In a Word

By Patrick Miggins

Summer afternoon--summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. - Henry James

An air is more lasting than the voice of the birds, a word is more lasting than the riches of the world. – Irish proverb

14066799200_36b69d17e3_zI have lately been using a learning strategy known as “Word by Word,” which challenges students to review their notes and understanding of a text and sum up a narrative in one single word, a word that best epitomizes the essence of the story. Taken on a notecard after reading, discussion, and more formal writing on the assigned text, this single word quiz, not surprisingly, has been the most popular quiz the boys have taken all year! The exercise is a hit because it is lively, it sharpens focus, and it enriches the group mind through sharing. The boys look forward to it as it allows each mind to shine amidst his peers, so long as the student can qualify his diction.  As a teacher, I enjoy getting to know the quality and cogency of the thinking of each student, and I am very often impressed and pleasantly surprised as they expound upon their winnowed word! 

For your pleasure, and with the students’ permission, listed below are columns of select terms the 8th graders deemed exemplary of the works we have studied thus far in Literature class.  The works are: 1.) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, 2.) Everyman, a medieval mystery play, 3.) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, 4.) Shiloh, by Shelby Foote, and 5.) “Leaf by Niggle”, a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien. A sampling of their collective memory is charted in the literary talismans as follows:

1.                            2.                            3.                       4.                     5.

Truth                  penance         education    perseverance   judgment

freedom            life                   prejudice      battery             interruption

freedom            redemption     justice          moribund       heart

adventurous   death           Bildungsroman   foment         blossoming

stretchers      morals                 Boo                 bloody           purgatory

adventure        prepare      scapegoats      mortis              daubing

conscience       hope               fatherhood       uncivilized      footler

Moses                 death                maturity           omniscient     gift

brave                 last-rights       segregation       gore                journey

adventure        journey           viewpoint          skulker           parish

Quite simply, a single word represents the basic building block of language. Yet within context, a single word can also become a foothold of memory, a stepping-stone of comprehension, and a catalyst of a student’s stream of thought. Phrases, the next largest building blocks of language, pack considerably more potential for connotation and association than single words alone. This can be immediately appreciated in a delightful turn of phrase in good poetry, for instance. Likewise, beautiful prose employs well-parsed, evocative phrases, like Henry James’s “summer afternoon”, and they are nowhere more memorable than a novel’s dramatic opening or summoning, with “Call me Ishmael,” “Marley was Dead,” and “All happy families are alike,” coming first to mind. Yet, I find that the most powerful opening phrase in literature comes from that most inspired of books, the Bible. It opens with, “In the beginning…”, that simple, yet pleasing and awe-inspiring preamble to the Creation narrative in which God literally speaks the universe into existence through his utter creative love. Then, in the New Testament, St. John borrows the opening phrase of Genesis and expounds upon it as he opens his gospel with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John’s inspired furthering of the Word is the exemplification of the concept Gerard Manly Hopkins called inscape, which is a more profound revelation of a being’s identity. Thus, the nurturing design of the scriptures comes alive when the Divine Logos is grasped as ethos as well as pathos, when Jesus lives as the dynamic instress (apprehension) at the heart of the gospel. As the opening Irish proverb asserts, airs (songs) and words are perhaps more lasting than birds’ voices and worldly riches because of the distinct human intelligence and divine dignity that they can embody and communicate.



2 thoughts on “In a Word

  1. I love this technique, Mr. Miggins. I may start using it with my 2nd grader as she stretches her literary wings. I have been looking for a way to discuss her thoughts on what was read, but didn’t want to choose a method that is overly formal or too rigid. This is perfect! Thanks for the idea.

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