How to Create a Word Nerd

I finished Jennifer Ziegler’s beautiful novel WORSER over the weekend, and I can’t tell you how much I wish my late parents were still alive so I could share it with them. Mom and Dad—along with teachers and librarians who never, ever, told me that a book was “too high a Lexile level” for me— made me into a lifelong Word Nerd.

book cover — drawing of a boy with a backpack and lots of fascinating words

It’s a wonderful, sensitively-written novel, and I related to Worser’s fascination with language. I’ve always been interested in the ways words sound as well as what they mean. I’m currently learning three languages on Duolingo (Spanish, Dutch, and Yiddish) and it’s fascinating to see the commonalities between say, Dutch and Yiddish, which both have Germanic roots, and Spanish and French, the language I studied in high school.

One of the other things I did in high school? Tried to learn swear words in as many languages as possible. Before you give me a disapproving lecture about cursing, it’s apparently a sign of language fluency.

Scientists found that those who scored higher in verbal fluency were also better equipped to spout off obscenities.

“People who are good at producing language are good at producing swear words…It’s not because they don’t have language — it’s because they have a whole toolbox full of words.”

My parents certainly didn’t encourage my cursing — in fact, I actually had my mouth washed out with soap once as a kid, although it didn’t stop me. They did encourage my love of reading. Mom took us to the library every week to get a new stack of books to take home, and the awesome librarians at the children’s room continued to recommend books they thought might interest me, books that were often well above my chronological age in reading level.

That helped to build my vocabulary. I wasn’t limited to a Lexile level. I could read whatever books interested me — and luckily for me, other kids’ parents weren’t trying to remove books that interested me from library shelves because they didn’t want THEIR kids to read them.

If I didn’t know the meaning of the word — and I often didn’t— I’d try to decode it from the context. If that failed, I’d resort to asking my parents, despite knowing full well that they wouldn’t give me the answer. Instead, they’d send me to the dictionary. Because I’m old(er) and this was waaaaaaay before the Internet, that meant the “Shorter” Oxford English Dictionary, which weighs a whopping 8lbs 11oz. That’s a heavy lift when you’re a little kid.

An Oxford English dictionary on a scale, showing it weighs 8 lbs, 11oz
The “shorter” Oxford English Dictionary. That thing was HEAVY for a little kid!

And it’s no wonder my eyesight is so bad as an adult (well, okay, reading under the covers with a flashlight at night when I was supposed to be sleeping contributed too)— look at the tiny print!

Picture of a page from the Shorter Oxford English dictionary with tiny print

BUT…here’s the thing: having to look words up in an actual dictionary rather than just searching for the definition online helped to build my vocabulary and my fascination with language, because in the course of looking up the word I was seeking, I’d end up checking out other words situated around it on the page.

Technology has made looking up words easier, but by giving us the definition of one word at a time, it’s taken the language gift I was given away.

Try kicking it old school by buying your kids a dictionary and a thesaurus. And read Worser with them. You won’t regret it.

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Sarah Darer Littman

Sarah Darer Littman

insatiably curious middle-grade/young adult author, writing mentor. SOME KIND OF HATE 11/1/22 Scholastic Press #medialiteracy sarahdarerlittman.com