event which falls outside of our comprehension.
In the classroom context, knowing students’ names establishes intimacy and dignity, lessening the distance between teacher and student. I have 20 students this semester, and it took me about two weeks to get everyone’s name right. Last semester I had 60 and that also took about two weeks, even if some of them were Chinese and their names were just sounds to me.
Michael Sandel, the teacher of the legendary Justice course at Harvard, author of a book by the same name, has around a thousand students in this classes. He has an assistant pass the microphone to individuals, and before beginning the question-and-answer, he asks the student’s name, then continues, using the student’s first name. Though this is not true closeness, the moment of naming brings immediacy to the discourse.
Placards or name cards can be placed in front of the student so that a teacher can access the name without memorizing it. If you have access to photographs of the students, that helps. Memorization is made more difficult if the students switch seats or the seats are configured differently from class to class. This mixing up of seating avoids the formation of cliques, but makes it more difficult to memorize names.
Students sometimes work in groups, and if they are to make a report or otherwise present themselves as a unit to the rest of the class, it is amusing and bonding to have them choose a name for their group.
I get to know all of my students’ names (they inform me that this is rare, which shocks and upsets me), but when I run into them on campus the next semester or year I have forgotten them. I remember their faces and their papers, but not their names. Perhaps a psychologist or an expert on brain function and memory can explain that one!
EXERCISES: Not exactly exercises, but a listing of aids:
Give yourself a couple of weeks to memorize names
Have students name their groups
In large classes either have the students announce their name or have a name tag or placard.
Use photographs to help memorize names
My friend Pamela Satran has a delightful blog called Nameberry which is a treasure trove about peoples’ first names, in American culture. As illustrated below, it would be of limited use elsewhere.
When my children were born, their father didn’t want any of the usual names and, since he was Australian, went searching in an aboriginal dictionary for inspiration. My son’s name is a variation on an aboriginal word for “fire” and my daughter’s name means “traveler.” You can make up a child’s name in America (the kids were born in America – it would be interesting to know what they thought in Australia) without being considered strange.
People in Iceland don’t have the same free-wheeling attitude. Here’s the Icelandic point of view, as expressed in a recent news release:
A 15-year-old Icelandic girl has won the right to use the name given her by her mother, after a court battle against the authorities.
Blaer Bjarkardottir will now be able to use her first name, which means “light breeze”, officially.
Icelandic authorities had objected, saying it was not a proper feminine name.
The country has very strict laws on names which must fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules”.
My former Chinese students tried to instruct me regarding Chinese first names, which come last. The first name, linearly, is the family name. Wang Zixiang’s “first name” is Zixiang. His family name is Wang. His sister (if Chinese children had sisters) might be named Wang Xiaobin.
This was just the beginning of their attempts to explain their names to me. Each family names their child for a hope they have for it; like “learned scholar” or “much gold.” Chinese words are made up of many layers, and name words are no exception. Without further study of Chinese, I cannot claim to understand the interaction of the layers.
The North Koreans obviously have some variation on the same protocols, because the recent grandfather-son-grandson trio of rulers have been named Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jung-un, with the family name coming first.
I ran across men named Lovemore and Givemore in Zimbabwe, and the name of the president of one African country is Goodluck. Givemore hinted that his name came from “Christianity.” These are names in English, but there are no English prime ministers or American presidents named “Givemore.”
Once again, we see how language is arbitrary, reflecting customs and beliefs of various cultures. The Icelanders feel strongly enough about their cultural choices to have a court case over a girl’s name.
As I head off for a few weeks in California (during which I will post from time to time, as I find interesting things to write about), I leave you with a smile on your face.
Let’s begin with an homage to Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame baseball player (and founder of a baseball museum on the campus of the university where I teach, Montclair State), who has contributed as many smiles to American faces as anyone alive. Here are some of his aphorisms:
This is like deja vu all over again.
Baseball is 90% mental — the other half is physical.
It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.
The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase.
You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.
I didn’t really say everything I said.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
You can observe a lot just by watching.
You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.
Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.
I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early.
I can barely stop quoting him – these tickle my funny bone, no matter how many times I hear them.
The New Yorker used to feature snippets of headlines and other reportage, my favorite of which was (I write from memory – it was a long time ago. See how funny stuff sticks in your brain): Correction: Page 46 should read ‘pull your rip cord,’ not ‘state your zip code.’ The editors have discontinued the practice. I still subscribe, but miss my favorite part of the magazine, such a welcome antidote to their sober, well-researched articles.
Richard Lederer has compiled some gems from his years as a teacher at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in the book Anguished English, An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language.
A passive verb is when the subject is the sufferer, as in ‘I am loved.’
The Gorgons had long snakes in their hair. They looked like women, only more horrible.
The difference between a king and a president is that the king is the son of his father, but a president isn’t.
His students write of the River Stynx and Mount Montezuma where Abraham was set to sacrifice Isaac. King David was known for fighting the Finkelsteins, and Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.
The malapropisms are legion:
She has unmedicated gall.
In many states, murderers are put to death by electrolysis.
The marriage was consummated at the altar.
