Posts Tagged ‘Dictionary’

How many times, as a child, have we heard this phrase?

Illustration by Warwick Goble to Beauty and th...

Illustration by Warwick Goble to Beauty and the Beast: the heroine is the youngest daughter in her family. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I get you to think about what it means in your mind, like a Pavlovian response, you’d have your imagination firing off possibilities. Quite possibly incorporating images of Fairy Tales, Fantasy, stories set in an indeterminate past. Princes and princesses and simple moral codes. Quite possibly it suggests other or further ideas for you. It was only when my daughter was watching Play School on TV recently, when a presenter began a story with this well-worn phrase

Once upon a time

that I gave it closer scrutiny. And I realised that I, for one, had not really given much (any?) thought as to what this actually means. My own coding sees my mind shift straight away into the premise that I am about to be told a story, quite possibly with an authoritative voice and my own position as listener being that of (or similar to) a child. But thinking about this phrase more closely, it struck me as odd. It sounds like a point being placed on a timeline, when the event that you are about to hear takes place – surely this is not a particularly striking idea to put into a child’s mind? At worst it sounds too clinical – like some kind of science experiment, rather than a story involving flights of fancy and fantasy. Perhaps this is the reason that teachers soon steer students away from using this cliched start in their own writing.

A few years ago, I recall hearing an actor discussing his role as Richard in Shakespeare’s play Richard III. The opening lines will be familiar to many:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York;

What made this interview noteworthy was his observation that he (and I apologise for being unable to remember the actor’s name) had, for some weeks, been rehearsing these lines without actually understanding what they meant. My memory of the interview was that having admitted to this and saying that this was, it appeared, a not uncommon mistake, he did not go on to clarify what the two lines meant. This set me musing on them, and wondering whether it involved the use of double negatives, which often confused people at the best of times (the “I haven’t done nothing” kind of thing). My understanding of the line is that, from Richard’s perspective, he means the following: If it is the winter of your unhappiness, then are the times actually good for you (the opposite being the summer of your happiness, rather than the summer of your unhappiness, if that make’s sense). Thus the “glorious summer” is a real downer for Richard – who revels when the times are bad, making the most of his own political run when chaos reigns.

What other phrases do we take at face value, rather than giving them the necessary scrutiny?

Advertisements
What is the aim of a dictionary?

I am certainly my mother’s son. There are times when, as a teacher, I find myself channeling my mother, also a teacher herself. Growing up, this would usually arise when she would hear the destruction of the language. One example would be the word “vulnerable”, which was often (and still is) pronounced as “vun-rable”, thus doing away with the “l” sound altogether. At the time, I recall the way that she would enunciate the word carefully, precisely.
Come forward to more contemporary times and I am having to decide my own reaction as my two children, aged 8 and 5, have started to use the word “versing”. Versing, as in, “Who are we versing on the weekend?”
This clanger has been around a while now in Australia. Having taken a number of sporting teams over the years, we were often versing this school or that, or, after the event, who we versed on the weekend (clearly, the past tense usage of the event). The fact that there is only one form of the word, versus, has not got in the way of this level of functionality. For a while, having failed to correct its use, I tried a different tack. I’d say, “Okay, I’m prepared to accept the word versing, if you are prepared to alternate with againsting“. While they could recognise the discrepancy, they weren’t prepared to opt out of versing either.
And, I suppose, why should they? Am I the dinosaur who (admittedly mixing my metaphors) is tub thumping in order to force an unnecessary rigidity into language usage, thinking and application?
So, if U.S. president Warren Harding can cheerfully bring ‘normalcy’ (apocryphal tale or not)  into mainstream usage (the word does not even prompt the red-squiggly line as I type this), should I be reconciled to my fate and brought into the present day as an accepting acolyte…
What about the contrary position? If we are adding words to the current “lingo”, what about the words that are taking on archaic status? Year 8 students are the first to ‘do’ Shakespeare and I am often presented with queries such as “Is this old English (or sometimes, middle English)?”, despite most of the words still being recognisable, if not commonly used, today.
In writing this post, I “recalled” that the size of the complete Oxford dictionary was massive. Of course, completely underestimating what ‘massive’ meant, I decided to check online and ended up at the Dictionary Facts page of the OED. The totals are nothing short of stupendous, with such mind boggling elements including that it would take 60 years for one person to proof read the 1989 version, containing 291,500 entries and weighing in (in paper form) at over 60 kilos! It is wonderful and horrifying in equal measure. The average (whatever that means!) person today makes use of between 5000 (high school educated) to about 8000 words (college educated). I say about, as in looking up this question alone, the range of answers, depending on your choice of sources, varied quite wildly (20 000 was quoted by one optimistic site). If Shakespeare uses 17,677 different words in all of his works, what on earth is going on with the other 270 000 odd (give or take a few between friends!) words?!

Words

Words (Photo credit: Southernpixel – Alby Headrick)

Which brings me to another idea – perhaps heretical to some – Should we look to remove words as well as add them? Is a dictionary more of a historical document? A record of language (and thus society and culture) through all ages rather than just a device for looking up (at its most mundane) the meaning of the word you are now presented with? Going back a few posts of mine… does Orwell’s 1984 Newspeak Dictionary ironically help modern humanity with removing the morass of ultimately redundant words? This would at least give us a living dictionary, pertinent to all using it today.

But then the chance to come across that lovely, colourful and hopelessly archaic word would be lost forever.

PS: Thought I would close by mentioning a discussion that took place in my department yesterday about another ‘term’ doing the rounds with the students. The phrase “Don’t dog it” (and variations thereof) are in vogue – the word dog signifying Sir-you-are-being-slack-and-how-unfair-is-that! An example might be an attempt for a student to give me a high five, which, if I don’t respond within milliseconds, might elicit the “Don’t dog it!” The irony here is that dog seems to have become a verb or an adjective, while the usual idea of the noun has gone.

What current lingua franca are you facing in your locale from students conversing with you and other students? Would love to hear…