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.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 19th 2006, 11:08 AM
Comment by: Stephen M. (MA)
Hail the young scholar! A welcome amber light in the window of the cabin on a chill winter's night. When so many her age are hacking the language in text messages and in blogs, she reaches back to embrace the unabatated word. In a small way I feel that the future is not as bleak as I had felt so shortly before.
Wednesday July 19th 2006, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Michael L.
The youth of today get mega-loads of bad rap for being me/I self involved and selfishly out of it. It is encouraging to see teens, such as Katie Raynolds, getting some ink. She is fortunate to have discovered early on that words have histories and that words are the tools we use for thinking.
I went to a Catholic high school and was forced to study Latin for two years with Brother Patrick, AKA "Little Caesar". Most of us groused at the time that it was a waste of time studying a "dead language". How wrong I was! Years later I joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Colombia, SA as a rural community development worker. Communication in a second language was the main tool we used in our work and Spanish took up a lot of our training. Knowing Latin -- this "dead language" -- certainly gave me a leg up over others in picking up this new language.
Kudos to Katie. Perhaps one day I will be reading the Book Review section of the New York Times and there will be a review of a book by Katie Raynolds. For sure, I will buy it with happy anticipation.
Wednesday July 19th 2006, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Phillip D. (Brevard, NC)
I'm not sure what Katie's future plans include, but we could have a "namer" in the making. A whole sub-specialty has emerged in marketing that deals exclusively with the creation of brand names and naming architecture. It requires a thorough understanding and appreciation for the subtleties inherent in language. This includes not only the literal and subjective meanings of words, but also their rhythm, flow, cadence and eventual context. It's encouraging to find young people who possess such a degree of curiosity and fascination about the art of language.
Wednesday July 19th 2006, 2:20 PM
Comment by: Roger B.
I am Katie Raynolds' grandfather. I should say, proud grandfather. But my comment has nothing to do with her or me, except incidentally. It really bugs me that so many people misuse personal pronouns. They use "that" instead of "who" when referring to a person, and "who" has fallen into disuse. The trouble is that "that" is understood by the listener. It does not sound wrong these days to most people. I suppose it is irreversible, like the lie-lay or the like-as or the he/him errors.

English is such a rich language but ordinary people squeeze out the subtleties and fine distinctions.

Another misuse of language that bugs me is the way sports announcers use the future tense to describe something that has already happened or is happening. The present and past tenses just never get used, and I hear young people repeating these errors. Yet those very same announcers make many fine distinctions when discussing how the players have performed. I do not understand it.

Roger Bachman
Thursday July 20th 2006, 9:10 AM
Comment by: Marije M.
Dear Katie (or whoever else typed "paean"),

I am sure that, as you are a linguaphile, you will take what follows as food, rather than criticism. The Latin word "peninsula" in fact derives not from "paean" and "insula", but from "paene" and "insula". And "paene" does indeed mean "almost". "Paean", instead, is the name of a Greek healer god, originally, and somehow it later acquired the meaning "hymn", or "song of joy". It is kind of nice, though, to use your etymology and imagine a "paeaninsula", as an island on which everyone is constantly singing songs of joy.
Thursday July 20th 2006, 10:21 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Blame the editor! I interviewed Katie by phone and typed "paean" in wrong. Ah, what I'd give to have studied Latin in school! I made the fix. Thanks for catching it -- and thanks for your nice comment... Harris/ VT executive producer
Thursday July 20th 2006, 5:56 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the support, you guys!!! True, I feel a little ridiculous commenting on the article, but I am so overwhelmed by the support from the Visual Thesaurus community - I felt I had to give thanks!

Read on!

Katie Raynolds
Tuesday July 25th 2006, 3:03 AM
Comment by: Michael Z.
Well Katie, your story made my day! And I want to tell you that you are rare, but not alone. You are going to LOVE college, and that is where you will meet more of your kind. Maybe you'll meet my daughter, also a freshman, also passionate. When she was eight she gave away her dolls and cleared her room to create a chemistry lab. She taped the periodic table to her ceiling and memorized it. I didn't know this was going on until one night I caught her reading my college organic chemistry text book. We began studying every night and she became quite the chemist (she even caught a mistake I made in a molar equation). I don't know where the passion you and my daughter have comes from, but it drives the human race forward. You are a miracle.

Michael Zumpano
Sunday July 30th 2006, 1:42 AM
Comment by: Paul C.
Long or Short words, how well the words stimulates the reader is what matters most in my opinion. As long as the words used does not create a distraction or does not derail the reader off the track of understanding visually, the mission of the writer is accomplished.

If the reader does not share the same inspiration or passion of words as the writer, using outlandish words probably used more academically than the day to day common usage, might slow down his or her reading speed to abrupt hault.

