A column for scrappy students
High School Linguaphile
When we ran a post called "Short Words Are Best" a few weeks ago, subscribers jammed our Inbox with comments. One in particular caught our attention:
"Sure, short words are more readable, but what about the joy that comes from solving the innermost puzzle of a long word? For a linguaphile like me, the purest ecstasy arises from finding the Latin or Greek roots in a word, putting them together, and discovering the story of a word. For example, the word "peninsula" comes from "paeane" and "insula," which mean "almost" and "island," respectively. So the word peninsula literally means "almost island." Sure, it's a long word, and some students may not like to read it, but the pleasure of the shape of the word and the story of its creation makes reading it worth the while."
We appreciated this spirited defense of long words, plus we noticed the word "students" in the comment. So we emailed this person, a teacher obviously, to find out more about how she teaches language. Well, maybe not so obvious. Here was the reply:
"You just made my day! I'm no English teacher -- I'm a high school freshman!"
Repeat: High school freshman. A ninth grader named Katie Raynolds, a ninth grader passionate about language. This kid's Visual Thesaurus material. So we called up her mom and asked to interview Katie about why she loves words -- and what advice she could give other students.
VT: How did you get interested in words?
Katie: By 6th grade I realized I liked words a lot. I got interested in the roots of names, and learned where all my friends' names came from. My grandmother has also been a big influence. She's very interested in words, too, so when she speaks to me she usually introduces a new word into our conversation then defines and spells it for me on the spot. This has become second nature for her. As a result, I became interested in spelling and words and even began collecting dictionaries.
VT: Really? How many do you own?
Katie: I have two drawers-full of English-language and other kinds of dictionaries and guidebooks. I think I have around 20 of them. I really like Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, which was the first collective dictionary, a really old one. I like it because it has a lot of cool words that are now obsolete, but have interesting roots.
VT: How did you get so good with words?
Katie: I give a lot of credit to Latin, which I took in 7th and 8th grades. I think it's true what people say, that learning Latin is a gateway to language. When I see a word I don't know, I can often figure out what it means by looking at its Latin root.
VT: What advice can you give to students who want to expand their vocabulary?
Katie: I recommend Word of the Day subscriptions, where you get a word emailed to your account every day. I'm signed up on Wordsmith but I know Visual Thesaurus has Word of the Day too. I have a friend who wasn't really interested in words but as a joke he started checking out the Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day and comparing it with my Wordsmith one. Now he's really gotten into words. He finds it so interesting. Seeing these words every day introduces you to ones you might not come across on your own, which is definitely true for some of the ones I've seen.
VT: What about reading? What do you tell fellow students who say they hate to read?
Katie: I know a lot kids who don't read. I tell them to try reading different genres, not just the stuff assigned in class. If they've never read mystery they might discover they really like it. There are so many kinds of books out there. If you say you hate reading you probably haven't tried to find something you like. I think that anyone can find a book they enjoy. It's just a matter of looking for it.
VT: What do you enjoy reading?
Katie: My favorite writer is Ray Bradbury. His skill with metaphors and allusions never ceases to amaze me. He wrote Fahrenheit 451 but mostly he specializes in short stories. I think his best anthology is The Illustrated Man. I'm also love Jane Austen. I discovered her recently and I love Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. And of course, I'm really into the Harry Potter books, like everyone else. I love that the names of JK Rowling's characters mean something in particular. Everything she names in her book has a Latin root or a story behind it. It's really interesting.
VT: Can you give us an example?
Katie: There's a charm in the book called the "patronas charm." Patronas comes from the root "pater," which in Latin means "father." In the story, when Harry does the patronas charm he thinks he sees his father. The patronas charm is very closely related with his relationship to his dead father.
A big reason why I love words is the story behind each word. I know that not everybody finds it as interesting as I do, but I think most anyone can see what's cool about words. Even the story behind their own name. If people look into what their name means, they'll find it fascinating.