Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Teaching the Power of Word Coinage

Kitty. Tron. Legit. All these words appeared in the 2011 edition of the yearbook I sponsor. Students used these as slang; all three were used to describe something cool. Aside from legit, which seems to have been around for a while, I'm not sure the other two stuck.

But the use of these words brings up a good point. Our students constantly make up words or attach new meaning to words. As the English language is constantly evolving, it is important we teachers not forget the creation of words and the creation of new meanings for existing words. After all, in 2011, the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary added such words as bromance, social media, parkour and tweet. All told, in 2011, the dictionary added over 150 words and definitions according to the press release on its website. This "adding to the dictionary" adds an authenticity or legitimacy to "new" words.

I teach my students that there are several ways to create new words or to give words new meaning. It's a unit they like, and as an added benefit, their vocabulary expands. First, they should learn that the process of creating new words is often referred to as coinage — and that new word creation has nothing to do with coins.

Next we'll focus on brainstorming using current words in new ways. This is often a lot of fun. I'll give them some background examples, such as rap meaning "to knock on something," but as of the early 1980s, rap became a popular style of music. After some brainstorming and sharing, you'll get a great discussion going. If you need some more examples to get going, nowadays cougars are older women who date younger men. Your students will all know the word viral, but they probably won't know that viral traditionally means relating to or being caused by a virus. So viral used to be a bad thing, until everyone started using the word in relation to videos on YouTube. In that context, viral means the clip has become huge. And speaking of the word bad, remember when being bad was actually good? Michael Jackson even sang a song about it, and even a few decades later, the kids will know it.

Another fun activity is to have students create new words by forming acronyms or initialisms, which are words formed by combining initial letters or parts of a series of words. Many times acronyms simply become norm — words such as NCAA, AIDS, NAACP and scuba have transcended what the letters represent. For fun, ask your students if they know what the letters in scuba represent. You can have your students find current acronyms in use at their school (like AP or IB) and in their lives (like SUV). Then have them create their own.

Your students probably won't know what a portmanteau word is, but they'll be able to define bromance and give you celebrity examples. To create a portmanteau word, a person simply blends the sounds and meanings of two different words. Kids do this all the time, and many portmanteau words look like they were made up by kids; for example, one just has to look at the words fantabulous (fantastic and fabulous) and ginormous (giant and enormous). The media loves this approach as well, coming up with such fun descriptors as Brangelina. So have your students look for portmanteau words in their reading and/or make up their own.

Words can also be created from imitating sounds. Sound words, a.k.a. onomatopoeia, can be simple things like buzz, but as writers strive to make the sound come alive, new words will be formed. Having students create promises to be interesting, if not a little bit loud. A side benefit is that they'll never miss another example of onomatopoeia when reading a poem again.

Additionally, as you teach reading, point out that writers often simply make up words when they need one. Science fiction and fantasy writers are notorious for doing this when they build worlds. From J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series we got words like Quidditch and animagus (another portmanteau word, this one from Latin). Have your students again make lists of words and definitions from the books they're reading, or just have them look around in their own lives. We now Google, which means to search, or Facebook, which means to communicate online through social media. I'm sure most have a smart phone or iPod, which isn't really a pod in any sense of the word and the only "I" is the user.

Kids want to express themselves, so take root words and have them add prefixes and suffixes in order to create new words. I'm particularly fond of adding -ish to waif when describing someone who is thin or slender. I use it as a synonym for willowy, transcending the word waif from meaning a homeless child. In my context of romance writing, it works. For you English purists out there it's quite okay if you wince and squirm when you have your students do this. The next step in the lesson is to have kids join full words together — for example, walk-off just went into the dictionary, and other 2011 additions included fist bump, crowdsourcing, and helicopter parent.

As they are creating, kids are going to come up with some ridiculous things. But that's okay. The key to new word creation, or in giving words new meaning, lies in the understandability. Context is key to a new word or definition working. After creating their own words, have them use them in sentences. Have them share them with other students. Through this exercise, students quickly realize that their readers must be able to understand the meaning of the new word, and that the only way for the reader to do this is by using clues from the surrounding text. Students begin to understand that reader must be able to figure out what the word means or the word is useless. It bears repeating, and you'll say it many times to your class — the reader must understand. Thus, many of the words created in your class are going to die quick deaths.

One more benefit of teaching word creation is that learners realize that they can't just assume they know the meaning of a word.  How many times have we teachers circled a word and put a "WW" next to it, telling a student he's used the wrong word? By teaching word creation, students realize the power of words and why their proper use is important. They learn they can't just use a word willy-nilly, and if they aren't certain of a meaning that they should go look it up. They discover also that there's a process to creating and using words. Even Merriam-Webster doesn't add everything out there each year.

So be sure to teach your students how words are formed. Let students play with them. It's a fun exercise, one different from traditional vocabulary worksheets and memorization. Besides, maybe they'll come up with some winners and tweet them out to the masses.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.