A Word to Teach Our Young–Idle

Language is our framework not merely for communicating but for perceiving and understanding.  Our popular culture hardly promotes eloquence, and we have lost many words that informed the sensibilities of previous generations.  As old-fashioned as some of them sound, introducing them to young people and reinforcing their meanings can add richness and resolution to their understanding of the world.

One such word is idle.  This word’s worth comes as much from its connotation as its denotation, which, without resorting to a dictionary, we might suppose to be lazy.  We might recall images of stern principals in horn-rimmed glasses with Vitalis in their hair warning us of the fate of idle children.

Idle connoted a kind of waste, a dereliction.  We are astonished today to recall that so-called idle youngsters of the past spent more time playing outdoors than those of today.  They read comic books or played dress-up, held mock tea-parties and shot marbles.  They climbed trees, collected stamps, and went fishing.  All of this, said the crabby teachers of yesteryear, threatened the growth of our children.

Ironically, the word idle has all but disappeared with the arrival of marathon video-gaming sessions, selfies, binge streaming, and smart-phone scrolling.  At this moment, when our world has the very phenomena that beg such an apt adjective, the word sounds from no tongue, rings in no ear, resonates in no mind.

Until, that is, we teach it to our young people and provoke a discussion of what it means and what its opposite might be.

Photo credit: Thanh Do of Pexels

I am participating in the Two Writing Teachers March 2023 Slice of Life Challenge.

6 thoughts on “A Word to Teach Our Young–Idle

  1. Paul, I had forgotten all about Vitalis! My grandfather used to wear it in his hair and it smelled…..interesting. I’m glad that stuff is off the market. Idle….our idle hands now work phones that lead to devious minds. That old saying is coming true. You’re right – we need to guard against the idleness of our youth and show them what that word means. Growing up, I rarely slept past 6:00 and still don’t. Probably because I spent time with my grandparents – and my grandfather believed that if HE was up, EVERYONE should be up. No idleness allowed in that household, and let me tell you – it didn’t keep me out of trouble, but it kept me productive.

  2. I love this! So true and quite alarming, really. The book club I am in will be addressing this very issue in the next book we read:)
    Thank you for your perception and eloquence, as always.

  3. An interesting observation. I would suspect it’s somewhat of a result of the somewhat current “need” of parents and adults to more … infantilize? … children. There is, of course, the common trope of “when I was a kid, we’d be out of the house as soon as school was over and knew to head back home when the street-lights turned on”, however, realistically, that certainly is how I spent my childhood.

    Nowadays, there is a general reluctance to allow children (and, yes, including teens) become “bored”. As a parent, there is a strong societal push that it’s my responsibility to ensure my children’s every waking hour is scheduled and managed. This then tends to push back a sense of willingness to *rely* on those same children to become usefully productive. After all, if they can’t be trusted to manage any portion of their own lives (regardless of their age), how could they be trusted with something that might actually be important?

  4. Looking at the photo, I cannot help thinking of society today, fusing “idle” with “idol”…even if they don’t know it. I often have to explain different word usages to students. Yesterday the phrase “appeared before them” threw the students; they thought of it only as something happening prior, not the archaic usage, “in front of.” Oh – and my dad used Vitalis; I can smell it this very moment…

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