NOTHING is more irksome than hearing a teacher say, during one of those end-of-term post-examination parent-teacher meeting, that your kid is weak in his inference skills and he needs to work on it more.
Work on it more? How, pray tell?
You’re hoping she’d announce a special regime for the students in the new term—read with them word for word, line by line, scour through a piece of prose and discover what they don’t know, and how they’re just not getting it.
But no. You hear something lame, and the advice gets reframed: He’s got to learn how to infer the meaning from the text. You know, read between the lines?
But there’s only so much you can do when you infer, or make an informed guess, so to speak. This is especially true with lexical guesses. Just this past week, one of my students offered up the following meanings to these words while reading a New York Times opinion piece, To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf:
liberal arts = a different form of art
you blew it = you did it well
think piece = human
Macbeth = the name of a company
dubious = cheeky
cellular carrier = personal carrier
Granted, this was a Secondary One student, and the article was just too challenging for him, but you see where I’m going. If you don’t know, you just don’t know. One can infer till the cows come home, but luck, I’m afraid, would never steal into your presence to kiss you.
So, come on, let’s play a game of guess on this word: cupidity.
The first thing I’d think of is that wingéd angel babe, Cupid, bow and arrow at the ready, poised for a shot at me, only to miss, darn! The cupidity of Cupid. That would have been my guess, but of course, that’s not right!
In truth, I never did play the game. The word showed up with glaring prominence among other synonyms when I had made a Thesaurus search on the word, avarice, while trying to explain to my Secondary Four student the phrase, “a Faustian deal”—the phrase that got me launching into the story of Dr. Faustus, the madcap German necromancer, who had sold his soul to the Devil for the Seven Deadly Sins. So what would you have done if you had no clue what “Faustian” meant? How would you have inferred?
I invite you to write to me at email@example.com if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.
- Our previous “Word of the Week”: etc. | Next up: Trompe L’oeil
- If you like our “Word of the Week” posts, you might also enjoy our “How to Pronounce It” series.