In a recent article in Education Gadfly, Robert Pondiscio wrote that “to grow up as the child of well-educated parents in an affluent American home is to hit the verbal lottery … when it comes to vocabulary, size matters.” I couldn’t agree more. A diverse and broad vocabulary is more than handy, more than a way to earn a high score on a standardized test. It’s powerful.
I’m teaching seniors this semester, some of whom love English class and others who may not take another English class after graduating high school, and I can accept that – seniors are basically adults without some of the privileges of adulthood. Still, I want to make their time with me and with books as enjoyable as I possibly can, whether I’m their last English teacher or one of many. One of the ways I try to do that is to give them the gift of more words. They don’t always see my emphasis on vocabulary quite the same way.
I thought about this recently while we discussed the character Syme in George Orwell’s 1984. Syme delights in his work on the 11th edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, cutting the English language down to size in order to diminish the power of any individual to speak, write, or formulate thoughts not approved by the Party. The class consensus was that Syme was essentially a criminal, one who commit acts of violence against words as well as people.
But when it came time for us to turn from the text to learning new words, there was less obvious agreement in the room. Frowsy, gambol, claptrap? These seemingly useless words struck few in the room as gifts or keys to autonomy or power.
But they are. And I am hopeful – and confident – that most of my students will see that, now or later.