University of Colorado Mary Ripon Amphitheater, in Lego

The Loud Words

In “For Worse,” beleaguered substitute teacher Michelle, called in the middle of the day to sub for a sub in a seventh-grade English class, gets out some of her frustration by asking the students to shout their vocabulary words as loud as they can. I got this idea from my ninth-grade English teacher, the late Mrs. Miriam McCluney, who regularly had her class shout the items on our weekly vocabulary list. (“Loud enough to wake Mr. Mitiguy out of his after-lunch nap next door!” she told us.)

I was incredibly lucky to have been in her class, especially given that I ended up in theater; or you can make the case that I ended up in theater because I was lucky enough to have been in her class. In addition to having us perform our vocabulary words, she had us memorize and present passages from the works we studied – not just plays (Romeo and Juliet) but fiction too (To Kill A Mockingbird). I learned later that she received grants to travel to Shakespeare festivals throughout the West. After I graduated, she invited me to go with her to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and the As You Like It we saw there – a confection in 18th-century style where the lovers had costumes color-coordinated with the person they were supposed to end up with, and a young and ever-so-ennuy√© Jaques attitudinized in a green velvet frock coat – is still a highlight of my theatergoing experience.

OK…trotting out attitudinizing there brings me back to the subject of vocabulary. A number of years ago now, the Hennepin County Library brought novelist M.T. Anderson to town as part of their lecture series. He had recently published The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, whose narrator is a young African American man in 18th century Boston. Anderson does an uncanny job of creating “18th-century” prose, in both sentence structure and vocabulary. The book was advertised as Young Adult fiction. After Anderson’s talk, one of the audience members asked whether it was really wise to try to sell Octavian Nothing to young adult readers; wasn’t there a risk that the unfamiliar, difficult language would put them off?

As I remember it, Anderson answered that he had faith in the curiosity of young people and their willingness to learn new words and new ways of using language. In a democracy, he argued, it is vital to encourage curiosity in order to create an informed electorate.

It’s the strongest argument I’ve ever heard for the importance of using unusual words and forms of language, and as someone whose educational background is in literature and linguistics, I’m inclined to cheer for it. On the other hand, fancy vocabulary can make a message unclear. Sometimes speakers or writers purposefully use it to make themselves look superior. I can’t blame anyone for taking unusual words as a signal that they, as readers or hearers, are not welcome.

How do you see it? Do you take weird vocabulary items an invitation, or a “no trespassing” sign?

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