Category Archives: fractured definition

“It’s agreeable that kids are always using their phones or electronics.”

Maybe you find it agreeable. I find it depressing, frustrating, irritating, frightening. Not “pleasing to the mind or senses,” as my old friend Webster assures me “agreeable” means.

I’m going to skip over the other problem in the sentence, the word “electronics”—a branch of physics, Mr. Webster says, that deals with “the emission, behavior, and effects of electrons and with electronic devices” or “of, relating to, or utilizing devices constructed or working by the methods or principles of electronics.” My student means neither of these things: he means electronic devices. And he doesn’t mean all of them; he means those that kids are always using—especially iPhones and iPads. I have other students who refer to such electronic devices merely as “devices,” and I wonder what they think when a professor tells students that for their final project they will be “left to their own devices.” Actually, a hallway sign at one of my schools admonishes students to “be considerate of others: use your devices in the stairways, not the hallways.” My imagination runs, predictably, wild at what must be going on out there, considering the hundreds of possible “devices” our society has to offer…

What I do want to talk about is that wonderful word “agreeable.” Of course I knew what he meant: He agrees, or is willing to agree, that kids are always using their phones etc. Is he trying to cope with the taboo-ification of using “I” in writing? That is not a taboo I impose, although I do say I don’t want to see them refer to themselves as the writer or opinor (sorry for the coinage) in an essay (“I think,” “I know,” “It is my opinion that,” “I feel,” “I truly agree that,” “I sincerely believe”…). Phrases like this are redundant with the unspoken premise of every argument: “I think that…” They also reinforce the writer’s feeling of authority and thereby seduce her to believe she has proved something rather than merely asserting it. So I would be one of the professors who did NOT want this student to write “I agree that kids are always etc.” But I have no problem with “I” when the writer is offering his own experience as evidence or example, and so I would have been perfectly happy with “I have seen hallways full of kids using their phones while walking to class,” for instance. Still, if he was trying to avoid writing “I,” I am willing to sympathize, albeit not to forgive.

Quite simply, he has forced a word to mean something most people would not expect or immediately grasp. “Agreeable”=”pleasant.” “Agreeable” might also = “ready or willing to assent or consent,” or even “in harmony.” Normal readers would try to understand the sentence in terms of one of these meanings. Normal readers would therefore be confused.

Or maybe by “normal” I mean “older than 20.” I’m afraid “agreeable” may be sneaking into the lexicon in the same way that “relatable” has. Now, Webster’s does include “relatable” as a form under the definition of “relate”; no such listing yet exists for “agreeable.” (Interestingly, WordPress’s spell-checker doesn’t recognize relatable as a word. Bravo!) But not that many of my students have as yet inflicted the new “agreeable” on me. Hundreds now have subjected me to “relatable.” I’ve written about that already, at length; here I mention only that it is close to meaningless in statements like “Hamlet is relatable” and “Gawain and the Green Knight is relatable.”

I use Webster’s as my base dictionary reference for this blog partly because it focuses on contemporary usage and partly because it is so widely and easily available to college students. I have the OED at home and use it for my own work, especially in my field of choice (Elizabethan and Jacobean drama); but its historic wonders and etymological subtleties aren’t generally to the point when dealing with student writing. Of course one of the most dramatic aspects of the OED is its revelation of shifts and changes in a living language. And I know contemporary usage continues that drama. But, like the plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, loving them as a group doesn’t mean I have to actually love, or advocate, any single one. The same is true for changes in the language. Some I find fascinating; some I lustily embrace; some, like “agreeable” and “relatable” in the hands or “devices” of my students, I loathe, and will fight against as long as there is ink in my pen.

“He finds the land of the Houyhnhnms to be a kind of utopian society where all is perfect despite its glaring flaws.”

“He” is Gulliver, eponymous hero of Jonathan Swift’s great comic satire.

