November 6, 2005

Apotropaicism unleashed!

A while ago, largely due to my full-fledged double membership in the Word Nerd Club (TM) and Grammar Geek Association (TM), I started referring to my word power as Old Man River.

Okay, maybe a little background is necessary here. I teach English to foreign students, and many of them seem to think that if they work hard enough, they'll simply memorise enough words to become fluent. They come to Canada, lists of words clutched tightly in their fists, desperately trying to access vocabulary in their brains, computer style, to devise wholly incomprehensible sentences.

Asian students, especially, are taught foreign languages in their public school systems the same way they're taught mathematics. They insist upon formulae, beg for repetition, find solace in rote. It's like the method my secondary school used for French -- which by the way failed miserably: the only thing I can say is, "Les pamplemousses sont sur la table," and trust me, you just don't have a lot of true, contextual opportunities to work "The grapefruit are on the table" into conversation. Rote is almost completely eschewed in favour of more natural, conversational methods nowadays.

All the things we don't do to learn our native tongues, for some reason, have almost total sway in English as a Foreign Language study overseas today.

So I try to explain to my students that language acquisition isn't formulaic at all. It's organic, unpredictable, even sporadic. It's reliant upon experience rather than repetition; it thrives in a varying environment, rather than a stale, predictable one.

I give them examples of my own situation. I'm a native speaker, a writer, a wordsmith. Still, I encounter new phrases, idiomatic expressions and jargon on a daily basis. I'm a stickler for appropriate usage, and hate to see lazy spelling and incorrect punctuation. I can't stand it when people mix up affect and effect, confuse its and it's, or misspell definitely. (There is NOT an 'a' in that word, okay? It comes from finite, not finate!!!) Anyway, I ask my students, do these things mean I can spell diarrhoea without a dictionary? Most definitely not. (See? No 'a' anywhere in there!)

Case in point: I came across the word apotropaic the other day, and could only guess what it meant: "While many people focus on the ancient Greeks offering animals to the gods for apotropaic reasons, few realise that the bits offered for sacrifice were in fact the worst cuts of meat."

Turns out it's an adjective (okay, I guessed that) that according to better dictionaries means, "designed to ward off, or deter, evil; giving the owner or bearer good luck." So anyone with a favourite sweater, first date underwear, or a particularly sentimental piece of jewellery: they've in their hands an item with apotropaic properties.

So, Old Man River, you ask? What does a barrel-chested black man singing slowly have to do with this post? Well, my vocabularly is a little like Old Man River; no matter how many words I get, there's always another to conquer. There's no standing still here folks; you gotta keep on keepin' on, right? Thus, with the addition of things like apotropaic, my word power, here poorly equated to the Showboat showstopper, just keeps rollin' along.

Pronunciation: ah-paw-tro-PAY-ic -- enjoy, my friends, and I hope you will, literally, spread the word!


bree said...

Speaking of proper spelling: it's actually, "Les pamplemousses sont sur la table."

stodmyk said...

Ha! Fallibility unleashed, more like. (How do you say 'fallibility' in French, anyway?)

Consider me corrected *bows to the pretty lady*