Frindle

Reader Jenny Ellsworth writes:

My daughter, who is in first grade, brought home a book for a book report.  It was called Frindle, by Andrew Clements, and it was the best kids’ story about language I ever read.  We took turns reading it to each other.  Since you have a granddaughter of about the same age, I thought I’d share it with you.

And back on 4/3/08, Brett Reynolds (of the English, Jack blog) wrote some of the Language Loggers with the same recommendation:

My kids and I have just finished reading Frindle. If you have any children in your family, you’ve got to get this book into their hands. Even though it’s over a decade old, it certainly deserves a mention on Language Log. I can’t imagine any better way to get 6-9 year olds interested in linguistics.

I do in fact have the book and like it a lot. Actually, I thought I’d posted about it, but it seems that I didn’t, and neither did any of the other LLoggers. So it’s time.

Frindle was Andrew Clements’s first novel, and it’s continued to sell well since it appeared in 1996. The front cover:

The back-cover description:

Is Nick Allen a troublemaker?

He really just likes to liven things up at school — and he’s always had plenty of great ideas. But it looks like Nick’s days of classroom shenanigans are over — thanks to his no-nonsense teacher, Mrs. Granger. That is, until Nick learns an interesting tidbit about how words are created. This inspires his greatest plan yet: invent a new word. From now on, a pen is no longer a pen — it’s a frindle. But what happens when the word starts to catch on … around school, around town? Suddenly, frindle doesn’t belong to Nick anymore. The word is spreading and there’s nothing Nick can do to stop it. …

It starts with a lesson on dictionaries. Nick asks who says that dog means dog, and Mrs. Granger takes the bait:

“Who says dog means dog? You do, Nicholas. You and I and everyone in this class and this school and this town and this state and this country. We all agree.” (p. 29)

Later, Nick, being interviewed by a newspaper reporter, explains:

“Well, my teacher Mrs, Granger said that all the words in the dictionary were made up by people, and that they mean what they do because we say they do. So I thought it would be fun to just make up a new word and see if that was true.” (p. 75)

Along the way we get words for dog in other languages and a report on Samuel Johnson.

And a battle between Nick and Mrs. Granger, who’s set things up for this by (apparently) embracing a contradiction: between the dictionary as authority and words as social creations. Nick is seen as making a disruption and is punished, but he persists, and quickly frindle becomes “a real word”, using it becomes “just a habit”, and it appears in the 8th edition of Webster’s College Dictionary, with credit to Nick.

The full story is impossibly sweet, and kind to all the characters, including Mrs. Granger.

Meanwhile, back in 2009, Mark Liberman posted on Language Log (with quotes from John McIntyre and Erin McKean) on the episode of meeping in a Massachusetts high school (“Jesus mept”), where the students used meep to disrupt things and annoy their teachers. Commenter Steve (12/13/09) said, “This sounds uncannily similar to Frindle.” But without any real point and without Frindle‘s fairy-tale ending.

(There is some use of meep out there as the sound made by fruitbats — notably on the newsgroup soc.motss, where one of the posters went by the name Fruitbat and meeped a lot. Other uses of meep on Urban Dictionary.)

One Response to “Frindle”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Facebook:

    Nancy Whittier: One of our favorites and the source of many short-lived made-up words in our household.

    Livia Polanyi: My favorite children’s story about language is the Rudyard Kipling “Just So” called “How the first letter was written”. It was my favorite “Just So” (“How the Alphabet was born” was #2). Guess I was a proto-linguist or something.

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