Archive for the ‘vocabulary’ Category


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.”


There Are Certain Inevitabilities In The World: Death and Taxes, Sunrise and Sunset, Orange Plaid Culottes and Lime Green Knee Sox, and Trip Out Of Town and Band Names

May 25, 2010

I love a foam nose. I swear I do.
• Kelly Ripa on an April 19, 2010, television promo for
Live with Regis and Kelly

Kelly Ripa loves foam noses and I love band names, and while I have my own private stash of round red nose-enhancing baubles, I have to say that band names blow noses out of the water. (OMG, that sentence was really fun to write! That probably means that I should delete it immediately since you know what THEY say about anything that you are amused by in your own writing. It probably isn’t as good as you think and you are well advised to delete it. No way. Suck it, THEY; this one is staying! OMG, I used suck it and a semi-colon in the same sentence. I truly have reached some nirvana of posting. I’d better write that bucket list I’ve been meaning to get around to so I can check this one off.)

But back to business. Band names. I was in Seattle and picked up the Seattle Weekly for May 19-25, 2010. I’m sure there were some good articles in it. I probably could have learned a lot from reading them. But I didn’t. Instead I made a long list of band names and they’ll be coming at you as I think of clever and no-so-clever ways to use them.

Today, I shall use them as examples of non sequiturs and thus double my pleasure by interweaving a bit of a lecture on vocabulary with an opportunity to wallow in band name delights. What about your pleasure, you say? This is all about me. You’re just along for the ride.

Loosely defined, a non sequitur is the pairing of things that do not relate, coming from non (not) and sequi (to follow). A non sequitur is kindasorta the opposite of a cliché—pairing the completely unexpected and nonsensical instead of the predictable. It can also refer to serious—and seriously flawed—arguments, but we’re on the non sequiturious band name trail, one that was well-traveled by those pioneers of the sixties who left behind a garden of delights: think Ballpoint Banana, for example.

You can find many of these by Googling®. I’d repeat some of them here, but irreverence and scatology (look it up) abound and I’ve already said “suck it” twice (oops, three times) here, so I’d best behave myself.

Gazebos of Destruction is a non sequitur. So is Blue Light Curtain (Is this where the K-Mart special illumination hides when not in use?). I like The Holy Tailfeathers and Civilized Animals too, and The Exploding High Fives creates an appealing mind picture.

More names from Seattle tomorrow.

Baffle and confuse fellow travelers on the road of life today. I am certain that as you write your own non sequiturs and try them out on your friends, three dogs will eat daffodils in the dusty lane alongside the old lady’s house.

My band would be named The Careless Curtains of Calico, a name I chose for its nonsensicality paired with its appealing alliteration.
• Response to the big-ole-whatcha-gonna-name-your-band query, 2005


When I Was Having That Alphabet Soup, I Never Thought That It Would Pay Off.*

April 30, 2010

Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song? The guy who wrote that song wrote everything.
• Stephen Wright

I colllect alphabet books. It might seem as though they would be similar, but they are actually extremely varied. Playing with the twenty-six letters that form words in English provides countless brainplay opportunities:


Oh, fudge, these alphabetical things almost always fall apart at xyz, don’t they? But that’s the advantage of doing this sort of thing. I know now, although I cannot currently use it, that xanthous means having yellow or red hair and that a xebec is a small three-masted pirate ship. I am equally fascinated to learn that when I am gracious to my visitors, my hospitality is xenial.

But perhaps my favorite x word is xenodochelonology or the love of hotels. Not one I’d like to encounter in a spelling bee. I’ll be staying at a motel tonight. I wonder if that counts and if I can work this into the conversation when I leave: “Thanks for your graciousness and for the clean sheets and tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner. They have increased my xendochelonology!”

And while I’m thanking people or things, thanks to for their exceedingly thorough lists. This site is a real boon for Scrabble® players too. A phrontistery is a place of learning; I work at one and didn’t even know it.

“lol this isent me cheating on my HomeWork or anything this is me challenging the minds of young Yahoo people” someone on Yahoo Answers claims about a query looking for synonyms to replace boring words. I say good for them and good for you if you use online tools to improve your writing. If I were being really diligent this morning, I’d hunt for replacements for those two goods.

I love dictionaries—it’s relaxing to page through them, but you probably have to be a logophile to want to do this. Hunting for specific words online is more likely to help most folks improve their vocabulary.

