What’s in a Word?


Have you ever been in a situation where someone uses a word that’s not in your vocabulary? Then they use it again. What do you do?

Because you are my closest confidants, I’m going to give you the lowdown on what I do in this situation: I don’t want to look like an ignorant, uneducated buffoon, so I just let it go. That’s right. I said it. I just nod, smile, act like I know what they are talking about, and make up some meaning that works for me.

As a child, I constructed meaning for the word “typical.” To me, the definition for “typical” was “funny.” Why? Because my mother used the word most commonly in the phrase, “That’s typical.” A conversation around this word might have gone something like this:

Dad: The guy down the street just put up ANOTHER huge T.V. antenna.

Mom: (laughing) That’s so typical!


Dad: Your son just ran into the back of a parked car. He says he’s not hurt, but his bicycle broke in half.

Mom: (laughing) Typical Chamberlain boy!

To me, laughing and using the word “typical” went together, so “typical” meant “funny.” So how did I ever construct an understanding of the word that worked in social interactions? Believe me, when someone tells a great joke and you laugh and say, “That’s typical,” people look at you strangely. For me, that was a perfect time to think, “Maybe I have the meaning slightly wrong.”

The Math Connection

Similarly, math educators, creating a viable meaning for mathematical concepts is not a simple, one-day, one-lesson proposition. Or even one unit. It’s difficult to package and tie up with a bow. It’s. Really. Messy.

Let’s try an analogy. Without me defining this word, I want to see what meanings you construct as you encounter the word multiple times and ways. Keep track of your guesses (yes, guesses) and see how they change. Also, please reply to this post about how your understanding changed across multiple encounters with the word. Here we go:

“Excuse my yartle!”

Yartles typically happen in social situations.

Yartles may include a period of silence followed by awkwardness.

There are websites with tricks that help one not to yartle.

“I rarely yartle, because I’m pretty good with names. If I recognize a face, I usually recognize a name.”

Think about who you are introducing before you introduce them. If you don’t know them, don’t fake it. This will prevent most yartling.

If you reflect upon your process of coming to different understandings of the word “yartle,” it may shed light on how children build their understanding of mathematical concepts. The first time they hear about a math concept they may ignore it, or they may form some meaning that is vague. With multiple and varied encounters with the concept, they are able to abstract a more comprehensive understanding.

Moral of the story? That’s up to you! What did you take from this post?


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