“It’s cold out there, colder than a ticket taker’s smile at the Ivar Theatre, on a Saturday night.” – Tom Waits

I woke up this morning to a temperature of -26 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of -48 degrees or so.  That’s cold.  The meterologists are calling this a polar vortex.  But what is that exactly?

According to an article at Business Insider called A Polar Vortex is Engulfing the US.  Here’s what that really means and why these events might be getting more common , “The term polar vortex describes the mass of low-pressure cold air that circulates in the stratosphere above the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Sometimes the circulation of the polar vortex weakens during the winter, causing surges of frigid air to splinter off and drift south. The freezing air is carried by the jet stream, a current of wind that extends around the hemisphere and divides the air masses in the polar region from those farther south. ”

The Polar Vortex Explained

In the picture above (here is a link to InsideClimate News), you can see the difference between a stable polar vortex and a wavy polar vortex.  What is happening in my state today is not typical.  The jet stream is weak and because of it warm air moves north in spots and cold air moves south in others.

The image used to indicate the polar vortex is interesting.  There is this sense of swirling movement.  Now I’m curious about the word <vortex>.  What other words is it related to?  Off to Etymonline I go!

It was first attested (first time we see this word in print) in the 1650’s.  At that time it was used to mean “whirlpool, eddying mass.” Earlier than that it was from Latin vortex, a variant spelling of vertex “an eddy of water, wind, or flame; whirlpool; whirlwind.”  The Latin variant vertex is from the stem of the Latin infinitive vertere “to turn.”

Using what I know about the principle parts of the Latin verb (verto, vertere, verti, versus), I spot the two Latin stems that have become modern English bases (<vert> and <verse>).  Now I can list words that share these bases and this denotation of “turn, turn around.”  Stop and think about each of the following words.  Do you see this base and do you sense the denotation in the word’s present day meaning?

adverse                anniversary

avert                     controversy

divert                    convert

extrovert               invert

reverse                  transverse

universe                versatile

versus                    vertebra


There are more, of course, but I just wanted to give you an idea of the connectedness of these words that share a base and a denotation – words that form a family.  I’ve colored coded the two bases because even though these two bases derive from the same Latin verb, they are spelled different and would need to be represented on two different matrices.  They are etymological relatives.

Back to <vortex>

But let’s get back to <vortex>.  Does it have any interesting morphological relatives (meaning words from the same ancestor that share the same base spelling presently)?  For this I went to Word Searcher first.  Besides vortex, vortices and vortexes, I found cavort, cavorts, cavorted, and cavorting.  Hmmm.  They might share a base, but a <ca> prefix?  I’m not so sure about that.  I headed back to Etymonline to investigate:

cavort (v.)
1793, cauvaut, “to prance, bustle nimbly or eagerly,” American English, of uncertain origin, sometimes said to be an alteration of curvet “a leap by a horse,” a word from French that is related to curve (v.). Or perhaps from ca-, ka, colloquial intensive prefix + vault (v.) “to jump, leap.” Modern form attested by 1829. Related: Cavorted; cavorting.
As you can see, there is no evidence that <cavort> is from Latin vortex or its variant spelling vertex.  However, I did find it interesting that <ca-> is a colloquial intensive prefix!  See?  When you go in search of one piece of information, another piece is there sparkling and just waiting for you to notice!  (I’ll have to follow up on that find another time.)

Wordsearcher did not help me find morphological relatives, and there were no other morphologically related words at Etymonline.  My next stop is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Here’s where things get interesting.

Here is the word used in 1653 with a sense of continual spinning.

1653   H. More Def. Philos. Cabbala (1713) App. i. 113   That there are infinite numbers of Atoms or Particles, different in magnitude and figure;..and that they are moved in the Vniverse after the manner of vortices.

Here is an example of its use from 1704 with a sense of strong swirling.

1704   J. Pitts True Acct. Mohammetans vii. 77   In this place is much Danger without a fresh Gale of Wind, because it is a kind of Vortex, the Water running whirling round, and is apt to swallow down a Ship.

Here is a rather poetic use from 1700 or so.

a1700   T. Ken Edmund in Wks. (1721) II. 24   Now the North Wind the crazy Vessel sweeps, And in its rapid Vortex pris’ner keeps.

So we see this same action of spinning and swirling whether the vortex be involving fire, water, wind, atoms or anything.  That denotation of “to turn, turn around” is present in every use.  Next up some unexpected words that share this base!



