Mary Jo Fresch

BULLETIN: Top vote getters right now are Linda, Mimi, and Marjie with three others in a pack for third. Students in the lead are Priya and Josh followed by six others within one vote of one another.

Today I’m proud to introduce my friend and writing colleague, Mary Jo Fresch. You’re in for a treat.

The Secret Life of Words
Mary Jo Fresch

I love words. I’m not saying that because I’m Italian and we use lots of words to talk or write about even the simplest of topics (just ask an Italian about what they had for dinner last night…you’ll probably get the whole recipe). I’m saying I love words because they have histories. Some are old…like the word “sister” and some are more recent, like the word “unibrow.” Without doubt, they all have interesting stories to tell (except for words like “blight” and “cuddle”, which are of unknown origin). I love storytelling and I love that words can be powerful expressions of our emotions. Whether I am writing or speaking, the 600,000+ words in the English language can help me convey every nuance of feeling that I have.In the movie Bee Season (which I did not watch just because Richard Gere was in it…but that didn’t hurt), the child in the story, Eliza Naumann, isn’t very good at most things. But she could see and spell words like a champ. In fact, she ends up going to the National Spelling Bee. The movie opens with her voice saying, “My father told me once that words and letters hold all the secrets of the universe, that in their shapes and sounds I could find anything.” Indeed, Eliza, words tell the secrets of English. Why do we say “cow” for the animal, but “beef” when we eat it? Why do we sign letters as “sincerely?” Who was Reverend Sylvester Graham and why are we eating his cracker?

Words tell us the story of their “life” if we dig into their histories. Knowing these histories can enrich our knowledge of English, expand our vocabulary, make sense of why words are spelled the way they are, and provide a fun way to tap into interesting words to use in our writing.

So, let’s think about what we can share with our students that can make them inquisitive about the language and learn the vocabulary that can enrich their literacy work. A wonderful place to start is to explore the meaning of their name. Baby name books or web sites (such as give the original meaning of names. Why does Cameron mean “crooked nose” or Lindsay mean “island of Lincoln?” Sometimes we know the story, sometimes we do not. Offering the opportunity to write the history of the meaning of your name can be a fun writing exercise and can lead to ways to name characters in fictional writing (why do you suppose J.K. Rowling named her lead character Harry – meaning “ruler of the house?”).

Wondering why words are spelled the way they are can start our hunt to uncover the secrets of many words. Reverend Sylvester Graham, an 1800’s minister who was concerned about healthy diets, created the graham cracker (of course, naming it after himself). Other eponyms, or words that came from people’s names are leotard (Jules Leotard was a French aerialist), the gardenia (after Alexander Garden – the botanist who discovered it), Ferris wheel, Fahrenheit, Celsius, and many more! I could go on…but a look into this type of word can provide lots of interesting secrets.

And what of cow vs. beef, deer vs. venison, and chicken vs. poultry? These words evolved into our language through the merging of Germanic based words used by the peasants (cow, deer, chicken) and the French Latin words used by the ruling Normans (beef, venison, poultry). A difference in the class system tells the secret of hoof vs. on the plate.

How do we do engage students into this sort of word wonder? We ask….hmmm, I wonder about this word…what is the history of it? What does that tell me about how it is spelled, how I can use it in my writing, what other words are like it? Sincerely is just such a word. When you sign a letter “sincerely” you are basically saying “without wax.” In the times of marble sculptures, an artist who did not try to hide flaws, chips or cracks in the marble by filling them in with wax could sell his piece “sin cera,” or “without wax.” The sculpture was true, sound, and whole. So are your sentiments when you say “sincerely.”

We can discover these stories by finding an unabridged dictionary. Following the word entry is the etymology, or origin of the word. For instance, look up “easel” and the dictionary provides the origin as Dutch, ezel meaning donkey. An easel is a “beast of burden” invented by the Dutch artists. Stories abound….use your content studies, writings, self-selected literature, or poems to inspire this sort of word study. Students will soon be wondering, searching and unlocking the secrets of words. What a wonderful way to expand vocabulary, inspire our writing, and give real meaning to the word study we do.

Thanks Mary Jo! I always enjoy hearing you speak and reading your remarks.

Please let Mary Jo know if you have comments or questions.


18 comments on “Mary Jo Fresch

  1. Thanks Mary Jo, for reminding us the magic and the mystery of words. The right words for telling a story or writing a poem is important to make them dance off the pages into the hearts and minds of the readers.

    • Thank you! Sometimes changing up those ‘safe’ Anglo Saxon words (“said”) for a French Latin word (“exclaimed”) can convey a deeper meaning. You are so right…it’s all in the words we select!

  2. Mary Nida and Steven,

    I knew you would enjoy Mary Jo’s article. I’m equally sure that many others are enjoying it too.

    If anyone else has comments or questions, please let Mary Jo know.



  3. Mary Jo,
    You always make me think! I totally enjoyed this piece! I’ll be sure to send my university students to this link!

    • Hi Gay! Happy new year – thanks for sharing this with your students. My students enjoy learning about word histories – it makes our language “memorable” instead of just “memorized.” That’s a powerful way to increase any student’s vocabulary! Take care!

  4. This was a great little read – you can “hear” the enthusiasm for language crackling off the page.
    Thanks! So glad I found this.

    • Hi Andrea! Thanks for taking the time to read this! Happy new year (did you know January comes from Janus – the Roman god of beginnings and endings and of gates and doors? He was depicted with two-faces: one looking back and one looking forward – so, end of one year, beginning of the next. I know I’m looking forward to 2010! By the way – janitor also comes from Janus – the “keeper of the door” at many schools! Love to share that story with janitors…they sure smile when I tell them they are named for a Roman god 🙂 ).

  5. Ah! A kindred spirit. Is your favorite book Roget’s Thesaurus too? Thank you for this article. It was an absolute delight. I suspect I’ll be reading it again, just try and absorb a bit more . . . and more. 😉

    • Actually I am a BIG fan of Webster’s unabridged dictionary…always find an interesting etymology there. Thanks for reading!

  6. Inspired as always by Mary Jo, I immediately logged onto Behind the Name and searched for “Mary Jo,” expecting to find “contagious word enthusiasm” or something similar. Instead, I learned more about “Mary” than I would have ever imagined. It also stimulated speculation as to how this could be used in the classroom. Thank you!

    • Hey Terry – good to hear from you! Other authors who use names because of their meaning…Natalie Babbit in Tuck Everlasting…because Tuck means “life” and E.B.White in Charlotte’s Web (Charlotte means “little woman”, the Arable family – meaning farmable land). The students can use a baby name book to name their story characters (David means “beloved” – fitting, eh?). Enjoy!

      • I’m a bit slow, so I’d taught Hardy’s Tess several times before I picked up on his use of “Angel Claire” and references to him as her god and several Apollo/light allusions. What do you expect from a guy who quit novels to write poetry?

  7. That gives us all an interesting idea…why not have students do a little detective work with the books they are reading to see if that author selected character names related to the story?

    • Good idea, Mary Jo,

      Also, how about asking students to start with a word they like and write their poem or story inspired by the meaning of their own title? It would put classmates to the test of discovering the mystery behind the story.


      • I like that idea a lot! And what a great way to get our reluctant writers busy…they will have real purpose and can choose anything to write about in their poem. They will have to do some reading to figure out what word they want to write about in poetic, expository or narrative form. Here’s one that would be interesting to use…did you know the origin of “plagiarism” is “to kidnap?” That would be fun to use!

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