The Importance of Etymology


by Christian Hilgemann, sophomore writing coach

If I were to ask you the question “Do you know the meaning of the word ‘disaster’?” you would probably respond with something similar to “Why of course, Christian! Everyone knows that!” and although it does seem like the answer is fairly obvious, there may be more to this question than you think.

It might surprise you to know that we can reveal a much deeper meaning of “disaster” than the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction.” This deeper meaning of the word is called its etymology. Etymology is essentially the history or origin of a word. This includes the original language, roots, and language transitions, as well as any other things that might have been part of the word’s development over time.

For example, “disaster” was originally the Italian “disastro.” Literally translated from its roots of dis- and -astro, this word meant means ill-starred. Of course, without any other knowledge at hand, this doesn’t really make any sense. However, with the knowledge that the people who created this early version of “disaster” blamed most catastrophic events, such as natural disasters, on the positioning and alignment of planets and other astronomical objects, we can begin to understand where this word came from, and thus know much more about the nature of the word itself.

At first glance, it may seem like this knowledge has no practical benefit beyond being mildly interesting, but as much as I would like it to be, my mission isn’t to fill your head with useless little bits of information. Being familiar with etymology has a number of useful applications to both reading and writing.

Knowing the etymology of words gives you a great advantage in figuring out their most effective use. Understanding the original meaning of a word as well as how it’s been used in both the past and present can increase your comprehension of its nuances and connotation. This knowledge will help you differentiate between words that have similar uses or are closely related to each other and allow you to choose the best one for each situation, leading to more masterful use of those words within your writing.

Additionally, there’s the benefit of being able to better grasp the interpretation of literature from across all of time. As etymology deals with the development of words from their very conception, it can assist in comprehension of language from any time period. So next time you pick up that first edition copy of “The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam” (circa 1100), remember to break out some of your new etymology skills along with it.

Illogical Literature

(pic - Story) Catch 22 - Title

by Connor Brandt, sophomore writing coach

Most people have heard of this infuriating conundrum: to get a job, you must have experience, but to get experience, you must get a job. This seems stupid and illogical; how is it reasonable to expect someone to obtain something if the simple act of needing it is enough to justify denying it? This type of logical fallacy is often known as a “Catch-22.” But why is it called a Catch-22? What’s so special about twenty two specifically?

In 1953, Joseph Heller began writing a novel that would be released in 1961. The book starred Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 bomber pilot staged in the Mediterranean during WWII. On each bombing mission, around 5 out of 100 people were killed in action. Naturally, Yossarian and his compatriots often sought ways to get out these dangerous missions as they valued their own lives.

The ultimate escape from flying these missions was to be deemed mentally unfit for duty, or in simpler terms, being insane. To be insane, all one had to do was to willingly throw themselves into dangerous situations, such as flying on a bombing run, since having no regard for one’s safety is insane. However, to be considered insane, one also had to request that their sanity be evaluated. While this may seem like an easy way out for Yossarian, there was one major problem: the act of requesting an evaluation shows rational concern for one’s safety, something only a sane person could do. This entire system of determining sanity and insanity was justifiable under the rule from which the book draws its name—Catch-22.

So, you still may be wondering, “what’s special about 22?” Good question! Answer: nothing! Other numbers were considered but shot down for conflicting with famous releases of books and movies, like 11, 18, and 14. So, they picked 22, because it has the repetition of one number—just like 11—to reflect the repetition within the novel.
While it may not be groundbreaking to learn that a type of logical fallacy places its origin in a book, it’s still interesting to see the effect that things can have on language. So, now you know the origin of the famous Catch-22: a WWII novel about some aviators trying to escape military bureaucracy. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t help me with that summer job.

Film Review: Why the Divergent movies are trash

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by Becca Schumacher, sophomore writing coach

Don’t get me wrong, the books were fantastic, but I’m pretty sure the movies’ director only read the summary on the back cover and figured he got the general idea.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Divergent books, they comprise a young-adult trilogy written by Veronica Roth detailing a dystopian society in which everyone is divided into groups—called factions—based on personality. Being a fan of the book, I arrived to the theater in 2014 to see the movie adaptation, bouncing on the edge of my seat with anticipation… and left feeling deflated. My frustration was mostly due to the horrible choices made when adapting the books to script.