I am learning that its all about guiding the reader visually through the blessings of words to the degree that the reader forgets he or she is reading words and gets caught up in the story or message. Does this make sense?
Thursday August 10th 2006, 9:06 PM
Comment by: Brian F.
Thanks Katie. I also love the history behind words. My favorite class in high school was a college prep class in which we studied root words. The biggest barrier to learning is misunderstood words and this is what your friends that dont like reading are suffering from. they have gone past too many words they did not understand. Words convey concepts and if they are not fully understood, the concept is never grasped. The mind goes blank after a misunderstood word so you better find the misunderstood word and look it up! Keep up the good work Katie and keep using those dictionarys!
Sunday August 13th 2006, 2:42 AM
Comment by: Meliha G.
I celebrate the young lady's achievement in finding a passion in her life already .
Friday September 1st 2006, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Glenn R.

I applaud you for taking an interest in the history of words and wish you much success in your endeavor. I work and live overseas in Germany, and I now find languages so interesting. Languages blend like mixing paint colors. As one travels to border regions, the local dialects are abundant with words formed from the roots of the words used in the languages of the neighboring countries!
Monday September 11th 2006, 11:28 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Hey, Katie! Maybe the "Wunderkind" title got me going, but your explanation of "peninsula" made me think of the German word for the landform: "Halbinsel" which literally means 'half-island.' German's littered with loan-translations like this, and might be a good complement to your Latin background, either as your foreign language choice or as a hobby. Open any menu in a German-speaking country, and you'll find "Schweinefleisch"--'swine flesh' i.e. pork--or when the weather turns cold, put on a pair of "Handschuhe"--'hand shoes' i.e. gloves! German helps us English speakers appreciate how much our language is, in actuality, a cross of Germanic and Romance languages. Also, check out the study of philology--the development of languages over time--if these things interest you!
Monday October 30th 2006, 5:19 AM
Comment by: Angela Geok Kee L.
I couldn't agree with you more Katie, on the power of words. I am a public speaker and since I became one, I realise that the adage 'Actions speak louder than words'is not so much noticed as in my opinion, 'Words can make people do the actions that you want'. A simple matter like inviting someone to come to your Club meeting is just simply a matter of using the right words, the right way, in the right sentence. It can be just short and sweet like maybe ' It would be a pleasure to have you at our meeting next Wednesday'. Your guest may not come if you had said ' Want to come to our meeting or not?' It's all about choice of the right words.....that's what Life, relationships,love etc is all about.
I agree with the Bee Gees song ' Words are all I have to take your heart away' Isn't Love just about using the right words to woo your loved one? Angela of Winning Image Consultancy
Wednesday December 13th 2006, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Sheila G.
I found Katie Reynolds story very interesting! I write Poetry and I love to Play Scrabble, I have a passion for both since I was a teen writing in my Journals! Writing poetry is 2nd nature to me and word usage is Super Important! You want to be creative and unique with your Metaphors and imagery! I also find Ray Bradbury's interest in writing usage very unique.
Anybody here who enjoys reading and writing can go to www.AuthorsDen.com and you will find an interest! Keep playing Scrabble if you like it, technology is changing but Words still remain the same! :)

P.S. After getting this Visual Thesaurus, words are not Big and Massive like dinosaurs! This site is truly amazing and I HAVE to have it every year! Have to!

P.P.S. Thank you for sharing Katie, I am a School Bus driver - 9 routes a day, almost 10 years now and I love the mind of students. Way to Go Katie! Always speak your mind in life! READ and Write On!
Warmly, Sheee ( Sheila G ) and Happy-Healthy Holidays, filled with Awe and Wisdom and much Inspiration to you and yours, and into the New YEAR 2007! ;)
Thursday January 18th 2007, 11:54 PM
Comment by: Kaia P.
I can remember spending my whole summer vacation stealing away to the best quiet spots outside, and reading one or two books everyday. In 4th grade I discovered fiction, and in 5th science fiction, and have tried to read voraciously ever since. I've always had a passion & aptitude for using just the right word - and this site / community is really cool to enter into.

Now I'm involved in marketing & communication - I feel like words are the paint I use to define & color my world. I hope you are able to always keep your passion for language & communication.

