Word attachments

Photographic artist Jimmy Symonds describes how connecting words with dates can make dictionaries come to life

Always on the look-out for a photographic theme, I spotted a newspaper article in 1999 and was inspired. It listed one word or phrase that was new for each year of the 20th century. For example: 1920 - robot; 1921 - dodgem; 1922 -hitchhike.

More than a list, it was an exciting narrative of the century and I set to work. What if I could match a word or phrase with one of my own photos? Using old dictionaries, websites, and a very kind editor at Collins, I began to compile my own list of new words for every year from 1900 to 1999 - the words of the century.

I photocopied contact prints of my photos, cut them up, and began to connect an image with a word. Perhaps a word coined in 1912 could be illustrated by a picture taken in 1995? This idea appealed to me. My house became an unwitting recreation of the 20th century. The kitchen was filled with the 1970s and the staircase occupied the 1940s. As the project neared completion, I tiptoed through the house changing a word for a picture, a picture for a word.

At my exhibition, launched in 2000 at the Winchester School of Art, the photos -all black and white - were in boxes laid out on low white plinths.

Each plinth represented a decade. Since then the exhibition has toured with Southern Arts in a variety of galleries and more unusual spaces, such as village halls. Wherever it has shown, primary children have been involved in accompanying workshops which I run.

The exhibition brings words to life, and I begin each workshop with something that too often in schools appears dry and lifeless: the dictionary. I tell children the amazing story of how work began on the first Oxford dictionary, with tiny slips of paper left in bookshops by the likes of Scottish lexicographer Sir James Murray, asking readers for help in finding words. Not some words, all words. The thought of it. There is something so bizarre yet fabulous about these Victorian word hunters who went around gathering words as if they were butterflies to be netted.

The children are particularly interested in the words and terms that were new in the year of their birth. For example: 1994 - national lottery, website, golden goal. Others are interested in the words from when their parents or grandparents were born: 1963 - extraterrestrial, Third World, bar-code; 1930 -electric blanket, air conditioning, Pluto. And so on.

This leads to "word sculptures" - a drama game where the class gets into groups of about six and a year is chosen at random, and from that year a word or term. Let's say 1906 and "central heating". The children have a minute to make a human sculpture with gurgling pipes and body movement to represent water heating or water pressure, or even a burst pipe. This is a far cry from a still black and white image, but it is the same principle.

Sometimes a word or term might come up that the children haven't heard before. I remember one group having particular fun with "vanishing cream" (1916).

My exhibition is concerned with the power of the word, as are the workshops. Next comes a poetry game, which I call "ancient words". I bring in a box filled with small plastic jars. Written on the lid of each jar is a year and hidden inside is a word that was new in that year. For example: 1290 - ocean; c 880 -moon; 1565 - breeze.

The children choose a pot and sit somewhere in the gallery and write a poem with the word as the title. Because the children have played with the language of the 20th century in the drama game, these "early" words take on extra resonance and gravitas, which is reflected in their writing.

The idea of a word having a birth year appeals to children. They begin to see dictionaries as living, fluid things. Too often in schools they are merely used as a source for testing, as opposed to an opportunity for inventive play. The word is so often more interesting than the definition of it. Look up "love" in a school dictionary and you will probably read "fondness". Sometimes I tell children of my own farcical childhood dictionary that defined "fifteen" as being "one more than fourteen" and then "fourteen" as "one less than fifteen".

In another workshop the children made their own 3D mini dictionaries of their favourite words, illustrating them with stories poems or abstract sculptures.

Thus "creativity" (1875) was defined by one Year 5 child in Andover as a jam jar with curls of carefully cut coloured paper. Not a word in sight, but the essence of the word was profoundly illustrated. As a lot of us know from the schoolroom scene in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, a horse is far more than a "graminivorous quadruped", as any child knows.

Jimmy Symonds is a freelance photographic artist, teacher and writer Email: jimmy@jimmysymonds.com

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