I love words. Now, I realize this is not a particularly surprising thing for an English teacher to say; nonetheless it is true. I have always been a word person. Mom says that I skipped all the baby babble stuff and went straight to sentences. Lots and lots of sentences. Dad and his friends taught me the joy of bad puns and rapid wordplay. At the age of 4, I was a spontaneous- and insatiable- reader. So I have always been immersed in words, as well as fascinated by them. From a very young age, I loved peeking into the Shakespeare volumes of my Dad’s Great Books collection- not that I understood the plays, but I loved exploring the beautiful language.
I am especially enamored of the long words, obscure words, complicated words. Words that simply are not in common use. Teachers used to warn, “Don’t use those $10 words when a simple word will suffice.” I am more of the “Why use a $10 word when there is a perfectly good $1000 word lying around waiting to be used?” school of thought, myself.
People get used to me. (Or stop speaking to me, I suppose.) My mom and my sister both text me whenever they encounter an unfamiliar word. In my classroom days, my students used to pop into my room to shout a random word at me, just to see if I knew what it meant. I always did. The more industrious amongst them would scour the dictionary regularly, trying to trip me up. They never seemed to notice, or mind, that I had gotten them to read the dictionary. I once introduced a poem into my AP English Literature curriculum solely because it included the beautiful word “crepuscular” and – rarest of the rare- a word I did not yet know! (“Jinking”.)
Now, I know that my high school students (and even most of my colleagues) do not have the same vocabulary I do. And they do not all experience pure unadulterated joy when marveling in the boisterous, wondrous, nonsensical abundance that is the English language. However, I remain true to myself and my words, and I try to share the gift of language with my students. Not by giving them lengthy lists of words to struggle over, writing definitions until they are near catatonic. Certainly not by talking over their heads and using my words as weapons of elitism, superiority, smugness. I taught for 14 years in the sole high school in a high poverty rural community. I once tried to explain what “hover” meant to a struggling student and told her that it was what helicopters do, only to be flummoxed when she responded, “What’s a helicopter?” If I wanted to help students explore the beautiful world of words, I need to be sneaky, nay, insidious, about it. Instead of hammering my students with words, I surrounded them, cuddled them, layered them with words. I would speak with the words I love, then the words I thought they might know, and then the words that I was sure that they did. Definitions and examples and explanations were woven into, around, through, and under everything I said in class. What’s more, I let my students see my enjoyment of words. And it worked. With ever increasing frequency, year in and year out, I heard these miraculous words from my students: “Wait! Go back! What does that word mean?” They asked. They listened. They learned. In the process, their own vocabularies expanded and they used more and more interesting words, in more and more ways. We found ways to play with language. We wrote Elizabethan insults. We yelled Shakespeare. We rewrote passages of Huckleberry Finn in high diction; and passages of high poetic diction in contemporary slang. We explored the world of words together.
Another word that was unknown to me was sesquipedalian. My sister taught it to me in between fits of hysterics that I, so prone to using long words, did not know the very word that means “given to or characterized by the use of long words”. She had a good point, and it is a lovely word. I embrace my inner sesquipedalianism, and only hope that in some small way, I help my students find theirs.