And she, my student, has ruined a perfectly good observation by giving in to the itch to define a word she thinks her reader may not know.

How many English-speaking college students (and beyond) need the word “utopian” defined? Of those who might, how many wouldn’t turn to a dictionary for a basic meaning, especially now that dictionaries can be consulted via cellphone? Okay, well, maybe a lot. But I don’t know that my student should care about them. Certainly she shouldn’t interrupt a serious reader with unnecessary explanations.

Because she does want to interrupt me, she misplaces the adverbial phrase that is the point of the sentence: “despite its glaring flaws.” I believe (well, I hope) she meant that despite its glaring flaws Gulliver believes the land of the Houyhnhnms is a utopia, a civic paradise. That is a fair observation, although most readers would defend Gulliver’s gullibility because the flaws actually are not particularly glaring: Gulliver and his Houyhnhnm “master” compare notes on the many differences between the culture there and British society ca. 1700, and like Gulliver the reader is more and more convinced of the superiority of the former, based as it is entirely on Reason. Politics, religion, law, warfare, economy—Reason wins on every count. Only when the master’s complete indifference to matters like paternal love comes into the picture does the reader blink and begin to doubt. At that point, alas, Gulliver himself doesn’t flinch; he continues to believe Houyhnhnm society is the ideal, even after being ejected from the country and returning home to England, where he prefers to stay in the stable with the horses rather than in the house with the family who now seem like Yahoos to him.

So, flaws not so glaring, but significant once the reader sees them. The sentence could have stood.

BUT she decided to define “utopian society” with an adjective clause, “where all is perfect,” and that clause introduces a second verb into the sentence. The adverb phrase that follows, then (“despite its glaring flaws”) seems to modify “is,” not “finds,” and “its” obligingly consents to modify “all.”  The most accessible reading of her sentence is that in a utopian society all is perfect despite its glaring flaws. And that doesn’t make any sense. Moving that adverbial phrase would have fixed it. But she didn’t move it.

Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia about an ideal (imagined) place, and he named it Utopia from the Greek, “no place.” We sometimes use the term ironically, but More’s decision to announce in the name itself that the place didn’t exist would suggest that he was indeed trying to imagine a society that didn’t exist, a society without flaws, glaring or otherwise, no matter how many scholars debate whether he was writing philosophy or satire.

My student is right that Gulliver finds the Houyhnhnm society utopian. Gulliver believes the society to be perfect despite serious flaws that are obvious (eventually) to the reader. The Houyhnhnms themselves are pretty smug—with reason, ha ha—but they don’t put the label on.

In a self-styled utopian society, the residents might insist that all is perfect no matter how often its flaws are pointed out to them. This phenomenon can be found in certain areas and creeds in U.S. society, where the chant “We’re Number One!” substitutes for thought.

I believe that we wouldn’t call such a society “utopian”; I believe we’d call it a “fool’s paradise.” And I believe we’d be right.

“‘Bob and wheel’ is used in ‘The Miller’s Tale.’ It is almost like a small boat.”

When I lament that students don’t see language as pictures in their mind’s eye, I am forgetting this lovely gem. This student went astray by a combination of sloppy exam preparation, inattentive reading, and a chain of associations that started with a little mental picture.

For those of you who haven’t studied Gawain and the Green Knight lately, I will note that “bob and wheel” refers to a rhyme-and-rhythm pattern distinct to that poem: a stanza of unrhymed 4-stress lines concluding with a 1-stress line followed by four 3-stress lines (more or less iambic) that rhyme  b a b a, if you count the short line as an “a.”

For example, here’s part of one stanza, including the bob and wheel:

Then the first course came with a clamor of trumpets
whose banners billowed bright to the eye,
while kettledrums rolled and the cry of the pipes
wakened a wild, warbling music
whose touch made the heart tremble and skip.
Delicious dishes were rushed in, fine delicacies
fresh and plentiful, piled so high on so many platters
they had problems finding places to set down
their silver bowls of steaming soup: no spot
was clear.
Each lord dug in with pleasure,
and grabbed at what lay near:
twelve platters piled past measure,
bright wine, and foaming beer.