This word is a noun that was coined in Modern Latin with a diminutive sense.  The OED defines it as an individual belonging to the genus Vorticellidae and gives this use from 1875.

1875   T. H. Huxley & H. N. Martin Course Elem. Biol. (1877) 90   Sometimes a rounded body, encircled by a ring of cilia but having otherwise the characters of a Vorticella bell, is seen to be attached to the base of the bell of an ordinary Vorticella.

Wikipedia describes the organism this way: “The organism is aptly named “Vorticella” due to the beating cilia creating whirlpools, or vortices.”

Image result for vorticella

The camera catches the vortex of cilia on either side, but if you look closely you can see the blurring action of all the cilia that surround the opening.  The movement stirs the water and promotes the flow of food to the organism.  What I find especially striking about this is that I have seen this organism before!  Yes!  I have!  My husband worked for a neighboring water treatment plant as a research biologist for many years.  At one point, he recorded video of what he could see in his microscope when it was magnified 400 times.  When my students studied the classification system and wondered what protists looked like, I showed them videos of this very organism.  How about that?



The OED defines this as “A British art-movement of the early twentieth century, characterized by abstractionism and machine-like forms.”  How interesting that this base show up in art!  The following use listed at the OED is quite entertaining.

1915   Drawing July 56/1   Vorticism..is in reality our old and amusing friend Cubism, but Cubism heavily charged with electricity.

More information from Wikipedia reveals that “it tried to capture movement in an image. In a Vorticist painting modern life is shown as an array of bold lines and harsh colours drawing the viewer’s eye into the centre of the canvas.”

Related image
The cover of the 1915 BLAST
Wyndham Lewis
Modern American Poetry: from Blast (19141915)

The cover of the second (and last) edition of BLAST, by Wyndham Lewis and friends. This edition included an article by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska written and submitted from the trenches of WWI.

Image Credit: http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/news/walrobinson/walrobinson2-1-40.asp 

The Poetry Foundation includes in their information that Ezra Pound coined the word “vorticist” and felt that it applied to all of the arts.  Here is a quote from his writing about this, “You may think of man as that toward which perception moves. You may think of him as the TOY of circumstance, as the plastic substance RECEIVING impressions.  OR you may think of him as DIRECTING a certain fluid force against circumstance, as CONCEIVING instead of merely observing and reflecting.”

Here is a vorticist poem by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Whirl up sea —
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

According to The Poetry Foundation, the Vorticist Movement ended just three year after it began.  There is thought that the toll of World War I had much to do with that.


This is an adjective describing something as in a swirling motion.

1891   Atlantic Monthly LXVIII. 68/2   They [sc. tornadoes] possess truly vorticular motion.

Image result for vorticular motion of a tornado


This was an invention by A.L. Coburn in 1916.  It was used in photography.  The following sentence is from the OED.

1966   A. L. Coburn Autobiogr. ix. 102   I aspired to make abstract pictures with the camera. For this purpose I devised the Vortoscope late in 1916. This instrument is composed of three mirrors fastened together in the form of a triangle… The mirrors act as a prism splitting the image formed by the lens into segments.

Here is one of vortocist A.L. Coburn’s photographs using his vortoscope.  The finished picture is called a vortograph.


Here are some pretty cool modern examples from dasascukaphotoblog .

DSC_6763 bw


Final Thoughts

It’s makes sense that this word, this family, would be used in so many interesting situations.  The bases <vort>, <vert>, and <verse> are as close as siblings.  They share a denotation that reverberates through the many many words that share those bases.  Today I focused on that shared meaning and the spirit of human nature to see certain characteristics of the world around us and to apply those characteristics to creative expression.  When I was looking in the OED, I also found that there were words in the <vort> family that have become obsolete.  One that struck my fancy was <vorticordious> meaning “turning the heart.”  The only use listed at the OED was from 1669.  I can imagine someone being vorticordious as easily as I can picture someone who, as we now say, turns heads.  Uncovering this cool word is a reinforcement that our language is not static.  It is living and being shaped, as it always has been, by the people who speak it.

And now, I will turn my attention back to the polar vortex at hand with a new appreciation for the lines, the flow, the turning movement that the polar vortex brings to this temperature map.  Stay warm!


