“Naughty Baggage”

I’m currently teaching The Scarlet Letter, which uses the insult “naughty baggage” in chapter 2. I told the students that I’d never seen the term before, but that it clearly meant “bad woman” (as a weirdly high number of English words do).

But then I remembered–I own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary! A nearby library was selling it used last September for $20. I talked them down to 15. A 99% savings on the cover price.

Anyway, here’s part of the relevant entry for “baggage.” Note the definitions: “a worthless good-for nothing woman; a woman of disreputable or immoral life,” “trashy, worthless, beggary, trumpery, despicable,” among others. Also note that all of them are marked “obsolete!”

All uses of the #naughtybaggage hashtag are clearly people also reading this book. I encouraged my students to get it trending, but alas, no dice so far. Maybe you could help?



R.I.P. Trump

The word, of course, not the celebrity. It’s become appallingly clear that we can no longer use the verb “trump” literally, as in “My evidence trumps yours,” because of the taint associated with the name now. A sad loss. It was a great word.

I don’t expect it to be resurrected any time soon. Several years later, I still can’t refer to that darkening period at the end of the day–“twilight”–without students giggling. And don’t even try to address an issue by suggesting that it has “shades of gray.”

“The Whole Concatenation of Diabolical Rascality”

Probably the single coolest phrase in all of scripture, right there.  In Doctrine and Covenants 123, Joseph Smith encouraged the Latter-day Saints to keep track of all the “libelous publications,” as well as property damage and physical abuse, they had suffered.

Verse 5 uses this unique and memorable phrase to summarize that record: “the whole concatenation of diabolical rascality.”  Isn’t it wonderful?

First of all, it’s funny in the way that wordy phrases are, using multiple long, obscure words right next to each other.  Also, it’s a perfect example of that 19th century style of excruciatingly exact wording.  The individual words themselves are quite funny, too.  “Concatenation.”  Just say that one aloud.

Everybody should definitely highlight this phrase in their own copies right away.

And if you haven’t read the Doctrine and Covenants, you really should.  Who wouldn’t want to read a book that has gems like this in it?



The Use and Abuse of Parts of Speech, or, Why Basics Are Important

Finished reading example sentences my classes made up for a current unit of vocabulary words today.  As usual, many of these sentences are complete nonsense. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’d say that more than 80% of them were just fine, and even though each class had done plenty of exercises with these words and researched published examples, I still have come to realize that awkward sentences like these are a natural part of the learning process.  They’ll be revised next week, with guided practice. 

By far the biggest thing that strikes me about these, though, is the consistency of the most common error, and what a fundamental error it is: students don’t know how to use parts of speech.  We have nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and the rest drilled into us from elementary school, and here are high school students who, when shown that a word is a noun, will still try to use it as a verb in their own efforts: “He impetussed at me.”  Actually, the most frequent mistake–one that seems to come automatically when trying out an unfamilar word–is to make it an adjective: “He was a really impetus guy.”

So even in honors classes, I spend more time than I ever thought I would reviewing the difference between parts of speech and how to use them. 

I jotted down the “best” examples I saw of mistaken usages in this week’s papers.  Though some concern verb tense, confusing a word with a similar word, or attaching the wrong meaning to a word, the vast majority of these are matters of switched parts of spech. 

The vocabulary words are in italics.


Our army is nostalgia.

Apple juice has a great quintessence.

This wind is impetus.

I was impetus and willing to talk again.

Lawyers tend to be duplicity people. 

Continue reading

Recommended Reading: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

I recently finished reading this to my younger children.  I’ve presented them with some challenging stories before, but I was outright flabbergasted at how intellectually mature this classic was.

Published in 1908, this British classic tells tales of four country friends–a rat, a mole, a badger, and (most famously) a rich, pompous, adventuresome toad.  These are no flat, stock children’s book characters.  They have enough neurotic vinegar in them to make the cast of Toy Story seem like The Waltons by comparison.  Not only do they have strikingly realistic personalities, but they behave in the ways that our grandparents did, ways that make us blush today.  They don’t hesitate to insult someone, calling a spade a spade when needed, they acknowledge violence as a normal way to deal with thugs, and differences between social classes aren’t treated at all as anything unusual–just another natural part of life. 

And yet, this world that often seems rough to our “modern sensibilities” is also markedly refined compared to most of our daily ditherings.  The Wind in the Willows is so thoroughly pastoral that it practically strives to be scripture on the subject, vying perhaps to sit next to Walden and The Boy Scout Handbook on my shelf.  One chapter, in fact, dreamily describes an episode where two lost characters in the woods encounter an ecstatic ancient spirit, whose communion is powerfully glorious.  Such seemingly pagan influences struck me as odd for a book coming from the Edwardian period, but it fits in without a ripple of real inappropriateness here, not blushing in its unabashed environmentalism. 

All this has just been prologue, though, for the thing that truly makes this masterpiece stand up and demand our attention is just how amazingly literary it is.  Continue reading

Yet Another Star Wars FAIL

Near the beginning of Episode II, when Obi Wan has jumped out the window and is hanging on to the droid that tried to kill Padme, and the assassin sees the droid and Obi Wan coming towards her, why the heck does she shoot the droid?  Wouldn’t it have made much more sense just to shoot Obi Wan?  But I guess then the movie would have been over. 

