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Lady Macbeth: Was She Nuts? *

July 5, 2010

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. • Mark Twain (And lightening provides yet another opportunity for confusion.)

In the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep and I can’t write and I’m hoping to turn off my brain, I read cotton candy books, devouring them quickly, their insubstantial content entertaining me, while seldom provoking thought. Sometimes I don’t want to think. I want to rest.

Last night I read Linwood Barclay’s (2007) No Time for Goodbye, a book that has an intriguing premise and a far-fetched ending. I don’t say this as criticism. Most endings are a bit far-fetched since providing a denouement that ties everything together is required for mindcandy. Life is seldom so neatly packaged.

The protagonist of Barclay’s book is a high school English teacher (note to Barclay and to his editors: high school English teachers generally teach more than three classes and are seldom so casual about absences). On p. 118, this quotation from a student essay caused me to reminisce about wordish teaching encounters: “Mr. Whitman’s most famous writing was ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which some people think is probably about marijuana, but it was not, although it’s hard to believe that a guy who wrote something called, ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ wasn’t stoned at least some of the time.”

I was reminded of being called into the principal’s office (note to my students, yes, even the current ones who will soon be teachers: this is principal—the principal is your pal—not principle, although possibly principles should have offices where one could go to learn the basics of ethical living) and asked why I had been discussing smoking marijuana with ninth graders.

It was my first year of teaching and my freshpeople were immersed in John Steinbeck’s (1937) Of Mice and Men. I couldn’t remember saying anything at all about dope or pot or grass or weed. And then I realized what might have happened. After some trouble, Lennie and George leave Weed, California, and head south. I told the principal this might be it and he asked me to call home to clarify.

Before I could begin to explain, the parent said s/he didn’t know why we’d be teaching a book about Lenny and Squiggy anyway since s/he thought school should be focusing on something besides characters from Laverne & Shirley and was I sure they hadn’t been smoking anything?

I wish I could say that this was an effective call home, but all I managed to do was state my case, listen, and hold my tongue. The only more frustrating call I made that year was when I tried to tell a mother why her son should not call other students a dildo. “His father calls people that a lot. What’s wrong with it?” she said. I asked her if she knew what the word meant. She said no. I suggested she look it up in the dictionary. She must have since her son never used the word in class again.

Other memories resurrected by last night’s reading include these confusions: “She staired into the mirror.” “My father served on a mime sweeper” (okay, this might have just been a typo, but it remains one of my favorites). “Noah’s arc.” “ My Ant Janet.” “She revealed to (oh, dear) much bear skin.” “He dressed with flare.” “I forgot to sight my sources in my research paper.” “I was so embarrassed I thought I would dye.”

FYI, to further muddy the waters and confuse you, especially since there’s category overlap:

Homonyms are words that are pronounced or spelled the same, but have different meanings and origins.

Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different meanings, origins, and sometimes spelling (knight and night). I wrote about roll and role yesterday. I am often amused when students write about using a role sheet in their classroom. I imagine that this is a list that says “Joanie McAloevera, Class Clown; José Montoya-Reyes, Knows All the Answers; Ping Lee, Always Asks If There Is Homework; and on and on.

Homographs are words that are spelled the same, but have different meaning, origin, and sometimes different pronunciation (wind as in “wind a clock” and wind as in “blowin’ in the”).

Although they fit none of the categories listed, further and farther are words I have to think about before using. How about you? What are your word confusions?

How often misused words generate misleading thoughts. • Herbert Spencer

* This is one of my all-time favorite titles. Too often I receive work that is non-titled—“My Philosophy,” “Managing a Classroom,” “Essay on Macbeth”—utilitarian listings of what will follow. Imagine going to a movie theatre and seeing “Vampire Movie,” “Action Flick,” and “Romantic Comedy” on the marquee or visiting a bookstore where all the books in the business section say “Business Book” and all the cookbooks, no matter what kind, say “Cookbook.” Titles should be grabbers, creating an audience eager to see or read what it’s all about. This has nothing to do with word confusion, although I am confused when I wonder why students might think that any teacher would look forward to reading fifty essays entitled “My Philosophy.”

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