“Would you like an adventure now, or would you like to have your tea first? ” -James M. Barrie

The first time I met Peter Pan, I was sitting in my living room with my brothers and sisters.  He didn’t come flying through the picture window or anything else as exciting and dramatic as that.  Instead, he flew into my imagination via our television set.  Even though the version we were watching was old, the scenery was the furthest thing from life-like, and Peter Pan was himself played by a woman (Mary Martin), I was captivated.   The idea of defying the inevitable enticed me.  For me the idea of living as a child forever was the heart and soul of this story.  Everything that happened happened because Peter Pan wasn’t going to grow up and he was trying fiercely to get others not to grow up either.  But, of course, none of the viewers were fooled.  Growing up can only be prevented by one thing.  And it wasn’t until recently that I read about James M. Barrie’s personal connection with that.  Because it was only recently that I actually read his book.  Thanks to Michael Clay Thompson.

Here’s the song that I sang for weeks after watching Peter Pan for the first time:

Michael Clay Thompson is someone I have mentioned before when speaking of grammar instruction.  But his curriculum materials regarding grammar are only one facet of his vision of a “literacy ecosystem” that involves grammar, vocabulary, writing, poetry, and reading.  I am particularly favorable to picturing literacy in its whole as an ecosystem.  Like an ecosystem, each component is vulnerable, not meant to stand alone, and if instruction of it dwindles or disappears, the ecosystem as a whole weakens.  If, for example, students are not taught about the poetic features or the grammatic stability found in literary sentences, their reading experience will be significantly less than it could be.  If grammar instruction is minimal and found only in work packets, the rest of the literacy instruction becomes narrower in its reach.  It is the same with studying vocabulary.  (MCT’s Caesar’s English books are great for looking at words frequently found in English literature.  They pair well with investigating intriguing word families using Structure Word Inquiry!)  For it isn’t just difficult words that stop students when they are reading.  It is also rich complicated sentence structures that are often missing from the leveled readers handed to students. Therefore, I will continue this discussion with that idea of a “literacy ecosystem” in mind. It is necessary, of course, to look closely at each system on its own, but too often students spend entire school years focused on isolated skills within each of these “habitat” areas.  How regularly do they get to practice the skills as they interact within the entire literacy ecosystem?   As MCT says, “All of it pertains to all of it.”

When looking for teaching materials, it is pretty easy to find books and ideas for each of the areas I have described above.  But where are the materials or ideas explaining how to weave all of the areas together as you teach?  MCT has such a thing!  He has put together trilogies of books that have a common theme.  Last year I purchased the trilogy that includes Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows.  As you may have guessed from the title of this post, we are currently reading Peter Pan.  Below is the first paragraph from the teacher manual that accompanies the trilogy:

“The purpose of this literature program is to immerse children in great books so that they experience literature as literature and not as a drudgery of tedious school activities.  I want children’s minds on the books themselves and not on attendant assignments.  It is by loving to read that children become literate.”

MCT lays out a plan for Four-Level Literature that includes:

Creative Thinking

He suggests a few activities for Preparing, but most of the emphasis is on the actual reading of the story.  That is the main event, as it should be.  The last two levels MCT lists are important in that they help a student think about the story and its characters once the reading is finished. The prompts for Creative Thinking are creative in and of themselves.  They stir discussion and are intriguing to think about.  The last level, the Writing, is especially important for developing a student’s application of grammar and essay writing skills.

While reading, there should be pauses to reflect on the characters and to clarify the meanings of unfamiliar words.  When I pause to talk about the unfamiliar words, I like to point out how the words J.M. Barrie used are something he chose.  He passed over other words that might have kind of fit in favor of the one he used.  At the end of the story or after we have read several chapters, I might choose a quote or a paragraph from the story and ask my students to again tell me about the word choice.  What does the word J.M. Barrie used bring to the sentence or paragraph that a synonym of that word might not?

I especially love the following quote from the teacher manual:

“I do not like the practice of traditional written quizzes every so many chapters; that is too intrusive.  It breaks the continuum of the reading.  We should leave the story alone as much as possible.  Our pedagogy should tiptoe and whisper.”

I love the reminder that we as teachers need to limit our interruptions to the reading.  With that being said, in each of the books MCT includes in his trilogies, he does indeed interrupt the reading to point out some things.  Sometimes it is the grammar of a particular sentence that he points out.  Sometimes it is the rhythm of a particular sentence that is reinforcing the message of the sentence.  Sometimes it is the poetic quality of a particular line, purposely creating a subtle feel in the reader’s mind.  For example, here is one of the “language illustrations” he has included in this story.

