"Hot enough for you?" "Lovely day!" "It's raining cats and dogs!"
Weather clichés serve us well. Not only do they allow us to exchange pleasantries with friends and neighbors, they're an example of language chunking, the process through which our brains attach meaning to words. This past month, in "‘April is the cruellest month’: talking about spring weather," which appeared on The Macmillan Dictionary Blog, linguist Gill Francis explores how the rhyme "March winds and April showers bring May flowers" accounts for the fact that "showers" spikes in usage during this month. Worldwide weather patterns aside, almost no one talks or writes in English about showers that appear in March or May, he explains, writing:
The quotation in my title is from T.S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, but I found myself muttering, more mundanely, the old adage “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers”. And corpus evidence corroborates my feeling that this is a well-used bit of weather lore: March collocates strongly with winds, and April with showers, as predicted. There were very few matches for March showers or April winds.
I began to notice that hundreds of the concordance lines contain allusions to other sources – an entire wet spring’s worth of quotes, misquotes, and creative variations. Shakespeare and Chaucer come up, but most noticeable is a generous peppering of pithy adages and rhymes, usually with idiosyncratic variations. It seems that anyone who mentions April and showers in the same breath is never more than a gnat’s whisker away from referencing one old saying or another. This phenomenon is called intertextuality – a cumbersome word that means, simply, that everything we have read or heard in the past influences what we write and say today.
"Everything we have read or heard in the past" also dictates how we learn the meaning of words. In a recent Blog post "SAT Tip: Is This Word 'Charged'?" we wrote about how a positive or negative connotation can help narrow choices when you encounter words you don't know on a standardized test such as the SAT. Word associations can give an even stronger indication of what the right answer is going to be.
As we describe in "Real Life Examples Help Words Stick in Your Brain," a post on how to take advantage of the Usage Examples that appear on the definition pages for words in the Vocabulary.com Dictionary, certain words pairings (call them clichés if you insist) come up over and over in English, and they are often easier to bring to mind than a word's definition because you've heard them before. In many cases, they'll also tell you most of what you need to know to figure out the meaning of the word.
If you can remember "inextribly linked," for instance, you'll know that inextricably is a word that describes a kind of link. The prevalence of "Greek financial crisis" and austerity give you most of what you need to know to get austerity right on a standardized test. (In a recent issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Dictionary of Cultural Literacy author E.D. Hirsch explains that storing information about words in this way makes you smarter. Read more about that here.)
Chunking also keeps words alive. To return to "April showers," think of all the other meanings of shower beyond rain: a plumbing fixture, a party, and, with an alternate pronunciation, "someone who shows." Perhaps without the repetition of the "April showers" rhyme that comes up so often in this month, the definition of shower as "rain" might have fallen out of use. Something to think about as we say goodbye to April this week and await the flowers our passing acquaintaces, neighbors, and our language corpus assure us will bloom in May.
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