Aren’t words wonderful? In schools, the emphasis on increasing our children’s vocabulary is pushed more and more. After all, rich word knowledge means greater accuracy in communication. In writing, speaking and reading. Being accurate with words is vital, and books are a super resource. Word banks, arguably, are not. Seeing children insert words from a list into their writing with no idea about context, is more than frustrating. And corrupts the sentence. Good writing isn’t about what words you use, so much as how you use the ones you do.
It is this accuracy which we should be striving for. Books about words and language do not come around all that often. However, there are some out there which are useful. Being ‘word-curious’ is more popular than ever. Lexicographer Susie Dent shares her passion on Twitter, in books, and on her podcast, with great success. It seems we’re fascinated by individual words, idioms, etymology, phrases, strange spellings, pronunciations, dialects, accents, and all the many peculiarities of the English language.
But are children as intrigued as adults can be? I’m sure some are, but a book about language isn’t going to bowl over most of them – without some adult input. That’s not to say these are not interesting and beautiful books. They are. But perhaps this is the point. I find them a treasure trove to get excited about, but I am an adult with more of an understanding of words’ complexities and strangeness.
Children have yet to appreciate this wonderfully verdant garden of words. So, perhaps these books will appeal to school staff and parents more than the children, which is… brilliant! Truly. Knowledgeable, enthusiastic role models sharing interesting titbits of educational magic. In response, children will pick up the same books. But whether they can prise them from your fingers is up to you.
Britannica Books are doing great things at the moment. Their Word of the Day: 366 Elevating Utterances to Stretch your Cranium and Tickle your Humerus is a good place to start to become an enthused wordsmith. Many of the words here will be familiar to grownups. However, a lot of them we don’t use in everyday conversation. And we know that listening to the spoken word is one way we develop our language skills. In early life, it’s the only way – a process that starts in the womb.
It is up to you how you use this book. You may want to teach a new word each day. Or, you could just start dropping them into your speech, giving them that all important context. Learning what new words mean is easy, but remembering them and learning to use them correctly is more challenging. It is better to learn one word and use it correctly than too many and then fling them around like a baby elephant discovering its trunk.
Andy Seed’s The Silly Book of Weird and Wacky Words will appeal to children with its design and illustrations. Once they have that spark of interest, they will love jumping through the various sections in any order they choose.
Rather than teaching new words, it celebrates all the playful and creative ways people use language. It covers jokes and tongue twisters, spoonerisms and nonsense words, slang and colloquialisms, and also paraprosdokians, sniglets, pleonasms, and pompisms (one of those last four I made up. Bet you don’t know which without looking them up.) and much more. I can see teachers using this book to inspire great wordplay and inject fun into literacy and SPAG. The word games are particularly useful for those stuck in a rut playing Hangman. You could try The Minister’s Cat, Never-ending Sentence, or one of the other 18 games involving speaking or writing.
What a Wonderful Word and What a Wonderful Phrase (Little Tiger) introduce readers to different words and idioms from around the world (I love the reference to the Louis Armstrong song). The former book, contains untranslatable words. This in itself is something rather amazing. English has the most words in any language (over 171,000 plus over 47,000 obsolete words), so surely there is a word for everything? Well, clearly not. If you know someone who is always cold, you can start calling them ’friolero’ as they do in Spanish. Some words we need, and others we don’t. The Finnish have a word for the distance a reindeer can walk without needing the toilet – Poronkusema. Other words are becoming more and more pertinent, like ’koyaanisqatsi’, from the Native American language Hopi. It means ‘nature that is out of balance or a way of life that is so crazy it cannot continue.’
The latter book is just as much a curiosity. I’m sure many of you have salt on your pumpkin and want to show others where lobsters spend the winter. After all, none of us wants to comb the giraffe, We want to put on the naughty shoes. But there’s no cow on the ice, so it is OK to think about blue almonds too. Idioms are natural to native speakers of a language, but will bamboozle you if you aren’t. I wonder if anyone can work out the meanings of the ones above. Luckily, the book has great explanations and illustrations for each one.
Complex, confusing, and often amusing, language and words are the bedrock of a society. We never cease learning our native language, because it keeps evolving. These books do a fantastic job of keeping that drive to be curious alive. Not just in their intended child audience, but in the adults that will pass that knowledge on to them. Just like the words that have been passed down through generations before.
Nikki Gamble chatted to Patrick Skipworth, author of Literally, about borrower words and where they come from
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