Thoughts on Frindle

Monday January 31, 2011

Andrew Clements

Just from the title, I have to wonder if it had any connection to the Kindle.  A quick search reveals... that you can buy Frindle for the Kindle, but not whether Frindle helped inspire the Kindle name.  Maybe not.

Anyway this is a kids' book from 1996; I'm a little amazed I'd never heard of it.  The main ideas about dictionaries being descriptive rather than prescriptive, on a fundamental level, and the general nature of language as a social construction, are some cool ideas that I kept encountering through high school and beyond.  I like that this book presents those ideas in a very accessible form.

I identified with the use of dictionaries in school.  I remember, vaguely, doing vocabulary lists and looking stuff up in paper dictionaries when I was in grade school.  But I have to wonder, do kids do that these days?  Is anybody still really using paper dictionaries?  Even when I was in grade school, all those years ago, the class set of paper dictionaries was getting to be a bit dusty and unappreciated.  I also remember using the thesaurus in Word a lot.  And now I go to or exclusively.  The internet seems somehow inherently more flexible, more the creation of human hands, than a musty hard-bound dictionary.  Anyway.

One disappointing thing: the author presents a story about the origin of the word "quiz" as if it were factual.  (Well, it comes from the mouth of a TV announcer, so maybe we're supposed to acknowledge that they'll say anything that sounds good.)  Anyway, the claim is that "quiz" was invented by one person, the way "frindle" is in the story.  I checked wiki, and according to wiki the story is apocryphal.  So there's that.

Language seems to spontaneously reject deliberately coined words, like "frindle" in this book.  It's like people don't trust their authenticity, if somebody's consciously trying to make them.  Doesn't seem real.  I can't think of an example of somebody making a word just for the heck of it, like the kid does in this story.  "Quiz" is out.

The story's logic is consistent with my earlier thoughts about the artificiality of the war between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics.  Parents (teachers) teach their children language, and they teach it the way they learned it.  If they didn't, language would change far too rapidly, with wild creoling every generation or so.  And that's my description of how prescriptivism is an essential part of language.

Anyway, fun book, reads in about an hour or an hour ten.

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