Week 8- The Cost of a Definition


I love the Merriam Webster Dictionary website and keep the link on my browser’s Bookmark Toolbar.  Just keep that in mind.

So yesterday I was feeling a little lazy (I have a cold) and decided we would spend our literature time looking up vocabulary for this very difficult piece of non-fiction.  The essay is “Etruscan Civilization” from A History of Rome by M. Cary and H.H. Scullard.  Here is an example of the words I was front-loading. (I love that term.  Sounds like I’m using a bulldozer to cram information into my students’ heads.)  We had alluvial, macchia, gable, entrails, gentillician, thalassocracy, debauchery, enervate, etc..  There were over 30 SAT and GRE level words there.

So, why the hard stuff?  You want your students reading above their current reading level in the classroom where you can help them.  (At home, you want them reading just below because you have to bank on them not having help.)  My current students are all well above their grade level, and so I pick readings with vocabulary that will make them work for comprehension.  The thing with these high-flyers is that they will tell you they already know the meanings because they are good at context clues.

And predictably some of the students were there, hand raised, ready to tell me that they already knew what sumptuous meant.  I never tell students that they don’t know, and instead ask them to define it.  The exchange sounds like this:

After a few seconds of hemming and hawing from said students, I say, “Go look it up.”

“But I’ve heard it before!” they often wail.

“Great.  Go look it up.”

“It was sumptuous!” they cry.  “It means it’s sumptuous!”

“You can’t use the word to define itself.  Go look it up.”


“Go look it up.”


“Go look it up.”

“Grumble. Mumble. Grumble.”

This last tells me I’m doing my job. So, they go look it up.  Sometimes I see a fist pump when they find the meaning, and they did know it.  That’s good, too.

Once they figured out that working with a partner and splitting up the load was faster, they moved quite quickly.  And then, the dreaded happened.  A word wasn’t in the dictionary.

Usually, when a student says a word is missing (and this is after I have assessed their dictionary prowess) I say, “Wanna bet?”  (Today I bet a student a piece of Halloween candy.  He did not take me up on the offer. “Forebode?  Try again. Check your spelling.”)  But these words were different.  Some of them were not in the dictionary (even the honking huge one that takes two kids to lift.)  When those words came up, I told them not to worry, that I would find the definitions for them.  So I went to the oracle- the best of all websites- Merriam Webster.  I plugged in “macchia”.  And it told me that if I wanted to know the meaning, I would need to pay them money.
Now, I hold no grudges about this. I have been using their work for free for years, giving nothing back but my admiration and a promise to stop misspelling things.  But, my students were very, very impressed that there are words which are so rare that you would need to pay for them.  The students began to wonder what other words might cost.  When they were finished with their word list yesterday, I noticed they were flipping through the dictionaries assigning a fee for the “epic-ness” of the word.  They found “derf” very expensive.  And “vroom” less so.  They spent the entire period just exploring the dictionary.  And giggling.  There was a lot of giggling.  (I did check that they weren’t just looking up rude words.)

They even asked if they could spend their one class with me today looking up the rest of the words I pulled from “Etruscans”.  So that’s what we did.  Of the 20 new words, my favorite was “rout”.  And that’s because, as they were hollering help to each other across the room, one student yelled, “Make sure you’re getting the right rout!”

I think we are.


One response »

  1. According to the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary “derf” is an adjective of Scandinavian origin meaning “bold”. In Scottish it can also mean “daring”. I remembered to look it up today! 🙂

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