Mr. Lederer goes on for 117 pages – much too long to read in one sitting:
Man arrested for possession of heroine.
Panel agree to much sex on television.
Reagan goes for juggler in Midwest.
– but enough already.
Another classic of humor is The Devil’s Dictionaries, by Ambrose Bierce and Chaz Bufe. It begins with:
Abnormal, adj. Not conforming to standard. In matters of thought and conduct, to be independent is to be abnormal, to be abnormal is to be detested…
sails through Mafia, n. An uncommonly straight shooting group of businessmen.
Ending with Yes, Dear, excl. For women, an indication that the speaker is not listening to them. Synonyms: “Yes, honey,” “Of course, honey,” “Anything you say, dear,” and a self-deprecating definition of Zeus, under “Z.”
So don’t take your language for granite, as Mr. Lederer’s students might say. It could be one of your favorite toys.
A few years ago I was having coffee with a friend who worked at the time at The New York Times. We agreed that some of the best writing on the newspaper could be found on the sports page. Nothing earthshaking happens in sports –the player hits the baseball “out of the park” or “over the fence” or the fast ball is 97 miles and hour or 90 miles an hour, the player scores a goal or makes a point. It’s the same thing day after day. A writer makes this repetitive information interesting by larding his article or his broadcasts with interesting stories and colorful language.
A woman at the next table reached over and touched my arm. She was smiling, and her companion was laughing. She was the daughter of Yogi Berra, an iconic American baseball player, and her companion was Yogi’s wife, Carmen. We explained that we were both avid sports fans, but realized that our passions might rest in a game for a while, but for most of us, our lives do not rise or fall depending on the daily scores. Sports are not like politics, the weather, or the stock market.
Working writers have many challenges; they sometimes even die covering wars, but for day-to day creativity, none surpass the sports writer. Yogi Berra himself has contributed expressions that Americans use every day, such as “It ain’t over til it’s over,” and my favorite, “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more.”
Colorful language begins with verbs; they provide the energy in a sentence. I have been impressed by the creative use of verbs by the NBCSN announcer in the hockey playoffs, and have included a list below. All of us, including the announcer himself, would die of boredom if he said the same basic words a thousand times – “he hit the puck,” he passed the puck,” “he aimed the puck.” There has to be some variety. The fragments below come only from his descriptions of what the player does with and to the puck. They don’t include what the player himself is doing (racing, banging, charging, attacking, and so on). That would comprise another long list.
62 verbs for one action, in one hockey game, besides the common ones, such as passed it, or hit it:
angled it, banked it, blasted it, blocked it, bounced it, centered it, chipped it, cleared it, coraled it, cranked it, cut it, deflected it, dragged it, dropped it, elevated it, fanned it, feathered it, filtered it, finessed it, fired it, flipped it, floated it, fought it off, headed it, hooked it, hustled it, jammed it, knifed it, ladled it, laid it up, led it on, lobbed it, lofted it, misfired it, peeled it off, picked it up, played it on, poked it, popped it in, pumped it along, punched it in, reached it, reversed it, rifled it, shook it, shoveled it, shipped it, shuffled it, skipped it, slithered it, slugged it, slung it, snuck it, spiked it, sticked it, stuck it, swatted it, threw it, toedragged it, tucked it, whacked it, worked it, yanked it.
Prepositions expand the list: he knifed it in/out/along; he floated it across/through/over, he headed it in/out/over/across/through/between.
It is the announcer’s job to keep a list of verbs handy, but occasionally they are spontaneously poetic. Baseball is a leisurely, slow-paced game with plenty of room for stories and references. The present set of New York Mets announcers, Keith Hernandez, Gary Cohen, and Ron Darling, often refer to ancient Greek myths, Shakespeare, and poets or authors of various kinds. Sometimes they dip into mathematics or history. I am fascinated by the symbiosis between the most basic of our entertainments, sports, and the most high-fallutin’ classical endeavors. Classical music frequently provides the background to advertisements aired during games, and the announcers often call us to our higher intellectual selves.
Yes, I am a sports fan, and a linguist, and the two go together very well.
Exercise: Ask students who are sports fans to make a list of the verbs used by their favorite announcers. Or ask students to cover a sports event at their school, using as many verbs as possible. They could work in groups to do this.
A recent article in The New York Times, “My Life’s Sentences,” by the author Jhumpa Lahiri, mentioned one of her favorite sentences. It is in the short story Araby, by James Joyce: “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” Since we had just read this story in class, I shared the sentence, noting that authors play with language, craft it carefully, and gain the same kind of pleasure as a sculptor does working in her medium. The students dutifully took in my comment, but it was my challenge to have them experience an author’s playfulness and pleasure when playing with language, not just tell them about other people’s pleasure.
When my class read another short story, A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner, I asked them to identify their favorite language bit – it could be a sentence, a phrase, a character’s name, or any other fragment of the story. The results were interesting and fun. Still, they needed to create something themselves, so we did the exercise below, which seemed to hit the spot.
Exercise: Arrange the class in groups of three or four, and ask them to create character names. What would be a scary character’s name, a funny one’s, a loving nanny or crusty grandfather’s name? What would be your name for the family’s summer home in the mountains? On the shore? Somewhere else? The first name they came up with was Tracy Pickle, which tickled me.
