Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It Pays To Increase Your Word Power

At the fifth grade curriculum night last night, Matt met Laura's English/Language Arts teacher and heard about this vocabulary program they do--you probably have it in your school--where the kids learn Latin (and later Greek) word stems, prefixes, and suffixes, and build up a healthy reading vocab from that.

As a little illustration of her goals, the teacher gave Matt a list of 100 Classic Words that are said to let students "read comfortably" in classic lit. Go take a look and see what you think.

When I got home from my meeting and we sat down to swap info, Matt mentioned the list and said, "There were two words on the list that I wasn't quite sure about."

Reader, my interest was piqued. Positively piqued.

(Sidebar: Matt insisted, "Okay later when you blog this, you have to find a way to tell them that, when I said I didn't know two of the words, your eyes shone." It may be true. My intense interest in this vocabulary issue may have been communicated through my eyes. As they are the window to the soul. And my soul was on fire to know what words Matt didn't know, so I could see if I knew them, not out of a desire to one-up him, but because this is where I live, where we both live. When he brandished that list, it was like, oh let us commence to play.)

Then he handed me the list and my eyes immediately went to a little '?' he had drawn next to "verdure." This made me, I admit, begin to smile involuntarily, because I knew what verdure meant. I knew I knew! And Matt, seeing this involuntary twitching of my lips, was like, "Oh you are so happy right now!" And I was! Then he said, "Well, I suppose it means greenery," and I was like, yes. Go Latin!

Then he said the other word he wasn't sure of was "fain." We agreed that this is a tricky one, as it is truly, truly archaic. You will read it in old books, but you will never hear a living person say it. He said he had a sense of it though, and thought it meant reluctant. It means the opposite of that, "willing, glad, or eager," which I only knew from reading old stuff. The only example I could think to quote him was from one of John Donne's sonnets, where the narrator says (addressing God), "Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, but am betrothed unto your enemy." That was in the seventeenth century, and I think "fain" was on the way out then. I would look in the OED but that is so many buttons to press.

That is a really hot poem, now that I think of it.

Anyway, of the whole list, I thought "fain" was the least likely to be in the reading vocab of even an educated reader. What do you think?

Funny, when I looked at the list, I got tripped up by "tremulous." Which is way more familiar, right? I mean, I would have said that it meant "fearful," but when I come upon a word like that, it crowds into my mind with so many of its synonyms and cousins--timid, timorous, trembling, trepidatious--that I start to think I might not know exactly what it means, that I might have it confused with something else. It's a word I would avoid for that reason, I just don't feel totally confident of it.

Then we were just tucking in to a juicy discussion of "sublime" in all its different senses in aesthetics, philosophy, and critical theory, and then a phone rang and also the dog needed to be let out, and I forgot the no-doubt crucial point about Edmund Burke I was making. Just as well.

So I guess there is no great punchline to this story. I just know y'all like words, right? And this is a thing that happened in my house. Also, I am blogging every day.

Love,
me

27 comments:

Elizabeth said...

I wish I lived in your house. Would you mind if I moved in to talk about words and try to one-up you and Matt? I'm very quiet and clean and basically read a lot.

Jenni said...

I had to look up mien - A person's look or manner, indicating character or mood. But after I looked it up, I was like, "oh, right, MIEN!" Really great words on that list, though. Sagacity? Expostulate? I love it.

Michele said...

I must read too many historical romance novels because I understood this whole list and even use quite a few of them in my daily speech. Along with a lot of ya'lls and fixin'tas (how do you even spell those words?)

Elle said...

Introducing word roots gives them a key to open up a part of the world, of Western civilization. It is really exciting to watch them run around in all the rooms.

Marsha said...

Item the first: When I win the lottery (not to self: buy tickets) I am going to buy myself an OED. The whole dealio, not the little 3,000 page condensed one.

