Collecting words


‘The trades unions are an anachronism.’ Discuss.

This was the first question on an A-level paper, and the colleague whose pupils were sitting it entered the Common Room rejoicing. He had spent two weeks revising the trades unions with them.

The question contains a vital English word for which there is no synonym: anachronism denotes a specific anomaly, either in narration, or, as here, in fact.

However, six of the ten students did not know that word: only four of them attempted the question.

This became a story used in our department to impress upon our pupils how important it is to be a collector of words.

But here, as often, I was corrected by an older colleague. I had told my students that they should be avaricious in their desire to collect words. This was not quite right, he pointed out: the sin of avarice denotes collecting money, or things, that one does not need. Words are things that everyone needs in limitless number, and the more of them, the better.

What is alarming about the crisis in languages is that so often the ablest pupils reject them as a choice for study. The problem arises when words, their origins, their behaviour and their connections, are not discussed. It is not heartening for a student to ask a philological question and be met with impatience or even blank incomprehension.

The questions how and why are as much needed in the teaching of language as in mathematics and the sciences.

During a discussion about the Cambridge Latin Course in my early teaching years, one colleague suggested that the campaign for non-grammatical and misological learning, then at its height, was part of a plot by the KGB to stop Americans acquiring languages.  At any rate, it now seems as if Russia and America have populations that are, respectively, the best and worst at learning foreign tongues.