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  • Reverend James Squire


I saw an article in today’s Inquirer that the word that was looked up on the online version of Merriam Websters Dictionary most frequently this year was gaslighting. It was their word of the year. The article brought a smile to my face for I remembered the first time back in the day when I had no idea what it meant and had to look it up. I didn’t do that right away. I waited until it appeared frequently enough that required me to look it up so that I could understand an article. It was key to unlocking the importance of what I was reading.

It used to be that I wouldn’t look up a word right away because it made me feel stupid. But I had to come to terms with one of my guidelines in teaching ethics that “I assume that you are here because you don’t know everything about ethics so raise your hand and question anything that you don’t understand.” Learning begins when you realize that if Jane or Joe doesn’t understand something, others should ask questions as well. It seems that we need permission to ask about what we don’t know. I also believe that there are no dumb questions and would praise students who would raise questions so that the entire class would feel safe in seeking an understanding of what they didn’t know. This is a form of developing safety in a classroom particularly when you are teaching a subject such as ethics that is controversial and not part of their knowledge base.

One of my football players made the class safe for everyone else when he got the attention of the class in a most unusual way. After a long day at school and then a demanding practice, he would arrive home ready to eat anything in sight. His father would always ask him a question that held up his diving into his dinner. “Rick, what do you learn in school today?” I might add that is a dreaded question to pose to a teenager. My student would reply with a word that was new to him that he picked up in class like “existentialism or phenomenology.” When he responded to his father’s question with the use of one of the terms he learned in class, his father just said, “Rick, eat your dinner.” Dad didn’t know the meaning of what Rick was saying so he ended the conversation and Rick could dive into his food. To a certain degree, we are all like this football player’s dad. We don’t like to admit what we don’t know.

So, at the end of each class, Rick would seize on a word that was new to him and often new to the class and was ready to respond to his dad’s well-intentioned question that held up Rick’s dinner. Rick commented that he had a a semester of uninterrupted dinners. The class got the larger lesson to ask about what you don’t know.

A lot of people throw around big words in conversations without knowing the meaning because it is not naturally part of who they are. I also am totally against those SAT Prep courses to boost your vocabulary through memorization. That is short term learning because it isn’t part of your wheelhouse of understanding.

The use of the word has to be second nature to you in the same way that sinking a basketball is for an outstanding basketball player. You don’t have to think about it. That comes with practice.

In order for a word to become second nature you have to use it properly and know its background or context. Let’s take the origin of gas lighting that wasn’t in the Inquirer article today.

I have always loved language and words. Words have a history. I would indicate to my students that if I called home and told your parents that you knew a lot, they would take you out to your favorite restaurant. Today know implies knowledge. If we go back to biblical times and I told your parents that you knew a lot, they would send you to your room because know in the biblical sense means “sex.”

Ever since my high school years if I didn’t know a word, I would look it up, and if I had time, I would check out its origin. Both meaning of the word and context ensures a word being second nature and automatic for you in an expression. I remember when I first looked up gaslighting. It comes from a play, Gas Light, performed in 1938 where a husband gradually dims the lights in his home changing his wife’s view of reality so that he can convince her that she was insane. Knowing that you will be less likely to forget the word’s meaning and use in a sentence or a description of an experience.

Trump uses this device all the time most recently when he had Ye and Fuentes to dinner and said he didn’t know about their background of white supremacy or antisemitism. Everyone has to be vetted by the secret service before they meet with him. If he doesn’t want to be accused of something like the dirty deeds of Paul Manafort, he just said that he didn’t know him very well. The fact is that Manafort was a major part of his campaign leadership.

When you hear some phrases, you will know that someone is gaslighting you. “You’re exaggerating.” “You’re lying.” “That never happened.” “I only did it because you made me.”

I read George Will’s column regularly not because I am a conservative but because I love his use of language. In one column he used the word “oleaginous” to describe a person. It means oily, greasy, or slippery. I had never seen that word before. I looked it up for its meaning but also for its context. It comes from the Latin for the olive tree.

When I looked it up and it became second nature for me to use, I thought that George Will had introduced me to a new friend. That is the attitude that we need to have in asking questions. The answer is a new friend. That’s what real learning is about, friendship with words, ideas, facts, wisdom, and knowledge!

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