Besides the fun of the “wild, warbling music,” “delicious dishes,” and “bright wine and foaming beer,” the poet offers us the jaunty charm of that stanza closer. And that closer is called the “bob and wheel”—the one-stress line is the bob and the quatrain the wheel. It hangs there at the end of the stanza—the layout in our textbook makes it even more obvious—and an attentive (or even semi-attentive) reader can’t help but notice it. The textbook’s introductory material explains “bob and wheel,” and so do I.

So I thought it would be a nice little objective question: “What is a bob and wheel, and in what work read this semester is it used?”

Many students left the question entirely blank, so I have to give this student a tip of the hat (but no credit) for his effort.

Now, where did his notion come from? The reference to “The Miller’s Tale” suggests another source of confusion for many of my students, who take Chaucer’s clear image of three tubs suspended from the rafters of the carpenter’s house (the carpenter thinks that when Noah’s flood comes again he and his wife and his lodger can creep into the tubs and, when the waters rise to the level of the tubs, cut the ropes suspending them and float free) and for some reason or other think that the carpenter has put three little boats (always so handy in the medieval household) on top of the roof.  Thus the three flood refugees would have to clamber outside and onto the roof in order to get into the boats, instead of using the little ladders the carpenter has provided in the tubs. Students forget the ropes entirely, which must give them some pause when the carpenter mistakenly cuts the ropes on his tub and falls straight down to the ground, breaking his arm—but they never ask for clarification. I know this “boats” theory from several papers courageously written despite confusion.

How would little boats in “The Miller’s Tale” infect the phrase “bob and wheel”? Well, I don’t know about you, but I certainly have associated wheels with ships ever since I saw Peter Pan. How does one steer a ship? With a WHEEL, so large, so ornamental, so omnipresent in nautical decor and seafaring movies. (The “bob” goes, as they say asea, by the board.)

Bob and WHEEL.

Ship’s WHEEL.

The BOAT in “The Miller’s Tale.”

And there you have it.

Luckily no automobiles appear in British Literature Before 1660, or we might have had little cars in Gawain.

“She would not possess the feminine qualities such as proper dress and coyness.”

As long as we’re on the subject of sexuality.

I believe this sentence comes, alas, from an essay on Virginia adoption laws, which at the time (and evidently again!) forbade adoptions by homosexuals, and on a child-custody case that referred to those laws in a child-custody dispute. The case the students were writing about actually involved the daughter of a married couple who were divorcing because the husband had come out as gay. Some of the background is here; if you don’t have time to follow the link, the Virginia Supreme Court awarded the daughter to her mother (who smoked heavily despite having already had one lung removed for cancer and whose state of health gave her daughter frequent nightmares) rather than leave her with her father, whose homosexuality, in the opinion of the court, would expose her to taunting at school and her father’s partner at home, where she nevertheless had claimed to be happy. So much for family values….

Anyway, obviously my student was in favor of removing the child from her father’s custody (and, presumably, influence), principally expressing the conviction that daughters can be properly raised only by female parents, regardless of the quality of the parenting. How, he wondered, could she possibly learn about the mysteries of the female body from somebody who didn’t have one? And then he bumbled on in the dark a little farther.

Here you see his belief that girls cannot learn to “possess the feminine qualities” from anyone but their mothers. I know I wouldn’t have learned “coyness” if I hadn’t had my mother. Right. My mother was anything but coy: she was outspokenly intelligent, persistent (okay, we sometimes called it “stubborn”), honest, outgoing, decisive, creative, articulate, forthright, and not afraid of confrontation when she believed she was in the right. She despised hypocrisy, flirtatiousness, and false modesty, all of which I associate with the idea of “coyness.” I learned, or inherited, a number of her traits. I also admired and emulated a lot of other people’s qualities, and I hope I got a measure of sweetness (and a lot of other things) from my father. But in my student’s mind, a girl has only one teacher and one role model: Mommy.

