The English Department's Blog

Student Writing Archive

Nov 14

Words

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This post is all about words.  About why our language is important and why we should care about it.  About how words may be dying because people are not using them.  About how words give people the power to understand themselves and make an impact on the world around them.

If you have visited the English section of the school’s website, you may have come across a link to a vocabulary site which lists 1062 words which should be in the vocabulary of every educated person – and that means you and me.

I wonder how many words you know of these words from the list beginning with A:

Abate       abeyance      abjure       abrogate       abstemious

Assiduous     assuage         atrophy         auspicious    ascetic

Assimilate     adumbrate   alacrity          ambivalent   ameliorate

Anomaly       antecedent

[see http://virtualsalt.com/vocablst2.htm]

Now, these are just a few of the A words. There are another 1045 in the whole list.  You may know all of the words in my list – and congratulations if you do.  But if you have a feeling that you know very few of them, if you wouldn’t feel confident about using them yourself in a piece of writing, then perhaps you need to do something to pump more words into your vocabulary.

Because of its history English has become an enormous language (the Oxford English Dictionary runs to 20 huge volumes).  It has absorbed words from all the world’s major languages and it continues to grow rapidly, so much so that my little dictionary of new words already seems out of date with its chocotherapy, chuggers, Chelsea Tractors and yummy mummies.

Every time we speak we share in the history of our language, and I want to give you a few examples of everyday words that are more interesting than many people realize.  For instance, I hope all of us have experienced this morning a room called the toilet, but I wonder if you realize what an interesting and complicated history the word ‘toilet’ has. Originally, in about 1540, it was a kind of cloth, a diminutive form of “toile”, a word still used to describe a type of linen. Then it became a cloth for use on dressing tables. Then it became the items on the dressing table (which is where we get the word “toiletries” from). Then it became the dressing table itself, then the actual act of dressing, then the act of receiving visitors while dressing, then the dressing room itself, then any kind of private room near a bedroom, then a room used as a lavatory, and finally the lavatory itself. Which explains why “toilet water” in English can describe something that comes in a bottle and which you would want to sprinkle on your face or, simultaneously, “water in a toilet” – which you wouldn’t.

Or take the word ‘clue’, a particular favourite of mine.  We all know what it means now.  It’s a signal, hint, suggestion or possibility which helps reveal an answer or solution to a problem or puzzle.  But fascinatingly, the word clue derives from the ancient Greek legend of the hero Theseus using a ball of magic thread – a clew – to find his way out of the Cretan Labyrinth (maze) after killing the Minotaur. This clew/clue meant a ball of thread and is a very old word, appearing around first 1250, from Old English cliewen, Up until the 1600s, when someone used the word clue to mean solving a puzzle, the meaning was literally ‘ball of thread’, and it is only in more recent times that this converted into its modern sense, and most people now don’t know what the word originally meant and so don’t think about the ball of string which helped Theseus find his way out of the maze.

Or how about the definition of the word disaster is “an occurrence causing widespread destruction and distress; a catastrophe” or “a grave misfortune.” But the etymology of the word disaster takes us back to a time when people commonly blamed great misfortunes on the influence of the stars.

It comes from the Latin word, and originally conveyed the idea that a catastrophe could be traced to the “evil influence of a star or planet”.

Just one more.   Have you get a sense of humour?  This is something which appeals to everyone – but have you ever thought about the word ‘humour’?  Its original meaning comes from a Latin word meaning ‘moisture’.  In English the word meant ‘bodily fluid’ and this still survives in terms such as aqueous humour and vitreous humour, fluids in the eyeball.  In the middle ages it was used specifically to refer to the four bodily fluids – blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy – which had to be kept in balance to keep someone in good health.  This gave rise to the notion of ‘mental disposition’ – that your personality depended on the perfect balance of these four ‘humours’.  And then the meaning developed to mean ‘mood’ and it was only in the 17th century that the word spread even further to take in ideas of amusement.  By the way ‘temper’ means balance – so if you lost your temper in the middle ages it meant that the balance of these four fluids was seriously upset and so you were temporarily out of control.  And your temperament was the exact proportion of these fluids in your body and so the sort of personality which derived from them.

