Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Magic of Words

Posted by Neal on May 11, 2005

Here are the first two paragraphs of the preface from The Magic of Words, a volume in the World Book-Childcraft series:

You can make magic!

Say the word dog. That word is just a noise that you make with your tongue and throat. But anyone who hears it will think of a four-footed animal that barks and wags its tail. So, with nothing but a noise, you can put a picture of a dog in other peoples’ minds. And that’s a sort of magic–the magic of words!

I read this book in high school, and its section on the history of English was one of the experiences that got me interested in linguistics. I lifted it from the set of Childcraft books at Mom and Dad’s house a few years ago, and now keep it with my linguistics teaching materials.

So anyway, I was volunteering in Doug’s classroom today, when the teacher, Mrs. K., asked a student, “What comes to your mind when I say ‘duck’?” A duck, I thought. Or an image of someone ducking. That’s the magic of words. Just by uttering these sounds, Mrs. K. has the power to put these images in our heads. The kids were having trouble with it, though. Maybe the answer was so obvious that they thought it was a trick question. Finally one of them said, “Doug!”

Mrs. K. went on. “OK, what comes to mind when I say ‘pig’?” Someone said “wig,” and Mrs. K. noted that it rhymed. Then she asked about sheep, and one of the kids said “lamb.” I felt a little silly when I realized that rhymes and other word-association was what she was after. (It turned out later that she wanted them to collaborate with her to write a poem about a farm.) I mean, since when is awareness of the arbitrariness of the linking between sound and meaning part of the kindergarten curriculum?

Then she asked Doug, “What comes to your mind when I say ‘chick’?”

Doug said, “A chick.”

Mrs. K.: “Another chick?”

Doug: “No; when you say ‘chick,’ I just, think of a chick.”

Mrs. K. probably thought he was giving a smart-ass answer like he sometimes does. And in fact, I’ll have to speak with Doug about one or two smart-ass answers I heard him give his teachers today. But on this one, I find him not guilty. I knew just where he was coming from.

2 Responses to “The Magic of Words”

  1. Karen said

    Oh so true on those word pictures. However, this something almost every ten-year-old knows instinctively, hence the constant reference to the words like “fart” “snot” “barf” “pee-wee” and a host of other verbally/mental onslaughts intended for the listener!! LOL

  2. Neal said

    ‘Pee-wee’? ‘Pee-pee,’ yes. ‘Wee-wee,’ yes. ‘Pee-wee,’ no. Unless you’re referring to someone small, or the character created by Paul Reubens.

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