I hate to think that a young girl has to learn “proper dress” from Mommy, though. It’s true that some of my own style choices—I remember in particular the first Easter hat I was allowed to choose for myself, a variegated-pink flight of fancy that could be, and may have been, achieved by inverting a flower pot and wrapping it with a very long chiffon scarf, layers overlapping—were unfortunate. But I was finding my own sense of style; and all through knee socks and sweaters and pleated skirts, shirtwaists and trench coats in floral fabrics (sewn by me), blue jeans and chambray work shirts and beads and buffalo-hide sandals, floor-length ensembles with an Edwardian feel, and now a general hodgepodge of whatever fits, is clean, and conveys a vaguely shabby-academic effect—all interspersed with dramatic formal gowns whenever I got a chance—I have NEVER dressed like my mother. She did indeed have a strong sense of “proper dress”; but hers was formed in a different era, and I live in MY era.

In "the" Easter bonnet. You can't really appreciate its splendor here. All the other women in this family Easter photo are wearing hats with wider brims and massed flowers, a lot prettier and a lot less dated than my choice. Live and learn.

In fact, as long as my student writer was indulging in stereotyped thinking, he might have considered the fact that many of the designers who have “dressed” women with success have been gay, and therefore assumed that this child’s father might be a better fashion adviser than her mother. But his stereotypes seem to have been limited to the negative.

Anyway, here I stand, a woman raised by her mother (and father and family and friends and peers and aspirations and sociopolitical contexts) and COMPLETELY LACKING in “proper dress and coyness.” Somehow I thought I did “possess the feminine qualities,” partly by genes and partly by choice; but now I find I don’t. Luckily, this realization does not unsettle me. Generalizing is a necessary part of communication, but the kinds of generalizations that are embodied in stereotypes are a pretty bad guide to reality.

My student wrote these words decades ago. I hope he’s learned something since then. If not, I hope he hasn’t married, because I can’t hold out much hope for a relationship based on stereotyped assumptions and superficial values, no matter how “properly” gussied up.

“Both of these women grew up in the time of the Enlightenment, where people separated the mind from the body.”

If any of us in the teaching racket prides himself or herself on clear lectures, good graphic illustration of abstract ideas, or careful definition of terms, let my student’s sentence serve as a huge red CAVEAT. Be humble. Much seed falls on stony ground.

We had been reading some of the letters and fictions of women thinkers of the Enlightenment in France; this sentence is from a subsequent paper discussing them.  (Readings of the prominent male figures of the Enlightenment, in Europe and America, were also a hefty part of the unit.) Of course one must lay some foundation for the readings, by way of a quickly sketched summary/definition of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, and I thought I had done a good job of that, cautioning my students that I was presenting a somewhat simplistic definition that their readings would refine and add nuance to. I talked briefly about the great movements and events that had preceded and fed into the Age of Reason: the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the establishment of the Royal Society (1660) that finally demarcated science as a study separate from religion, the spread of the printing press. And then, of course, I drew Plato’s charioteer. If you follow the link here, you’ll go to a page provided to students and the public by Bruce Janz, of the University of Central Florida, presenting the relevant Platonic dialogue, as well as this handsome piece of statuary:

Prof. Janz has labelled the components of this allegorical image. Doesn't your soul feel like this most of the time?

You remember the chariot, surely: it depicts the soul. Two horses draw it: spirit, or intellect, and body, or passions, or appetites. The charioteer who struggles to keep both horses headed in the same direction is Reason. Thinkers in the Enlightenment argued that Reason not only should rule life but also could lead us to an understanding of (pretty much) all things.

I then spent some time elaborating that idea and mentioning the cultural and philosophical areas in which writers of the time were most interested.