As you can see, MCT not only points out the grammar using his 4 Level Grammar Analysis, he also connects the grammar use to the writing.  He points out the meter and the word choice and how all those things enhance the moment in the story for the reader.  His interruptions are not a list of questions for the students to answer.  They actually enhance the reading experience by pointing out something that the readers (and sometimes the teacher) might not have noticed on their own.  This is one way in which MCT is pulling together all facets of the literacy ecosystem that I’ve described above.  If you’d like a look at his materials, here is a link:  Royal Fireworks Press.


James M. Barrie was born in 1860.  He was the ninth of ten children.  When James was 6 and his next older brother was almost 14, his brother died in an ice skating accident.  His brother David had been their mother’s favorite and she was inconsolable.  James tried everything he could think of to make her feel better.  He even dressed in his brother’s clothes.  He spent a lot of time with her and listened as she spoke of her childhood.  Her own mother died when she was just 8, and she assumed the household duties at that time.  She also told him that she found some solace in knowing that David would be a boy forever.  That idea of being a boy forever ….

J.M. Barrie knew he wanted to be a writer early on.  He began by writing some of the stories his mother told him.  As his career began, he met a family with five boys, one of whom was named Peter.  He became close to the family, often telling the boys stories.  One of those stories included Peter’s ability to fly.  When the parents died (1907 and 1910), J.M. Barrie adopted the boys.

Here is a link to a brief biography: The Family That Inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.


J.M. Barrie by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1892

I’m going to spend the rest of this post sharing some of the words and phrases my students and I found which have strengthened our connections to the action and to the characters.  First off let me say just how refreshing it is to read a book with such beautiful language!  My students and I are reading it aloud and thoroughly enjoy discussing the action, the characters, the author’s message, but most of all, we enjoy the words that Barrie uses. I’m not sure whether or not readers in his day would have been as intrigued by the vocabulary, but we sure are.

As I list each word, keep in mind that I did not stop the reading to investigate any of these words.  We only stopped long enough to clarify the word’s meaning and its use in the context of the story.  It is my plan to share the following list with my students at another time in our day and give them the opportunity to choose one to investigate.  I’m sharing things with you that I find interesting about these words and giving suggestions for possible activities.



One of the first words to catch our attention was perambulator.  It was in the middle of a paragraph describing the nurse dog, Nana.

“… the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, …”

At the bottom of the page, MCT had included a definition of this word so that we didn’t have to look elsewhere at the moment and could get back to the reading.  But a look later at Etymonline told me that this word was first used to mean a baby carriage in 1856 (that is what it is referring to in the story).  Prior to that, the <-or> suffix indicated an agent noun.  So a perambulator was someone who perambulated.  The word <perambulate> is from Latin ambulare from <per-> “through” and <ambul> “walk, go about”.  Here is an example of a matrix that could be created using the base element <ambul>.

What I absolutely love about this family of words are the compound words that can be made.  Looking at <circumambulate>, we see the first base element <circum>, which is from Latin circum “all around, round about” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  So someone who is circumambulating is walking all around an area.  The next compound word on this matrix is <funambulist>.  This word is from Latin funis “a rope, line, cord” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  The suffix <-ist> is an agent suffix here and is indicating that a funambulist is a person who walks on rope – a tightrope walker!  The last compound word is <somnambulate>.  This word is from Latin somnus “sleep” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  If you are guessing that to somnambulate would be to sleepwalk, you would be correct!

Of course, familiar words like <ambulance> would need to be noticed as well.  But what does an ambulance have to do with walking?  According to Etymonline, around the 17th century, the French used the phrase, a hôpital ambulant, which literally meant a walking hospital.  The hospital was built in such a way that it could be torn down and moved to a new location.  We might think of them as field hospitals.  By 1798 it was known as simply ambulance.  I know that any of my students would enjoy this rich treasure hunt!



According to Etymonline, <exquisite> was first attested in the 15th century.  At that time it meant “carefully selected”.  It is from Latin exquisitus “carefully sought out”.  As it is used in the passage below, it has more of a sense of “with perfection of detail, elaborately, beautifully” (as listed in definition 2 in the Oxford English Dictionary).  Both sources identify this word as from <ex-> “out” and quaerere “to search, seek”.  So something that is exquisite is carefully sought after for its perfection of detail!  That would make sense in the context of describing Tinker Bell’s skeleton leaf gown.

