Teaching Lexicography and Lexicology among the Aliterates

Word Ways, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Teaching Lexicography and Lexicology among the Aliterates


As I pondered how to frame the topic announced in the title of this paper, I realized that first of all I had to embark on a journey of intellectual archaeology. In the nine different courses I regularly teach, in composition, literature, and linguistics courses alike, I emphasize the use of a desk dictionary as a curricular survival tool, especially in this current mania of standardized testing. When exactly did I begin to have my deep, abiding passion for dictionaries and how did that influence the development of my career as a professor of English and applied English Linguistics? For the past twenty years in my English 201 Composition II course, I have required my students to write a "Literacy Narrative" as a first paper in which they tell the story of how they first learned how to read. They increasingly have an initial negative reaction to this topic, but, once they start to do the reflection needed, positive attitudes emerge as they recover the happy details of grandparents, parents, or siblings reading to them. Likewise for me in this paper, I began to trace back the arcs of development which have culminated in my current teaching roles as a pedagogical bricoleur who teaches rhetoric, applied linguistics, lexicology, General Semantics, and the literature of science fiction. And this enabled me to recover warm feelings not only about texts well-read and still valued 45 years later but also about wise mentors who led me on the word-filled journey for the last half century.

According to some of my rural students my office has more books (especially dictionaries) than their school libraries, and I can personally verify that, for example, my office does contain more books than the Bison, SD High School library. As one of the early groups of boomers born in 1947, I learned how to read before my family had a TV set rooted in the living room. I cannot imagine a day going by without reading a newspaper, reading a slick magazine, reading a book, or reading a cereal box, etc. Thus, as I encounter the "Millennials" or the "Echo Boomers," the current labels given to recently matriculated college students, I have had to adjust to the new generation's characteristic lack of interest in reading (Quinion Echo Boomer 2009), In particular, based on the authoritatively robust research published in the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Research Report #47 To Read or not to Read: A Question of National Consequence Nov. 2007, we now know that the age group that used to read the most--Americans between 15 and 34 years of age--now reads the least. The technical label for such behavior consists of the word aliterate, which Microsoft Word unfortunately autocorrects to alliterate. Likewise, I have to repeatedly warn my students about dealing with the aliterates in Seattle who have built stemming software that automatically turns the name of the university building in which I now write these words--Scobey Hall--into Scooby Doo Hall. Concerning myself with such matters qualifies me as a lexicologist. And I use such technical terms during the first day in every one of my classes.

Tom McArthur has a cogent definition of lexicology in his Oxford Companion to the English Language:

An area of language study concerned with the nature, meaning, history, and use of words and word elements and often also with the critical description of lexicography.

Although formerly a branch of philology, lexicology is increasingly treated as a brand of linguistics, associated with such terms as lexeme, lexical field,, lexical item, lexicon, lexis ...

My explications of the course syllabi, especially in my 100 and 200 level composition classes, often work as negative pep talks, when my use of Greek and Latin metalanguage such as lexicology, aliteracy, and rhetoric frightens the truly hardcore aliterates. They decide to drop the classes because I name the frame that, whatever else writing consists of, it involves words and that we will explore the territory of all manners of word behaviors. …

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