And here’s what my student got out of that: not a charioteer controlling two horses; not an idea of in intellect shaped by a belief in independence and easy access to classical and contemporary writers; not an investment in human reason as the key to human progress. Instead, he offers an image of a bunch of surgeons—in wigs, knee breeches, silk stockings, and embroidered waistcoats, to be sure—carefully removing everyone’s brain.

Perhaps it serves as a kind of precursor to the French Revolution and the guillotine, come to think of it, when people certainly were separating the head from the body. You don’t need a surgeon for that.

Early in my teaching career I had just finished what I thought was a really stimulating class in my American Literature course (yes, I’m a “generalist,” de facto). I was gathering my things and noticed that a student had left a notebook behind. I couldn’t resist taking a look at her notes, expecting to see my carefully structured lecture/discussion laid out in all its glory. What I found was every joke or anecdote I had used to clarify or lighten the lesson, carefully transcribed…and nothing else. Now, when I was a student I was fascinated by a very bright, very intense, and rather eccentric fellow student (the ideal then) who was a gifted cartoonist. He sat in class with a drawing pad and filled the pages with large cartoons in his distinctive style, turning page after page as the lecture or discussion proceeded. The cartoons were not illustrations of the material; they were just drawings. BUT from time to time he would write something in the margin of the cartoon-in-progress, or provide a text balloon so the drawing could speak, and in those spots he would be taking notes. Nothing like that had been going on with my student, though: she was just copying down the jokes. Would her memory of the actual course content be jogged by association with the anecdotes? Well, maybe. She was in fact a very good student, at least when she wrote papers or exams, and she did participate in class discussions from time to time. So yes, we all have our own learning styles. I myself filled the margins of my notebooks with doodles, quite often a stylized rose I had devised out of the initials of one of my indelible crushes but sometimes a sort of sketch of the professor, or a picture of a phrase (even then, what an active mind’s eye I had when it came to figurative language!); and when I become a professor I continued this practice in faculty meetings, sometimes later having to rely on the doodles to remind me of what had transpired.

But what could the Enlightenment (but alas not enlightened) student have written down, or perhaps just sort-of remembered, to represent the Enlightenment? Maybe on the spot he distilled the whole presentation into “people separated the mind from the body” and never looked back. It’s not that far off, really—just far enough to make a bizarre mental picture and suggest a less-than-perfect paper to come. That, unfortunately, is too far.

“Theatre of the Absurd is the kind of writing that makes the audience wonder…”

It’s snowing outside. I thought I’d post a Horror that really cannot be improved on by my comments, and then I wouldn’t make any comments, and just go back to looking out the window and wondering if we should shovel, or drive boldly off to our Saturday-breakfast place, or go back to bed.

I just want to say, before finishing the quotation, that my student’s statement is bizarre, clueless, and deeply true…a lot like Theatre of the Absurd, in fact.


“Theatre of the Absurd is the kind of writing that makes the audience wonder if the characters have some kind of mental disease.”

“Censorship is a group of fanatics banding together to have Mark Twain removed from all schools.”

I’ve written before about students’ often-misguided impulse to “define their terms,” but this one is okay by my guidelines: that is, it doesn’t merely parrot a dictionary definition but shows the reader the limited or special sense in which the writer is using the word.

My student’s definition sentence certainly sounds as if he thinks he’s giving THE definition, though, not some special narrow application.

And as such, it fills me with relief. Publishers, writers, courts, and governments have long sought to come up with a clear-cut definition of “censorship,” one that can be applied to any instance of that charge. My student has given them one.

If the case doesn’t involve Mark Twain, fanatics, and schools, it isn’t censorship.

Any questions? As many of my students say, I think not.

He looks as if he'll give those fanatics a fight…

“Laura is suffering from a medical condition called pleurosis, which made one of her legs shorter than the other.”

In Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Laura remembers a handsome and popular boy from high school who had “always” called her “Blue Roses” because she had missed some school while suffering from pleurosis and he had mis-heard the term. That’s a mistake that aficionados of error would call a Mondegreen, but in the play it’s a cherished, and perhaps exaggerated, memory.

Laura is also painfully self-conscious because in her youth she had had to wear a leg brace and, with the pitiful vanity of most of us who worry about some perceived flaw, believed every eye was on her clumsy self whenever she walked into a room. She no longer needs the brace, but whatever the affliction was, it has shortened the affected leg. Williams directs that the actress playing Laura suggest a limp rather than actually play it (although I saw a production where the director defied Williams on this, to the play’s detriment). The young man, now grown up and entering the play as the Gentleman Caller, protests that he never even noticed Laura’s brace in high school; the audience is left to decide whether this was because it really wasn’t as awful as Laura had thought, or because he had never really noticed much about her.

My student is describing Laura. She is also writing new chapters into the annals of medicine.

All teachers of writing at the college level have struggled to explain to their students the difference between “defining your terms” and “telling the reader what the dictionary says.” Young writers seem determined to share Webster’s wisdom with their readers—who, they evidently think, have limited vocabularies and no dictionaries at hand. The words they choose to define are quite often perfectly common words, and the definitions are, typically, straight out of some print or online dictionary, with no added nuance or emphasis. Sure, once in a while including the dictionary definition can be useful to a paper: I remember writing a paper on The Rainbow that used the multiple definitions of “rainbow” in (probably) Webster’s Second as the organizing principle of the discussion, and the professor and I seemed to think that worked pretty well. But USUALLY, I intone to my classes, we “define our terms” when we are modifying, adding to, qualifying, making figurative, or otherwise appropriating a term to our own purposes.

Obviously this student wanted to define her terms—or Williams’ terms. I don’t think it was my preaching that kept her away from the dictionary for that purpose; I think she just thought Williams had given Laura one affliction instead of two (three, if to the leg problem and pleurosis you add neurosis, that shyness of hers). Laura had pleurosis; Laura limps: pleurosis causes shortening of the limbs, Q.E.D.

Perhaps she did go to a dictionary and failed to find “pleurosis.” It’s not a term much in use.

But she would have found, right where she had looked for “pleurosis,” pleura, “the delicate serous membrane that lines each half of the thorax of mammals and is folded back over the surface of the lung of the same side”; pleurisy, “inflammation of the pleura usually with fever, painful and difficult respiration, cough, and exudation into the pleural cavity”; and, a little farther down, pleuropneumonia, “combined inflammation of the pleura and lungs.” (Thanks as usual, Mr. W.) Today, if she were to Google “pleurosis,” she would be helpfully directed to numerous sites offering definitions of “pleurisy,” which is probably what Laura had suffered from for a while one year in high school.

Armed with that information, my student might have wondered for a least a moment how a lung (or pleural) disease could shorten a leg—a part of the body not mentioned or even hinted at in any of the above definitions. Oh, please, please, then, DON’T let her have looked the word up! I would far rather contemplate a student too self-confident or too lazy to consult a dictionary, than a student who blithely assumes a causal connection between afflictions of two different systems and two different parts of the body.

Next time I launch into an explanation of “defining your terms,” I’d better include a brief comment about “engaging your brain.”

“Public opinion is such a lucid thing.”

Now, here’s an interesting take on public opinion. Most observers would not choose the term “lucid,” and when I see such a confidently clear but unexpected usage I fly to a big dictionary to see if the student has fallen prey to some thesaurus (which, despite its nominal similarity to Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus, has nothing to do with dinosaurs but rather comes to us via Latin from the Greek meaning “treasure” or “collection”) and has chosen some tangential “synonym” for a more appropriate word.

