07 March 2007

Must we teach the origins of words?

Some teachers recommend teaching our students the origins of words. That brings to mind some reflections on how word origins actually get in the way of meaning sometimes, for example, with some modern word usages.

There are a lot of new words being used in ways that have little to do with their origins in my opinion and I have begun giving the "new" definitions of the words rather than what I think is the whole story of the word.

For example, a rather crass but commonly heard way in movies and popular music of speaking of a "girlfriend" is "ho" or "bitch". Is it really necessary to give all the background to those words? Can't we can just define the word and explain what kind of slang it is? It is becoming more common to hear people say a product that doesn't function well really "sucks" or it is "shit". Those are words for "bad". President George Bush, making a comment to Dick Cheney, was overheard by all when he called a certain reporter an "asshole". This is language that our president, who is a shining light of human dignity, democracy and freedom for all mankind, uses. So how can you define that word? It means someone you don't like.

I never teach these words to my students. In fact, when the subject comes up I teach them NOT to use them as they can be explosive and cause a lot of damage. But as far as telling them how they should understand the word when they hear it I no longer turn red, gag, wonder how to put it so as not to offend the more sensitive ones in attendance, and go into the whole gory ugly story.

Calling someone an "ale-soused apple john" would mean little today but in Elizabethan times it was very offensive.

I'm convinced that many young people, without fully understanding the origins, are using some of these words in a sort of innocent way and that in the future these words will be more accepted into our mainstream vocabulary. But if the word is being used frequently and if knowing the origin of the word is not really necessary then I think it may be best for us to not teach it.

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