Going to 'school' with Richard Armour

In education, the word ''school'' is used so much that it deserves a few words about it. We have not only elementary school, junior high school, high school, private school, public school, Sunday school, night school, correspondence school, law school, medical school, and on and on, but schools as different from these as a school of thought and a school of fish.

I have been going back and forth (or forth and back) through the 3,210 three-column pages of Webster's New International Dictionary, second edition, and have been impressed by how few words get as much space as is given to ''school.''

There are 20 different definitions of ''school,'' ranging from ''An institution for teaching children'' to the English slang ''A gang, especially of thieves'' and, in Roman history, ''One of the troops of the imperial guard.''

There are 144 combinations and phrases using ''school,'' from ''school account'' to ''school year.'' There are also 33 phrases having ''school'' as a terminal element, starting with ''boarding school'' and going to ''vocational school.''

And, in the field of fine arts, there are 12 groups of painters, sculptors, or musicians with a common local or personal interest, including the Barbizan school, the Eclectic school, and the Venetian school.

As for a school of thought, which I mentioned earlier, it could be the disciples or followers of a teacher, such as the Socratic school. Or it could be a group or class sharing certain canons, precepts, or a body of common practices. Thus we might say of someone, ''He is a gentleman of the old school.''

In this classification or category would come the two schools of punctuation, the ''close'' and the ''open.'' Those who follow the close school are strict about the use of punctuation, especially the comma, in marking the grouping and the separation of phrases, clauses, and other parts of a sentence. Members of the open school use the minimum of punctuation, leaving out such marks whenever possible.

Being somewhat old-fashioned, I belong to the close school, trying to avoid ambiguity and make the meaning clear to the reader.

At the bottom of each page in Webster's New International Dictionary are some obsolete or little-used words. Here I found ''schoolbutter,'' meaning a flogging , and such words as ''schooldom,'' ''schoolless,'' and ''schoolma'amish.'' I can see why they are no longer in general usage.

Finally, let me say something about ''school of fish.'' Not only do certain fish and whales travel in schools, or groups, but the leader of such a group is called a ''schoolmaster.'' There is a picture of this fish in my dictionary, and a human schoolmaster might not think it a compliment.

Now I leave it to teachers to see what they can find out about ''teacher'' in their dictionary, or to get their students to look up ''student.''

By the way, did you know there is such a thing as a ''teacher bird,'' also known as the ovenbird, or the red-eyed vireo?

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