So does any of this interest in language have any practical use?  I was down in London just a few days after the riots and came across an article written by a social worker about the young people he works with.  I was interested in it because it was about language and how language teaching is an essential part of the life skills he tries to teach them.

“In the wake of the riots, last Thursday evening, there was only one topic of conversation among the young people I mentor in Peckham. Thankfully, none of my mentees were involved in the disturbances. Yet almost all told me they had received the mass BBM broadcasts, written in street slang, inviting them to join in the thuggery.

The English language is an incredibly rich inheritance. Yet it is being squandered by so many young people of all races and backgrounds. Across London and other cities it is increasingly fashionable for them to speak in an inarticulate slang full of vacuous words such as “innit” and wilful distortions like “arks” for “ask” or tedious double negatives.

It’s not a question of being a staunch lexical purist. It’s about our attitude to young people and how we educate them. Language is power. The ability for young people to communicate articulately and intelligently is of huge importance, not only for themselves but also for the way in which they are perceived by others.

Their educational opportunities and job prospects are all directly affected by the way they choose to speak.

Moreover, the more we are unable to express our feelings through words, the more frustrated we get. For young men and women in the inner-city, that can only be a dangerous thing.

So in my mentoring work I have zero tolerance towards incoherent street slang. As I constantly tell these young people, words are the best weapon you can have in your mental arsenal. Each week in Peckham we have a vocabulary slot, where we teach five new words. Be it ubiquitous, judicious, sardonic, ephemeral or plethora, we teach these young people words which can assist them, be it in GCSE English essays or everyday conversation.

Young people speaking street language is a spectacular own goal. True, their  slang limits their conversation to a select group of other young people, making it hard to penetrate if you don’t know the lingo. But in so doing, young people are effectively rendering themselves unintelligible to – and often unemployable by – mainstream adult society. This is really why street slang is anathema to me: it is reckless self-sabotage.

Acceptance of “ghetto grammar” by teachers and others in authority amounts to a betrayal of young people, trapping them in stereotypes. The young people I mentor are not stupid – yet their street slang makes them sound stupid and uneducated.

The better they speak, the more others – especially in positions of authority – will be inclined to take them seriously. Embracing street slang leads to disenfranchisement, marginalisation and ultimately the dole queue. Embracing “proper English” unlocks an intellectual feast.

But to help them do so, we must confront this insulting and demeaning acceptance of street slang. We owe it to them: we have a duty of linguistic care.”

Now you may be thinking – what has this to do with a school like this?  Surely we are all well-educated and destined for wonderful exam results and glittering careers.  Well maybe.  But it is also true that most of us do not know as many words as we should.  Although I have no scientific proof, it seems to me that the number of words in people’s vocabulary has shrunk over the years I have been teaching.  And this is strange, since it has never been easier to look words up and make them one’s own.  Dictionaries come as books, as electronic pocket reference devices, on mobile phones and as a standard part of ebook readers.  And yet I meet people almost every day who guess at unfamiliar words rather than spend a few seconds looking them up.  I have known groups of sixth form students who have failed to understand crucial parts of texts because they have not used a dictionary.  I have known people who have returned from university interviews because they have been asked to comment on an article and have not known the meaning of words upon which an argument depends.

Words are power; words allow us to express ourselves with precision and subtlety.  My message this morning is that all educated people should be curious about language and should take more pleasure and pride in their inheritance of English.  It is overwhelmingly rich and fascinating and I would urge all of us to make an effort to add new words to our vocabularies and to enjoy using them.  If we don’t, then words can become extinct just like living creatures.  If we don’t use them we will lose them; if this happens, then our ability to think and understand the world around us will shrivel and decay.  Expand your vocabulary if you want to expand your opportunities.

William Ruff

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Feb 01

Just posted to the NHS English Scribd account is a fantastic example of writing to Argue, Persuade and Advise.  Have a read of it here.

For starters, here’s a little flavour…

Rule one: the school is a jungle. Keep with the herd; don¶t draw attention to yourself; at the watering hole, sit with who you know. The teachers are the top predators; they are also the key to your survival. If you make a good impression, they will guide you through the fortnight;however, if you make a bad impression they have the ability to make your life very miserable.