Archive for the ‘English’ Category

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I like words that grab your attention

dashing away with chortles of glee

Words that scurry and scamper

Dashing under brittle, dead leaves

Words that blaze in the dark

flashing sparks into the frigid air

Words that sizzle

like sidewalk eggs on a sultry afternoon

Words that sprink like

raindrops in a galvanized pan

Words that swish and swoosh

like nighthawks diving for lunch (crunch)


Squawking words

like scrawny fledglings

Glistening words

like a luminous moon

Splashing words

like a surprised frog

Velvet words

like a kitten’s purr

Waddling words

like an obese hippo

Fuzzy words

like tickling fluff (sneeze)






Dab (crab)







Written sometime in 1996.

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One of my piano students gave me a bunch of lilies of the valley the other day.  I had never smelled them before; my mom only had one plant, which we never picked, only looked at.  Around here, though, I’ve been seeing drifts of them, so many that you just walk by and breathe in that smell that’s at once fresh and springy and reminds you (me) of a little old lady’s handkerchief drawer.  I have part of the bunch sitting on my desk, where I can lean forward and smell it occasionally.  

So, of course, I decided to look up the etymology of the name “lily”.  This is what dictionary.com says:

O.E. lilie, from L. lilia, pl. of lilium “a lily,” cognate with Gk. leirion,both perhaps borrowed from a corrupted pronunciation of an Egyptian word. Used in O.T. to translate Heb. shoshanna and in N.T. to translate Gk. krinon. The lily of the valley translates L. lilium convallium (Vulgate), a literal rendition of the Heb. term in Song of Solomon ii.1. It apparently was applied to a particular plant (Convallaria majalis) first by 16c. Ger. herbalists.

I wish I still had access to the OED online, because that was always fun and interesting to browse through, but we’ll make do with the limited resources available on ‘normal’ dictionary websites.  (The last time I checked, the OED online’s subscription for one year was $500.  Southern paid for a yearly subscription.)

I also scalped some lilacs, partly from the parking lot of the Methodist church I play for, and partly from our bushes in our back yard (sshhh! don’t tell the other people I’m actually picking the flowers!)  I’m not really worried — there are bushes everywhere in MN; along the highways, edging people’s yards, just everywhere.  You don’t realize it till spring, but there are myriads of colors and types of lilacs all over the place.  I can steal a couple to put on my table, right?  Right.  My kitchen smells like a florist shop — much better, by the way, than the fake scent of the lilac Yankee Candle I have.  Sorry, YC, but real flowers do it a lot better!  So, without further ado, here is the etymology of the word “lilac”:

1625, from Fr. lilac “shrub of genus Syringa with mauve flowers,” from Sp. lilac, from Arabic lilak, from Pers. lilak, variant of nilak “bluish,” from nil “indigo” (cf. Skt. nilah “dark blue”), of unknown origin. As a color name, attested from 1791; as a scent, from 1895.

I find it interesting that a quintessentially English/American flower would have a Sanskrit/Persian/Arabic origin to its name.

And there’s your linguistics lesson for the day.  Go gather ye lilacs and lilies while ye may (with apologies to Robert Herrick).

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In my somewhat desultory studies of linguistics for second-language learners, we spent quite a bit of time talking about native-language acquisition and the varied success second-language learners have both in learning the new language and actually sounding like a native speaker.  It is generally the consensus that the older a person is, the more likely they are to have an accent and to have to mentally translate in order to speak in the second language.  (The cutoff is around 12 years old for accent-less speaking.)  Older learners, with their better study skills, can learn just as well, but they are much more likely to have some degree of accent and to not be able to code-switch as well.

Well, now there is a partial solution, although by no means a controlled result.  Evidently, according to two news stories this week, two women have suffered, respectively, a migraine and a coma, and both have different language abilities as a result.

The first woman, a British citizen born in Germany but living in London, had a severe migraine and now speaks with a sort of Chinese accent.  There is a video in the news article, and I listened, of course.  I didn’t think it was exactly a Chinese accent, but then I haven’t heard a Chinese person speaking British English before either.  It definitely reminded me in some places of an Asian accent, but in others it simply sounded like the hyper-correct British English.  It is definitely not the normal British accent.

The second woman, actually a Croatian teen, spent 24 hours in a coma.  Upon waking, she could no longer speak Croatian, only German.  She had been studying German in school but wasn’t fluent at all.  Doctors posited that she suffered from bilingual aphasia, a condition that may be reversed when the brain swelling goes down.

