Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

What's in a Name? Students Reveal Their Words

In a corridor at work, leading to nothing more glamorous than a classroom and a staff toilet, there are framed pictures on the wall.  In these pictures a number of well-known British personalities are embracing English words that they particularly like.  For example, actor and writer Stephen Fry has a particular passion for the word quince which, he claims, sounds spicy as well as old-fashioned.  (As an aside, I note that a number of writers of my personal acquaintance like quince, though usually the fruit rather than the word.)  Then there is the Northern Irish poet, Sinéad Morrissey, who has incandescent next to her photograph though, she says, she doesn't really have a favorite word in the language as "all words can find their place, with skill."  She chose this one, though, because it 'lit up' a particular poem when she used it.

Then there is that edgy artist, Tracey Emin, who chooses the word docket ("before you get a ticket" she explains) and points out that her cat is called Docket, and that she loves her cat, so we're not sure if she loves the word because it is the name of her cat or whether the cat got its name because she loves the word docket.  As usual, Emin is challenging us.  Then, to be different, there is the British inventor, James Dyson, who has chosen the word Engineering.  What is different is that he has chosen the word more because of what it represents rather than what it sounds like.  Artists and scientists, eh?  Who'd have thought it?

This display got me thinking about this division of words that people lay claim to, between what it sounds like and what it means.  I have often told my students to work on new words that they like, because they are more likely to remember them and, more importantly, be able to use them correctly if they actually enjoy the word itself and adopt it as their own.  Some students pick on words that seem eminently useful to them — perhaps because of the work they do, a situation that seems plausible to them or of association with the translated word into their own language — while others go for words that are fun to see on the paper, or hear out aloud and which have sonorities that appeal.  Like quince, perhaps, or otter, or feather, or flawless.  The trouble with these words is that they might not be particularly useful in a conversation over coffee, or when buying a train ticket, or in a job interview.  But then you never really know, do you? 

On the other hand, what both kinds of examples do give to the learner of English is a little lift in the personalization of the language: I never tire of saying that developing a sense of ownership of language helps students to better acquire the language.  Identifying favorite words assists enormously in this task and gives legitimacy to the student's growing relationship with the language they are learning.

It was a short step from looking at the pictures on the wall to asking my colleagues for a little bit of help in discovering the favorite words of their students.  What I wanted to know was their favorite word in English, and their favorite word in Portuguese — the latter as a kind of control in the experiment.  I also thought it would be useful to know their ages, but I didn't require any other information though, in retrospect, knowing their gender might have presented another interesting angle too.  In the largest grouping, the youngest students were 11 and the oldest were early twenties, but the majority hovered around the 16 years old — sweet sixteen, perhaps, and sweet was quite a popular word amongst this age group. 

A quick, initial trawl through the piles of four hundred words showed clearly that round about the age of 14 there was a marked shift in the apparent way that words were chosen: from its meaning to its sound.  Many 11- to 13-year-olds came up with football, friend, love, kiss and correspondingly amizade, amigos, amor and abraço (friendship, friends, love, hug) in Portuguese.  By the time we got to the 16 year olds, it was clear that many more words appeared to be chosen because of their sound rather than their meaning (though we can never entirely disentangle the two).  Lollipop, bubble and gorgeous were very popular, as were the fruits strawberry and pineapple (both singular), and also marshmallow and mushrooms.  These same respondents also had food on their minds when it came to Portuguese, with francesinha being extraordinarily popular (a remarkable invention this: a toasted sandwich filled with sausages, ham and steak, a fried egg on top and cheese melted over everything and served in a hot, spicy sauce). Portuguese fruit also crept healthily in, with pêssego (peach), abacaxi (pineapple) and marmelada (quince jelly).  There's that quince again, even though this is the origin of the English word marmalade.

Older students demonstrated a clear preference for the sounds of words in both languages, and demonstrated a remarkable grasp of low frequency lexis in English, and multi-syllable words in Portuguese.  Amongst the English words for the 16+ age group were rancid, twelve, unbiased, cranky, otter and (wonderfully) turpitude and gregarious, while the same group produced  estrambólico (extravagant), gargalhada (loud, sudden laughter), ornitorrinco (platypus) and otorrinolaringologista (ear, throat and nose medical specialist) — which, amazingly, was the only word to be chosen in each of the age categories 14-16, 17-19 and 20- 25.

So it was clear that choice of favorite word in both languages went about a fundamental change throughout early teens, and the functional, literal meaning of good, basic words that clearly had significance for the younger students gradually transformed into words that are more recognizable for their musical and rhythmic qualities, where meaning is perhaps less important than the metaphysical existence of the word, or at least in implied, sound-generated metaphor.

