I have learned to love words. When I was growing up, my parents always had a few copies of the Reader’s Digest stacked on an end table. They were conveniently stacked right next to the only heating vent, so they served as ready entertainment when we came in from the cold to warm up. (Well, the other place they were found was in the bathroom, but again, they had a captive audience). I would read “Humor in Uniform” and “Life in These United States”, but then I would always turn to the “Build your Vocabulary” games. While, in the long run, these games certainly helped my SAT scores, I was always pleased to learn a word for which I already had a concept, like “adroit”, or “finicky” or “ostentatious”. Words became packages where I could wrap larger ideas. A word is, after all, just a name for a conceptual construct.
Occasionally we borrow words from other cultures, as our language does not readily have the words to hold certain breadths of meaning, like “détente”, or “bravo” or “Namaste”. In English, these concepts take a whole sentence to say. So when a child learns a word, she/he is given a convenient package to hold a greater idea.
Many times the concept associated with the word is new, but immediately useful, like “latitude” or “utopia” or “authentic”. Sometimes the idea is already there, like “consequences” or “perspective” or “equity” and the word names it. (Kids seem born understanding equity…“That’s not fair!” They learn the concept of consequences.)
Words also have subtly and precision. Just as the meaning of a word has importance, so does the accurate and timely use of the word. I once, regretfully, described someone I loved as a bigot, simply because he had shown a prejudice…..biased, intolerant, prejudiced, bigoted each have their own meaning and it is wise that they not be confused.
As a teacher, I would frequently correct an essay where a student freely used a general term, such as “He was a jerk” (or more likely “an a**hole). I would have to exclaim in the margins that there are many breeds of jerk in this world and he must be more precise. Was he greedy? Cold-hearted? A bully/predator? A scoundrel?
When we work with our children to “go over” vocabulary words, it is very important to talk about those words: how they are most commonly used; when they might have power; how they might appear in several forms. Yet most importantly, how they may relate to something the student already may know or how they might join two heretofore unrelated concepts. Then the student will own that word. The word will become symbolic for a cluster of understandings. Hence “symbiosis” connects to a larger meaning, as might “interdependence”, “sacrifice”, or “altruism“.
In these days when words fly about in texts, blogs, twitters, and emails, (sometimes we even have conversations) it is important that we choose our words.. I believe that there is a line attributed to Chuang Tzu:
“The purpose of a fishtrap
Is to catch fish,
And when the fish are caught
The trap is forgotten.
The purpose of words
is to convey ideas.
When the ideas are grasped
The words are forgotten.
Where can I find a man
Who has forgotten words?
I would like to have a word with him.”