And so it goes. I have not nagged about vocabulary for weeks. Weeks! Have you been adding five new words to your vocabulary each week? Five new words a month? One new word since last I wrote about it? It’s never too late to turn over a new leaf—or turn to a new page in the dictionary—and begin.

Come on—make me happy. Learn five new words this week and use them in your everyday conversation. Just imagine the self-satisfaction that will accompany this feat! You’ll feel a humongous sense of pride and accomplishment! Small children will throw rose petals at your feet and a chorus of chanting cartwheelers will follow you about, praising your name! Perhaps.

We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
• Booker T. Washington

* Vanna White is the abecedarian whom we can credit with the title quotation.


You’re Awesome! I’m Amazing! This Post Is Awesomely Amazing! No, Wait! It’s Amazingly Awesome!

April 26, 2010

Awesome: inspiring awe, admiration, or wonder. Amaze: to affect with great wonder, to astonish.

Don’t be afraid to be amazing. • Andy Offutt Irwin

Several weeks ago, I read Ann Handley’s post “9 Business Buzzwords I’d Like to Ban Because They Make Us Sound Like Tools (Part 1).” Her April Fools’ Day post was no joke. I am an educator and we are particularly prone to the dense and often incomprehensible use of meaningless jargon and overused buzzwords. Here’s Handley’s list (see for her wisdom): impactful, leverage, learnings, synergy, revolutionary, email blast, proactive, drilldown, 30,000 foot level.

I’ve never used some of these, but there are two I’m fond of. Proactive is one. Students need to be and yet they sometimes sit in class and wait for fate to happen to them rather than asking questions if they don’t understand something or aren’t certain what course requirements are. Waiting until it’s too late to do anything seems to be the opposite of proactivity; I’m not sure what I’d replace that word with. And then there’s synergy.

I’d like to make a plea to retain the use of the word “synergy,” using it when it cannot be replaced by Handley’s offerings of “cooperation,” “help,” and “joint/pooled/combined effort.”

I’ve worked on many committees. I’ve team taught and presented at conferences with other educators. Despite many opportunities to work with others, I have seldom experienced synergy, where combined efforts produced something that was greater than the sum of the parts. Indeed, I have sometimes found that combined efforts can lead to a kind of anti-synergy as creative energy is sucked from the group by endless wrangling and sub-committee-ing and nay saying.

Finally, forget dumping business words. I’d just be happy never to have to hear “awesome” or “amazing” being used to describe anything, except, of course, when I use them.

What words would you do away with because they are overused? What words would you keep even if they are overused because, frankly, they’re just so awesome and amazing?

Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.
• Wendell Johnson


Sanity May Be Madness but the Maddest of All Is to See Life as It Is and Not as It Should Be *

April 10, 2010

We use the word “hope” perhaps more often than any other word in the vocabulary. “I hope it’s a nice day.” “Hopefully, you’re doing well.” “So how are things going along? Pretty good. Going to be good tomorrow? Hope so.”
• Studs Terkel

It’s been quite a while since I nagged about adding new words to your vocabulary, but I will spare you such bloviation (speaking or writing boastfully or pompously) and instead share one of my favorite words. There are words I just like to say: Congoleum® and thistle and murmur, for example. There are other words I am fond of because they evoke worlds of memories: Oz and toddler and Disneyland.

And then there is my favorite word: hope. I am a relentless optimist. This does not mean that I am never pessimistic. I am. More than I might wish to be. I do see life’s realities. I do not live in a magical dream world of my own creation. (Well, okay, The House of Stuff and The Office that Makes Me Smile ARE magical places, but that’s not what I’m talking about here!) But I also know that the world goes on and life happens and that my perspective on possibilities—my optimism or pessimism—colors every moment of that life.

Hope (n.): the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best. Antonyms: despair, hopelessness, pessimism, discouragement, disbelief (

I can live in hope or I can live in despair. Neither is constant, but despair is easier. Hope is a deliberate decision and is a difficult attitude to maintain. particularly when you’re surrounded by people who want to enlighten you by providing all the reasons why you should not hope.

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing the dawn will come.
• Anne Lamott

As a teacher and a teacher educator, I sometimes feel as though I am adrift in a sea of hopelessness as I read and hear ongoing accounts of the failures of education. Yet I continue to hope. I continue to do my job. I continue to try to inspire hope in others who will also teach and go on to inspire hope in their students. Why teach if you do not believe that your work can make a difference for someone? The uncontrollable variables of teaching sometimes seem insurmountable and the calls for accountability grow so strident that being a hope•full teacher is a daily challenge.

