Archive for the ‘The Philologer’s Corner’ Category

Years ago our then three-year-old son Andrew and a neighbor friend were playing with a little wooden train set.  A minor dispute arose over the proper shape for the tracks.  Andrew placed them the way we had previously.  The neighbor boy said he didn’t want them to be in a circle.  Andrew said, “It’s an oval.”  In a tone of exasperation his friend asked, “What’s an oval?”  Pointing at the tracks, Andrew responded, “That’s an oval.”

When our older son was about four, a somewhat similar incident occurred.  One of the ladies in our church asked Aaron what his favorite animal was.  He said that he liked dinosaurs.  She then made the fatal mistake of asking him which dinosaurs he liked.  After Aaron, whose delight in primeval reptiles knew no bounds at that age, had rattled off tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus, diplodocus, pterodactyl and who knows what else, she wisely hugged him and told him that she loved him.

Without even considering doing otherwise my wife and I had taught our sons to identify an oval as an oval and a circle as a circle and the proper names for dinosaurs.  Why would we as parents teach them something less exact or even erroneous that would have to be corrected later?

A young child’s mind is perfectly capable of grasping the difference between two geometrical shapes and remembering dinosaur names.  Indeed, they actually enjoy learning.  Unfortunately, we adults, who have often lost our childlike desire to learn, feel that children should be spared as long as possible the drudgery of developing an extensive vocabulary and the arduous task of accurate speech.

The problem is not new.  In her historical novel, Pallas and the Centaur, Linda Proud quotes Quintilian (c. AD 35-c. 100), “See that the child’s nurse speaks correctly and do not allow the boy to become accustomed even in infancy to a style of speech which he will subsequently have to unlearn.  There should be attached to the boy one person who has some knowledge of speaking who can correct any errors.”

I teach at Cair Paravel Latin School in Topeka, which is a classical Christian school.  I had the privilege of observing an elementary school art class.  The teacher used proper artistic terms and the names for artistic movements and their characteristics.  I thought about taking notes, but I was too embarrassed.  The children already knew the terms. I later asked the teacher why she didn’t use simpler terminology.  She answered that the children were capable of understanding the terminology and that there was no reason to teach them some supposedly simpler vocabulary that they would have to relearn later.  She was right, of course.

Our high school is also called the rhetoric school because at this stage we want to stress teaching our students to express their ideas accurately, eloquently and persuasively.  With this goal in mind I give the students vocabulary lists from their reading that they are expected to know.  I share a classroom with another teacher and am sometimes a disruptive force.  During his class, I interjected a playful rebuke to a student, using one of the new vocabulary words.  She answered, accurately using a different vocabulary word.  I responded in kind, and she hit me with another vocabulary word.  Then the teacher told us to behave.  It was fortunate for me, because I was out of words.  The student had beaten the master.  What fun and what a joy for me!

When I was in college, the highly respected District Attorney for Indianapolis was asked what the two most practical courses that he had taken were.  Without hesitation he responded, “Logic and Latin.  Logic because it taught me to reason accurately, and Latin because it taught me to speak clearly.”

As I survey the lack of eloquence, accurate reasoning and clarity of expression in today’s public speaking, I like to think that Cair Paravel and schools like it will be producing tomorrow’s leaders who will plead eloquently for the oppressed, apply accurate reasoning to society’s thorny problems and clearly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that needs to hear from the one whose truth will set us free.







My dear sister visited us a couple of weeks ago, and I made the mistake of serving her coffee in my Shakespearean Insults Mug.  It’s an hilarious mug, covered with witty insults such as “I do desire that we be better strangers,” and “not so much brain as ear wax.”  Who couldn’t love something made by a company called “The Unemployed Philosophers Guild” and that tells you on the bottom of the mug that “for best results, use other side?”

Unfortunately, my sister started addressing me as the “anointed sovereign of sighs and groans.”  My wife, whose more formal British etiquette forbade her from using the mug, insulted me with the same phrase today.

Some might say that I have little to sigh and groan about.  I have a beautiful wife who is a gourmet cook and whose health insurance covers me.  I come from a loving family, am physically healthy, have a nice home with friendly neighbors and a great teaching job.  God loves me, forgives my sins and helps me live more uprightly, although admittedly I could use a little more help on that last point.

