Along with the normal hometown-classyear-major questions on the Getting-to-Know-You sheets with which I start my courses, I have included, the past few semesters, a question which asks each student to list three words which he/she likes. (The first semester I had it as “three favorite words,” but choosing favorites was too traumatic.) While I find that question gives the students more trouble than any of the others, it has also proven to be my favorite question.

This year, I compiled all the words from my three courses into one list. The predictable answers are predictable: four repetitions of “family,” three each of “faith,” “fun,” and “happy” — I teach at a Christian college in the South — eight repetitions of “love.” There are numbers of cutesy-happy answers: “bubbles,” “puppy,” and “glitter,” to name a few. Some students write their own names, or the names of significant others. Some write words they like to use a lot: “Boss!”, “Alladat,” “Cray cray.” Some give me long words, with an eye to showing me what they know: “prestigitation,” “Ichthylogy.” One student writes only one word, “Money.”

It isn’t that I expect the words to teach me everything about my students. They can’t. But I do find them interesting. They help me get a sense of who my students are, where they put their priorities. If I told the students that, they’d probably agonize over the words more than they already do, pens poised, writing, scribbling out, writing again. I hear them muttering to themselves, to one another: in this swirl of language, which words ought they to like, which words share with me?

We all know that actions speak louder than words, but words also speak. From the above sampling, you’ve already formed ideas about my students, mental images to go with my tiny sample of vocabulary. The words tell you things, and, most likely, the things they tell you are true.

Moreover, if actions can speak, so also can words act. Why else petitions, news articles, speeches, blog posts, emails? We pile words on words; if we can gather enough, make them loud enough, people will notice, start doing things. Much of the “doing” in this busy world of ours is done with words. The words I shared from my students are also acting, accomplishing things in your mind on my students’ behalf, for good or for ill. Your mind follows words; your body follows your mind. The words matter.

Yet my students gave me only three words each. Words, not sentences. If mere words, presented singly, not connected into complete thoughts, can summon ideas, connotations, create images in your mind, how much more sentences? How many words and sentences do you spend, do I spend, every day, without giving a thought to them? If we collected them into lists, what would we learn? What would some reader, unknown to you, surmise from the assembled words-you-like-to-use?

If we knew that our words were being collected somewhere, used to show others who we are, would we spend more time, tongue ready but silent, thinking, revising, thinking again, before pouring words out into the word-crowded air? Your words matter. Use them well.

Word-Wonder

©2013 by Stacy Nott

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