In an earlier article I discussed a question posed by a poet. "Why," he had asked " if poetry is the glorious summit of linguistic achievement in any language, does it work so well in a language learning environment? Surely this is a contradiction?"  At the time I had ventured an answer along the lines that poetry frequently extends beyond the actual words it uses and that sound and rhythm play a part in connecting with the listener and the reader.  Teachers of English as a foreign language notice that certain kinds of poetry appeal to different age groups of children, and that this more or less corresponds to the kind of poetry they appreciate in their own language.  Younger children work well with poems that are centered in things they know, using words and real-life images they have experienced or can imagine.  In EFL we have used the work of poets like Michael Rosen, Levi Tafari and Tony Mitton to great effect in this respect.  Older teenagers seem naturally to veer towards imagery, metaphor and soundscapes and so this discovery of the choice of individual words came as no great surprise.  Indeed it reinforced what we had suspected.

The sample group of much older students — those over 30 and 40 — was too small to do much with but was big enough to hint at something else going on.  Do older learners revert to simple words with literal meanings and no-nonsense sentiments?  I might be tempted to run another survey to find out.  Meanwhile, I applaud the zeal with which so many young learners of English embraced words as their own.  And the most popular word? Peace, perhaps inevitably, followed closely by lollipop and mushroom.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 14th 2011, 2:34 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Nice article! Mid-teens do love big, sonorous words. And yes, I can confirm that most people over 40 tend to prefer plain language and mono-or bisyllabic words.

About poetry, this may be an old poem but it definitely appeals to people of all ages:

Is this where "hip hop" came from? Seems very likely.
Incidentally, Miranda was probably not a girl. Some people think it was the name of Belloc's donkey (unlikely), others think it was Captain Miranda, a fellow officer of Belloc's when he was in the army.
Tuesday June 14th 2011, 7:18 AM
Comment by: Karla C. (Philippines)
I don't think Mid-teens love big and "sonorous" words. I'm a teenager and I speak in a plain language. Maybe it depends on the person and where he/she lives.

Anyway, nice article!
Tuesday June 14th 2011, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Katharine A. (Washington, CT)
Four- and five-year-olds love long words, precarious, abominable, and so forth, and delight in using them.

I think that children become attuned to the beauty of words when they're very small and don't realize that this has happened until years and years later.
Tuesday June 14th 2011, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Fascinating article and research--the very kind I would be inclined to do if I taught English as a second language. And, done in Portugal where one of the most beautiful languages in the world is spoken. Love that rhythm and those vowel sounds!

Interesting that "gorgeous" was in the running. Two Francophiles from Montreal confided in me that this was their favorite English word; that there was no suitable equivalent in French, which hadn't really occurred to me. They loved both the sound and the specific-ness of the meaning.

As a native English speaker who dabbles in languages, my favorite English word is "susurrus"--whispering, murmuring, or rustling. Lovely sound and meaning...
Saturday June 18th 2011, 7:20 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
Great article.

Wasn't expecting to see an American spelling, though: "favorite", "centered"
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 3:56 PM
Comment by: Stella J.
I have always maintained that the English language was created as a very successful prank on humanity.

My favourite word is what I use to prove it - hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia :)
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 6:58 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I am inclined to agree with you, Stella, though quite who was the instigator might lead to some colourful debate. But be honest, how often do you slip hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia into your everyday speech?

I'm now inclined to do a bit of work on an article about least favourite words and see where the research on that one might lead us.

And in those three sentences above,Javier, I think I've proved that I spell some words one way but our esteemed American editor has other ideas!
Sunday July 10th 2011, 4:42 PM
Comment by: OldFox (Smoky Mountains, TN)
I comment that it is incorrect and reprehensible for your editor to demand American spelling from a native British writer. She or he is taking correct spelling and turning it into misspelling (and I don't mean Tori [Spelling]).

When American news outlets refer to the Labour Party as the "Labor Party" they are totally out of order. One does not change the spelling of (or translate, for that's what it is) a proper name. Not in English. We don't translate the Lebanese town of Tyre into "tire" and we shouldn't. We can't correctly change the spelling to "Technicolour" or "Defence Department" or the "Aluminium Corporation of America" or the "Tottenham Court Soccer Team." Do we allow Larry David's HBO series to be renamed "Kerb Your Enthusiasm?" They do it all the time, but it is wrong. Points should be taken off.

Do you allow your esteemed editor to make you say "student" instead of "pupil?" It's a different word with a different meaning. Will she make you change "tailback" to "traffic jam" or "layby" to "rest area," "way out" to "exit," "whisky to "Scotch," "street" to "road," "pavement" to "sidewalk," "subject" to "citizen," or "scheme" to "plan?" That's not ESL, it's English as a THIRD language!