Communication & proper management of information, ideas & the audacity of the human spirit are going to be very important in the decades to come as we face so many different global challenges!
Friday January 26th 2007, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Amanda D.
I certainly related to your story, I though I was the only person who actually loved Latin. I remember getting my first dictionary at age 8, and being thrilled about it. My father used to read the dictionary; when he looked up a word he would always read the rest of the page - and I acquired that habit too. Its nice to know I am not alone. I look forward to passing this love of language on to my own Katie, my three-year old granddaughter! All the best to you,
Sunday February 18th 2007, 7:52 PM
Comment by: Marcel A.
As a matter of fact, I hated Latin. I nearly fell over Ovid. But since Katie loves Latin I decide to forgive Ovid.
Saturday March 17th 2007, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Brianna
Keep up the good work! You are a model for all students of whatever age!
Monday April 23rd 2007, 1:03 PM
Comment by: David F.
You sesquipedalian, you.
Wednesday May 16th 2007, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Brian C.
Had to post on this one. We collectively so rarely discuss Latin these days I couldn't help but say a word or two. Kudos (< greek, "kudos, eos" = praise/renown [as if this word-smithing community didn't know that!]) to Katie for her recommendation of Latin's benefits to language acquisition and appreciation. Her natural love of language and its history will surely provide her much joy. I remember when I first started mining the roots of the English language. It had the same appeal then as hunting for secrets..and it still has. My interest took me all the way to undergraduate and graduate degress in Classical Philology. A dying discipline to be sure, the study of Greek and Roman cultures and languages still has much that is pertinent for reflection and enjoyment. Perhaps Katie will consider these--even as "electives"--when she enters college. Latin and Greek offer high returns for slow and continuos study, not only (but especially) in the language arts. In the end, it's apparent Katie has an affinity for words, and I doubt such a talent will disappear. Indeed, it can only grow stronger.

Good luck in your language pursuits, Katie. It would be an honor to have you in any of my courses.

Cheers to all.
Thursday June 14th 2007, 12:48 PM
Comment by: Dolores T.
I am a newcomer to VT. I find the articles and interviews stimulating to all my senses. I do thank God that you Katie are blessed with the gift of interpreting languages. I encourage you, Katie, and all who read this comment to read the bible. If you are already in the Word. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! You will find that words are crucial to accepting the Lord Jesus Christ, receiving him as Lord of your life, loving Him and receiving His annointing. Use your gift with wisdom, Katie. The bible does not say that God molded the earth with his hands. The bible does say God spoke all things into existance, earth, all living creatures and humans. Love, Joy and Peace to all.

Monday July 2nd 2007, 2:16 PM
Comment by: duane H.
I encourage Dee, who responded to Katie, to read Dawkins "the end of faith". Katie would find it interesting as well.
Thursday August 30th 2007, 9:05 AM
Comment by: J P M.
It aint "paeane" but "paene".
It would be good to add other words with the same prefix:
"penumbra; penult, penultimate, antepenult".
Thursday August 30th 2007, 9:25 AM
Comment by: J P M.
Grandfather's English teacher learnt well, but his teachers were ignorant. The "persons who, things that" rule is contradicted by all good writers in English, going WAY back before 1066. It was inspired by th French use of "qui" as both interrogative and relative pronoun. -- The Middle English Lord's prayer opens "Oure Fadir THAT art in heuenes..."
Thursday August 30th 2007, 10:59 AM
Comment by: J P M.
My own experience as a college freshman 52 years ago was that, after four years of high school Latin, I had a head start on most of my classmates. Although we were required to buy a desk dictionary, I didn't, since the Latinate vocabulary was an open book for me. (I later became a dictionary nut.)

A MicroSoft spelling checker may well be to blame for blending "paene-" and "paean". -- MS turns "Bosnia" into "Bonsai".

Katie could well solve a problem for the 2007 Spelling Bee champion Evan O'Dorney regarding his statement: "My favorite things to do were math and music, and with the math I really like the way the numbers fit together. And with the music I like to let out ideas by composing notes - and the spelling is just a bunch of memorization."

-- But not if you've studied Latin (and Greek, and modern languages).

Katie Raynolds may feel that some of us old grumps were hostile to her basic point, that a knowledge of Latin provides a code book for deciphering the difficult long words of English. Katie is absolutely right.
Thursday August 30th 2007, 11:07 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Hi, Harris here, the VT editor. Thank you for pointing out "paene," JP, and your thoughts. I've made the change in the article.
Saturday November 10th 2007, 8:14 AM
Comment by: kimberly M.
As a new VT member I want to thank Katie. I'm a high school teacher & it was refreshing to see your post! If you've ever read 'the fisch blog' or seen the presentation 'did you know' you would realize how very important it is that you are part of our 'future! I wish you all the happiness in the world!
Thursday November 29th 2007, 5:43 PM
Comment by: Herman B.
I simply loved Katie's post. Probably, because hers is the story of my my linguistic life. I am now 60 years old and have been following that approach to words all my life. I studied Latin both at high school and university, and JP Maher is so right about the value of Latin in the quest for words and their deconstruction to basics.

