Colloquialisms and Language Study of the Short Story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Reading the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman can be a powerful study on colloquialisms and the changing use of language. The following questions can help your students dig deeper into the contextual meaning of these words, providing insight into not only the story itself, but the social and historical context of the time the story was written.
Since the beginning of verbal and written communication, the meaning and use of words have transformed - and will continue to change. Words like nice, awful, clue, naughty, guy, flirt, and more, have drastically changed in meaning and use over time - and the fascinating way in which these changes have occurred is even more interesting. These evolutions in meaning are called semantic changes.
It is important that as we study a text we take into consideration these semantic changes, as words that mean what they do today may have meant something completely different when they were created. Study of the use of words in the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for example, allows modern readers to gain further depth and insight into the characters, and further, the author's societal and social commentary.
Here are some powerful questions to ask students as they explore the usage and context of the syntax (word use) in the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." The following questions are aligned to the Common Core State Standards for ELA Grades 11-12.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.1.A Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.1.B Resolve issues of complex or contested usage, consulting references (e.g., Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Garner's Modern American Usage) as needed.
- The word “queer” in line five is considered a colloquialism. Use a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word in this (now archaic) form. Write the part of speech and meaning of the word. What is the generally accepted meaning of the word today?
- The word “let” in line six means “leased” or “rented.” Today in America, we use the word “let” more often to mean “allow.” Explain how the two forms could be related. Use a dictionary if you need help.
- The words “hysterical” (line 17), and “hysterectomy” are related. Use a dictionary or other source to explain the relationship and how it shows why the narrator’s condition is described as a “hysterical tendency.”
- Find another word in the text that is considered archaic today. Define the word, and explain its use in the text.
- From what word did the word gymnasium originate? How is it used in the context of this text?
- Explain the double meaning of the words “creep” and “creeping” as used in the text and how it is important to the theme of this text. What meaning does this word have today?
- Why might readers today have a difficult time reading a text like this one?
Be sure to check out our resources for teaching "The Yellow Wallpaper," including our The Yellow Wallpaper Comprehension and Analysis Questions and The Yellow Wallpaper Argumentative Essay Writing Activity