How far will she go? If she goes part way, she has insulted the language. Both languages. She's not going to go to "Elizabeth Haberdasher," "Margaret Roofer," "Edward OneThousandthofaMusicalorNativeAmericanGroup," "Magistrate Reinholt," or "Boomerang Minogue" is she?

I love it when "upscale" land developers name their mall "centre" full of "shoppes" at the "Pointe." What idiots! Where's the loo, the kerb, and the blower? What, no lifts?

Sunday July 10th 2011, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Greetings from the editor of the online magazine. Just like any other editorial outlet, whether print or online, we try to maintain a consistent style. And since we're based in the U.S., we follow U.S. conventions for spelling and punctuation. Of course, we welcome contributions from around the English-speaking world, but the copy is edited for consistency's sake. As an American writer, I'd expect quite the same treatment if I contributed to The (London) Times, The (Toronto) Globe and Mail, or The Sydney Morning Herald.
Tuesday July 12th 2011, 6:17 AM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I've with Ben on this one. House style is important and having a hotch-potch of conventions all together under one banner can be messy at best and confusing at worst. I'm involved in another multi-national magazine at present and we receive contributions from all corners, but we insist that British conventions of spelling and punctuation are used, whatever the source.
Wednesday July 13th 2011, 5:39 PM
Comment by: OldFox (Smoky Mountains, TN)
You are begging the question by referring to "conventions" without specifying the conventions that you defend or rely on.

Of my several examples, which do you reject? Do you claim that changing the spelling of a proper noun is a proper convention, in either language? Do you assert a distinction between a family name of a person and the name of a corporation, agency, or place? The hispanicals in Miami conventionally call it "Nuevo York" but then "South Beach." How do you use an index or a dictionary like that?

Victor Borge talked about Giuseppe Verdi, "Joe Green to you." The joke is that we don't, and it is improper, to change the spelling or to translate a proper name. There is no "Labor Party" in the UK. It's not in the phone book, the dictionary, or the library subject headings there. No "Ministry of Defense." No "checks" in the "till." So what conventions are you talking about?

The NY Times and Washington Post Style Manuals specify "catalogue," but not "cataloguer, cataloguing" but that is British, Canadian, Aussie or non-American spelling. It's their convention but it's wrong. The US spelling is determined by the chief cataloger Library of Congress and the dictionaries, isn't it? Can the teacher take off points for spelling when one uses the second entry in the dictionary?

At least one other convention in our language is completely and utterly wrong. A consensus CAN be wrong, you know. People have simply agreed to be wrong. Consider the practice of dropping the initial capital from eponyms. This deplorable convention deprives learners of the history lesson contained in every eponym. It obscures, dismisses, and denies the significance of the person, place, or origin of the word. Such words should ALWAYS be capitalized: Draconian, Diesel, Pasteurized, Sandwich, Frankfurter, Boycott, Shanghaied, French fries, Luger, Cesarean, Bobbies, Bowie knife, Alzheimer's, Mercury, Plutonium, Uranium, and etc.

Would any schoolteacher with integrity dare to take points off for spelling when the pupil captilalizes such eponyms? Would you?
Sunday July 31st 2011, 8:23 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
The article to follow was not fun for me - and finally I completed it.
So, what to comment?
New word origin, the interface could be anything.
Tuesday December 27th 2011, 6:31 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Interesting point about the capitalization of eponyms. It might interest anyone reading this to know that the word "saxophone" is an eponym, as well as "quisling", "alfredo sauce", and the "teddy bear". Since these words have been totally adopted into English, would we capitalize them as well? Consider: She plays the Saxophone. He wants a Teddy Bear. She called him a Quisling. Should we capitalize ALL eponyms, or merely some?

For the most part, I believe that capitalization is somewhat like a works cited kind of thing. We're giving credit where credit is due. What Mr. Fitch O. is saying-I think- is that people are deriving credit from the origin of the eponym and turning it into just another word such as sink or rug, and that it loses its flavor. A valid point. But I bring up the argument I previously stated-should we capitalize ALL eponyms, or only a few? It would make sentences considerably more awkward, and turn grammar on its head. Many words are eponyms and we don't know it-which is, obviously, kind of the point here. Our sentences would look strange.
No matter what we say here, the ignorant masses will probably not capitalize eponyms because we have practiced lowercase letters at the beginning of these words for an incredibly long time, and this tradition is fixed into our brains.
Should we deny the little gray cells and our grammar school education and argue the eponym's right to be capitalized? Or should we just "go with the flow" and say nothing at all?
Tuesday December 27th 2011, 6:33 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
I have an apology to make. OldFox, I called you Fitch O. I apologize sincerely. I am really not with it today.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.