On the Importance of Looking Up Words

My book, Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids (Rockridge Press, Feb. 25, 2020), is dedicated to a woman named Nanette Quinn. You can read the dedication below. 

Let me tell you a bit about Nanette Quinn.

When I was in high school, I took French with Nanette Quinn, whom we called Madame Quinn. She was an absolute firework of a person—utterly brilliant, endlessly passionate, unstoppably interesting. She passed away too early of cancer a couple of years after I graduated, but her fingerprints linger all over the campus and the surrounding community. If you Google her name, you’ll find that there’s an annual 5K run named in her honor because of the deep impact she made on Memphis and the school.

Mme. Quinn taught me many unforgettable lessons, some in French, many in English, but one in particular resonated with me.

A Lesson in Overcoming Your Own Ignorance

One day in class, we were reading aloud in French from the book Le Petit Prince—a reading we had done for homework the night before—and we came across a word that none of us in the class knew.

(If you’ve read Le Petit Prince, you’ll recognize a nod to it in the dedication: The fox tells the Little Prince, “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” Or in English “Here is my secret. It’s very simple: One can only see well with the heart; the essential is invisible to the eyes.”)

Honestly, I don’t even remember what the word was that we did not know. It was from a later passage in the book. But Mme. Quinn asked the class what it meant, and we found that none of us could answer because it hadn’t been on our vocab list, we hadn’t learned it in class, and none of us had bothered to look it up.

There was a long, awkward, agonizing silence.

And that’s when Mme. Quinn exploded.

In a tirade of epic proportions she stormed back and forth at the front of the classroom, bellowing in French and English, raging and stamping her feet, her hands balled into incensed fists, her face increasingly purpling.

In furious incredulity she asked us—nay, demanded of us—how on Earth we could do this reading, encounter a word we did not know—and then not look it up.

After all, she thundered, we all had French vocabulary books, worksheets, dictionaries—Google Translate! Did we just skip over words whose definitions we didn’t know when we were reading books in English too? Did we not look those up either?

How could you meet a word you don’t know, and choose not to learn what it means?

We got nothing else done that day. That was the lecture. By the time the tempest subsided, Mme. Quinn was panting and flushed, and my classmates and I felt like tornado survivors.

But you know? I’ve never failed to look up a word since then.

Every time I’m tempted to skip one, I hear the detonation of Mme. Quinn echoing in my ears.

I have to wonder if in the memory of everyone who’s written a dictionary—even an etymology dictionary for kids—there lies a Mme. Quinn who challenged them to always get to know every unfamiliar word.

A Shortcut to Understanding

Etymology teaches you the meanings of words you don’t know too—and it empowers you to understand new words without even looking them up.

For instance, if you know that amnesia comes from the Greek mnasthai, meaning “to remember,” you probably can guess that a mnemonic device helps you remember things, and that amnesty means that your past deeds have been forgotten or wiped clean.

If you know that the prefix syn- means “the same” or “together,” you can guess the meanings of synonym (words with the “same name” or same meaning), synchronize (something done “together” or at the “same time”), or even that corporate-speak staple synergy (“working together” toward the “same” purpose). You can also recognize that this prefix is also sometimes spelled sym- and appears in words like symmetry (two halves that are the same), symphony (sounds played together), and symbiosis (living in the same habitat and help each other).

Once you know a bit about etymology, you don’t even need to look up new words. You’ll already know them when you meet them.

The word “etymology” itself comes from the Greek word etymon, meaning “true,” “true sense,” or “original meaning”—so etymology is the study of the truest sense of words.

And as you know, our world is one in which the truest sense of words and events is not always clear. We’re all counting on these up-and-coming kids to build a smarter, brighter future. No pressure, right? But the thing is, we know they can do it, and we can help.

After all, as Mme. Quinn knew, we have everything we need—all of the wisdom of human history—at our fingertips.

All we have to do is remember to always be curious, and to be ever in pursuit of the truest sense of things.

And, for the love of god, always look up words we don’t know.

Learn more about words in Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids.

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