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Fun with the English Language

Article Published: Apr. 14, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Fun with the English Language

Watauga's talented youth - and Jeff Eason (not pictured) - take the spotlight Friday for Shooting Stars. File photo

Sometimes when I am driving long distances by myself, I like to play word games in my head to stave off the monotony.

One of my favorites is to take the three letters seen in most North Carolina license tags and try to think of English words where you would find those three letters in order (although not necessarily all three in a row).

For instance, if I saw the letters TFD on a license plate, examples of words that would work would be "stiffened," "tufted" or "stuffed." In this word game, Scrabble rules apply in that you cannot use foreign words or proper names.

Another word game I like to play is to try to think of contronyms that I have never thought of before. A contronym is a word that is its own antonym, meaning that through some odd evolution of its use, it can mean its own opposite.

For example, the word "bound" can mean both heading somewhere and also being prevented from going anywhere. Another contronym is the word "garnish." It can mean something added, as a sprig of parsley on your plate, or something subtracted, as in money taken out of your paycheck.

As a verb, the word "cleave" can mean both to separate and to adhere. Similarly, the word "bolt" can mean to fasten something to stationary position or to be non-stationary.

Some contronyms require a little imagination or specialized usage. The word "strike," for example, can mean to hit something. If you are talking about baseball, then it means to miss something. The word "custom" can mean the usual way of doing things. But if you say that a motorcycle's paint job is "custom," then you mean it is unusual, special or unique.

Obviously, a love affair with the English language is a good thing to have if you write for a living. For that I thank my parents who encouraged me to love reading, and the many teachers along the way who pointed out good books and taught me the nuances of the language.

I was fortunate to attend Watauga High School in the 1970s when English instructors, such as Mary Kate Dennis, Janet Austin and Mary Frances Elvey (even their names sound like those of 19th century authors), were teaching. And from what I can tell from visiting the new Watauga High School, that standard of teaching is still very much alive.

Recently, there was a controversy among the county commissioners over whether a proposed quarter-cent increase in sales tax should be used to lower the county's debt or be used to offset state decreases in funding to Watauga County Schools. When even a compromise solution of doing a little of both was unacceptable to the commissioners who first proposed the tax increase, the entire proposal was scrapped.

During the controversy, a number of people wondered aloud, and in letters to the editor, why we might use a tax increase to help some county workers (teachers), but not others. Why on earth would policy makers consider some county workers more important than others?

Well, because they are.

If the county faces layoffs and some of the services we have come to know and love become a little more scarce or slow, we will most likely adapt to that situation.

But if we shortchange the students of our public schools by laying off teachers or cutting out courses, such as art, music or theater, then we have failed to invest as a community in the betterment of our future.

One the things I love about this community is the way it works together when times are tough. This week, restaurants and volunteers worked together for the annual Celebrity Serve event. The event helped raise thousands of dollars for OASIS, an organization that has been helping abused women and families in need in the High Country for more than a quarter century.

On Friday, I'll have the privilege of taking part in Shooting Stars, the annual talent show at Farthing Auditorium that raises money for the Watauga Education Foundation. The Watauga Education Foundation is one of the reasons that kids from our county score so well on every standardized test you can name. It provides funds so teachers can equip their classrooms properly without having to spend their own money, and so even the poorest of kids in our county can attend field trips.

While school systems in other counties (I'm looking at you, Mecklenburg) appear to have thrown up their hands during these tough times, we here in Watauga County are looking for ways to roll up our sleeves and get through them with as little damage to the schools as possible.

If you get a chance this Friday, please come to Shooting Stars and support your local schools. Plus, you'll witness some of the best homegrown talent any county in the state can offer (I'm looking at you, Buncombe).

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