Every good desk should bear the fruit of a good dictionary.

Today, my student told me I’m a good actress. (I think every teacher has to be.) He said this after I dramatically plopped down next to another student and asked her questions and feigned writing down her answers. I mean, how else do you convey the meaning of “interview”?

I admire my students, as I admire anyone who seeks to not only convey but also understand meaning outside their native language. There’s a dual process at work there, especially for beginners, who often have to take in the new language, translate it into their native language, re-translate it back into the new language they know, and then output a response. It’s exhausting.

When we receive our TEFL training, we’re taught to relieve some of this exhaustion by “conveying meaning” in advance, before the student stumbles upon the phrase or word in a reading or audio clip. We can’t do this with every word, of course, but we can predict and pre-teach the especially challenging bits. I’ve written about the objectives of the ESL teacher before, but I continue to be fascinated by this idea of “conveying meaning” because it also seems to be the root of all communication. You and me sit down over coffee. We share the same language. We’re still trying to convey the meaning of a story from work, experience abroad, or the cringe-worthy details of a disastrous date. The story might gain or lose much simply in the process of being re-told. 

It’s also what we do each day for those of us who social network. I read yesterday that Chile is ranked FIFTH in the world for logging daily hours conveying meaning online. That’s impressive for a country of some 17 million people. The author says Chile’s stat is part of a larger implication–“that Latin Americans spend more time on social networking than any other online activity.” There must be a whole lot of conveying meaning going on! It must also be part of the essence of our humanity, even if we are holed up at our separate computer screens. Because none of it really means as much if we aren’t also witness to each other’s lives.

In addition to “interview,” I also taught my students “translate,” “interpreter,” “article,” and “hometown.” The vocabulary all tied into the reading assignment for the day, but it also all seems to intersect with life in general these days, as I slip into nostalgia for home, as I interpret/translate the world around me and my place in it, as I figure out a way to package it all up into some kind of article from which you all can derive your own meanings.

So what about the curious origins of this word I can’t let go of today–convey. First, a moment on my soap box. I’m a firm believer in having a good, hefty, PRINT dictionary on hand, no matter your language(s). I’m fortunate to be the proud owner of a lovely one–Webster’s Eleventh, mustard-leather-bound, scallop-edged, with kaleidoscope endpapers and gold-embossed with my maiden name, which I’ve kept as my byline so that everything I have, do, and will publish in this world bears the name I claimed at 18. That’s just as important to me as it is to also legally share a family name with my husband. (Plus, publishing has a long-standing history with the nom de plume so fortunately mine is a career that lets you have your cake and eat it, too.) 

My first boss gifted it to me when I decided to say goodbye to assisting Manhattan magazine publishing and return home to California to edit a regional publication. He is a brilliant writer and someone who continues to teach me lessons about editing the longer I work and write. I was all of 24 when I left New York. It’s taken years to absorb and use much of what I gathered from observing a well-oiled machine like that magazine and its staff work and work and work.

I’ve taken his lead. When I was a full-fledged magazine editor, and when a bright, young intern moved on in her own career, my colleague and I gifted her a red, hardbound dictionary. I delight when she tells me she still has it and still uses it, just as I recently told my former boss that I was here, writing in Chile, looking up words in a dictionary he gave me over seven years ago. 

So, back to convey. Did you know it comes from Middle English’s conveer, which means “to accompany, escort”? I love that image! Teachers accompanying meaning. The meaning is all important, after all. We are simply the mode of transport. I literally carry meaning from one place to another and shine enough light on it for my students to understand. All of convey’s many meanings (pun intended) are fascinating (to my grammar geek’s mind anyhow):

1. lead, conduct
2. to bear from one place to another
3. to impart or communicate by statement, suggestion, gesture, or appearance (This, hands down, is the  best sound-bite job description of the ESL teacher I’ve found yet)
4. to carry away secretly (Oh, my!)
5. to transfer or deliver (as property) to another esp. by a sealed writing (So suspenseful, this dictionary is!!)
6. to cause to pass from one place or person to another.

[“Convey.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. 2004]

We could wander further into this etymology until we arrive at conveyance or conveyor or even conveyorize! But for now, I’ll sign off with the hope that I’ve conducted, imparted, transferred, and delivered some sort of valuable meaning to you, dear reader. And why not take a little peek at the dictionary today? It’s a fascinating read.


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