Once again Joan Maturko has sent me the results of the annual literacy test she gives her kindergarten class in Redondo Beach. This year the test included the class of her fellow teacher, Nancy Gregg.
Maturko's test consists simply of asking her pupils to define various words. It shows not only that children learn the meaning of words mostly through inference; it also demonstrates the wondrous misapprehensions that this method can produce.
Of course, we go on using inference as we grow older; few of us, whatever our age, learn many words by looking them up in a dictionary. That is why most people, knowing that speakers use podiums, infer that a podium is the stand the speaker leans on, or puts his notes on. That is a lectern. A podium is the platform a speaker stands on.
We go through life misusing words whose meaning we have learned by inference. Finally, by popular use, the incorrect meanings become standard. By this process disinterested comes to mean uninterested , and fortuitous comes to mean fortunate and enormity comes to mean enormousness.
Reading the kindergartner's definitions we see the process at work:
Language : "When you say a bad word, someone says, 'Watch your language.' "
Ergo, all language is bad language.
Lawyer : "Somebody has a hammer and bangs it when you go to jail."
That child has been watching "Night Court" or "L.A. Law."
But most of the children's misapprehensions come from a simple similarity of sounds.
Eclipse : "It's like a clip that you can clip papers together with; you clip them on clothes; a paper clip."
Adore : "You go through it; so you can get in and out."
Bachelor : "You can flip things over with it; the things that you take off cookies with."
I couldn't think of the intended word here, but my wife supplied it: spatula .
The most common error is using the word to be defined in the definition itself:
Marriage : "You like that person and you fall in love and you get married."
Well, how would you define marriage?
This is the best I could do: a legal covenant between a man and a woman to be husband and wife.
OK, what does the dictionary say?: "the state of being married; relation between husband and wife; married life."
Not very good. The word married is simply another form of marriage (itself). As for married life , same complaint. But my definition referred only to the ceremony itself; I should have added, living together as man and wife.
The dictionary and I didn't do much better than "You like that person and you fall in love and you get married."
Maturko reports that for the past several years at least one pupil has defined debate as something you fish with, or words to that effect: "You bait something and throw it out in the water."
But analysis is tedious. It's more fun just to read the children's definitions. They are variously funny, insightful, tortured, happy and promising.
Analogy : "It's a germ; you get the flu; you get sick; it's your mind."
Brain : "You keep your words that you want to say in there; in your head there's this thing that makes you think."
Extinct : "A bug stings you; you're dead; something stinks; when there were dinosaurs around, there's nothing left of them."
Pharmacy : "A farm; a mall; where you get medicine."
Umpire : "It's someone standing in a baseball field with a mask on and says, 'You're out.' "
Vacuum : "Something that cleans up; a machine; you clean up the rug; it picks up things from the floor."
Oddly, the children are familiar only with the mechanical application of a vacuum--the vacuum cleaner. The dictionary definition of vacuum is very simple, and I should think it would engage a child's imagination: "a space with nothing at all in it."
The children's definitions of nature seemed to reflect the influence of the environmentalists: "It's all different parts of the forest; when you're hunting, it's a part of our world; it's a pretty place."
How would you define nature ? Again, I would keep it simple: "Everything that man hasn't made."
The dictionary has 13 definitions, only the seventh being close to mine: "the sum total of all things in time and space; the entire physical universe."
The point is, Maturko's pupils' definitions show us that defining words is not easy. And I'm trying to show that we literate adults don't do much better. The amazing thing is that we communicate as well as we do, when we can't really say what words mean.
Definitions could be a simple parlor game. Ask your guests to write down simple definitions of any word, avoiding polysyllabic words with obscure and multiple meanings. Forget irresponsibility . Try defining table .
What you'll get, I bet, is definitions that begin, "Well, it's this thing to put things on, with four legs. . . ."
You'll find that most of us are still in kindergarten.