August 14, 2014 by libroshombre
We’re lucky that our school district pays attention to its libraries, since that’s where students get grounded in navigating the immense world of information that they’ll deal with all their lives. Sadly, it’s not like that in many American cities, despite repeated studies showing that reading scores improve markedly when school libraries are enhanced in any way: more librarians, more books, even repainting the walls. The district’s Library Media Services Department (LMS) coordinates the purchasing of digital resources, training the school library staffs, and otherwise boosts the libraries’ performance.
LMS also has a table of “de-accessioned,” or give-away, books whose usefulness has declined. Always thinking ahead to that next column, I couldn’t pass up the 1972 edition of Harry Shaw’s “Dictionary of Literary Terms” where on the first page I learned the difference between an “Abecedarian” and an “abecedarian.” An Abecedarian was a “member of a sixteenth-century religious sect that despised learning because its followers believed all that was needed to interpret divine revelations was the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The lowercase term ‘abecedarian’ is occasionally applied to (1) anyone who scorns formal learning, (2) one learning the alphabet, and (3) one who teaches the rudiments of learning.”
A lifetime of appraising the benefits of effective readings, research, and critical thinking skills continues to boil down to the power of a word. “Words are tools which automatically carve concepts out of experience,” as Julian Huxley wrote in “The Uniqueness of Man.” Knowing and distinguishing words from their near, yet distinct, counterparts, determines your ability to wield them forcefully. English is particularly loaded with homophones, defined by Macmillan Dictionary as “a word that sounds the same as another word but has its own spelling, meaning, and origin.”
Being unaware of the differences between “bear” and “bare,” and “ascent” and “accent” can cause major problems. That’s why numerous educational websites are dedicated to the subject. Not knowing what homophones are si unforgiveable in an English teacher. According to Slate.com, last July 31 Clarke Woodger, the owner of a school specializing in English as a second language, fired his social-media specialist, Tim Torkildson, “for creating the perception that the school promotes a gay agenda.” Torkildson’s sin was compiling a list of homophones for the school blog. Woodger’s is grammatical incompetence.
Another example of the power of words came from Russia last month when Putin’s government banned the artistic use of their language’s “hugely potent lexicon of obscenities known as ‘mat,’ which is centered on four taboo words and an infinite number of their variations.” Russians have homophones, too, and enforcing this will be like nailing jello. According to TheGuardian.com, which published the naughty terms in both languages for handy reference, Putin’s idea is “to cleanse the Russian language in order to ensure its ‘purity’.”
Writing about the mat-ban, novelist Viktor Yerofeyev said “It won! The State Duma has officially recognized it to be a real threat, the adversary, the enemy, the foe of Russian.” The ruling has “dealt a painful blow to the movie industry,” which won’t be able to get distribution licenses for films containing profanity, like “Leviathan,” the film by Russian Andrei Zvyagintsev that won the best screenplay award at last May’s Cannes Film Festival.
Purifying languages is a great way to make them wither, as the French can testify. “L’Academie francaise,” or French Academy, was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu and “is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language.” While its rulings are only advisory, they carry some weight. They’re especially known for weeding out English loanwords, replacing popular expressions like “software” and “email” with the French-derived equivalents: “logiciel” and “courriel.” French was once “the language of diplomacy,” but today it trails Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, and, of course, English.
Scrabble‘s a sort of English Academie with an officially-approved word list, but they allow “attaché,” “baguette,” “corduroy” and 138 other French terms, and many other foreign expressions. The updated Scrabble Dictionary came out last week, and many, underscoring the inclusiveness of English, fun words were added like “bromance” (close nonsexual relationship between men), “selfie,” and “hashtag” (word or phrase preceded by the symbol #). And one suitable for all language limiters: “buzzkill” (a depressing or negative effect).