On a related note, perhaps she could have asseverated vertiginously with a dichotomy of pulchritude.

Vocabulary Fun

For the first time this school year, I’ve had to call in sick (bronchitis, I bet).  As I wait for the doctor’s office to open, let’s start catching up on some neglected blogging!

The following are some cool words that, in nearly two years, I have never used on this blog:

  • asseverate
  • vertiginous
  • dichotomy
  • pulchritude

I’ll try to work each of these in, naturally, in some future posts by the end of the year.

The First Four Weeks

The first four weeks of school are over.  Some thoughts:

  • As students transition into using new vocabulary words in their own writing, they seem to have an instinct for using unfamiliar words as adjectives.  I find myself reviewing parts of speech much more than I’d like to at the high school level.  Most teens need to be reminded that parts of speech are not interchangeable.  The first word of our first unit is “adulterate,” the verb meaning “to corrupt or make impure.”  Without closer guidance, they’ll just use it like this: “He was a really adulterate guy.”  Of course, if they’re talking about Bill Clinton, I guess I could give them half credit.
  • I usually don’t like open house, the annual night where parents come in to meet their kids’ teachers.  I never know what to do up there, not that it ever makes any difference, anyway.  Life goes on as if it never happened, and I forget everyone I met as soon as I go home.  This year, though, one parent thanked me for assigning  a list of options from which students have to choose for their independent reading this quarter.  “If you hadn’t assigned these,” she said, “the kids would never read them.”  It’s nice enough to get a compliment, but it’s even better when a parent understands the reasoning behind what I do!
  • Yesterday, a college student called me to say that he’d missed the last two weeks of class because his grandmother died.  He offered to bring me a note from his parents.  I told him that was unnecessary. 
  • Every year I notice this: before our morning announcements, kids in an honors class will all stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance together.  Kids in non-honors classes rarely will.  It’s a very stark, and very absolute, difference.  This begs a chicken-or-the-egg question: is a student’s citizenship influenced by their academic performance, or is their academic performance influenced by their citizenship?  Or are both, perhaps, shaped by the same factors in the home environment…
  • Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Reading The OED

27493046I mentioned this book a few weeks ago, with only mild enthusiasm.  The further I got into it, though, the faster I read through it.  No, it isn’t as ambitious as A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All; Jacobs drew funny and poignant parallels between his reading and some stresses and changes in his life, while Ammon Shea only goes as far as the occasional observational nugget in that vein. 

The great pleasure of Shea’s book, however, is its pervasive, unabashed, gloriously valedictory nerdiness.  Imagine someone making an exaggerated parody of word lovers.  Shea’s actual nerdiness is still deeper than that.  In fact, in a contemplative review section at the end, which compared to the pacing in the rest of the book is drawn out not unlike the similarly loving tribute that is the end of the third Lord of the Rings movie, he resists the temptation to brag about the tedious rigor of poring over every word of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and instead revels in the joy of it, calling it his favorite book, and carefully explaining his plan to read it again right away, savoring each page with the delicate attention of an enraptured lover. 

Heck.  Yeah. 

Shea writes a short chapter for each letter of the alphabet, starting with a quick essay on some aspect of the dictionary itself, his love of dictionaries, or the process of reading the OED.  Then, he gives a sampling of his favorite words from that section, most all of which are odd, rare, and hilarious.  (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that when the word “fizzle” entered the Anglo lexicon in the sixteenth century, it meant “a silent fart.”)  Like Jacobs, he splices clever wit into his commentary on each word (as Jacobs did with encyclopedia entries), and comes across as refreshingly engaging.  It’s not huis conversational style that makes this reader comfortable, it’s Shea’s confident use of polysyllabic vocabulary, as well as his casually deft array of complex grammatical constructions.  He sure doesn’t talk down to you, that’s for sure. 

Add to all that just a wee smattering of misanthropy.  This, I said to myself more than once as I read, is a guy I can relate to.  We may not have much in common (although I can’t help but wonder if his first name implies what I think it does), but we have a solid brotherhood of logophilia.  I briefly wondered if I should offer to buy him lunch sometime so I can gush about his work and bounce some hopefully-erudite ideas off of him, but I quickly remembered the (in)famous meeting of James Joyce and Marcel Proust which, no matter which account you believe, fizzled.  In every sense of the word.  So maybe lunch would be anticlimactic.


Ever since high school, I’ve kept a list of my favorite words.  Some sound musically whimsical, some are bafflingly arcane, others are surprisingly utilitarian (did you know there’s a word just for throwing something out a window?). 

At first, it was a slip of scrap paper in the top drawer of a desk to which I added new words in different color inks every now and then.  Later, it became a page in my journal, with later entries scrunched up at the bottom of the small space I had foolishly allotted to something that clearly deserved better.

Now, it’s on my blog.  Presenting my 45 favorite words, often with links to dictionary.com or, preferably, the invaluable Wordsmith web site (if you don’t get their “word a day” email, you’re depriving yourself of a prime reason to get out of bed in the morning).  Onward, logophiles!

