Krista Christensen

Read Write Teach Love

The Malleability of Words

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When I teach my developmental English classes, one of my first exercises is on the malleable nature of words. I drag out that old standby, the word that is fabled to be but is not actually the longest word in English, antidisestablismentarianism. Then, methodically, I coach students through recognizing the prefixes and suffixes, one at a time, until we are finally to our root word: establish.

Carefully, we sally forth through each affix until we’ve finally decoded the meaning of the word. As much as possible, we determine the meanings of these roots and affixes as a class, rather than looking them up.

  • Establish. We know that buildings are established, therefore we know this means to make or to build.
  • Establishment. Technically, the suffix -ment refers to a process, so this would mean the process of building or making something. However, we know, too, that an establishment is also a free standing thing, a building, a government, a place of business. (Usually I do not go into the specific establishment that the word references, the Church of England, but if the question is posed, I’m game for the digression).
  • Establishmentarian. Here, we discuss suffixes that shuffle words into different categories; -arian is a suffix that shows support for some idea or concept, sometimes a person like librarian  or disciplinarian, or sometimes  a adjective like egalitarian or humanitarian. It is at this juncture that we can begin to see the cumulative nature of these affixes, and to determine, based not on a dictionary but on our own understanding of language, that establishmentarian means to be in support of the establishment.
  • Disestablishmentarian. This one is often a gimme for students, and a welcome break from the nebulous suffixes of –ment and -arian. Dis-, they know, means separate, or apart from. Now they know that disestablishmentarian means to be separate from those in support of the establishment, or even more simply, a person or belief in destroying the establisment altogether.
  • Antidisestablishmentarian. Another gimme here, and now students begin to feel as though this word is making sense (though many still determine it to be a foolish kind of sense, and at times I’m inclined to agree). Anti– means against, we all know, so now antidisestablishmentarian becomes easy, almost old hat: against those who want to destroy the establishment.
  • Antidisestablishmentarianism. The –ism initially confounds students, but they soon recognize their old friend; the list of –isms they collaboratively build in class is quickly long and varied. Because it simply “belief-ifies” a word, students know now that antidisestablishmentarianism is a belief that people should oppose those who want to break down a particular establishment.

Hardcore grammarians will perhaps tsk-tsk, as the true root here is the word disestablish (disestablishmentarians desired the disestablishment of the Anglican Church as the state church). Still, the sense of the definition that we arrive at communally is, for remedial students, serviceable. What’s important here is not that students understand the nuances of the word, but rather, that they appreciate the malleability of words, and the process by which words are broken into their component parts.

The full effect of this lesson can’t be conveyed in a blog post; there’s too little room for scribbled notes on whiteboards. Still, the purpose of such an exercise is, for developing writers, to demystify words. Too often, people are shuffled through our education system without developing a true depth of understanding in any one concept. But, to understand fully the fluidity of words and their component parts is to understand thinking itself. It’s a worthwhile endeavor for, not just writers, but humans.


Author: Krista

Krista Christensen was the Denali National Park Writer-in-Residence for Winter 2018. Her essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and named Notable in the 2018 edition of Best American Essays. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, Potomac Review, Booth, River Teeth, Harpur Palate, and more. She got an MFA a few years back, and calls Interior Alaska home for now, where she teaches high school and college English.

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