Such was obviously the case for the student who wrote about “a student who demotes another” (a perfectly okay phrase if you substitute “degrades”—and still in the lexicon of school, interestingly enough); the one who referred to a “fragile issue” (read “sensitive” or “delicate”); the one who cautioned that we should not “put circumstances on the right of free speech” (very strange, but if you try putting “conditions” on that right the caution makes sense).

So, when my student here refers to public opinion as “a lucid thing,” is he searching for a word that shares one of the definitions of “lucid”? Does he mean public opinion is in some sense “suffused with light”? Perhaps it is “sane, having full use of its faculties”? “Clear to the understanding, intelligible”? Ah, if it only were those things. We may all think of ourselves as lucid, and our opinions as perhaps even pellucid; but in the aggregate, to the observer, much public opinion is far from this mark, despite the attempts of marketing researchers to parse it.

Fortunately my student went on to define, or clarify, his meaning. Here’s the whole thing:

“Public opinion is such a lucid thing. One minute the public is with you and the next they are against you.”

Ah, that clears it up. Well, actually, it clears up the fact that he does not have “lucid” or any of its relatives in mind. My next recourse as a reader of student papers is to try various alternatives that sound similar to the chosen word. This time, alas, I can think of none. I believe he means “fickle,” but I can’t wrestle the one into the other by rhyme, dominant vowel sound, dominant consonant sound (well, there’s the “l” sound, but not in the same position in the two terms)…the only commonality I can find is that both are trochees. There’s not much inevitability on that basis, though: “silly” or “piebald” would do. Sudden inspiration: could he have meant to write “loony”? That scores on initial consonant, dominant vowel, and stress pattern. Hmmm!

Wherever in more lucid moments his word choice would have landed, I like what he wrote anyway.

In this modern world of ours today (I, too, can speak Freshman!), mistakes can have their moments of glory, and I think this is one of those times. Sometimes my student’s observation seems to be a little closer to the mark than a cynic like me would have thought. Following the vagaries of the great jostle that is the Republican Presidential candidacy quest, for example, with each contender on his or her own little roller coaster of popularity or godhead, I do have moments of believing that public opinion has at least its lucid moments, and those moments are responsible for the fluctuations and vacillations in the polls—”or at least for the downturns,” my Inner Progressive adds.

“Should the happenings be blamed on phenomenons?”

Essentially, this is one of those circular sentences, and would be just as meaningless if the terms were reversed: “Should the phenomenons be blamed on happenings?” I guess it’s a good question. Maybe it’s even meaningful, in a strange way, if the student is writing about possible witchcraft in the village of Salem. Perhaps she’s making a distinction between “happenings” as physical manifestations, and “phenomenons” as supernatural causes. I wish she’d at least written “phenomena,” but with so few students taking Latin nowadays I guess it’s too much to ask that the Latin plurals be retained. Actually, a quick look just now at Webster’s Collegiate informs me that “phenomenon” meaning “an exceptional, unusual, or abnormal thing, person, or event” is pluralized with an “s.” If the Infant Phenomenon of Nicholas Nickleby had had a sister, they would have been billed as the Infant Phenomenons, I imagine, by this definition. Perhaps, then, we can let my student’s “phenomenons” slide.

Another student, though, didn’t think the supernatural was to blame; he attributed it to more psychological causes:

“There were a couple of things that were behind the Salem witch cases, such as power of pervasion and hysterics. Power of pervasion is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Pervasion” is a word, but doesn’t fit the context or the declared meaning. Here it might be an unwitting portmanteau for “perverse persuasion,” although once the accusations got going they certainly did seem to pervade Salem. But none of these possible component ideas can explain my student’s confident observation (or definition?) that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe he’d like to meet the student who explained “psychosomatic.”

Well, Hallowe’en is here, and the Hallowe’en witches will have taken their candy and gone by midnight, so I might as well end my Salem series with another famous student “death sentence” >wink<:

“I’d like to say that those people that are dead and buried because of so-called witchcraft are now dead.”