An extra twist to this exercise could be investigating the languages and cultures which the names came from. Tracy Pickle seems in the Dickens tradition, but Swami Aroundaboutananda is Indian perhaps.
The fiction-writing exercise described in the posts of February 2, 7, 13, and 16 was the first assignment of a class in which the students would later write essays on assigned subjects, using works of fiction and poetry as sources. The goal was to provide the students with some insight into what it takes to write fiction. (Poetry writing was addressed in another exercise). The greater goal was to engender a keener appreciation of fiction.
One set of exercises in the class concerned word use. We did some semantic warm-ups in class.
Exercise: Describe the difference between hounds and terriers, lemons and limes, and New York City (or the nearest big city) and your home town. After the students have taken 5-10 minutes on these comparisons, ask which one was easiest. With great confidence, I can predict they said the New York and your home town comparison was easiest, because there was the clearest distinction between the two entities. Things which are most alike are hardest to compare.
Exercise: Introduce Wordle (wordle.com), which analyzes a given passage for frequency of usage, portraying the most frequently used words in the largest type. Discuss the “so what” of this exercise in class — if one word is outsized, it is probably being used too much and the student should look for synonyms and substitutes.
Exercise: This exercise, called “99 Ways to Love a Child” is taken from here.
Start them out with “love,” and “nurture.” They will get through the obvious ones quickly, but the pace of the answers comes slower and slower and finally peters out. I go around the class so that each student is forced to contribute. Don’t rush. Let them think deeply. Here is the list of verbs presented at the above link.
Accept Admire Adore Advise Advocate Aid Allow Amaze Answer Applaud Appreciate Approve Ask Assist Assure Attend Believe Care Carry Celebrate Challenge Champion Charm Cheer Cherish Comfort Commit Compliment Confide Consider Console Defend Devote Discipline Discover Educate Empathize Empower Encourage Endorse Enlighten Excite Explain Guide Hear Hold Honor Hope Hug Imagine Influence Inspire Involve Join Kiss Know Laugh Learn Like Limit Listen Marvel Motivate Need Notice Nourish Nurture Observe Offer Participate Play Please Praise Protect Provide Recognize Regard Respect Respond Show Smile Speak Squeeze Stimulate Suggest Supervise Support Surprise Talk Teach Train Treasure Trust Understand Value Watch Wish Wonder.
This list doesn’t contain any words beginning with “f,” “q,” “x,” “y,” or “z.” See if the students can think of any verbs beginning with those letters.
Exercise: We acted out some of the scenes from the students’ stories. In one story, for example, a girl patted her date on the head. I asked a female student to pat the head of the young man sitting next to her, and asked the class to describe this action, and reaction. They all saw the pat on the head as patronizing and demeaning, and thus inappropriate for the story. In another story, two cops are working together when one of them, an Iraq War veteran, suffers a flashback when a heavy door closes loudly. In the story, the student had written that the veteran “was surprised and suffered a flashback,” and I opined that this was not a colorful enough description. Through two volunteer students, we worked through the drama of how both men would behave, and then described it. This exercise is great fun and also challenges their descriptive abilities and improved their essays.
The Web of Language, Dennis Baron’s excellent blog, reports:
“The Arizona State Senate is considering a proposal to fire teachers who swear. SB 1467 bans their use of any words that would violate FCC regulations against obscenity, indecency, and profanity on broadcast radio and television. A teacher would be suspended without pay after the first offence, fired after the third. Employers would also have the option of dismissing an instructor after the first curse.”
The fiction-writing exercise described in this series of posts was the first assignment of a class in which the students would later write essays on assigned subjects, using works of fiction and poetry as sources. The goal was to provide the students with some insight into what it takes to write fiction. (Poetry writing was addressed in another exercise). The greater goal was to engender a keener appreciation of fiction.
The next few posts will explore in depth a recent assignment in my freshman writing class. Previous to the level at which this exercise was introduced, students wrote simple essays. The format was:
STUDENT → ISSUE (a right and a wrong, good and bad)
In this more advanced class the format was:
STUDENT → LITERATURE → ISSUE
When viewing moral or weighty issues through literature, judgments become more nuanced. Choices gray when they involve “real” fictional characters rather than abstract theories. Before delving into the literature, I thought they should get a taste of what authors go through to produce a work of fiction.
There were several steps to this exercise, taking four classes to complete. The first step was to read Steven King’s classic, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Then we got to work on the stories themselves, using the following techniques.
1. The groups created three drafts of their story.
2. The premise was that every story needs a location, characters, and a conflict.
3. The students were divided into groups of three or four, and sent onto the campus to establish the location and the characters (limited to two), drawing on things and people that they saw.
4. Each group created a storyboard.
5. Students wrote a description, following a template.
6. The groups created a backstory for their characters.
7. We did semantics exercises.
8. We had several peer review opportunities, during which students read others’ papers and helped them clarify and hone their work.
9. We acted out some of the scenes in class.
The next post or two will report on the success of these steps, the pitfalls, and the unexpected benefits of each.