Every morning around 9 o’clock everybody in our school listens to the morning announcements when a cheery woman tells us about some (but not all) of the things to expect during the day. Monday morning’s announcements included the reminder to staff that our “time cards” are due by Wednesday morning.

Being the way I am (picky, picky, picky), I have a problem with that. Don’t get me wrong, I like to get paid, so I don’t mind filling the thing out and turning it in. The problem I have is that our time cards are printed on a standard sheet of letter-size paper.

“It’s not a timecard,” I say back to the nice voice coming out of the speaker in the ceiling, “it’s a timesheet.” The voice obviously can’t hear me, but it makes me feel good to say it anyway.

Another routine part of the school day for many school staff involves checking our emails, some of which have to do with online trainings that we need to complete by a certain date. These trainings used to be done “on your own” — until we underwent the extensive computer training we needed for remote learning during the pandemic. Now, these online trainings are all “asynchronous” (which describes two or more events that are not happening at the same time) thanks to the terminology used by Google.

As I go through my email, that gets me wondering: If “synchronous” events are ones that are happening at the same time, why does “asynchronous” mean that they’re not happening at the same time? In other words, why does that little “a” turn the word into a negative one?

So I quickly go looking for why. All Merriam-Webster has to say about the matter can be found in the eighth of their 13 definitions of the letter “a,” which says only that it’s a prefix and means “not : without.”


And with that, curiosity takes over: Just exactly how did we end up with words like: achromatic (without color), ahistorical (historically inaccurate), asymmetrical (having parts that are not equal), asymptomatic (not presenting with signs of illness), and asexual (having no sexual attraction to others).

Ah, but work calls. During an average day, I venture in and out of several classrooms in nearly all of my school’s grades, which are kindergarten through 6, and work with a variety of students during my daily wanderings. Sometimes when the younger students are lining up to walk in the hall, one will jump in front of another kiddo, who will quickly announce, “He cutted me.”

“Stop saying that!” screams the voice in my head, but I stop myself from saying it out loud. As much as I want to correct the youngster, he’s got places to go, and with recess calling, has no time to hang around and listen to a lecture about the different ways we form the past tense of English verbs. So, for the time being at least, he’ll remain “cutted” in front of.

Finally, as much as words matter, so does context. An excellent example of this happened when a bus headed up from Portland to pick up some students for a field trip. But instead of going to the Raymond A. Geiger Elementary School in Lewiston, the driver went instead to the town of Raymond where, I suppose, he drove around looking for a Geiger School.

You can’t make this stuff up. The field trip was “ataken” and had to rescheduled.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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