I am now following a lead provided by Katie. "Paene" when pronounced sounds a lot like an Afrikaans (my mother tongue) word "byna" which means exactly the same thing--I am now after the origins of "byna". Many Afrikaans word have their origins in Latin via English or French.
Tuesday December 4th 2007, 2:46 PM
Comment by: Veronica Y.
Ciao Katie: I have a granddaughter who is also a freshman in high school and interested in languages. I have always had a propensity for words and have endeavored to share this with her. You are an inspiration and I know she will enjoy reading about you. At this time, German fascinates her. She will appreciate Ralph Morris' comments on the German language. It's as simple as loving the mere sound of a certain tongue.

While watching the news on CNN the other day, it was said that Mr. Putin's wife was part of the Philology department at the Russian university when he met her. A small detail, but quite exciting to my protege.

Mille Grazie for sharing your passion.
Tuesday December 4th 2007, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Veronica Y.
Ciao Katie: I have a granddaughter who is also a freshman in high school and interested in languages. I have always had a propensity for words and have endeavored to share this with her. You are an inspiration and I know she will enjoy reading about you. At this time, German fascinates her. She will appreciate Ralph Morris' comments on the German language. It's as simple as loving the mere sound of a certain tongue.

While watching the news on CNN the other day, it was said that Mr. Putin's wife was part of the Philology department at the Russian university when he met her. A small detail, but quite exciting to my protege.

Mille Grazie for sharing your passion.
Friday December 7th 2007, 4:39 PM
Comment by: Rolo J C.
Hee Haw...as they say in some cultures.....who knows if anyone will read this after so long a gap in the postings. But no matter, no mind.....

I liked that reference to 'The pleasure of the Shape of the Word' -exactly summing up my own emotions in regards to the 'Mot Juste'.

I began a foolish, and short lived writing spree nearly a decade ago and, well, looking back on it now it's embarrassing. But words they were - right or wrong, good or ill - and everything that has followed in my life has revolved around the 'Mark', written or otherwise. It's only recently I've noticed the chains that have bound and shaped me; freedom gained through ever tightening rope-burns....hee haw indeed....I'll keep this short and to the point (if i can dig one out).....

When in my early twenties, long after all ambition to scribble had faded from view, I endeavoured to study Graphic Design;a fantastic outlet in creative terms but, long story short, the whore-ish mentality that goes hand in hand with that industry led to a complete disintegration of my interest in design. It left me with an empty void where a great big well-spring used to be. So, 'where next?' I thought. After awhile an old, withering friend came calling and before i knew it I had her in my arms, strumming her six strings and setting off on another completely indulgent challenge - to learn how to write songs. I had been a musician but never a songsmith; and behold, I achieved my goal quite successfully.....and i'm hesitant to admit I love to write songs in the vein of Johny Cash. But why? He's a Legend.....yes, anyhow.....

that's done with now, much like the Design debacle but with a happier, more conclusive ending, and I now find myself back at the very beginning; at the word itself; the simple graphic represention. the 'mark'. Bo Diddley once commented that 'Simple is the new Sophisticated' and I find that true to my current course of living. I'm back at the starting line, stripped down to the barest of tools and learning that all along the 'pleasure of the shape of the word' has been a constant guiding article.

So here's the cheer for barking Dogs and Crazy Sharp-Shooters and never-ending search for the word formerly known as....

In fun,

Thursday July 31st 2008, 3:04 PM
Comment by: Talley Sue H. (New York, NY)
I *knew* this was a phone interview!

Because it was pretty clear that Katie wouldn't have misspelled "Patronus."
Wednesday January 13th 2010, 1:35 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Katie, I think you are wonderful and an inspiration. I think it is crucial that your grandmother was pivotal in
sparking your interest. Thank you for having the courage to speak out about your love of words. And thank you for giving your grandmother credit for inspiring you. I wish more adults were aware of the power and influence we have over the minds of our youth. As a child my mother read to me until I took up the banner for myself. She also taught me to love and keep a dictionary by my side. Oh what an influence she was. And now as an older person, I have stumbled on the VT, which introduced me to you. All the best to you Katie.

I thank God for Ben Zimmer and the VT editors everyday.
Thursday January 12th 2012, 9:31 AM
Comment by: megan
i commend katie for taking up the art of words! there should definitely be more teenagers like her, willing to use language correctly. however, i find it sad that nowadays 'peninsula' is considered a LONG word. i, myself, wish that we could talk in old english that shakespeare or even the founding fathers used. i think it's disappointing and a shame to america when youth are not taught to speak correctly, fluently, or with "long" words. just yesterday a teacher at my school praised one of my peers for using the word 'flabbergasted', a word i believe should not be classified as "such a hard word!" i think we highschoolers should take a stand and prove to the rest of the world that we aren't just the walking, talking model of rebellion and disrespect.

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