Vexing Vocabulary

     My daughter recently approached me, a novel in hand, asking what a certain phrase meant. Had the problem involved only a single word, I’d have encouraged her to look it up in the dictionary. We would then have discussed the meaning of the word, making sure she understood it both standing alone and in the context of the sentence.

     In this case, however, she understood the words, but not the phrase comprised of them. I explained said phrase. After a moment’s pause, she turned to face me and said that writers shouldn’t put words in books that kids can’t understand.

     Well, you can imagine what a discussion that started!

     I asked my daughter how she would have become as intelligent as she is had she never come across nor investigated new phrases? I do not believe that writers should abandon a rigorous vocabulary simply because they are writing to children, and I told her as much. Kids are not so delicate as to require familiar words and phrases day in and day out. As a child, I loved coming across new words. It was like meeting a stranger, who then became a friend, who then became a part of my life. I would try to make my new friend part of my lexicon.

     Longer books without higher vocabulary? As a writer, that makes for awfully nondescript writing. As a child, it makes for overly-simple reading.

     I’m willing to bet that within a week, she’ll use that new phrase … and smile while she’s doing it.

4 replies
  1. Rebecca Laffar-Smith
    Rebecca Laffar-Smith says:

    Ok, you can’t torture us like this. WHAT was the phrase??? *chuckles*

    It is always a thrill to learn a new word or turn of phrase. I’m delighted to learn and put to use words I’ve been unfamiliar with. Our vocabulary should never be sparse and language continues to grow and change.

    I think it’s wonderful that you encourage your daughter to learn new words. Imagine what book reading would be like if those who orginally developed language were satisfied with creating only a few dozen words. It is the broad variety we are offered that make reading such an enjoyable experience and the opportunity to create stories so thrilling.

  2. Silvia
    Silvia says:

         There were actually two parts that led to her frustration.

         The first was, indeed, just a single word: “contingency.” It frustrated her because she had to stop reading, look it up, and then ask anyway because she still wasn’t understanding.

         It was the pairing of that and the following phrase, however, that made her state that authors ought to simplify their writing. In the story, a soldier had “dog tags.” Obviously, you can see the problem isn’t with the words themselves. “Dog tag” isn’t hard to figure out, if you’re thinking about canines, but that didn’t fit the story. My daughter wasn’t familiar with military dog tags, so I had to clarify.

         It’s not the particular words, though, that make the point, and that’s why I didn’t bother mentioning them up top. To an adult, these examples probably aren’t the most interesting or funny examples to give, but to a child, unfamiliar words can be sources of either frustration (for the child who has no help in decoding the unfamiliar word) or sources of joy (for the child who is able to decode the words and employ them in their own vocabulary).

         My daughter did use the word “contingency” just a day later. 🙂

  3. Rebecca Laffar-Smith
    Rebecca Laffar-Smith says:

    *ponders* In this case it’s actually a great learning opportunity for her and it sounds like the beginning introduction into military topics in her reading. There are always strange jargon used in each genre and learning of military ‘dog tags’ at this stage lines her up for more reading in that genre in the future. 🙂

    The question is, what ‘could’ the author have written instead? It wasn’t a phrase that would have made more sense if explained. An explaination or alternative would have slowed down the reading of ‘average’ readers. It slowed your daughter down simply because she is perhaps younger than the target audience and unfamiliar with the terminology because it’s her first time coming across it. The target market would be those already familiar with military terminology.

    *smiles* Good for her for taking on board the new words. How old is she? Using “contingency” after a learning it once is brilliant!

  4. Silvia
    Silvia says:

         I don’t think the author should have used different terminology, even if he could have. That’s why I defended the author’s use of it to my 8-year-old daughter and encouraged her to allow the opportunity to expand her vocabulary. 🙂

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