For one thing, the movie does not fully develop an understanding of the main character, Tris. Tris’s most defining conflict that drives the majority of her decisions is her struggle with selflessness and bravery, and what these traits truly mean for her. The fact that the film ignored them and their effect on her, instead portraying Tris as a cardboard vigilante teenager, made the adaptation an instant disappointment.

The film made the same mistake with Tobias, another central character. In the books, Tobias grows up overshadowed by his physically abusive father. One of the major conflicts in Allegiant, the final book, is his struggle to avoid becoming exactly like the father he despises. This is relevant to many teenagers today who want to develop their unique selves, but feel trapped by their perceived inability to avoid associations with their parent’s achievements, or break the cycle of their parents’ mistakes. Why the filmmakers felt the need to blow off this idea that so many young adults connect to—just to focus their attention on a cheesy plot and shallow characters—is a mystery to me.

Ultimately, the most frustrating part of the Divergent movies is the fact that the filmmakers completely changed the plot of the final two movies—and the manipulation of events was far from an improvement. Instead, the change made the plot feel more superficial, while important and original plot lines were left out. Characters that fans adored and cheered for in the books were also left out or majorly downplayed, and all in order to create a stereotypical action movie; the film was peppered with the kind of dramatic explosions and rapid gunfire that make for exciting trailers, but don’t add anything of substance to the actual story. The filmmakers had an opportunity to capture a terrific story with so much depth and relevance, but they unfortunately missed it.

It’s Poem in Your Pocket Day!


by Adam Schneck, sophomore writing coach

April is national poetry month, and on April 27, schools and workplaces around the country celebrated Poem in Your Pocket Day, a day for carrying poems and sharing them with friends!

Poem in Your Pocket Day originated in 2002 in New York City, but since 2008, people from all 50 states have joined in with the fun tradition, spending the day sharing pieces of writing with others. The best part is that there are no rules when it comes to the poem you choose. As long as it stays appropriate for the setting you are in, sharing a sentimental poem, a funny poem, or whatever type of poem you want to share, is up to you. Although this national holiday isn’t something that everyone takes part in, it’s a great chance to read a piece of poetry that either you or others might enjoy, and have fun while doing it. Hopefully, just taking a minute to read a poem to a friend, coworker, or classmate can take some of the stress out of your day.

Here at Minnetonka High School, the late start on the April 27 meant we pushed Poem in Your Pocket Day back a day in order to cherish and celebrate this holiday more fully. Each year the Writing Center plays a huge part in the organization and success of the school’s Poem in Your Pocket Day by hosting a school wide poem giveaway and putting together a prize raffle for those who’ve read poetry to any of their teachers and classes. Staff and students can both get in on the fun!

Poem in Your Pocket Day is such creative and unique way to share writing with others and brighten up someone’s day. The more poems you read, the more you enjoy yourself; and who knows, it might even become your new favorite holiday!

Now Playing: Titanic the Musical


By Amanda Tahnk-Johnson, junior writing coach

Titanic: the Ship of Dreams Musical is sailing into Minnetonka Theatre. This show is set on the ocean liner RMS Titanic, which tragically sunk on its maiden voyage in 1912. The production’s cast is made up of 60 high schoolers, including several writing coaches, and a live pit of all student musicians.

Titanic the musical first appeared on Broadway in 1997 and won 5 Tony awards, including Best Musical — so it’s really good. Unlike the famous James Cameron movie, every character in the musical is based on a real person that traveled on the ship in 1912…. so, there is no Jack or Rose. Instead, the show features every group who was riding aboard the ship: from workers in the boiler room to first-class attendants, from the poorest passengers, who scraped together their life savings to purchase third-class tickets to America, to some of the wealthiest men of the Victorian age. Although you can predict the ending, the storytelling will draw you in and make you fall in love with each of the characters, and you may even learn something new along the way. The costumes are stunning, the live music is gorgeous, the student crew has created haunting special effects, and the student actors are very talented, if I may say so myself. However, I would personally suggest only bringing those that would enjoy 2 hours of singing – children under 5 are not permitted anyway.

