When I read that Merriam-Webster decided to print its next edition online and not in print, I felt a tragic loss. My dictionary is irreplaceable. Lara O’Brien, local children’s author, concurs: “My most important book in the house is the dictionary. [My children] see me use it every day. That is the tool to capture the most beautiful of words, and discover something new every time. Just opening that book creates imaginative and magical thoughts, and then ideas begin to sprout.”
Choosing the right word for any situation cannot be pooh-poohed. Mark Twain famously wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
On a whole, it seems our society has lost a love of words and the nuances of language. In my childhood, words like “crap” and “sucks” were profanity, yet today they’re used ad nauseam. Even typing them now makes me cringe. I once heard a group facilitator remind everyone to “choose your finest words.” Wiser words were never spoken.
In spite of the onslaught of technological ways to “connect” with people, the success of communication (in writing and speaking) rests on the speaker’s ability to effectively convey exactly what he means, believes, and feels, with clarity and precision. Noah Webster, the founder of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, said, “Language is the expression of ideas.”
If you instill in your children a love of words, you are giving them a lifelong gift. Whether they are poets, chatterboxes, introverts, or computer techs, words connect us to others in ways that nothing else can.
There are myriad ways to accomplish this, including playing Scrabble and Boggle, doing crossword puzzles together (even young children can help provide answers to easier clues), Mad Libs, hangman, anagrams, the dictionary game, and word-puzzle books.
If you’re not the game-playing type, there are many more ways to instill a love of words and build your child’s vocabulary. Be daring and try this. Next time your child says “crap” or “sucks,” for example, ask what other word he could use. Gently and gradually encourage your child to choose interesting words over those less rich. Give him suggestions, and see if he uses them later on.
Some teachers post an R.I.P. poster in their classrooms. Dull, overused words like “fun,” “nice,” and “awesome” meet their demise here. Students are challenged to substitute for these mundane words with far more vivid and luscious ones. While you don’t have to make a poster, you can try the same idea at home, informally.
Introduce a new word each day at mealtime: “Hey, I heard a cool word today.” Talk about its meaning. Ask your children if they heard any new words that day. Celebrate words! Make a list of fascinating words from books read, and post it on the refrigerator.
West Tisbury poet laureate Justen Ahren shares the physicality of words with his children. “I try to give my kids a sense of the power of language. Take time to comment on word choices. And because kids are so body-oriented, I like to have them repeat sounds so they get a feeling for where and how the word is produced. The word ‘howl,’ for example, comes out of the throat and is funneled out through the coned lips much like a wolf. You almost need to tip your head back to produce the sound. Words are magic — incantations, really.”
Some things, like fine wine and local beach plum jelly, should be preserved. Words, too. To be understood and to understand necessitates a solid grasp of words and their impact.
Words represent our essence. Model this for your children, and help them learn how to use words as a tool for life. They, and their words, are worth it!
Deb Dunn is literacy coordinator at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School; you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.