Lesson Plans

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The Faces Behind the Adjectives

Lesson Question:

What does it mean to have an adjective created in your honor? What does that adjective imply?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students research adjectives that are derived from historical figures' names and consider how these adjectives have evolved to become associated with particular traits or situations. Students then transform their own names into adjectives and create Visual Thesaurus word maps and usage examples to explain and explicate their meaning.

Length of Lesson:

One hour

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • determine a word's part of speech based on contextual clues
  • define Darwinian, Dickensian, and Gandhian using the VT
  • research the connotations and common usages of Darwinian, Dickensian, and Gandhian
  • coin original adjectives based on their names and their unique qualities


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access or iPads


Identifying part of speech in context:

Display or distribute the three following sentences to students and ask them to identify the part of speech for the underlined words: Darwinian, Dickensian, and Gandhian.

I'm all for a Darwinian locker room; competition leads to better, more motivated players.
(Washington Post, Apr 24, 2012)

Mr. Guede was a Dickensian character, a poor immigrant from Ivory Coast adopted, then rejected, by one of Perugia's richest families.
(New York Times, Oct 7, 2011)

The very concept of arming oneself was odious to him — it violated his Gandhian principles.
(Newsweek, Jan 17, 2011)


Defining Darwinian, Dickensian, and Gandhian:

  • Look up Darwinian, Dickensian, and Gandhian in the Visual Thesaurus and establish that each of the three words is being used as an adjective in the previous sentences.

  • Ask students how these three adjectives are different from most adjectives they encounter (e.g., pretty, smart, short, etc.). Discuss, based on the definitions revealed on the VT, how each of these adjectives is derived from a person's name (i.e., the scientist Charles Darwin, the writer Charles Dickens, and the spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi).
  • Point out that these three historical figures must have contributed something special or unique to civilization in order to inspire having an adjective created in their honor.

Researching the people behind the adjectives:

  • Organize the class into small groups and assign each group one of the three men who inspired adjectives to research. Have groups start their research on the VT, by looking up the person's name and then right-clicking on that name in the word map and electing to "Search Internet" in the gray menu to find additional resources.
  • Based on their research, why is each person famous? What does the adjective form of their name imply? How is that adjective usually used? (For the last question, students should consider the example sentences used in the warm up and the usage examples on the Vocabulary.com dictionary pages for each of the words: Darwinian, Dickensian, and Gandhian.)
  • Ask volunteers from each of the groups to share what they learned about Darwin, Dickens, and Gandhi. When people use these historical figures' names as adjectives, what does it usually imply? (Establish that Darwinian usually describes a "survival of the fittest" situation, that Dickensian is usually associated with poverty or otherwise harsh conditions, and that Gandhian is usually associated with a non-violent approach to a situation.)


Forming Original Adjectives from Student Names:

  • Point out that adding the suffixes -ian or -esque (e.g., Lincolnesque, Rembrandtesque, Hemingwayesque, etc.) to a last name can transform a name into an adjective.
  • Ask students to turn their own names into adjectives by adding either the suffix
    -ian or -esque to the end of their last names. Then, have each student create a word map and definition to explain what the adjective means or implies. The definition should include the student's full name and include at least a few sentences using the adjective in context to exemplify how the word should be used.
  • Emphasize that the adjective that each student coins should focus on one of their most unique traits, not to their personality or behavior in general. For example, if Joe Smith has a unique walk, it might become known as "a Smithian swagger." Or if Katie Mullen is known for her wry sense of humor, a satirical skit could be called "a Mullenesque take on things."

Extending the Lesson:

  • A fun way to extend this lesson on adjectives derived from names would be to have students create original adjectives from the names of contemporary stars, authors, filmmakers, politicians, etc. and to use the original adjectives in different written contexts.

Educational Standards:

Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy:

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words or phrases based on grades 6-12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
    • Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
    • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
    • Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
    • Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.
    • Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).
  • Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.


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