Big words can mean so little

4th February 2000 at 00:00

No problem. Two ms, two ts, two es.


You won't catch me with that old chestnut. There's an unsounded m at the beginning.


Two ls and two ns, comes from the Latin "mille" and "annus". Easy peasy. I was spelling it correctly years before they invented it.


Come on squire, is that the best you can do? Give me some hard ones. I love spelling. You know that smug annoying pedant who goes all round the country writing in the missing "m" in the word "accommodation" on notice boards? Well it's me, Sid Spellcheck. It's a long unremitting slog, tracking down dozens of signs in guest-house windows, hundreds of neatly mistyped postcards outside newsagents, but it's worth it.

Some people put "spelling" and "imaginative writing" in opposition to each other, as if we can only have one but not the other. Anyone who believes that if children learn to spell correctly they will, as a consequence, write mechanical rubbish is an idiot. Of course the two can co-

exist. It is a question of balance and manner of teaching.

So on the whole I welcomed the publication of an official list of spellings that children should know by a certain age. What worried me was what some people, including teachers, parents and pupils themselves, might do with these words.

When I left school to go to university I was fascinated by American paperbacks with titles like Words of Power.

"Language is power" thundered the blurb on the jacket, "Increase your word power and you too can go right to the top." There followed a couple of hundred pages of exercises in vocabulary building, containing words I had never met before, like "rodomontade".

"I'll have some of that," I thought to myself, cheerfully forking out my 46. There was a problem, however. The words were completely detached from real life or natural usage.

There I was, first person in the family to go to university, eager to impress people, nursing a modest desire to rule the world using my newly acquired "words of power", but I cold never remember what most of these farcically obscure words meant, or even whether they were nouns, verbs or adjectives.

I just didn't have the brass neck to drop them casually into essays or conversations. "Did you see the City game? I thought their keeper was a bit rodomontade. No, not really rodomontade, more gallimaufry."

Language is dynamic, rooted in context, rich in history, meaning and cultural association; not inert, detached, bloodless, desiccated. I would hate to see schools teaching "words of power" in isolation. The results would be bad for teachers, children and indeed for the English language.

One of the words on the official list for 11-year-olds is "agora-

phobia". I can spell it and thought I knew what it meant: two Greek words "agora" (open space) and phobia (fear) stuck together. Presumably some petrified teacher, spotting an Office for Standards in Education inspector, sprinted out of Athens market-place one day screaming "Let me out of here" and a new word was born.

It was only when a close relative developed a stark terror of open spaces following the tragic death of her son that I found out what agoraphobia really meant. It was one thing to spell it, but quite another to live it.

Of course we cannot wait until we understand everything fully before learning to spell, but it does help if the words have meaning and are learned in a context.

I once visited an American school where each class had a "word of the day", but all they did was spell it publicly every hour or so. Parents had to do the same in the evening.

In one class the current word was "radiator", in another "photosynthesis". Imagine the contrived family conversations if you had two children in the school: "Now Marmaduke and Felicity, don't put that plant behind the radiator, r-a-d-i-a-t-o-r, you'll ruin its photosynthesis."

Pso it could all get very psilly. I hope people are psensible about learning to pspell individual words in isolation. Otherwise I shall just have to give them a damned good rodomontade gallimaufry.

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