After the heaviness and despair of the last few weeks as we have faced the unspeakable horrors instigated by Nazi Germany, at the end of the week we escaped to busy ourselves in the whimsical and the playful. I resurrected Robert Pirosh‘s letter seeking employment as a screen writer to producers and directors in 1934. The playfulness of Pirosh’s language and his relish of words was contagious. The room erupted with laughter as this year’s students shrieked over words, the sound and taste of them in the mouth, a quirky or unexpected denotation, a word’s roots. Too often in school we attempt to trammel and tame words, line them up into lists, force students to memorize them in the hope that like seeds these miserable lists will create accurate spellers and robust vocabularies! We force students to look for the rhyme or the ‘little word within’ or command ‘look, say, cover, write!’ as if that will instil a love of words! Rarely do we ask students to play around with words to simply savour and enjoy.
Students were amazed at where the love of words can take you and amused and in awe of Pirosh’s way with words. His witty application letter can be found here on Letters of Note.
While this may appear fun and frivolous, don’t underestimate the learning that went on here as students:
- searched in the OED exploring the etymology entries, becoming familiar with how the dictionary works
- explored different forms the spelling took over the years
- used the OED’s thesaurus to unearth long forgotten words that in many cases they want to revive. (A small campaign is underway to revive ‘snool’!)
- recognized compound words: crestfallen, snickersnee
- discovered words created for a particular occasion-such as ‘defenestration’ derived from Latin noun fenestra “window, opening for light,”.This word word amused Takumi who discovered that it was coined on May 21st, 1618 specifically for the incident known as “The Defenestration of Prague” when two Catholic deputies and a secretary were tossed from a window to a moat below by Protestant rebels! This defenestration sparked the thirty years war!
- uncovered roots showing the influence of many languages on English such as the Dutch word ‘snickersnee’.
- encountered entertaining etymologies. Did anyone realize that ‘lob’ once meant something hanging and pendulous coming from the East Frisian etymon ‘lobbe ‘: hanging lump of flesh’? Listen below to the origins of ‘snools’, ‘kerfuffle’, ‘humdinger ‘and ‘flibbertigibbet’.
Finally students lined up with their favorite word in order of entry into English from the oldest to the newest. They understood that words have entered (and faded from ) English in a variety of times from a variety of places.
I cannot close this post without a plea for the immediate resuscitation of <wanwit> and several other words that once attached themselves to this now non-productive prefix! This Old English prefix <wan-> expressed negation and privation (lacking a quality) a little like <un->. The OED notes that ‘the number of words formed with the prefix is considerable, but none of them has survived into modern English, and only one (wanspéd, ill-success) into Middle English period’.
Wanton, want and wane:
Of the many new formations that arose in Middle English, only wantoȝen, undisciplined, wanton adj. and n., still survives in use ‘with no consciousness of its etymological meaning’. So wanton’ <wan+ton>’ resistant to control’ found in the 14th century from the almost forgotten prefix <wan-> and <ton>, the bound base element directly derived from Middle English towen, itself from Old English togen, the past participle of teon “to train, discipline”, “to pull, draw,’ ( Online Etymology Dictionary). The Middle English sense of ‘unruly’ and ‘undisciplined’ by the end of the 14th century slid into further negativity (pejorated) to ‘sexually promiscuous’. Ayto notes the etymological connection of OE <wane> and 12th century <want> ! ‘Want’ implies a ‘wishing to have’ due to a ‘lack of something’. <wan-> according to Ayto is a reduced form of the adjective <wane> related to the modern English verb <wane>. ‘wanwit’ may be chiefly Scottish, according to OED but why has this useful word slipped from usage? I know many a wanwit! And while we’re making room for ‘wanwit’ why not ‘wanhope; hopelessness and despair, ‘wanthriven‘ : ill deverloped, stunted in growth , and ‘wanchancy’– unlucky, dangerous and uncanny.
Here are snippets from the many words we like:
‘I like foolish, tricky and nefarious words such as whippersnapper, gormless, dandiprat and wanwit’
From Masato: I like words. I like perplexing, scientific words, such as: mitochondria, nucleic, melatonin, phosphate. I like high-classed, complex, aristocratic words, such as superior, revolting, ignorant, aesthetics. I like bright, vivid words, such as, shimmer, flourish, sheen, gloze I like speedy words, such as swift, quick, swish zoom’.
From Mauricio: I like words, I like quirky strange words such as basorexia, callipygean, ludicrous, knismesis. I like mystifying, wicked, creepy words such as odious, sordid, razzmatazz, bamboozle. I like short, offensive words such as potty, dopey, dotty, bitty. I like goofy, comical, funny words, such as tadderdiddle, snickersnee, diphthong, puppenhaus.
From Tatiana: I like words. I like sparkly, bright words, such as glistering, dazzling, radiant, luminescent.I like words. I like silly, cheerful, laughable words, such as peppy, cock-a-hoop, blithesome, ebullient. I like calm, soft, peaceful words, such as serenous, lithe, fair, passionate.I like odd, complicated, unrecognisable words, such as squiriferous, nudnik, epalpebrate, snollygoster.I like big, bold, eloquent words, such as inconsequential, pragmatic, spontaneous,tenacious.
From this cavort in words I hope students see that language is creative and changeable. I hope they continue to play with, explore, search the dictionary and remain curious with eye and ear ever towards an unexpected turn of phrase.
“A word is dead when it’s been said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” Emily Dickinson.
And to look at more lists of words- go here to find the words circled and collected by writer David Foster Wallace.