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Sesquipedality Can Be Fun!

August 25, 2010

Our nephews are still providing interesting insights into the contemporary educational system.  Today’s lesson was spelling.

With respect to spelling, each of them gets a word list on Monday and each day they are supposed to practice spelling the words.  There is a test on Friday to make sure they have committed the words to memory.

Up until this past week, the word lists were about what you would expect for 10 and 8 year olds. 

So you can imagine my surprise when Yazdy, the 10 year old, and I were going through his word list and right after ‘success’ came ‘trypanosome.’  And right after that came ‘anomy.’

“Where did these words come from?” I asked.

“From the dictionary.”

I knew that.  At least I knew that with respect to trypanosome.  To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t so sure about anomy.  As it turns out, it’s a word that, if it didn’t exist, would have to be invented in order to describe the education system.

Anyway, back to the conversation.  I countered with, “Yes, but why did the teacher pick them for spelling words.”

“She didn’t.  I did.”

Yes.  Apparently, outsourcing has come to education.  The teacher told the kids to go to the dictionary and pick out their own spelling words.  Yazdy claimed that he picked out some words that looked practical but he picked trypanosome and anomy because they “looked interesting.”

I was impressed that he’d found words interesting but sceptical of the whole process.  “What happens if some kid just picks out a, and, the and but?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know what these words mean?”

“Not really.”  (Which really means “no.”)

“Well.  What do you think a trypanosome is?”

“Maybe something with three of something?”

I had to give him credit for thinking of that, but clearly it was time to consult the dictionary.  To the accompaniment of the customary groans and eye rolling I retrieved the Websters and we proceeded to look up the words in question.

In case your recollection is hazy, a trypanosome is the nasty bug that causes sleeping sickness and anomy, also sometimes spelled anomie, means a Lady Gaga concert.

It seemed like a good time to reinforce the learning process.

“So what are you going to do if the teacher asks you to use these words in a sentence?”

“She never does that.”

“Maybe, but this is the first time you’ve chosen your own words.  Maybe she’ll want to know if you know what they mean.”

“But she wouldn’t think I’d choose a word I didn’t know.”

“But she’d be wrong, wouldn’t she?”

“No.  I know what the words mean.  Now.”

I found myself wondering if embodying anomy was the same as knowing what it meant.  But I persevered.  “OK.  Use them in a sentence.”

After an indecently short interval he responded with “In the morning my brother acts like he has trypanosomes.  But when he wakes up, he causes anomy.”

I’m so glad I’m not a teacher.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2010 7:46 pm

    I obviously have a love of unusual words, being a writer and all. But I’m not sure exactly what this exercise would hope to accomplish as far as education. If it is for the sole purpose of strengthening rote memory then that’s one thing…. Actually that is the only thing it would be useful for.

  2. August 26, 2010 1:24 am

    This was fun to read, and reminded me that peerless Mark Twain said, “Never let schooling get in the way of your education.”

  3. August 26, 2010 1:50 am

    Over here, it is customary to have students use their SAT vocabulary words within their writing, which often produces a hilarious queue of querulous quips, accented by prodigious pastiches…

    What an odd assignment!

  4. August 26, 2010 2:29 am

    Hahaha, see, that’s where we differ. Moments like that are exactly why I love being a teacher 🙂 However, in reality, we don’t even have spelling tests anymore. They’ve been deemed unnessarry buy the powers that bee. (sic…of course!)

    • August 28, 2010 2:27 pm

      I loved moments like that as a teacher too, but to ask a question I heard a million times, what was the academic justification of the exercise?

  5. August 26, 2010 10:18 am

    Next time the kids may pick paraphilia, concupiscence, and satyriasis out of the dictionary.

  6. August 26, 2010 11:12 pm

    Hehe, so great … “I found myself wondering if embodying anomy was the same as knowing what it meant.”

  7. August 27, 2010 4:59 am

    It’s depressing to know that after four years of earning an English degree, I didn’t have the slightest clue what either of those two words meant. Don’t let your son become an English major!

    • August 27, 2010 6:17 pm

      Yes, but I bet you know what a meme is. And what the mirror stage was all about.

  8. August 27, 2010 4:51 pm

    “… I’m so glad I’m not a teacher.”

    But you were. You discussed words with him, making him aware of them and of all subsequent words, and thus (possibly) making him a word lover one day.

    Never heard of trypanosomethingorother. But anomie (that’s the spelling I know): You might have told him that it’s Greek, and that when he sees a Greek word with ‘a’, it mean non- or un- something, and that nomos means law. So lawless, ie Lady Gaga.

    As one who learned English as a second language, I’ve always thought it odd that the natives consider the Latin and Greek words the hardest to spell at bees. The spelling follows the sound according to fairly reliable rules.

    It’s the good ole Anglo-Saxon words that are impossible to spell. How could you possibly get from the sound ‘rawt’ to ‘wrought’? Only with familiarity, I guess.

    • August 27, 2010 6:21 pm

      Thank you for that! Both my nephews love Greek mythology and we’ve had a lot of discussions about words and concepts that have come from those stories–like cereal and volcano, etc. And with a little encouragement they get very interested in homomyms and synonyms and interesting spellings and pronunciations.

  9. August 31, 2010 2:24 am

    I can always count on you to expand my vocabulary each time I read your posts. My youngest daughter is taking a British literature class at college this semester. She is pursuing a degree in English. She asked me to help interpret some poems that were assigned. I was definitely in over my head but imagine I will learn along with her as we dig into the poems. There seems to be an overall theme of loose women and a lot of drinking in the assigned poems thus far.

  10. August 31, 2010 12:22 pm

    She is reading poems by John Skelton at this point in time.

  11. September 1, 2010 9:15 am

    When I was in 9th grade (back in the Dark Ages) my English teacher gave us two new vocabulary words every day, with words that we probably wouldn’t have encountered on our own. We had to keep a notebook where we were responsible for looking up the definitions of the words, and using each word in a sentence of our own making (no getting by with generic or vague definitions.) We also had to reference where we saw the word being used in a newspaper article, magazine or book (or if we heard it used on t.v.). Our notebooks were evaluated every grading period.

    I will be eternally grateful for that exercise, even though we all grumbled and moaned about the work involved. It has paid priceless dividends over the years.

    • September 1, 2010 11:13 am

      Exactly–you were given the opportunity to see that learning can happen any time you encounter something new! Plus you learned a lot of useful words I’m sure.

  12. bob zeller permalink
    September 9, 2010 8:51 am

    Tommy, ol’ pal, this ain’t nothin’ new. Why, back in my days at Thoreau Park Elementary School I picked out my own words for the spelling list. Of course, they were not always the same ones chosen by the teacher. Maybe that explains why I is where I is today…..

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