In the Russian novel I was reading I never did learn how the Russian names were to be pronounced. My mind would just recognize the word, and if I said anything to myself while I read it was something like "D name" or "R name." It was enough to just recognize the name by sight because knowing how to pronounce it might even slow my reading down a bit.

We do the same with some words that we hear often. We recognize the word and know what it means from its context, but we're not comfortable with it enough to actually include it in our own vocabulary. The meanings and the pronunciation are just fuzzy enough that many words are in our hearing vocabulary but not in our speaking vocabulary.It often takes more than a trip to the dictionary to feel comfortable enough with a new word to include it in our speaking vocabulary. On the other hand, there are many words that we use without really looking at their origin and without knowing exactly what they mean. I like to hear people use synergism and interface based on what they have heard and not what they really know the words to mean.

I remember asking my mother what "sixfishes" meant. It took considerable discussion before she understood that I was asking about "suspicious" and not about the fishing limit.

It is probably an apocryphal Christmas tale but has a ring of truth. The young student explained to his teacher that the fat man in the nativity scene he had drawn was Round John Virgin who was watching the mother and child.

Maybe Christmas is a good time for a vocabulary lesson, a time to look up words that we hear and even use without learning the meaning. Noel may be a good place to start. The Latin natalis means birthday and the French natalis means natal. The First Noel would be the first birthday.

Legend puts shepherds and wise men at this nativity. The meaning of nativity is the process or circumstances of being born. The wise men were bearers of gifts at this nativity. We assume three wise men because three gifts are named, gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense is more than the name of the third brother in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." It is a fragrant gum resin that is derived from trees belonging to the genus Boswellia. It is a white powder or is crystallized and has a balsamlike odor when burned. It is one of the ingredients of the incense of sacrifice in the Old Testament. It was set before the holy of holies with the Bread of the Presence. It was used to cover offerings before they were burned, and stores of it were kept in the temple in Jerusalem.

Myrrh is derived from the fragrant gum of a species of Cistus commonly called Rockrose. It was a trade item carried from Gilead to Egypt and one of the "choice fruits of the land" which Jacob had his sons carry to their brother Joseph who they had sold into Egypt.

Myrrh was an ingredient of the anointing oil in the Old Testament and was used when Aaron was anointed. Esther used it as a beauty treatment. Egyptian records show that it was used with other spices for embalming.

Myrrh mixed with wine was offered to Jesus to relieve pain at the time of his crucifixion. It was refused. Myrrh and aloes were brought by Nicodemus for Jesus' burial.

Beyond learning the meaning of the words we seem to hear only at Christmas is the meaning of these symbolic gifts. What did the wise men know that would prompt them to offer gifts to a young baby that are symbols of sacrifice, death, burial and preservation of the body.

Perhaps if we understand this, we will know why wise men still seek him.

Merry Christmas.

Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Dr. Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627