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KERFUFFLE, FRISSON AND OTHER LINGUISTIC DELIGHTS:
An interview with Robert Greenman, author of

A longtime journalism teacher, consultant to The New York Times Newspaper in Education program and lifelong lover of words, Robert Greenman talks about why, even in what's been called a post-literate society, language matters.



“We tend to think that if we figure out a word from its context, we know what it means. As a teacher, I found that not to be true. ”

Levenger Press: Where did your love of words come from?

Robert Greenman: When I was six or seven years old, my parents had a set of encyclopedias, and I used to make a list of the animals in the encyclopedias. I remember the first one was addax. An addax is an African antelope - now, who knows that? But I just enjoyed writing the words, the very act of writing them. I don't think I ever made a conscious effort to learn vocabulary, and I don't know whether or not I had a great vocabulary as a child, but I liked words and I liked to fool around with words and make puns. I read a lot, and you learn language that way.

LP: How did the idea for your book, Words That Make a Difference, come about?

RG: When I was teaching high school journalism, we were using The New York Times as our textbook. I had become dissatisfied with the conventional textbooks we had tried, and I decided that since The Times was so great, the kids would get it every day and we would learn journalism and about producing a school newspaper from what we learned from The Times.

I realized this was the way to learn vocabulary also, because when you read anything in The Times - it doesn't matter whether you read the sports section, letters to the editor, front page - you are going to run across good words.

An interesting thing about The Times is that if a word is difficult, The Times defines it for you. I remember in one article about butterflies, a butterfly expert used the word "susurrus." I had never seen the word before, and I am sure many other people reading the article didn't know it, either. But the next sentence told us that "susurrus" is the audible sound that thousands of butterflies' wings make at the same time.

Another great thing about The Times is that if you see a word on Monday in the sports section, on Tuesday, you might see the word again, in the editorial page or on the front page. There is a lot of reinforcement that way.

LP: How many words do you think most readers will recognize?

RG: I would say that a person who has an excellent vocabulary would probably be familiar with all but several dozen words, yet would still enjoy browsing through the book and reading the passages. [Ed. Note: the book features 1,238 words.]

LP: Why don't you pick a word that I probably don't know, read me the passage, and see if I can figure out what it means.

RG: How about "frisson"? Here's the passage: "Yesterday's Bill Blass show was supposedly a swan song, though he hasn't officially announced the sale of his business. So there was a frisson of excitement tinged with nostalgia among the faithful waiting in the Bryant Park Tent yesterday morning for what might be his final fashion statement."

“Once you find the definition and know the word, you start seeing the word.”

LP: I'd say it probably means a flutter of energy.

RG: Sort of. But you know, this is interesting: we tend to think that if we figure out a word from its context, we know what it means. As a teacher, I found that not to be true. If you read a passage to a group of young people, they can come up with a variety of definitions that sound very logical. So I always recommend that a teacher help a student find out exactly what a word means. You can frequently misinterpret a word because the meaning you ascribe to it really seems to fit. "Frisson" is actually a shiver, a little tingle of excitement that an individual feels.

Now that you know the word, you will start seeing it. I've found that people will pass over a word they don't know and then, when they learn its meaning, they will start seeing it. An analogy would be walking through the woods. You see dozens of different types of flowers, and to you they are just a lot of different flowers. But if somebody picks one up and says this is monkshood, then when you walk through the woods again, you start seeing monkshood. I find this to be true with words, too. Once you find the definition and know the word, you start seeing the word.

LP: How about the word "kerfuffle"?

RG: "Kerfuffle" is a word I had never seen until I worked on this book. It was from the first paragraph of a column by Maureen Dowd. She does that - she'll use words that people aren't familiar with, probably knowing that the word itself creates a little "kerfuffle," which means a little flurry of excitement. It is uncommon to use the word in the United States, but in Ireland, Scotland and England, it is much more common.

“We never think of words as having been invented by one person; and yet there isn't a word in the language that someone didn't think up.”

LP: Tell us about the sidelights in the book - what are they, and how did you come up with them?

RG: The sidelights are interesting aspects of language that emerge from the passages. They could be an anecdote about a person who is in the passage, or an expansion of the word itself. One that comes to mind is "intransigent." I will read the passage and then explain the sidelight that resulted from it. This is the passage: "Improvisation of that kind is what Mr. Matthau enjoys most about film acting. 'When you get an intransigent director and writer who complain if you change a single comma, that is very unconducive to doing comedy. Shakespeare never described what happens in a scene. He just put the words down like a good playwright, and then he died.'"

In the sidelight, I decided to list some of the words Shakespeare invented. The interesting thing about Shakespeare's invention of words is that he is said to have had the largest vocabulary of anyone of his time, and yet he continued to invent words to suit his purposes. We never think of words as having been invented by one person; they just seem to have been here all the time. And yet there isn't a word in the language that at some time or other, someone didn't either think up or say in such a way that it became a part of the language.

Assassination, courtship, countless, dwindle, educate, exposure, frugal, heartsick, hurry (imagine an ordinary word like hurry to have been invented), leapfrog, obscene, premeditated - just to know that Shakespeare invented these words is fascinating. That is an example of a sidelight.

LP: Besides "kerfuffle," have you learned any other new words writing this book?

RG: "Velleity" was one. It's a wish or an ambition that is so weak in terms of your volition that it will never come to pass - for example, someone saying, "Next week I am going to start my diet," and it never happens.

Another word I learned was "iatrogenic." When people come home from the hospital sicker than when they went in, that is an iatrogenic illness. One of the reasons I put the word in the book was to hopefully popularize the word, so that more people would use it.

“Did you take a quick look, a cursory look, or a perfunctory look? Each word has its own connotations, and the more words you know, the more you are able to speak in the nuances that your brain is actually thinking in terms of.”

LP: Why do words make a difference?

RG: Every word is an idea. The more words you know, the more ideas you are able to express. What would you say if you didn't have the word "love"? And "cherish" and "adore"? Each one means something different. Did you take a quick look, a cursory look, or a perfunctory look?

Each word has its own connotations, and the more words you know, the more you are able to speak in the nuances that your brain is actually thinking in terms of. Having the vocabulary to express yourself - even if you don't speak the word, but just think it - makes a difference.

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