“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”

The word <exquisite> is just one of many descendants of Latin quaerere “to search, seek”.  Others include question, quest, query, inquire, inquisitive, acquisition, conquer, and require.  If you think about it, can you see how the denotation of their common ancestor quaerere “to search, seek” binds them in meaning? Perhaps this would be a great opportunity for your students.  Have small groups or individuals investigate the present meaning of one of the words I’ve listed and then come back together as a group to share.  See if the students can notice the common sense and meaning at the core of each word.



Another interesting word in the same quote from the book as <exquisite> is <embonpoint>.  According to Etymonline it means “plumpness”.  It was first attested in 1751.  Earlier (16 c.) it is from French embonpoint “plumpness, fullness.”  Before that it was a phrase in Old French en bon point “in good condition.”

“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”

If the word <embonpoint> is skipped over in this quote, the reader will get a different impression of Tinker Bell than the author intended!  I quite like the idea that Tinker Bell had a realistic body shape.  That is not the way she has been portrayed in any movie version I’ve ever seen!

According to the OED, it has been used as both a noun and an adjective.  They offered no recent examples of its use, which is probably why it feels so unfamiliar.  The most recent use they list is from 1876:

1876   R. Bartholow Pract. Treat. Materia Med. ii. 308   An increase in the body-weight and the embonpoint of those who take stimulants.
James M. Barrie, however, wrote this story in 1906.  I wonder if this word is currently used in France?
Peter Pan tries several times but is unsuccessful in putting his shadow back on.  That’s when Wendy offers to do it for him.
“I shall sew it on for you my little man,” she said, though he was tall as herself, and she got out her housewife, and sewed the shadow on to Peter’s foot.”
MCT defines a housewife as a sewing kit.  I’d heard this term before, but was sure my students hadn’t.  I was right.  Later on that same day, I found a picture of a housewife that was used by a soldier in World War I through Wikipedia Commons.  I’m glad I did because it won’t be the last time Wendy uses her housewife.  The Lost Boys will wear holes in the knees of their pants and in the heels of their socks quite often!
It will also give us the opportunity to talk about why a soldier might need a housewife, and why this sewing kit would be called a housewife.  In the 18th and 19th century, it was common for a mother, wife, sister, or girlfriend to make a housewife for someone who was going off to fight in a war.  At that time, it was pronounced as “hussif” or “huzzif”.  Read more about them HERE.

We came across this word just before leaving for a two day holiday.  It was a timely find as this holiday is typically a day focused around a big meal. Before they left I wished them a great time with their families and warned them about stodging. We even joked around and wished each other a “Happy Stodgegiving!”

“You never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim: he could eat, really eat, if it was part of a game, but he could not stodge just to feel stodgy, which is what most children like better than anything else; the next best thing being to talk about it.”

When I see these students again, they will no doubt want to talk about how stodged they felt (as Barrie says, “…the next best thing being to talk about it.”)

Both Etymonline and the OED agree that this word is of unknown origin. The OED suggests that it is “perhaps phonetically symbolic after words like stuff, podge. I particularly loved the imagery in this OED citation:

“1790 W. Marshall Agric. Provincialisms in Rural Econ. Midland Counties II. 443 Stodged, filled to the stretch; as a cow’s udder with milk.”

I think “filled to the stretch” says it all!



Peter Pan uses this word to describe what he would be required to learn in school.  I can’t help but think that his biggest hurdle in attending school would be the confinement to a schedule!

“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things.”

This word was first attested in the mid 14c. according to Etymonline.  At that time it had a sense of “performed with due religious ceremony or reverence.”   Prior to that it was from Old French solempne  and directly from Latin sollemnis  “established, formal, traditional.” It has this sense of seriousness, and that is no doubt the aspect of schooling that troubles Peter Pan the most!

What is interesting about the spelling of <solemn> is the <mn>.  We see this same final spelling in autumn, column, and hymn.  Some may wonder why the <n> is needed since it isn’t pronounced.  But if we remind ourselves that spelling doesn’t represent pronunciation, that instead it represents meaning, we are apt to look for another reason that the <n> is final in these words.  If I take a look at relatives of each word, it doesn’t take long to see that the final <n> IS pronounced in some of the members of each word family.  It isn’t pronounced in solemn, but it is pronounced in solemnity.  It isn’t pronounced in autumn, but it is pronounced in autumnal.  It isn’t pronounced in column, but it is pronounced in columnist.  It isn’t pronounced in hymn, but it is pronounced in hymnal.

