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May 03, 2010

What Does That Word Mean?

Ever try to figure out what a new word might mean?

I run into new words all the time - and even more often - I explain words or word histories...

...to my students. Just today, in fact, I was explaining the root meaning of the word "amateur". The usual meaning is to do something for pleasure - as opposed to doing something professionally, that is, for pay.

But, as always, the history is far richer and more meaningful. "Amateur" comes from the French word "Amour" which of course means love. An "amateur" is, therefore, someone who does something for the love of it instead for payment.

There are "amateur" artists, musicians, sailors and sports enthusiasts - many of them far more talented - or informed - than the so-called professionals. Personally I also find them far more passionate and fun to be around.

Every word has a story and, many times, we can get a sense of the meaning and history of a word from the context of the sentence or the whole piece of writing.

This interpretation from context is also a skill - a skill that many low income students never learn. Several schools in San Diego, California USA are working to correct this achievement gap by using strategies and vocabulary crucial to student success - but rarely heard at home.

You can see more about the program here - http://voiceofsandiego.org/education/article_50f16a24-563e-11df-9cb4-001cc4c03286.html. Be sure to take note of how they walk students through the word "critical" as they build on what students already know and move toward a fuller understanding and use of fairly complex words.

I love to nurture student initiative and involvement in their own learning. We are all always learning. And it is always more fun to learn together.

Send me your mangled memos, your garbled utterances, your misheard song lyrics, scrambled slang and misunderstood Americanisms. Accidental or deliberate, these stray words, stretched meanings and reconfigured phrases are continually enriching our language.

Many linguists may not agree, but I am convinced that this constant shifting and churning of our language primarily illuminates facets or aspects of our language most of us would never notice.

Let me know what it is about English that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf prefers international and independent films, foods he can't pronounce, music no one else has heard of and riding his bicycle in foreign cities.

Posted by mmorf at May 3, 2010 09:50 PM

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