These aren’t isolated incidents, as the first article points out towards the end.  Others have changed accent or lost a language following some form of brain trauma.  Results and treatment vary, of course, and there is no real answer to why the accents change or why someone remembers one language but not another, or if they ever go back to normal.

So there is a way to get that sexy Aussie accent or really cram for that Spanish test.  Just get someone to conk you over the head.  And if it doesn’t work, well, at least you’ll have a concussion to keep you from taking the test.  Can’t help you with the sexy, though.

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I know Banned Books Week is in September, right after Talk Like a Pirate Day (the juxtaposition of those two always amuses me), but I came across this list of “ironically banned books” on 11points.com and had to reference it.

As an English teacher, I do not understand the banning of books at the high school level.  Yes, I know there are some students who will remain immature mental pygmies for the duration, no matter who teaches them what.  But closing out the world for four years and then expecting students to suddenly be able to handle the entire world of art, literature, and music the minute they turn 18 or 21 is asking a little too much.  To say nothing of the fact that, since the advent of the Internet, with YouTube and ninety-seven* other sites for movies, music, and random dreck, a book read in school that happens to use a “naughty word” is Dark Ages stuff to the kids who watch late-late TV and hack parental controls on the computer.

Many banned books are banned because of content that would be considered racist now, but banning a book doesn’t get rid of the ideas, and it is a far more healthy attitude to read the book and talk about the issues and how they can be changed, rather than shove them under the rug and hope our little darlings don’t notice that Johnny and Jimmy have different-colored skin.

The stupidest example of banned books, however, is the banning of books on censorship.  Please.  Self-fulfilling prophecy?  Four of the eleven books on the list were, in some way, about a corrupt government that tries to control its people.  Banning a book like that is such an anacephalic reaction (see, I was trying to come up with a sufficiently erudite word so I didn’t sound like a little kid yelling, “You’re a stupidhead!”) that I don’t even have words to express it.  And who bans a book on book censorship?  The book Nazis?  People who are afraid of free speech? *cough must be Republicans cough*

Three of the remaining books deal with racism, The Diary of Anne Frank being one of them.  Come on, if you want your children to know what hatred for others does, read about what happens when people let racism run away with them!  It’s not like a movie with blood and guts and sly nudity (which is rated PG-13 by an increasingly lenient ratings system); it’s a story based on real life that can at least help show students what NOT to do!

I don’t think books should be banned at all, honestly.  Oh, I don’t mean by parents.  They should choose what their children read, although I think they ought to let kids read some books that might make them ask some awkward questions, and be there to give answers.  So should teachers.  We have a ratings system for movies, why not for books? Someone wrote that stuff down for a reason — they had something important to say, so read it!  Maybe then we won’t keep making the same mistakes.

*random number for the sake of exaggeration — there are probably a hundred times that number.

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I thought I could do something with that, since most of my students fall in that category.  So here goes.

Sometimes I wonder how I am supposed to teach these kids about grammar, writing, vocabulary, literature, critical thinking, and all the other things that go into an English class when they are wondering how they will survive?  What does Shakespeare or Ray Bradbury have to do with someone who doesn’t eat when they’re not at school?  How can the health teacher teach the students to eat healthfully when they eat McDonald’s all the time because you can fill up for a dollar?  How can we encourage them to go to college (which is getting more expensive all the time) when they can’t afford to eat during Thanksgiving or Christmas break?  What about when they didn’t do their homework because Mom (or whoever) got behind on the rent and they had to spend the night somewhere else, hopefully with friends or family?  What about those for whom Mom and Dad are crackheads and they are the de facto head of the family?  And those who are in foster homes and can’t use their real names at school because a parent might find them?  How are you supposed to teach algebra and history and science and literature to kids whose whole family has never graduated from high school?

And this is a charter school.  It’s worse in large public schools where the student-teacher ratio is huge.  Sorry, Mr. Bush, we don’t need extra testing to make sure No Child is Left Behind; we need money.  Money for students and their families.  Jobs.  Insurance.  Yes, food stamps.  And money for the schools so we can hire more teachers, get more resources, and teach them so well that they can rise above the hungry nights and scary situations and get out into a good world.

It starts at home, folks.  Poverty worldwide is a terrible thing, yes, but remember when you see that young punk kid walking down the street in your town, he/she may not have eaten today.  And that cuts close to home.  Go out and do something.

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