The show runs tonight, April 22 through Sunday, May 7. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

What to do over Easter weekend


by Preston Chan, sophomore writing coach

Easter weekend starts tomorrow, and with all the stress of testing season going on, it should be your weekend to relax and have fun.  Here is a list of activities you can do over this much needed break:


  • Have an Easter Egg Hunt with poems.  Sometimes it can be a lot of fun (and nostalgic) to just act like a kid again, and Easter egg hunts are a classic Easter activity.  April is National Poetry Month, so you could write your own spring-themed poems or find some online to put in the Easter eggs (along with candy, of course).  It would be a fun way to spend time with family and friends, enjoy the beautiful spring weather, eat some sweets, and appreciate the beautiful art of poetry.



  • Spend time with family and friends.  Most importantly, Easter is a great opportunity to spend time with those close to you.  Take advantage of the nice weather to do something fun with family and friends.  You could all write some Easter/spring poems and share them, or decorate Easter eggs together.  You and your family could also try cooking different Easter dishes.  Here is a great website that includes several Easter recipes to try:


These are just some ideas; there are endless possibilities to make the most of the long weekend.  Whatever you plan on doing, I hope you enjoy your Easter weekend!


Subjunctive: Thinking in English

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When you express a wish for something, you’re using the subjunctive.

by Morgan Ambourn, senior writing coach

Have you ever considered how a young child thinks about the world? How would you describe an apple without using words that were previously defined, words that young children haven’t even learned yet? Every thought we have and idea we share is defined by a string of sounds threaded together, each given its own meaning. With the stringing together of these words comes sentence structure, and then grammar. Grammar often seems like a burden — every elementary schooler’s least favorite subject. We complain about learning it until eventually, grammar in one’s first language does become second nature, just like riding a bike or brushing one’s teeth. However, language is not only a tool for communication; beyond this, its use of the subjunctive is also a tool for dreaming and planning and regretting.

The subjunctive is formally a “mood of verbs expressing what is imagined or wished or possible” (Google). In the English language, it helps us communicate what we want and need, and to look back on how we felt during certain events in our lives. In some languages — for example, Vietnamese — the subjunctive tense does not even exist. Recently, I was listening to a radio show that detailed the story of a Vietnamese American man’s childhood. His family had been trying to escape their home country; they were about to board a bus on its way out of the country, but for some reason decided to wait for the next one. Moments later, the bus blew up before their eyes and the man and his family narrowly sidestepped death. Many years after escaping to America and learning English, this man asked his family what they thought of the nearly tragic event, and what their lives would have been like had they not left. His family, not having fully adopted the English language nor having fully understood the use of the subjunctive, had few reflections on what happened. The man explained how his family didn’t think much about what could have or would have occurred, because their language didn’t allow them to easily relate to the future or past.

In a way, language seems to define the way we think. While people cannot regret or ponder what might have occurred without using subjunctive, they are also limited in their expression of hopes and future plans. The next time you consider what you might eat for lunch later in the day, or where you’ll go next with your life, remember: it’s grammar that got you thinking.

Sense and Sensibility: 19th Century Sarcasm

Sense and Sensibility

by Luke Bunday, junior writing coach

If I were asked to give the sensory equivalent to the experience of reading Sense and Sensibility, I would say that it’s like sitting down at the beach to play cards, sip tea, and watch an oil tanker explode in the distance.

(The oil tanker in that analogy is actually filled with sarcasm — there is a lot of it.)

As Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility is pretty darn important in the history of literature: its commercial success paved the way for the publication of Pride and Prejudice and the rest of Austen’s brilliant works. But seeing it as just a stepping stone to other novels would be an injustice.

Sense and Sensibility tells the story of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. They respectively represent sense (i.e., reason and caution) and sensibility (i.e., emotion and spontaneity), and throughout the novel they both struggle with separation from their love interests. In fact, by the second act, these love interests are basically never present physically. Don’t get me wrong, though; Austen includes enough romantic yearning to tug out your defenseless heartstrings and play them like a violin, especially in the last thirty pages. But the thing that propels the novel forward in the meantime is her hilarious, whip-smart dialogue.

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One of the primary conflicts of the story is Elinor’s fight to maintain a collected exterior even in the face of increasingly distressing circumstances and belligerent people. And this restrained facade turns out to be the perfect vessel for delivering jabs of verbal swordplay. The understatement in Elinor’s polite retorts only adds to their sharpness; you can practically feel the heat of the burns rising off of the pages.

Marianne, too, is brilliantly characterized in ways that adds to the humor of the story. By the middle of the novel, it would be easy to write her off as melodramatic and careless, but her strong emotions end up lending to her likability. On multiple occasions, her fierce temper and earnest affection for her sister lead her to disregard social norms and say things that are both totally out of line and completely justified.

