“Look it up!” I repeat this daily refrain like the worn-out chorus of a pop song.
“How do you spell colorful?” “What does countenance mean?” “Is that really a word?”
With military decisiveness, I’ll point to the pile of well-loved dictionaries stacked on a set of rickety drawers in the back corner of my classroom. I’m partial to the two beet-red Webster’s College Editions from the ’80s, whose membranous pages give a spellbook feel. (The three pocket Oxford editions will always feel like cheap imitations. But they are useful for tossing at whining students.)
Sometimes, I feel foolish for exhorting the next generation to learn a skill that, once the march of progress displaces paper with iPads, may become redundant. But looking through a dictionary is more than just an exercise in patience. Squinting and running a fingertip down inky columns, it’s also a chance to experience words you couldn’t have dreamt up.
addax. obfuscate. antidisestablishmentarianism.
According to some linguists, there are 1 million words in the English language, give or take. The average vocabulary we actively use is a meager 20,000 to 30,000 words. (Recently, I took an online test that estimated I had about 23,000 in my workable vocabulary—a result that made me want to pull out flashcards and start expanding my lexical horizons.)
I’m continually astounded by our brain’s capacity to learn language without formal study. We learn our native tongue through trial and error, hugs and pointed fingers, generalizations and misunderstandings. Our ears absorb words from conversational snippets and patient parents, and, once we can read, scurry up through the optic nerve with each fresh paragraph. We rarely learn words in isolation. Every cluster of letters sits nestled in the context of a sentence, and our mind goes through a mystical process of assigning meaning.
In my first year of teaching, I learned the hard way why large-print children’s dictionaries exist. Adult-centered hubris led me to assume that the biblical Oxford Dictionaries in the storage room would be tractable to bright 7 year old minds. Of course, this wasn’t the only error I made—I also forgot to sanitize my hands every half-hour, and followed word for word, like a well-trained lamb, the Lucy Calkins Writer’s Workshop curriculum. “Children need to develop independence in spelling while working on their own drafts,” the book advised. Only later did I identify the script’s problematic quirk: it assumed that children always follow instructions the first time around.
It turns out that the multi-step process of dictionary-reading is harder than I’d remembered.
Simply easing the book off the shelf, when its 5 pounds of condensed linguistic heft comprised 10% of their body weight, left kids staggering. Then, like rock climbers, their fingers would fumble in the divots along the precipice of pages to find the notch corresponding to the letter of the target word.
Most could come only this far. Beyond this, we entered meltdown territory. I suppose it was to be expected from small, willful people without a solid grasp on the order of the letters in the alphabet, or the ability to precisely direct the latitude and longitude of their thumbs.
They’d scan the page for 5 seconds or so, before the tell-tale wail: “IT’S NOT IN THE DICTIONARY.” With a satisfied thwap they’d slam the book shut, as though declaring victory over the English language itself.
Arguments ensued when I tried to explain that the second letter in the word is also alphabetically ordered. Or to reassure that the words “ridiculous,” “antelope,” or “solitude,” are, in fact, in the dictionary. But there’s no sense attempting dialogue with a 7-year-old amygdala.
The only way to truly convince them was to find the word myself; crawl the edge of my index finger down the margin until the word leaped out from the tangled text.
With a defeated waddle, they’d carry the tome back to the bookshelf. Sometimes, I imagined the book felt even heavier to them because of its dense print; as though the letters were protons and electrons that constructed a periodic table of words.
Now that I’ve moved up the grade levels and scaled to (mostly) higher levels of cognitive and emotional maturity, I find older students more readily share in my love of language—and even enjoy the arduous quests through the dictionary. Every day, there is a collective, quiet thrill at acquiring a new word.
Orwell’s Animal Farm has been a reliable source of verbal delights: accord, tyrant, indefatigable, unscathed, tactics. Yesterday, when we came across impending, I fumbled trying to define it. Absent memorizing a dictionary entry, explaining a word is ultimately an attempt to communicate all the contexts in which you have heard and read it. I struggled to justify, exactly, why it’s not quite right to say, “His sadness was very impending,” but it’s ok to say “the impending doom.”
I’ve grown steadily more aware of the illogic of linguistic intuition. I feel like the owner of a badly behaved dog whenever I catch myself excusing the oddments of the English language: “I know it doesn’t make sense that the plural of mouse is mice, and the plural of house is houses, but that’s just the way it is!”
Within epistemology, there’s a distinction between intuitively knowing how to do something, and intellectually knowing that something is true. I think a lot about those two types of knowledge—the intuitive, and the intellectual—as they apply to language. Knowing-how: using words correctly and fluently, in order to communicate. Knowing-that: knowing dictionary definitions, grammar rules, and etymology. Both continuously mingle and inform one another.
“Can you think of a word not in this dictionary?” A student recently asked me, while absent-mindedly cradling the Webster’s in her lap and strumming its thin pages like the strings of a harp.
Luckily for my credibility, I had something on hand. Ophism, I said, The worship of snakes. I learned this word last week during a Thanksgiving game of Fictionary. Teams have to guess the correct definition of an obscure word amid two impostor definitions. This year’s list included ophism, addax, Mittelschmerz, randem, and pelf.
Though I’m not cut out to be an English teacher in more ways than one, perhaps I’m redeemed by an ear for rhyme, and a few convictions about diction.
In my own imperfect way, I try to impart to students that to learn a new word is to shine a hungry beam into previously obscured crevices of reality; to differentiate one’s descriptive tools; to chisel a rocky crumb from the granite block of experience and reveal a gem glittering within. A new word is a secret handshake that grants access to those who stay alive by hiding inside the pages of a book.
Middle schoolers bicker a lot. Recently, I caught one chastising her classmate with the same exasperation I feel when my voice is curdling in my throat after a day of talking and being talked over. I was just about to step in with a reprimand, until I heard:
“Just look it up!”