Fun with Words: Neologisms (and leveraging a student’s native language)

This post is a reminder for those of us who have students who, whether overt or not, speak English as a second or third language…

First of all…what the heck does “quockerwodger” mean? It is one of those English words that we don’t use in the everyday sort of way…crapulous, buss, and zafty (anyone?) Quockerwodger began was used in the 1850s and simply referred to a wooden puppet controlled by strings, a la Pinocchio. As time went on, it began to take on a political meaning, as in a politician who’s actions are controlled by someone else.

My first teaching job was in Dalian, China: I was 23 and naïve and excited and overwhelmed and ready to learn and and and…

It was a Canadian off-shore school, and the majority of the students were Chinese with a smattering of Korean and Japanese, in there, too. These students had the intention graduating with a Canadian high school diploma and then heading to Canada or the U.S. for University. In my naivety, I saw my role as helping these them sound more like native English speakers and writers. And although this was well intentioned, this also was hindering some of their learning.

It was one particular Japanese student that helped me realize the need to leverage a student’s first/native language. This student’s name was Keisuke [Case-kay].

After the long 5 week Chinese New Year holiday, we were back in class and starting to brainstorm ideas for a flash non-fiction on a specific and significant moment from their break. Keiskue was working on re-telling a moment from a hike he did on his trip to Malaysia. He had a word he wanted to know the translation for, and so he asked something similar to: What is the word in English that means when light comes through trees?

I know that my head would have tilted to the right and my brows would have furrowed…a look of confusion very much apparent. I asked for more details on what he meant and after more description and a sketch I replied that we didn’t have a word for that, that he would just have to describe it using imagery.

There was a palpable moment of disappointment for the both of us. For him: the disappointment of wanting a better translation. For me: the disappointment in the English language. [Side note: Komorebi is now one of my favourite words.]


I had always loved words and how you could use them to paint a picture…but I realized that other languages had better words to whole experiences—something I felt that English lacked. And this sent me down a rabbit hold of wondering what other words like this there were out there…apparently there are A LOT! Here is just one of many links to a list with a few to get you started. Here, also, are two books that I own and love to flip through: Book (1) and (2).

It wasn’t until later when I was talking to a colleague about this depressive epiphany that I had another thought: If there are words that encapsulate experiences like this that don’t translate into English, what else has difficulty in transferring? I had become so fixated on teaching my students how we write and read and think in English, that I neglected to take into consideration what they brought to the table already…their understanding of their native language.

As each language has its own sound and style there may be differences in word order, rhetorical organization, stylistic features, syntax, and genre characteristics. But knowing this and leveraging this are two different things.

Chris Turner of Coventry University notes that the greater the difference from language one and language two, the less likely students are to attempt more ambitious vocabulary, phrasing, and organizational structures. Which makes sense…but we want to nurture risk-takers. This means that we need to help students see that their native language can help them write better in English. That it is beneficial to takes some leap with language.

1My 23-year-old self didn’t quite know what to do with this understanding way back when; however, as I grew in my practice I learned ways to leverage a student’s first language. This is something Virginia Rojas has termed additive bilingualism: “when instruction leverages ELLs’ home language(s), cultural assets, and prior knowledge and are used by the teacher in bridging prior knowledge to new knowledge, and in making content meaningful and comprehensible.” And this works with students of all levels: for those who are struggling it gives them something familiar to connect to, and for those who are more skilled it gives them a way to manipulate their writing. A solid win, win situation. (Here is another site which discusses additive Bilingualism)

Near the start of the year I do an activity that has three purposes:

  • To have fun with language
  • To access prior knowledge of native languages
  • To start to discuss prefixes, root words, and suffixes

We all become neologists and we create new words—NERD ALERT! Before we get into the creating we do some (1) mini-lessons around prefixes etc…, (2) we brainstorm ideas that they might be able to use from their native language, and (3) we spend some time on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows site (there is also a YouTube channel). Created by John Koenig, this site aims to:

…fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.

All words in this dictionary are new. They were not necessarily intended to be used in conversation, but to exist for their own sake; to give a semblance of order to a dark continent, so you can settle it yourself on your own terms, without feeling too lost—safe in the knowledge that we’re all lost.

Students could extend this and create a video for their new word (on their own time or in film class?) and send it in to the site, as well. Fun real life application opportunity.

Here are a couple that students made into beautiful visuals. 

And here are a few more:

  • Phantaesthetic – The desire to do something destructive merely because it would look pretty
  • Nihilophone – Something better left unspoken OR a pointless word
  • Antexpletives – Substitutes for curse words
  • Phonophilia – The state of falling in love for the poetry of it

I find that this activity helps students to think about words in a new way and begin the year taking some risks and being creative.

I am still a little disappointed with the lack of colloquial experiential words in the English language… we do have some, but we don’t use them in the same way other languages do. However, that mini-existential crisis I had back when I was 23 (and still continue to have a little today), it is outweighed by the long term gain of (1) helping students to play with language and (2) learning how to use a student’s native language to to help them develop as writers.

What ways do you encourage students to take risks with language? How do you leverage a student’s first language? Any quick activities you can add to work with prefixes, roots, and suffixes? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on Twitter @ReadWriteMore

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