The Headteacher: Learn to savour words and use them as stepping stones

Gavin Chappell is the headteacher of The Market Weighton School
Gavin Chappell is the headteacher of The Market Weighton School

I was recently described during a lighthearted conversation as ‘provocative’. I must admit I was rather pleased by this particular adjective and was happy to be described as such.

Well, I was until I returned home later that day and looked up the true meaning of the word: ‘causing anger or another strong emotion, especially deliberately’, worse, the list of synonyms included the following: annoying, irritating, exasperating, infuriating, maddening, galling.

Now I am sure that I have, at some time or other, been each or all of these things but on this particular occasion I really didn’t think that they applied.

This got me thinking about some of the words we use. I think all of us at times use the wrong word, it’s an easy accident that can happen in the course of any conversation.

Sometimes, however, we do this unknowingly many times over because we have a misbelief about a word’s meaning.

For instance, it wasn’t until quite recently that I realised that the phrase ‘hoi polloi’ actually referred to the working class (apparently hoi polloi is a Greek term meaning, the majority) for years I have used it or thought of it to mean the upper classes; the exact opposite or antonym.

It was only when I came across it in a book I was reading that I thought I’d better look it up.

This is just one of the many brilliant things about reading. When you read you see words being used in context; the surrounding words help you develop an understanding of what ‘new’ words might mean.

It is unquestionable that reading widely leads to greater vocabulary development. A healthy vocabulary is important for many reasons, non the least because, as you would expect, there is a strong link between vocabulary size and achievement.

Our ability to communicate effectively, describe our feelings and emotions, understand the ideas of others, and think critically in order to solve problems, are all dependent upon our development of language, which is inextricably linked to our vocabulary.

That is not to say we should all be aiming to generate vocabularies the size of Stephen Fry or Will Self. Indeed, using a string of obscure or unusual words is pretty useless if it means you cannot be understood.

A strong vocabulary should allow us to select the most appropriate words in order to clearly communicate to our audience. It also enables us to engage in our past and contemporary culture: making our amazing literary heritage accessible.

A reason, by the way, that I am a keen advocate of all students, whatever their ability, studying English literature to GSCE level.

I also don’t think we should be snobbish about words. If you look at the etymology of many words you will see that their meanings have changed over time.

‘Awful’ for instance used to mean worthy of awe (aka: awesome) rather than dreadful or rubbish, whilst ‘nice’ once meant silly or foolish.

Words are also used differently by different generations: do we all hear the same thing when Taylor Swift asks us to shake it off to “this sick beat” or when we are told that something is ‘sad’.

It is important to remember that new words are constantly being added to the English Language.

It is a rich, living language with an amazing history and a future that will be determined by how we ( hoi polloi) use it on a daily basis.

All in all it is with the words of Professor Keating in the film Dead Poets’ Society that I empathise: “It may be a coincidence that part of my duties are to teach you about Romanticism, but let me assure you that I take the task quite seriously.

You will learn what this school wants you to learn in my class, but if I do my job properly, you will also learn a great deal more. You will learn to savour language and words because they are the stepping stones to everything you might endeavour to do in life and do well.”

Romantic, yes, but also unequivocally endorsed by the conclusive evidence which points to the importance of a good vocabulary as a route to future achievement and well-being.

It’s a broken record I know but the importance of encouraging your child to read and read widely cannot be overstated.