Collins has published a new dictionary which has several useful features. I believe it is still in beta form. It impressed the heck out of me.
1. Definitions, of course, and the phonetic representation of the word.
2. A comprehensive list of synonyms and of related terms and related words. For the word “beat,” for example, related terms include “beat it,” “beat up,” etc., and for nearby words there are “beat a retreat,” and “beat around the bush.”
3. Audio audio files which pronounce the word using standard American English and standard British English. Not all words have this feature.
4. Translations of the word into 24 different languages, from Finnish, to Korean, to Arabic. I noticed that Hungarian, Swahili, and Hindi were missing.
There are also English to Spanish/German/French versions, though these seemed very beta to me.
5. Usage examples: for “doggie” (or “doggy”) there is “A close friend describes their Kenmore Hills home, on Brisbane’s westside, as doggy heaven.” COURIER, SUNDAY MAIL (2004)”
6. In the case of doggies and many other nouns, there are photographs.
7. The origin of the word is also given, though not as comprehensively as in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Even more enticing — the dictionary is free online at :
Exercise: This will be a welcome addition to exercises on lexicography, such as comparative definitions, and comparative features.
It will also be of interest to students who are struggling with mastery of standard forms of English, since the audio files are very clear.
Quote from La Canada Valley Sun story about sexual and racial harassment of students by a teacher: ”Spurred by complaints that the La Cañada High math teacher regularly used racist and sexist language in her classroom, officials presented a modified draft of the district’s code of ethics during a public meeting Monday.”
Think about this a minute. What will the “code of ethics” say? Will they ban particular words, and if so, which ones? Which race, and which sex, was the teacher’s victim? What words would be used to harass a girl? a boy? Which words would be used to harrass a Jew, a Hispanic, an African-American, a Caucasian? Is it a matter of words, or a matter of contexts. If it is a matter of context, how can you ban a context? Perhaps the code of ethics might stipulate that teachers “should be respectful toward their students.” There are many respectful ways of using a word like “nigger,” or “spic,” or “beaner;” for example, one could quote someone else using these words, or quote the words as they appeared in a movie. Perhaps the teacher is harassing students by choosing certain materials to study in the class. Which materials should be banned? I am giving my students Huckleberry Finn to read, which has the word “nigger” in it, and a disparaging view of people with dark skin. Should I withdraw the assignment?
Exercise: Devise in class a “Code of Ethics” for teachers and students in a your school. What guidelines could you create which would guaranty respectful exchanges between student and teacher? Would you want to simply take the subjects of race and gender/sex off the table? Would you ban particular words? Wouldn’t these two actions sanitize the classroom of subjects which would be very important to our society?
Buzz words crop up in classwork all the time. Here are five to avoid, culled from Linkedin’s research. I’ve edited, and added my own comments:
As one might expect, they’re terms that sound awfully nice but say almost nothing specific about a person.
Dynamic is at No. 10.
At No. 9 is communication skills, and at No. 8 we have problem solving. Both of these guarantee nothing more than the person not being paralyzed by the prospect of a conversation or an empty stapler. Innovative is No. 7 and motivated is No. 6 — two more generic adjectives suggesting attributes that an employer would probably like to take for granted.
Track record is at No. 5. Note that it is not specified whether this track record is good or bad, though this person definitely has a track record of some kind. More important, a curriculum vitae is a track record in and of itself.
At No. 4, we have extensive experience. (Please see above paragraph.)
At No. 3 is effective, a promise that when you are being dynamic, you’re really making the most of it. And in second place, organizational — it’s like saying one is punctual or has neat handwriting.
And the No. one most overused professional buzzword is creative. This attribute, like many of the others, is one that is better shown than told. As LinkedIn’s connection director put it in a release, “Give concrete examples of results you’ve achieved whenever possible and reference attributes that are specific to you.” And please, never use the word synergy without your tongue firmly pressed into your cheek.
I haven’t done the kind of research Linkedin has done, but perhaps the second most common writing error in essays in my classes is lack of specificity (see creative above). Yesterday I asked a student, “What do you mean when you write ‘Living in America is so awesome?’” When she and her peer group stumbled over reasons, I said “If you can’t think of specific reasons why living in America, as opposed to living in, say, Australia or France, is awesome then you shouldn’t use that phrase.” (They came up with some pretty good ones once they put their minds to it.)
There is a naming website, nameberry.com, established by author Pam Satran, which gets tens of thousands of visits every year. Names are fascinating, and naming things is an important undertaking. I remember after September 11th, nobody knew what to call either the kind of attack or the day itself, and we still don’t have very handy names, other than 9/11 — it was a day and attack unto itself — let’s all hope so.
