Who Cares About Word Origins?
Once in a while a ValuedMinds reviewer encounters a book that warrants detailed analysis. Frindle has received a low score, yet has been very well received by the children’s literature community. It has received more than 21 awards, 18 nominations and seven commendations (see www.frindle.com/awards_complete.html). It is also even used in schools —a Google search of “Frindle +curriculum” produced 16,700 hits. Why should VM score such a book so poorly?
The plot is quite straight forward. In grade five, young Nick has just finished a dictionary assignment. He asks his teacher, “…who says that d-o-g means the thing that goes ‘woof’ and wags its tail? Who says so?”
Mrs. Granger replies, “You do, Nicholas. You and I and everyone in this class and this school and this town and this state and this country. We all agree.” She even provides words used for “dog” in other languages, to show how words can vary.
Nick seizes on this, inventing “frindle” as a replacement word for “pen”. His friends and classmates support him but Mrs. Granger tries to discourage them. She even gives detentions to children caught using the new ‘word’. Nick experiences her opposition as a self-contradiction, and he politely stands his ground.
Soon Nick’s fight for “frindle” gains local media attention. A businessman begins marketing pens printed with “Frindle”. He even negotiates royalty percentages, to be kept in trust for Nick, with Nick’s parents. Soon the news is national. “Frindle” appears on t-shirts and fortunes are made. Years later a wealthy Nick discovers “frindle” has appeared in a dictionary. It’s time to open the letter Mrs. Granger once gave him. It turns out that Mrs. Granger is proud of him, and views changing language as inevitable as the sunrise.
The well designed, age appropriate plot and characterization of Frindle makes the theme inescapable, even to younger readers. The theme is “anything can be a word if it gains collective approval”. Is it appropriate to convince children that words are of arbitrary origin? How are the young to be convinced? What if word origins are not arbitrary? How will a mistaken view affect a child’s view of words and reading?
Observe how the characterization and plot contrive to establish the theme. Mrs. Granger is the stereotypical, prim, no-nonsense ‘school-marm’ and she is the one who gives Nick the argument that is the basis for the entire plot. Then she serves as its only opposition. With this set up, her belief in frugal language can be readily dismissed as the stubborn traditionalism of an otherwise ‘nice’ old lady. A child will see that Mrs. Granger’s view is a contradiction, as Nick sensed, but an adult may note that Mrs. Granger is a foil serving to support the theme.
Mrs. Granger raises only two arguments against “frindle”. She points out that “pen” has a history, evolving from the Latin for feather (pinna), and argues that “There is no reason to invent a new and useless word.” The plot conveniently ignores her points (examined below) to focus on the media attention “frindle” gathers. This attention is the stuff peace-activists dream of, but it is a contrivance that counts on the innocence of its readers—and on the sympathies of those who already believe words are arbitrary conventions. Predictably, Nick’s new word is widely accepted, as the theme requires of the plot. This glossing past Mrs. Granger’s objections to a fabricated ‘proof’ of the theme, not to mention that she really held Nick’s view all along, is egregious. Children receive the implicit suggestion that inferential default, i.e. ignoring or ‘blanking out’ an opposing argument as if it never existed, is intellectually acceptable.
Technically, Mrs. Granger is set up as a Straw Man argument. A Straw Man is a contrived argument presented as the one to beat, but lacking the substance of the real argument it hides. The person who creates the Straw Man presents his arguments to destroy it, and then claims to have won the real argument. Mrs. Granger, as a foil to Nick, serves as Frindle’s Straw Man. With her opposition neatly swept aside by story events, the uncritical/naïve reader is left thinking the only truth is Nick’s. This effectively dupes (child) readers into seeing the theme as acceptable.
For a child, the plot and characterization of Frindle lend its theme a sense of authenticity and permanence. Very young readers are quite able to grasp the idea that words are arbitrary, and will believe that adults approve.
Frindle’s (1996) theme appears to be a product of an intellectually bankrupt false-alternative held by academics in the late 1900s. Words were seen either as a semi-random product of genetically fixed, neural structures (Chomsky, via Kant) or of the utterly arbitrary ebb and flow of culture (Saussure, Dewey et alia). Both alternatives divest words of their rational base. Thus, however unintentionally, the plot contrivances of Frindle serve to indoctrinate children with a faulty view that ultimately devalues words.
Consider the likely origin of a word like “Mum” and its variations. It is a baby’s easiest vocalization. Prehistoric parents accepted that sound as a word, because it works properly in its context. That is, it was a rational acceptance of facts pertinent to thinking and communicating. The sound may have been a product of genetic structures, but the choice of meaning that made it a word was neither arbitrary nor innate. Other sounds chosen for the early words of prehistory were likely onomatopoetic (the word sounds like the thing to which it refers). So words like “snake” “buzz” and “murmur” were not arbitrary. They were chosen because they conveyed meaning.
Some might argue that at least some words must have been arbitrary creations. For many words, the particular sound may have been optional –perhaps as an adaptation from another sound– but the intent was not. ‘Optional’ is not the equivalent of ‘arbitrary’. It is more likely that words developed with varying degrees of care and reasoning. Many early words were probably contractions of two or more descriptive words, which became accepted as words in their own right. Surely it is no coincidence that heavily used words are usually one or two syllables, while more complex words are multi-syllabic. These simple things indicate rational development, not arbitrary whim. Thousands of years of unwritten experience and progress will surely make an established lexicon appear to be the result of cultural acceptance.
