Compounding Literacy: Examining Disciplines in Which Mastery Surpasses Words
Practices other than reading underlie many of the systems that modern society demands mastery of, yet this mastery is often still framed in terms involving literacy. Literacy compounds increased in twentieth-century English (e.g., information literacy, health literacy, computer literacy). The newer uses, however, are not mere jargon, but reflect how writers’ views are refined as the underlying concept is discovered to be more complex. Taking book titles to characterize one facet of public discourse, I present an analysis of the compound literacy terms appearing in three U.S. library catalog databases. Separate meaning types emerge: while the older literacy sense of ‘reading ability’ is still active, a wider sense of ‘managing field-specific information’ is often signaled. While both appear as positively valued concepts, in some instances these senses of literacy are distinct, and in others the meanings appear as overlapping or interchangeable. This presentation examines two aspects of the changing uses of literacy: 1) tracing those disciplines for which compound literacy terms are coined, and 2) contrasting compound literacy terms in which the idea of ‘reading ability’ persists with those which more consistently signal other field-specific skills. I then propose two consequences of designating certain domains of knowledge as literacy. We might worry that interchanged senses will lead to miscommunication, (whereby polysemous substitution distracts us into tackling problems related to ‘reading ability’ that are better solved by recognizing how learners acquire knowledge within particular fields, e.g., understanding a concept of germ theory for health literacy or knowing to seek a trashcan icon to delete files for computer literacy). Yet, we also benefit by discovering which bodies of knowledge appear to be culturally valued. The semantic expansion shown in compound literacy terms reveals the sanctioning of certain domains of information through the label of literacy.
Keywords: Semantics, Metaphor, Lexical Conflation, Cultural Beliefs, Titles
Dr. Laurel Stvan
Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics and TESOL