“To Err is Human”

“I don’t know,” my eighth grader sighs. “I think that’s wrong. Nevermind.”

Mistakes. So often in our teaching we have created a culture afraid of forming hypotheses. ‘Correctness Mongers’, my teacher calls us. Correct → cor + rect, “to bring in accordance with a standard or original, straight” (Etymonline). Why would I want anyone’s thinking, let alone my students’, to constantly align with my own? How would we grow? What stories would be able to joyfully stumble upon?

“You cannot be wrong when forming a hypothesis,” I say. “You will find evidence to prove or disprove it, which is what scholars do. Remember, what something is NOT is just as important as what it IS.” My student nods, agreeing to give it a try and creates a word sum for today’s study: iso + tope. 

The first part of this word has a denotation of equality or sameness. We find <isopod> and <isosceles> and make visuals for them and add the relative <equi->. We agree <isopods>, with their “identical” “feet” are equally interesting and haunting.

“I think I want to make a matrix for <top(e)>,” she decides. She has thought of the word <topiary> and thinks it belongs in the matrix, a brother or sister to <isotope>. It’s Latin, from the Greek topos, but retains the denotation of “place, region”, along with other blood relatives like <topography> and <toponym>, more Greek compounds. Then we see <utopia>. She reads this word and says “Oh yeah! Like a great place!” A mistake. Not made by her, but over time. This word’s denotation comes from Greek ou “not” + topos “place”. A Utopia is actually “nowhere”, but was mistaken to begin with Greek eu “good”, yielding a “good place”. This mistake was reinforced by the later introduction of the word <dystopia>. We enjoy some discussion on whether or not Utopia could still be considered “nowhere” since such a  place cannot exist. Then I tell her that mistakes are littered through our language. Like the <s> in <island>, a false marker linking it to <isle> and <insular> as it was inaccurately assumed to be from the same root. Yet now it resides there, an error isolated in its family. 

She is intrigued by this idea. Mistakes can still propel us forward, give us insight and tell stories of their own. Mistakes help us see perhaps the most incredible element of our language. Its humanity. Reminders of which surface in stories from ancient scribes, the first printers, writers and speakers, and on.

“You know…” I smile to her. “If you’re asking me, I’d rather be incorrect or misaligned any day”. I would rather learn from the features of English, the stories of what we truly are embedded in every word. English isn’t crazy. But it is full of beautiful “mistakes”.

Kelly Young
Kelly Young
I am a self-proclaimed word nerd bred from a family of language lovers and teachers. I began my career as an Intervention Specialist, spending 11 years in a Columbus Ohio public school district, working with kids K – 5.