Consider, too, the global migration of people and ideas that mingles languages and multiplies options. Develop this over millennia and the potential for word variation is huge, but that variation does not signify randomness. Even before dictionaries, people chose what words best expressed what they needed at the time. Overwhelming evidence for this approach to word development can be found on every page of the wondrous Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Synonyms become distinct words when their special connotations are considered. When a word is abandoned the meaning or connotation is no longer needed. This too is not arbitrary; it is an issue of utility and meaning. Well established words, word inflections and grammatical structures are not developed by collective whim, but by logical agreement.
The history of words is also ignored by Frindle’s theme. History contributes to the interconnected meanings of words in a way our minds routinely use to advantage. Those interrelationships enable us to quickly grasp shades of meaning, and recognize variants, in a way that arbitrary sounds and spellings cannot. Consider “happy” and the less common “happenstance”. Both come from the ancient Norse word, “happ”, which meant “luck” (originally, Dutch). Perhaps (which means “per luck”) children will one day learn that words like “happy” have marvelous, meaningful underpinnings. They may see that words are more than just noises about things. Thus, “pen”, arising through “feather pen” and the Latin pinna (feather), necessarily has a deeper meaning than “frindle” ever could. “Pen” was not an arbitrary invention and, likely, “pinna” was not either.
(Incidentally, Clements presents “quiz” as an example of arbitrary word creation, but the Oxford English Dictionary indicates the story is most certainly a myth. More likely, “quiz” arose from the Latin inquisitus, the past participle of inquisitere –”to inquire”.)
Why does this all matter? Those who accept the words-as-arbitrary perspective, perhaps because of Frindle, overlook the importance of words to the mind as two-way ‘pointers’.
The obvious direction a word points is outward to its referent, to a real thing of the world. It may be an object, action, characteristic or a relationship. It may ‘point’ to a higher, but no less real, abstraction such as “happiness”. It helps enormously if that pointer ties with other things related to the referent. If it does, we may already have a sense of the word’s meaning, which brings us to the second pointer-direction.
Every word also points inward, to the mind’s collection of ideas and facts about its particular referent. It directs our mind to links we may have made with other words and ideas. From “feather pen”, we can picture Benjamin Franklin, a bottle of India ink before him as he gravely signs the American Declaration of Independence. The more widely one reads, the more such connections become apparent.
If children view our ‘pointer’ words as arbitrary, why shouldn’t they conclude that its referents are just as arbitrarily identified? In small degrees the language becomes disintegrated: “whatever ‘frindle’ points to for you, may not be the same thing as it points to for me!” The very referents of words become debatable. Meaning becomes subjective, not objective, and communication narrows to function only between those whose feelings about the words they use happen to match. Disagreement becomes a chasm that cannot be spanned.
As a principle, identifying the fundamental nature of words, the theme of “Frindle” is not just wrong, it is destructive.
Anyone who knows “teacup” and “poodle” can predict how small a Teacup Poodle might be the first time they hear of it. If words were arbitrary noises, without a history, pointer connections such as this would be hard to grasp and harder to retain. To multiply our pointers with “new and useless words” would do more damage than simply hinder communication. It invites the biblical Tower of Babel, asking our minds to wrestle with a proliferation of pointers for every little thing. How many pointers, “pen” “frindle” or ‘taffle’ (imagine more!), should the mind keep as active pointers for pen? The words-as-arbitrary view does not simply undermine communication, it complicates and undermines thought. Clements has, in effect, written an argument that attacks the very tool his writing and readers rely upon.
The damage to a child who grasps even a part Frindle ‘s theme is considerable. How will he use a dictionary? How will he judge arguments and the books that contain them?
When a child sees words as arbitrary creations, he need only know what others think a word means. The origin and grammatical significance of words are ‘academic’ to him —unimportant to his life. He does not need to know the full implications of words; he need only be concerned with how the herd around him uses them. Television is as good a source of words as any. The dictionary is merely its echo.
When words and the way they ‘point’ are arbitrary, there is no need for him to mature by considering words as tools of thought or argument, words are only troublesome tools of communication. Logic becomes a struggle for agreement on terms, not on the facts of reality. Disagreements become a subjective matter in which “your pointers are yours, and mine are mine.” Tiresome phrases arise from this –phrases that are used as arguments: “people see things differently”, “who’s to say what’s right?” “that’s only your opinion”. Intellectual independence, certainty and clarity are undermined. Even the child, who enjoys reading for the rest of his life, will not appreciate words as the objective connection to reason and reality that they could be.
Children should not be exposed to Frindle except as part of a deliberate lesson on the nature and use of words, and on how fiction can serve as propaganda for (wrong) ideas. Frindle may not single-handedly destroy a child’s understanding of words but, because it is an enjoyable read, its theme is explicit, its plot is persuasive, and children can grasp its arguments, it has more destructive potential than most children’s’ books. One might ask if the agencies that granted Frindle’s awards are already victims of its ideas. Parents might ask whether their children should read because words are fun conventions that make reading an entertaining escape, or because words can be used to create well connected concepts with brilliant, real-world meaning?