Still I have two grounds for sighs and groans.  You can call me “the anointed sovereign,” if you wish, but I think these two are justifiable.  They’re the chaos of colors and unhelpful dictionary definitions.

Now I love colors as much as the next guy, but that’s just the issue.  Women seem to have some extra sense for perceiving different shades of color.  We’ve been remodeling in our house, and my wife wanted me to help choose the paint colors.  First, there was some sort of set of golden colors, although they all looked brown to me.  The living room needed to be painted.  I asked why.  She said there were three different colors on the four walls.  They all looked like weak coffee with a lot of cream to me or some kind of off white.  Out came the swatches.  Did you know that one website has fifteen different types of off white?

I’ve been told that the reason for all these different names for paint colors is because they’re copyrighted.  This is capitalism gone wild.  Where are all our totalitarian bureaucrats that want to standardize everything?  This is a field white unto harvest.  Notice Jesus said white. I’ll bet the grain wasn’t really white, but white was good enough for him.

I decided to retreat to my reading of Linda Proud’s Renaissance novel, Pallas and the Centaur.  Alas, I was cursed.  I should never have chosen a highly literate authoress.  I ran across two words that I didn’t know, both having to do with colors—raddled and nacreous.

Indeed, I was doubly cursed by my second bane—inadequate dictionary definitions.  “Raddled related to ruddle, to paint with ruddle.” “Ruddle, verb to mark or color with ruddle.”  Finally, ruddle as a noun is a red variant of ochre used for marking sheep and coloring.  This did end up being an interesting search.  I discovered that ruddle or red ochre was used to dye fabrics.  Its appearance in the novel was rather negative.  “The beauty of Florence is like cosmetic paint on a raddled whore.”  Red ochre for your rouge, ladies?

The dictionary problem reoccurred with nacreous.  In the novel a maid is described as nacreous.  The dictionary defines nacreous as “of, or pertaining to, nacre, resembling nacre.”  Not very helpful if you don’t know what nacre means.  It reminds me of the time when I wanted to see how my college Webster’s defined worldview.  It said “weltanschauung.”  This is German for “worldview.”  Anyway, nacre, I discovered, is “mother of pearl.”  The maid must have looked whitish, although which of the fifteen options for off white applied to her I cannot say.

Well, that’s enough from the philologer.  I’m going to leave and walk by our bathroom painted tropical nut.














I’ve decided to start a new section on my webpage.  It’s called the “Philologer’s Corner.”  Literally, a philologer is a lover of words.   I shall discuss briefly words that I have to look up in my reading.  I enjoy doing that because it helps me understand what I’m reading but also because it is fascinating to find out the origins of words and their various meanings.

I am reading Linda Proud’s Pallas and the Centaur, the second in her Botticelli trilogy of historical novels about Renaissance Florence.  I highly recommend this series for anyone interested in that period, including its art and philosophy and not only its history.  The scholar Angelo Poliziano had been drinking and needed to apologize to his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici.  Here’s the sentence.

“Angelo apologized and explained about the wine of Ognissanti and its papaverous qualities.”

Papaverous is an adjective derived from the Latin papaveraceae, which means “of or relating to poppies.”  Figuratively it can mean “sleep inducing.”

Papaverous brought to mind two very positive memories, one silly, the other very nostalgic.  One of my favorite movies is The Wizard of Oz.  I imagined the wicked witch standing over her crystal ball, waving her hands as Dorothy and most of her companions fall asleep and chanting “Papaverous, papaverous, lovely papaverous flowers.”  Well, I suppose “poppies, poppies, lovely poppies” sounds better.

The second memory was evoked by the dictionary synonym for “papaverous.”  It is “soporific.”   We used to read to our children Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit series.  In The Tale of Peter Rabbit Peter ate too much of Mr. McGregor’s lettuces.  He fell asleep because they had a soporific effect.

We loved reading those stories to our children, and they loved them.  I recommend that you read them to your children or grandchildren.  They will not have a soporific effect, and you might just create some philologers.



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