Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Joe Kirkish offers words for love of language

By Eric Rosenberg*

HOUGHTON -- On one of his last days at Michigan Technological University, a graduating physics student who wanted to pay his respects approached Joseph Kirkish, who was at the time a professor in the Humanities Department at Michigan Tech.

Joe Kirkish, retired Michigan Tech professor, movie critic and photographer, in a pensive mood. (Photo © and courtesy Joe Kirkish)

Kirkish recounted that the student told him, "I’m graduating so now I can tell you: I think you’re a terrific teacher. There’s only one problem I found in your movie class, and that is you use big words all the time."

Kirkish said he was fairly surprised when he heard this.

"I said, 'Big words?'" Kirkish reported. "'I cut my vocabulary in half at least. What big words do you mean?'"

The student's response was, "I remember one -- intimidate. What does that mean?"

This exchange would stay with Kirkish and would later inspire an idea for his current project, a word-of-the-day e-mail list.

For the past two years, Kirkish has sent out a daily e-mail to a mailing list of people from all walks of life -- from fraternity listings to businessmen. These e-mails consist of a word, a definition and an example from a current news source. The words themselves can range anywhere from seldom-used terms, such as xenophobia (noun: an unreasonable fear or hatred of that which is foreign or strange), to downright esoteric (adjective: not commonly known) terms, such as fungible (adjective: interchangeable).

It’s a simple idea, but the word of the day format takes time.

"I spent about an hour last night going through The Week magazine, finding some things that I can use in the future," Kirkish said in reference to a recent research binge.

When looking for materials for his messages, Kirkish also dives into current editions of various newspapers and magazines to find relevant examples to keep the word topical. To read these, however, Joe finds it beneficial to remove himself from civilization.

Joe Kirkish spends hours researching newspapers and magazines for his vocabulary offerings, using contemporary news sources for the context. (Photo © and courtesy Joe Kirkish)

"When I go through the papers, I head out to a cabin, where I can see Lake Superior and I can only really hear the motorcycles that go by," Kirkish said, to describe the seclusion (noun: solitude) he finds so useful in sussing out (verb: to investigate, discover) good vocabulary words.

Kirkish doesn’t really produce these missives (noun: written message) out of altruism (noun: giving without expecting something in return).

"There’s no such thing as altruism," Kirkish explained, "because even if you give your life for somebody, you’re giving it pleasurably, knowing that it’s going to do some good."

In other words, you always derive (verb: receive or obtain from a source) some sort of pleasure from the act. For Joseph Kirkish, that pleasure is twofold. Knowing that he’s helped someone, at some level, to expand his or her vocabulary and experience is a part of the pleasure.

"If other people pick it up, if other people trip over it, then I’m happy with what I’ve done," Kirkish said.

The other part?

"Words are so beautiful," he added.

And, for the record, intimidate is a verb that means "to fill with fear."

Joe Kirkish can be reached at joek@mtu.edu, if you find yourself curious as to what the word of the day may be.

*Editor's Note: Guest reporter Eric Rosenberg is a student in David Clanaugh's summer journalism class at Michigan Tech. This is Rosenberg's second article for Keweenaw Now. See also his July 16 article, "Lake Superior Day commemorates the Great Lake July 18."

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