Item the second: My son is in 5th grade and I can guarantee you that there is no Latin- or Greek-based list in his future (at least not generated by the school). That is pure supplement territory up here in the wilds of southeast PA, and supplement we do.

Christian said...

"Alacrity" is just about my favorite word! Compared with what my friend's children study in CA schools, this is mighty impressive--I might be moving to GA for the schools. Who knew? I'm always tripped up when people use "classic" to refer to texts written in the past 100 years, but that's my own problem, really.

Bren said...

Wow. Gary's in 5th, but I doubt I'll see this list anywhere. But I just printed out the list so I could sneak a little into his smoothies.

Michele R said...

I have seen the Latin prefixes and suffixes word lists my kids have had to know--especially as part of science--but I have not seen this list. Do you think the teacher likes to share the list but that it is not part of the 5th grade curriculum? I love it and will print it.
Speaking of classics, I get all excited at the beginning of the year, each year for 4 years now, seeing the list of books the kids get to read....and then find out there is no time to read as part of class--the kids read them on their own--i.e. Great Expectations was the last two weeks of 9th grade...... And then the tests are bubble sheets consisting mostly of "match the quote to the character" and some short answers just to "test" if it was read or not. And this is the highest of 3 levels of LA...Sigh. Standardized Testing.

Camp Papa said...

I swear that I had looked up verdure before I read the rest of the post. (I notice the the autocorrect offers "nerdier" when you type verdure!). Also, I read right through fain while thinking "feign". I must be loosing it. Lastly, I've heard you use most of these words ordering breakfast at Cracker Barrel.

Holiday said...

I love the whole "words" topic at home. Years ago my hubby and I confessed to each other (after hearing a This American Life episode on it) that there were words we just were never sure of and had really messed up versions of stuck in our minds. His was "alacrity" which he was internally pronouncing "alaricity." Mine was "detrius" which I had as "detritus." Worst part is, we now use the "wrongs" as an inside joke - thereby making me even more confused!

Common Household Mom said...

Not long ago you used the word "vermilion" in a blog post. I had to look it up, as I thought it was some kind of insect life, but that was way wrong. So thanks for expanding my vocabulary!

The list is great, but the organization of the words bothers me. Is "undulate" really the 13th most common word? Now I must go reread Tom Sawyer to look for "undulate."

Becky said...

...and now I need to search my blog for "vermillion"! I'm not sure why the words are in the order they are, actually, hmm. And yes Michele R, the list is compiled by the same guy who wrote the curriculum they use. It's called Caesar's English, and there's a website for it:

http://www.rfwp.com/series/vocabulary-elementary-program-by-michael-clay-thompson

Sorry can't make a prettier link for you.

Holiday, we do the same thing! I mean, talking wrong to be funny. Sometimes I wonder what people would think if they heard us.

Cracker Barrel. LOL, Dad.

Bren, smoothies! I think a few words with a handful of kale would be very mild!

Michele Librarian, I think the y'alls and fixin' to word list is a supplement that we need to create. And on it we should put "might could," because I swear I was in grad school before I knew that wasn't standard American English.

Marsha, did you hear they're not printing the paper OED anymore? Kinda sad, isn't it? But that is a LOT of shelf space!

Becky said...

Also, Christian, alacrity! I know! Something about the way your tongue falls on that 'lac,' you know you mean double quickness.

Veronica said...

I did the same as Camp Papa, and read "feign" instead of "fain." And "fain" was the one I didn't know -- I guess that's kind of like how when I proofread my own stuff, I tend to read what I MEANT to write, rather than what I actually wrote. Here, I read a word I knew, instead of one I didn't know.

I love the list, and love that they're learning the roots and the words.

On misusing words, my mom and I used to write each other notes in which we would misuse their/they're/there and its/it's, and use as many unnecessary apostrophes as possible. I always tell my students they better learn to do those things right, or else I'll think they're just messing with me and I'll get offended. :)

Aimee said...