  1. persnickety
  2. discombobulate–“to confuse,” though I’ve also hear it used simply to mean “to disassemble”
  3. onomatopoeia
  4. schadenfreude–“pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.”  Shocking–shocking!–that German has a word for this
  5. facetious
  6. subterfuge
  7. coquettish
  8. extrapolate
  9. solipsism
  10. supercilious
  11. pontificate
  12. loquacious
  13. weltschmerz–a German version of the French ennui?
  14. potentate
  15. exacerbate
  16. oxymoron
  17. punctilious
  18. zeitgeist
  19. lackadaisical
  20. ululate–used in Lord of the Flies
  21. vociferous
  22. circumambulate–used in Moby Dick
  23. polyglot–first came across this one while reading commentaries on Finnegans Wake
  24. cachinnate–“to laugh raucously”
  25. obfuscation–as in “eschew obfuscation”
  26. abecedary
  27. besmirched
  28. cackleberry
  29. haberdashery–“a place that sells men’s clothes”
  30. sacerdotal
  31. skulduggery
  32. hobbledehoy–useful insult for a teacher to know
  33. expectorate
  34. defenestration–“throwing something out of a window”
  35. somnolent
  36. plenipotentiary
  37. whomp
  38. sniffy
  39. swivet
  40. fartlek–“a method of physical training that alternates intense activity with periods of low effort”
  41. penultimate–when I first heard this word, I thought it might mean something like “super ultimate.”  I was disappointed to find that it means “next to last”
  42. bifurcated–you know, like the devil’s tail!  :)
  43. canoodling
  44. twitterpated–from Bambi
  45. kerfuffle–I can’t believe I never heard this word until 2005’s Danish Muhammad cartoon kerfuffle

Bonus Simpsons Quote!  “Disingenuous mountebanks with their subliminal chicanery!  A pox on them!”  -Homer (no, really!), “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love,” Season 3

Seven Underutilized Words

In a world awash with shallow rhetoric and irrational vitriol, I invite you to stand with me and reintroduce these great lost words into our daily lexicon.  Use them freely, friends, for a society in peril needs to hear them, and hear them often!

  1. Balderdash!
  2. Poppycock!
  3. Nonsense!
  4. Rot!
  5. Rubbish!
  6. Bunk!
  7. Hogwash!

These words are both holy and powerful.  Wield them well and watch the garbage that fills the spaces between our public discourses be neatly rent asunder.  Now go!


Fun With Words

As the school district curriculum requires English classes to review prefixes, roots, and suffixes during first quarter each year, I do the following each September: I give students a list of common word stems, and have them combine a bunch in new ways; then, based on the meanings of those parts, they must come up with a reasonable definition. 

I made a list of some of my favorites from last year’s class.  Here are the creative, thought-provoking, hilarious results:

  • Nonchromastrette—a female star with no color.
  • Micropedtrician—doctor for small feet
  • Intercryptesses—women who share secrets among themselves
  • Ultramicrocapitology—the study of people with very small heads
  • Monomorphhood—only able to change into one other shape
  • Semiantihyperphile—a person partly opposed to excessive love
  • Circumcyclanthroportogist—one who travels in circles carrying men
  • Biocosmcryptism—the theory that the Earth is a sentient being and is hiding this fact from us
  • Philocryptard—one who loves secrets
  • Semicapithood—condition of having half a head
  • Sophpatercide—the killing of a wise father
  • Periasterist—person who’s always around stars
  • Zotractcyclology—study of animals that pull things with wheels
  • Postdemology—the study of the world after all the people are gone
  • Astrozoology—the study of animals from space
  • Retrogencapitition—to be born with your head on backwards
  • Microautochromcyclen—to be made of small, self-colored wheels
  • Bibliochromard—one who colors in books
  • Nonbibliocredance—not trusting anything in books
  • Hypermorhood—excessively dead
  • Misbibliofinate—a book with a bad ending
  • Bisophozoogeographphonolgy—the study of two wise animals who wrote about the earth
  • Octanthropezocryptecidism—the act of eight men killing hidden animals
  • Geophileless—without love for the earth
  • Postneobilbioist—someone who has finished reading a new book
  • Subcentesque—to be less than 100 years old
  • Contraquahood—the state of being against water
  • Bisubaquagrammers—two people who write underwater
  • Contrademhyperspreers—people who fight other people who breathe too much
  • Acapitlessposthypergrammer—someone who had their head cut off because they wrote too much
  • Octmicropedettephobia—the fear of women with eight small feet
  • Semineomisphonish—when something new sounds kind of bad
  • Preaquacryptsciness—before knowledge of water was a secret
  • Necropedapyrosubhydraphiliaphobia—the fear of loving children who died underwater while on fire
  • Astrosophneolism—new wisdom found in the stars
  • Procisbicapitdemist—one who believes in cutting off the heads of people with two heads
  • Antianthropediology—the study of not liking men’s feet
  • Autoanthropolyphonologist—a man who makes many noises while studying himself
  • Tricentpateretteism—belief in having 300 effeminate fathers
  • Philomonoic—to love being single