The wonderful way the two sisters provide foil for one another, with complementary but opposite approaches to dealing with frustration, is just one of the reasons why this book, which started as a simple character study, is more than the sum of its parts. The great thing about Jane Austen’s work is that it contains multitudes. Social commentary, critiques of superficiality, and thoughts on love and loyalty intermingle in Sense and Sensibility, and you come away from reading it with a feeling of fulfillment and a lot to think about.

It’s Not Easy Being Green…


by Saahil Chadha, junior writing coach

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, and although many of us don’t have any Irish ancestry (including myself), there is still plenty we can do celebrate the holiday! Here is a list of some of the things you can do tomorrow:

  • Wear green. This is probably the most common thing to do on St. Patrick’s day. Although the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, was originally associated with the color blue, this color has been more recently changed to green to reflect the lush vegetation of Ireland, and we love it! Tomorrow wear your favorite green t-shirt and green jewelry!
  • Pinch someone for not wearing green. This tradition actually doesn’t come from Ireland. In fact, it is an American addition to the holiday! The pinch is actually supposed to represent invisible leprechauns pinching those that don’t honor the beautiful nation across the Atlantic.
  • Drink a Shamrock Shake. This is by far my favorite thing to do on St. Patrick’s day. The Shamrock Shake, a McDonald’s delicacy whose arrival each year is eagerly anticipated by millions of admirers, is a minty, calorie-filled milkshake. This year, McDonald’s even ran a promotional campaign for the refreshing drink, in which they gave out special “aerodynamic” STRAWs (Suction Tube for Reverse Axial Withdrawal) to the first people to get Chocolate Shamrock Shakes. If you’re going to cheat on your diet, I hope you do it with this amazing American tradition!  Here’s a link to the McDonald’s promotion:
  • Hang out with friends. This holiday has really become a celebration of community and joy. In the spirit of the holiday, be sure to hang out with friends and make the most of this Irish celebration.

I hope you have an amazing St. Patrick’s day, and if you have any cool plans, tell me about it in the comments section below!

The Bear Story

Ms. VP blog post pic

by Ms. Van Pilsum, 12th grade English teacher

The bear paused over the sleeping hiker, sniffed the air, and lowered its snout…

It was the night my husband, Tom, saw his friend get kissed by a bear.

Tom and Brian were two months into their trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Somewhere in the High Sierra they bedded down for the night without bothering to set up their tent. Sick of each other’s company and smell, they were yards apart, zipped up tight in their mummy bags, with only their faces exposed to the freezing night air. That’s when Tom woke to the sound of a bear moving through camp. He watched it lumbering about and thought, “No worries. Our food’s hanging in the tree. He’ll pass on by.” Still, he kept a half-opened eye. When the bear stopped and hovered over Brian who was sound asleep, Tom thought, “What the…?” Brian woke to the sensation of a bear frantically licking his lips, lips now slimy with bear-saliva, lips that he’d coated earlier that day with cherry-flavored Chapstick. Arms pinned inside his sleeping bag, all Brian could do was scream a stream of panic-filled obscenities, scaring the bear back into the night.

When Tom tells this story at dinner parties, it’s always because I bring it up. I never tire of it. He tells it too slowly, setting the scene, building suspense, and I fight the urge to jump in, to hurry it along to its awesome end: It was the cherry Chapstick! But I’m happy to hear him tell it. I like to watch the listeners. I’m surprised all over again when they’re surprised. Roar with laughter when they roar.

What is it about a story?

I’ve come to this realization: The best times in my life involve stories—telling them, listening to them. Other exchanges seem weak or worse, in comparison. The complaints and explanations, the gossip and rants, the persuasions and, oh, dear God, the posts, especially the posts, feel like a waste of words, in comparison. What little satisfaction is had where those words are spent! But a story! When a story happens, it’s as close as we can be without touching. When we’re suspended in time together, moving through a landscape together, maybe that’s when the most important things get said in the most enjoyable way.

Even if the story is so sad it breaks your heart.

Brian dropped out of the hike a month after his close encounter. Tom finished the trail in the snow at the Canadian border. The hikers, so much older now and miles apart, must sometimes wake in their comfortable beds and remember. Grunting with the effort, they turn over to other dreams, like bears in the night.