Hope is but the dream of those who wake.
• Matthew Prior

I often frame things I want or plan to do using the word “hope:” I hope to finish my grading this weekend. I hope to organize materials for summer courses by the end of next week. I hope to do all of the things on my endless lists eventually. And I will. But I am not my own stern taskmaster. I am prone to guilty feelings no matter how long and hard I work, and using the gentler kind of goal-setting that frames my aspirations in terms of hope helps me remember my own human limitations.

To say “I will do x by y” and tape it to the mirror in my bathroom as a constant nagging reminder of the things I must do, or even those I simply want to do, has never appealed to me. I can do this–teachers have to do this–it’s called writing objectives, but it’s not my natural mode of expression even though I am just as determined to make things happen.

Hope is like a road in the country; there never was a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.
• Lin Yutang

I am uncomfortable promising things I cannot necessarily deliver on. I prefer to plant seeds and hope that they will come to fruition if I diligently nurture them. However, there are some things that I cannot will to bloom no matter how much I might wish that they would, particularly if they are dependent on the actions of others.

Relentless optimism is often required of anyone who hopes to engage others in anything. Our lives are so busy that even the best of intentions of others can be overwhelmed by the sheer busyness of life. Hope allows for the possibility of success even when it seems as though the pessimist would say enough and walk away.

It is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to action. . .
• Eric Hoffer

I hope always to be hopeful.

What do you hope for?

The road that is built in hope is more pleasant to the traveler than the road built in despair, even though they both lead to the same destination.
• Marian Zimmer Bradley

* Thanks to Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the title quotation.


His Study Was a Total Mess, Like the Results of an Explosion in a Public Library*

February 11, 2010

Books overtake me. They are piled everywhere, stacked to reveal my current interests and my ongoing passions. The staircase in our house is narrowed by the books that line the wall since stairs are a handy place to keep categorized stacks of books that can also be used to display things like majorette boots, rubber alligators, and old toys and games.

While it’s true that books can be expensive, especially textbooks, you can also acquire a personal library quite cheaply by thrift shopping, garage sale-ing, and shopping the bargain shelves at bookstores. One of my favorite recent acquisitions cost less than a latte: Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman’s (2006), A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. I love this book, subtitled, “How crammed closets cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place.”

Did I say I love this book? I do. Probably because my multiple obsessions leave me in interesting messes. Plus, it’s always comforting to find even the most tenuous support for my personal pathologies. I take my comfort where I can find it, and in a world that’s currently dedicated to simplification, my complification often seems out of place. Note re: complification. Whenever I write a word that appears to be a neologism, I look it up. Despite never having used complification before, and despite the fact that it is red-lined by my computer, it IS a word and a tasty and useful one to boot. According to the Urban Dictionary at, to complify is “the act or process of making something more complicated and less simple” and “the opposite of simple.” Aha! I love complification. I live complification.

On page 145, the Mess authors note that “[O]ur personalities tend to be more clearly expressed in our disorder than in our neatness. When we are being ruthless about ridding ourselves of what naturally accumulates around us and about meticulously straightening out what remains, we are in a sense tidying our identities. The truth is, we are all at least a bit of a mess—and all the more interesting for it.”

Books and papers tend to be messy and yet, when you’re in school, a bit of a mess can be a good thing, especially if it’s organized. This might seem to be conflicting advice, so let me explain. When I was working on my dissertation, I kept a large box on the floor next to my desk. As I finished pages, I tossed the notes I’d used and the notes I’d decided not to use into the box, along with a hard copy of each page.

When I lost an entire chapter to a weird computer glitch (I’m sure this has never happened to anyone else, right?), I was able to recreate it easily. I ended up with several boxes full of materials that I’ve used multiple times since, especially the stuff that didn’t end up in my writing. This is also handy advice when you’re a student. Don’t get rid of things. Keep hard copy of all your work. Organize the whole mess somehow so you’ll be able to access things later. Yes, it’s much neater to get rid of things when the quarter is over, but you never know when you might want to use something you’ve written. I often quote myself!

As for textbooks, don’t wait until class begins to find out what text you need. There are too many ways to save money on them, so relieve some stress by starting early. Also, always check the school library to see it there’s a copy of the text on reserve; if there isn’t, ask the teacher if s/he can do this. You can also check to see if the library has the book on its shelves. This was always my strategy in English classes—I didn’t buy Moby Dick, for example; I checked him out of the public library, but the great white whale was also available at school.