Historical romance novels for the win! I swear, they've all been used in Regency Romance, in books published within the last 15 years. Crazy.

It drives Jason crazy. I'll look at him like he's nuts for not knowing something - a word, a historical fact, whatever - and he'll respond, "How the hell do you know THAT?" Upon reflection, it's usually due to historical romance. Booyah! It's not just heaving corsets and steely grey eyes!

Becky said...

Aimee, do you like Georgette Heyer? I haven't read much but my sister really admires her. From what I've seen, it's good stuff. Plenty of heaving everything, but decorously!

Kate said...

Great list!! The study of roots and prefixes/suffixes is a great way to build vocabulary. It's what students who are in the last stage of spelling development should be doing, so kudos to your daughter's teacher. My daughter has never been given this list, or asked to study this way, so maybe I ought to do a little home schooling there. But just the thought of that EXHAUSTS me right now at the end of summer and after a day of listening to her bicker with her younger brother.

Amy said...

I was thinking on how in my life I was given such grief (or thought a snob) for using interesting words that I started to eliminate them from my spoken vocabulary - my intent was never to show off but to delight in the precision of Just The Right word, and it loses something when the delight ain't mutual.

I love the solidarity that comes from common ground. Like being total word nerds. I love you all!! xoxo

Amy said...

ps, "Alacrity" is excellent, agreed -- and gosh I love "prodigious."

Beth said...

There is so much beauty in language! I'm sure Laura is not at all hampered in learning vocabulary because of the way you write and speak. But for some of the other children in her class this may be a brand new experience...I hope they soak it all in.

I knew the word "fain" from a 19th century hymn called "Beneath the Cross of Jesus". The first stanza begins with the line "Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand, the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land.." I remember singing this in church as a small child and figuring out what "fain" meant from the context.

Amy said...

Great post, Beck! I didn't know fain either, but Aimee is right--most of these words are in Regency romances. I do enjoy Georgette Heyer, for not being true "literature" those books have taught me a lot!

One thing I wonder though; don't a few of those have slightly different meanings in old novels? Like, I've noticed "condescend" doesn't always have the negative connotation that it does now, in these old books it means someone being gracious to do or notice something below them. So I guess kids have to learn these words with their current and archaic meanings. Of course, verdure is still verdure. Like, duh. I use that like, 34 times a day. ;)

Becky said...

Great point, Ame. Condescend did used to mean someone above you in rank being kind to you, and it was totally positive. The shift in our meaning for that word overlaps a huge cultural change in how we feel about the very idea of someone being above another person.

The other one that comes to mind is "relaxing." A place that was relaxing sapped your strength and could make you sick, like enervating.

gretchen said...

Ugh. This is the kind of post that makes me sweat. Because I tend to think that I'm very smart, but really, I'm not as smart as I think I am. I am, however, a talented actress, and often pretend to know something that I don't. And while I am a bit of a weirdo when it comes to spelling, my grammar is not always correct - I lean toward the colloquial. I have to admit that I'm with Matt on both "verdure" and "fain". Furthermore, I fear that when I read "fain" I thought I knew what it meant, but I now realize that I meant "feign". I feel so stupid.

Elizabeth - Flourish in Progress said...

I like words. As long as they don't have more than 5 letters and they are repeated on MTV. That's where I get most of my education. I'm sure you're surprised by this. ;)

Christian said...

I did not know that about "relax," but I'm now thrilled to know it. "Peruse" used to mean its opposite, i.e., to read with great care and little alacrity.

Rebekah said...

I used to teach Stems too - I think the book was called Word Within a Word. I taught them to the 7th graders in my charges back in the day. Enjoy!

Aviva said...

I love this list!!

While the words are certainly not all in my daily usage, they were all familiar to me. (Must be that Regency romance connection since I'm a closeted fan of those too! Eek -- I think I just came out of the closet! ;-)

I will say, however, that I think it's harder to define words when they're in a list without any context.