Monday, November 11, 2013


Guest Post by Madelyn Rosenberg

My recent middle-grade novel, Canary in the Coal Mine, is about a small bird who busts out of the mines in West Virginia and tries to make things better for those he leaves behind. It’s set in 1931. When I was researching the novel, I spent a lot of time figuring out what people ate back then, what music they listened to, and how much things cost (thank you old Sunday newspapers). And then, after the copyeditor flagged a few of them, I learned to research something else: words.

I’d tried to take care, as I always do, in choosing just the right words for my story. I’d even consulted a linguistics magazine that listed common West Virginia expressions of the 1920s. But the copyeditor still highlighted a few words that wouldn’t have come into common usage until after my time period. “Gobbledygook,” for example, didn’t reach the dictionary until the early 1940s. “Motion sickness” had a similar date of origin. I’ve had motion sickness my entire life, and it never occurred to me that before 1940, people just felt dizzy and sick to their stomachs.

It usually takes a few years for a word to make it from common usage into the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary just recently added the term “bucket list,” but I’ll bet you’ve heard that term before.

The origin of a word is known as its etymology (a word that dates back to the 1300s).

For today’s Pencil Tips activities:

*Think of a word that makes you curious. Then go look it up in the dictionary. Far beneath the definition, or whether it’s a noun or a verb, you will see “origin” and a date. How far does your word go back? Does the dictionary tell you anything else about your word’s origin?

*Invent a word of your own, like Nick Allen did in Andrew Clements’ Frindle.  Maybe you’ll invent a word that describes the way you feel when you slam your funny bone against the kitchen table, or a word for a mosquito bite that keeps itching even after you put on Calamine lotion. Share your words in class.

*Play a game of Fictionary. This is a favorite in my family because everyone ends up laughing. I’ve found it works best in groups of five or six.

Grab a dictionary. Call out words until you find one where no one knows the definition. Have each player make up a definition that sounds like a dictionary definition, while you write the real definition on a piece of paper.

Read the definitions one at a time. Have the other players guess which one they think is real.

If the correct definition is guessed, the player guessing gets a point.
If a made-up definition is guessed, the player who wrote the definition scores a point.
If no one gets the correct definition, the player who chose the word gets three points. You can restructure the scoring however you’d like; we often play with no scoring at all, but for bragging rights, as in: “Daddy really believed ‘hurkle’ was a species of fish.”

Pass the dictionary to the left for another round.

If you’re interested in more information about how a word makes its way into the dictionary, check out this link to the Oxford English Dictionary
and this handy FAQ from Merriam-Webster:

BIO: Madelyn Rosenberg is the author of two picture books, Happy Birthday, Tree which was on the Bank Street best-of list and The Schmutzy Family, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Her first middle-grade novel, Canary in the Coal Mine, was chosen to represent West Virginia in the States Pavilion at the 2013 National Book Festival. Madelyn is also the author of two forthcoming books: Dream Boy, a YA novel co-written with Mary Crockett, due out in July 2014 and How to Behave at a Tea Party, a picture book due out in fall 2014. To learn more about Madelyn and her books, please visit

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