Having realized that my last two essays dealt with my cousin’s survival at Auschwitz and my dad’s eating grass in war-torn Hungary, I thought a little levity might be a nice springtime diversion.
We English teachers don’t always have it easy at social occasions (remember those?). After we’re introduced at a party, asked what our profession is, and plead guilty to teaching English, all too often the response is: “Oh, dear, I'd better watch my grammar.”
Oh, dear, indeed—is that our reputation with the general public: punctuation police? Syntax sentinels?
I have an orthopedist friend who complains that people at parties are always hitting her up for free medical advice. That’s never a problem for me. Of course, my only remotely orthopedic expertise is in repairing split infinitives, and I am still waiting to happily grant that request....oops, I meant happily to grant that request: infinitive restored.
But at my last lecture before Covid kept me home, a couple asked me how they could improve their daughter’s vocabulary skills. They had purchased a series of videos which promised to bestow upon the viewer a brilliant vocabulary in fifteen easy sessions. Supposedly, after only two months of memorization and repetition their daughter would be speaking like Winston Churchill addressing Parliament. So far, she was still speaking like a teenager at Appleby’s.
As an English teacher, I know that vocabulary cannot be taught by memorizing the definitions in the same way that a medical student memorizes the cranial nerves or a kindergartner the Pledge of Allegiance. Words are possessed only by familiarity.
Charles Dickens understood this fact. Here was a young man whose formal education ended forever before the ninth grade, and yet he became the English author whose depth and variety of vocabulary are surpassed only by Shakespeare and Milton. How did he accomplish this? We know that on his sixteenth birthday, the youngest age allowed, he applied for a pass to the Reading Room of the British Museum, the largest library in Europe. He was an omnivorous reader, absorbing the very best essays, poems, novels, and short stories as hungrily as teenagers today devour pizzas and fries. Through a miraculous osmosis that we still do not fully understand, this incessant reading not only taught him the meaning of words through the context of the sentences in which they appeared, but it allowed him to store this vast hoard of treasure until he summoned it years later to glorify his own brilliant prose. All of you with children or grandchildren who are great readers know how that same wondrous reading habit has magically enhanced their vocabularies as well.
As a child, my personal British Museum was my older sister, Gloria. Because there was a four-year grade difference in school between us, she was mastering vocabulary that I desperately desired to know, just to hold my own with her, especially when we argued. When I angered her, a round-the-clock occurrence, she would often yell out a two or three syllable epithet, and I remember scurrying to my big yellow Webster's dictionary to look it up so I could be properly enraged at the insult. She became a virtual walking thesaurus for me for all words that meant "stupid"; I was learning the definitions of imbecile, moron, idiot, and, her personal favorite, ignoramus, at an alarming rate. I believe my verbal dexterity today owes much to those sparring matches sixty years ago. She may have had the vocabulary, but I had the lungs and dramatic flair to belt out piteously: “MOM! MAHHHH-M! GLORIA’S BEING UGLY AGAIN!”
This method of gaining personal word power did have its drawbacks, however. When I complained to a mischievous older friend that I could never out-do my crabby sister in arguments, he suggested that the next time we argued I should call her a particularly clever word which he assured me was a cool and zippy form of "HORRIBLE PERSON" and encouraged me to yell only the first syllable -- “HOAR!”