Several times, I shared expensive texts with someone in a different section of the same class. Please note that anyone with whom you share a text must be trustworthy and reliable, and that this sharing functions best if you study together, especially for tests, and work out a schedule ahead of time for solo book time that’s agreeable for both of you.

Anatole Broyard, literary critic for The New York Times (and a fascinating man—Google® him sometime), wrote that “[r]eading a book is only the beginning, the first step in the relationship. After you’ve finished it, the book enters on its real career. It stands there as a badge, a blackmailer, a monument, a scar. It’s both a flaw in the room, like a crack in the plaster, and a decoration. The contents of someone’s bookcase are part of his [or her] history, like an ancestral portrait.”

I have many bookshelves filled with books, but there are several shelves in my bedroom and studio that hold my favorite books, the ones I return to again and again. L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) is there. Maxine Greene’s (1995) Releasing the Imagination is there. Several books by Alfie Kohn and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly are on the shelves. So are Twyla Tharpe’s (2003) The Creative Habit and Kenneth W. Thomas’s (2000) Intrinsic Motivation at Work. These shelves are stuffed with words that resonate with me, and that’s why A Perfect Mess is joining the ranks.

Do you need to cultivate reading interests or do you already have them? What does your bookshelf hold and what portrait does it paint of your interests?

Personality is partially an extension of the personal bibliography that every mature adult carries within. The books which we have read provide the most challenging windows into the precious privacy that remains as a steady and sustaining quiet, a centering identity, within all of us.
• Kevin Starr

* Thanks to Douglas Adams for the title quotation.


What ARE Pirate Stools And Why Do I Need Them for My Kitchen?

January 24, 2010

The television is often on while I am working. The chatter keeps me from noticing annoying and distracting noises like the leaf blower across the street or the neighbor using a power saw. Even though I’m not paying attention, there are certain words like fart and breast that get my immediate attention. I don’t hear those often on my favorite white noise, QVC’s home shopping. The only thing I ever really watch on QVC is Jeanne Bice, hawking her Quacker Factory apparel. She fascinates me. So do her sparkly, shiny, seasonally-themed clothes, the kind that many people think that I would surely want to wear and I surely don’t.

An advertisement was on when I heard the words “pirate stools” followed by the announcer telling me how necessary they were for my kitchen. I’m pretty sure I was “watching“ the TV Guide Channel since it circles round and round while offering regular doses of paid advertisements for things I don’t need along with people who think they look like celebrities and can’t wait to have the resemblance enhanced (Note: This has always baffled me. Wouldn’t it be better to look like the best you you can instead of like Angelina Jolie or Tom Hanks or Kim Kardashian? Would it really be thrilling to have someone think you were someone else?)

Oh, and the other thing that seems to be on this channel a lot is the perpetual adolescence of Ashton Kutcher. If he is privately anything at all like his public persona, I pity Demi Moore. Punking people is mean, not funny—ha, ha, your house burned down and you’re being arrested and your dog is dead and you owe the government a quarter of a million dollars and you’ve been fired—maybe I’m just too old to get it, but then I never was a prankster. Incidentally, being in school is probably stressfull enough without getting punked; don’t be tempted to prank.

But back to those pirate stools. Who wouldn’t be curious? Are they missing a leg? Is it because all of their legs are made of wood? Are they emblazoned with gold coins and other booty? Is it because you put your booty on them? My imagination runs wild and I look up, hoping to see what this special seating looks like. And I see it, an advertisement for Pyrex tools. It says so on the screen. And then the voiceover says it again, “Pirate stools.“ I haven’t misheard. He’s not articulating. He’s slurring the words, running them together so that the Pyrex and the tools unite to create the piratestools.

I imagine that such slurring is what leads to other verbal misunderstandings and to people thinking that they’re saying the right thing when they aren’t. Certainly it makes sense when I hear someone call Alzheimer’s disease “old-timers disease“ since it afflicts older folks. It’s actually named for the German neurologist, Dr. Alois Alzheimer. And “carpool tunnel syndrome” could possibly be brought on by too much driving, but it’s still carpal tunnel syndrome because carpal means pertaining to the wrist. One of my all-time favorites is something I heard a Miss USA contestant say in 2007: “With the windshield factor, it was 50 below.“ Anyway, be sure you know what you’re talking about if you’re planning a presentation. A dry run in front of a friendly, but critical audience is a good idea.

As for me, I’m still longing for some pirate stools.

What words have you heard or seen misused?

I hate increment weather.
• Overheard at school, January 2007