We have nicknames (mine were Annie, Annie Pie, and Anna Banana), change our names when we marry (sometimes), and some people have dynastic names, like The Dutchess of York, or are known by our professions (the lead singer of such-and-such band).
People use names to indicate their lineage, their preferences, and their feelings. My son changed his last name from his father’s to mine, saying, “You’re my real family, mom.” My daughter changed her given name to reflect her attachment to a certain religion, which has as method for determining peoples’ spiritual names. Chinese speakers usually find an English name, as the Chinese naming system is so different from the English system, with the family name coming first, and the name itself usually difficult to remember — the names of students in one of my classes are Xuntian, Xin, Yuxuan, Bohan, Nuo, and Yinan. By the time I had mastered their Chinese names, their English names had already been established.
Naming teams, businesses, books, and activist groups is also challenging.
We use names so constantly and casually that we often forget how important they are.
Exercise: Have your classes look deeper into their own names. Where does their given name come from? What are their nicknames, and who uses which one? The basketball team may have a different nickname than the family.
Exercise: Every time your class does an activity in a large-ish group, have the group devise a name. I promise you will be amused, and so will they. If appropriate, and if it doesn’t take away from the fun of the activity, ask if they feel differently now that they have a name. They may bond personally or identify more closely with the result of their actions/deliberations, or become more competitive.
We often think of dictionaries as definitive in their definitions, without questioning their authority, yet there are many different kinds of dictionaries, and students should be encouraged to use them with discretion and sophistication.
An example: Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 5th ed. (WNCD) aims its definitions at the “college student and general reader,” while The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (accessed online) (CEOEO) aims to present a far wider range of definitions, “Common, Literary, Colloquial, Scientific, Foreign, Dialectical, Slang, Technical.” They note “Main Words, Subordinate Words, Combinations, including the Identification, Morphology, Signification and Illustrative Quotations.” They include the word’s etymology in depth. WNCD takes its examples and definitions mainly from spoken customs, while CEOEO takes them from a literary database.
Exercise: Ask students to investigate the presentation of two words of their choice in two different dictionaries. They should read the front matter of both dictionaries as well as the definitions. They might comment on the fonts used. The rest of the exercise can be up to the students — what do they find the same or different in the presentations, and which do they like better.
Another Exercise: Ask students to do some research on the Web and find out how many different kinds of dictionary there are; for example, Web dictionaries with an audio module giving correct pronunciation, multilingual dictionaries (French to French, and English to French, etc.), sign language dictionaries, dictionaries for children, etymological dictionaries, thesauruses (what is the plural? I don’t know), slang dictionaries, regional dictionaries showing distinct usage in, say, Louisiana or Texas, and so on, and on, and on
For people studying other languages, there is a new site which translates idioms, www.idiomizer.com/idioms/. I find that reviewing the literal translations of idioms in other languages curls the mind.
I entered, “You can’t have it both ways” and got the following responses:
This is a new site and might have some bugs — it invites commentary from readers, so will undoubtedly develop over time. It could be very useful.
Noam Chomsky writes in Language and Thought, that “some of our worst contemporary muddles are due to the general neglect of language as an instrument of thought.” This holds true particularly in the area of moral and political thought.
What is a “person?” Mississippi is about to vote on whether a zygote is a person. By expanding the concept, all concepts of personhood become muddy. Mississippi would define “life” as two cells which produce an energy which causes them to divide and reproduce, which would apply to many bacteria, viruses, and single-celled organisms. This suggests a rather Buddhist-like reverence for all living things, without specifying them as human. The philosophical questions which arise from this definition are myriad; a large percentage of early pregnancies are washed out, would we have funerals? Can a zygote inherit an estate? My son was conceived in Munich; under the proposed Mississippi law, he would have begun his life there, so is he German? Should he be carrying a German passport? Sloppiness with language leads to sloppy law and sloppy practice, which is destabilizing.
What is “democracy?” Is the mere presence of voting, as in authoritarian states like Zimbabwe, Egypt, “democracy?” Dictators can claim to have encouraged democracy by allowing people to vote, when in fact they have cheapened it.
What is “marriage?” Our vocabulary has not caught up with contemporary developments. Opponents of gay marriage, for example, take a single expansion of the concept to its extremes, asking if by sanctioning gay marriage, we are also sanctioning polygamy, and romantic ties with animals. The two members of a gay marriage are puzzling over what to call each other. ”Husband and husband, or wife and wife?” This rebounds to the original definition of “husband” and “wife.” Some have chosen “spouse” which leaves the interlocutor in the dark about the nature of the marital tie. Maybe that is the point. We haven’t even clearly defined homosexuality. Is it a single act? A long-term relationship? An unhealthy fantasy life — the celibate Catholic priest who was a hero on September 11th defined himself as homosexual, though he had respected his vow of celibacy.
