Frindle tells the story of fifth grader Nick Allen, who is described as a boy who isn't a bad kid by any means, just one who has lots of ideas and enjoys putting them to work in ways that annoy his teachers. This leads Nick to begin a contest of wills with his dictionary-loving language arts teacher Mrs. Granger by deciding that pens should be known as "frindles," something that the entire school and eventually, the entire United States gets behind—everyone, that is, except for Mrs. Granger. As Nick and Mrs. Granger conduct their battle over the word, they both learn a very important lesson about language and the way that language functions, evolves, and exists in the public mind: essentially, language is a living thing that's constantly being shaped by the people who use it, not something static and unchanging.
Within the first few days of school, Mrs. Granger makes a point to impress upon her students that language is something created by people for their use, not something arbitrary. When Nick asks why words mean what they do, Mrs. Granger explains that words possess particular meanings and connotations because people collectively decide over time that they should meaningfully signal those things. Mrs. Granger’s explanation situates language first as something logical. To illustrate the logical nature of language, Mrs. Granger later describes the etymology of the word "pen," noting that it comes from the Latin word for "feather," because feathers were used to make quills, which was the primary writing instrument in ancient times. Though the etymology of the word "pen" does force Mrs. Granger to admit that language changes over time, she also makes the case that language changes slowly and that words aren't real, per se, until they make it into the dictionary, and in doing so become part of the official law of language. With this disclaimer, she attempts to show Nick that language does have rules—and important ones at that—even if those rules can technically be changed.
The success of the word "frindle," and Mrs. Granger’s reticence to embrace the word, shows that she sees changes to the English language as something that happens only in the past, rather than accepting that language continues to change even in the present. It only takes Nick a few weeks to come up with the idea to rename pens frindles, convince his class and then his school to use the word, and attract the attention of national media outlets that spread the word even further afield. Further, as "frindle" becomes more and more accepted, both Mrs. Granger and Nick eventually realize that the future of the world—and indeed, the trajectory of language as a whole—isn't something that they can control. Though it's easy to read Nick's insistences that he can't stop others from using the word as cheekiness calculated to annoy Mrs. Granger, he's also not wrong. "Frindle" takes on a life of its own, and there's nothing Nick or Mr. Granger can do to effectively help or hinder its spread once this happens.
While the initial boom in popularity happens practically overnight, it still takes "frindle" ten years to make it into the dictionary and become an official, widely accepted word to refer to pens. Despite it taking so long, "frindle's" induction into the dictionary reinforces that language is everchanging —and will continue to adapt and grow as people come up with new ways to communicate with each other.
Language Quotes in Frindle
But her pride and joy was one of those huge dictionaries with every word in the universe in it, the kind of book it takes two kids to carry. It sat on its own little table at the front of her classroom, sort of like the altar at the front of a church.
"But if all of us in this room decided to call that creature something else, and if everyone else did, too, then that's what it would be called, and one day it would be written in the dictionary that way. We decide what goes in that book." And she pointed at the giant dictionary.
Then when Nick went to preschool, he learned that if he wanted his teacher and the other kids to understand him, he had to use the word music. But gwagala meant that nice sound to Nick, because Nick said so. Who says gwagala means music? "You do, Nicholas."
Nick didn't say "pen." Instead, he said, "Here's your... frindle."
"Frindle?" Janet took her pen and looked at him like he was nuts. She wrinkled her nose and said, "What's a frindle?"
And when she asked, the lady reached right for the pens and said, "Blue or black?"
Nick was standing one aisle away at the candy racks, and he was grinning.
Frindle was a real world. It meant pen. Who says frindle means pen? "You do, Nicholas."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with it. It's just fun, and it really is a real word. It's not a bad word, just different. And besides, it's how words really change, isn't it? That's what you said."
"The word pen has a long, rich history. It comes from the Latin word for feather, pinna. It started to become our word pen because quills made from feathers were some of the first writing tools ever made. It's a word that comes from somewhere. It makes sense, Nicholas."
“But frindle makes just as much sense to me,” said Nick. “And after all, didn’t somebody just make up the word pinna, too?”
That got a spark from Mrs. Granger’s eyes …
A boy who was almost falling over from the weight of his backpack looked up at her and smiled. "It's not so bad. There's always a bunch of my friends there. I've written that sentence six hundred times now."
Or this bit about Nick: "Everyone agrees that Nick Allen masterminded this plot that cleverly raises issues about free speech and academic rules. He is the boy who invented the new word."
"I have always said that the dictionary is the finest tool ever made for educating young minds, and I still say that. Children need to understand that there are rules about words and language, and that those rules have a history that makes sense. And to pretend that a perfectly good English word can be replaced by a silly made-up word just for the fun of it, well, it's not something I was ready to stand by and watch without a fight."
"Well," said Nick, "The funny thing is, even though I invented it, it's not my word anymore. Frindle belongs to everyone now, and I guess everyone will figure out what happens together."
All the kids and even some of the teachers used the new word. At first it was on purpose. Then it became a habit, and by the middle of February, frindle was just a word, like door or tree or hat.
I see now that this is the kind of chance that a teacher hopes for and dreams about—a chance to see bright young students take an idea they have learned in a boring old classroom and put it to a real test in their own world.