We need to get back to basics on some of our most dearly held principles. This involves re-defining certain social and political forces, philosophies, and institutions, perhaps separating them into smaller entities. By failing to do this, we are causing confusion, which Chomsky suggests leads to “muddles.”
Exercise: Ask students to take these and other fundamental social and political concepts and try to come up with a new, more accurate definition.
We still are not sure how to refer to that awful day — is it “nine eleven” or “September 11th?” As a society, we’re still vacillating.
In 2001, 9-11 (or equivalents) was the Word of the Year, according to the American Dialect Society. In 2002, it was Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). What do you think it was for 2003? Metrosexual. What a change. Soon after that came words like Facebook, truthiness, and Google. The significance of the Words of the Year (see http://www.americandialect.org/) as commentary on our society is worthy of a classroom discussion.
But back to 9-11. Here is a list of related words that have entered our vocabulary:
Al-Qaeda, burka, Taliban, weaponize, Ground Zero, terrorist, Jihad, Department of Homeland Security, Osama (bin Laden), first responders, embedded journalist, Islamist.
Some of these words existed before, such as terrorist, but took on a new meaning after the attacks. Some, like Osama, refer not only to a particular individual, but can be generalized to mean any evil person. Some words were created to describe situations that never existed before, like embedded journalist. Journalists have traveled with soldiers before, but not in this particular way.
Exercise: This list is certainly not complete. What other words can your students contribute to this list? Are your students creating new words? Are they slang words (that is, words to obfuscate meaning so their parents won’t understand), or are they words which describe truly new phenomena, such as twitter?
I am teaching an ESL classes at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey this term, and am having great fun introducing American English to speakers of other languages; in this case, mostly Chinese and Malay, with two Arabic speakers and one Portuguese speaker. Our next class will be on the phonetics of American English, and it seems to me that this is something native American speakers should be familiar with too.
Americans brought many forms of English with them, and learned English in many different ways when they got here, so it is hard to make too many generalizations; however, there is a generally accepted Standard American English.
The standard for American pronunciation has changed from a style which comes from the south of England, to a style which today is heavily influenced by waves of immigrants – Italians, Jews whose native tongue was Yiddish, and now Spanish, among others. American English has also been influenced by the African languages spoken by the tens of thousands of Africans from various tribes who were brought here as slaves. Even today, there is sometimes difficulty understanding people who speak what is known as African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. A case could be made that the social standing and power rank of people of color depends more on the language they speak than on the color of their skin. With hip-hop and rap, some aspects of this language have become standard, and show up in the everyday speech of young Americans of all colors and backgrounds.
In some parts of the U.S., communities which were historically isolated retain language habits from several centuries ago, making them hard to understand. Some examples are the dialect spoken deep in the Appalachian Mountains, and Gulla, spoken in coastal parts of Georgia. Television, radio, and increased mobility for purposes of work and education has gradually begun to conform these accents and dialects to Standard American English. You might wonder aloud in your class whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
For the most part, and to a greater degree than on the British Isles themselves, Americans can understand each other, and always have been able to.
For English learners, the distinctive sounds of Standard American English which they must learn to reproduce are the “flat a,” represented as [æ] as in flat, laugh, ask, the soft r [ɻ] of rat, harm, really, and diphthongs, diphthongs, diphthongs. For example, the common word “hi” is pronounced languidly, going from a breathy h to a long ahhhhh to a tiny ee.
Exercises: Give the class some tongue twisters.
For th: The thirty-three thieves thought that they thrilled the throne throughout Thursday.
For r: Pirates Private Property
Fresh French fried fly fritters
For ei and ai: Six slimy snails sailed silently
Seven slick slimey snakes slowly sliding southward.
For r and l: On a lazy laser raiser lies a laser ray eraser.
Can you figure this one out?
11 was a racehorse, 22 was 12, 1111 race, 22112. (Answer: Wunwun was a racehorse, Tutu was one too, Wunwun won one race, Tutu won one too.)
In his book, The Geography of Bliss, author Eric Weiner claims that there are more words in English for states of unhappiness than for states of happiness. I’m not sure this is true, but it would be an interesting claim to test.
Exercise: In connection with writing a short in-class essay, have students gather in small groups and list the words for each state, and then share their findings. They can use nouns and adjectives. Is Weiner right?
If this is true, so what? Do linguistic phenomena indicate something about the human condition? After writing a reflective in-class paragraph based on the class’s findings, have them share their opinions.