If we look back at the etymology of <solemn>, we see that the <mn> has always been part of this word’s spelling.  It is the same with <column> from Latin columna, <autumn> from Latin autumnus, and <hymn> from Greek hymnos.  Interesting, right?



This word was not unfamiliar to my students.  What was unfamiliar was its use as a verb.

“I am just Tootles,”  he said, “and nobody minds me.  But the first who does not behave to Wendy like an English gentleman I will blood him severely.”

At Etymonline, I find that this word was first attested as a verb in 1590 with a sense of “to smear or stain with blood.”  By the 1620’s it was “to cause to bleed,” which I think is the sense being used by Tootles in this story.   At the Oxford English Dictionary, I found several ways <blood> was used as a verb, but when it referred to “to cause blood to flow from … (a person or an animal)” it was for therapeutic reasons, not specifically to cause harm.

1597   P. Lowe Whole Course Chirurg. viii. i. sig. Dd   Bee circumspect in blooding the foote.
1780   Johnson Let. 14 June (1992) III. 275   Yesterday I fasted and was blooded, and to day took physick and dined.
1908   Brit. Med. Jnl. 13 June 1463/1   He was very fond of telling tales of..how the country labourers would come in crowds..to be ‘blooded’.
2007   M. Noble Case of Dirty Verger viii.107   She burst the girl’s eyebrow, blooding it immediately and sending the victim backwards, dazed and distraught.

Here is what Tootles did next:

“He drew back his hanger; and for that instant his sun was at noon.”

A hanger is a short sword that hangs from a belt.  It was a common weapon used by hunters.  What I really love about this sentence though, is the image created with “for that instant his sun was at noon.”  Can’t you just picture this scene?  Tootles is defending Wendy’s honor and all the rest of the Lost Boys are looking on. Tootles is having his moment.  Just as with the sun at noon, there are no shadows cast on Tootles.  His character is illuminated.



I know this word as a noun.  We have a rain gutter on our house, and there is a gutter at the side of our street that directs water to the storm drain.  But I am not as familiar with it as a verb, especially when it is not pertaining to a channel for water.  James M. Barrie creates another wonderful image with an intriguing use of this word.

“Peter slept on.  The light guttered and went out, leaving the tenement in darkness; but still he slept.”

As a verb, this word is first attested in the late 14th c. and was used to mean “to make or run in channels.”  We see the same information in the OED where gutter most often refers to water being channeled and moved.  But according to both Etymonline and the OED, it can also refer to a candle when the hot wax flows down its side by way of a gutter that has opened up.  That use began in 1706.  I’ve certainly lit my share of candles and have seen that happen many times, but never thought to describe it as guttering.  Cool.




This word has been investigated by my fifth grade students in the past as part of understanding the water cycle, along with condensation, evaporation, transpiration, respiration, and infiltration.  I remember enjoying what we found out.  Prior to that, I was aware of words like precipice, precipitate, and precipitation, but never had a solid sense of how or if they were connected in meaning.  I may have wondered, but if my tabletop dictionary didn’t make the connection obvious with its entry, I didn’t know how to pursue an investigation of this on my own.  (I am grateful every day that I happened upon a fellow teacher’s blog, and that it magnified my enjoyment of language!)  These are my own understandings of the words I mentioned:

Precipice – When you are at the precipice of a place or situation, you are at a steep edge with the possibility of falling.

Precipitate –  This word can be used in many ways.  It can be used as a verb meaning that water vapor is condensing and falling from the sky.  Another meaning it has as a verb is to cause something to happen quite abruptly.  It can also be used as a noun to describe a substance separated from a solution or a suspension (in science).  There are other (less frequent) ways to use this word as well!

Precipitation – This form of the word is a noun, but you probably saw the <-ion> suffix and knew that.  It refers to the various forms water vapor can take as it falls to the earth.  It can also refer to the process of forming a precipitate (as described above).

Here is how James M. Barrie used <precipiate> in Peter Pan:

“Starkey looked round for help, but all deserted him.  As he backed up Hook advanced, and now the red spark was in his eye. With a despairing scream the pirate leapt upon Long Tom and precipitated himself into the sea.”

Long Tom is a cannon on the deck of the pirate ship.  At this point in the story, Starkey is told by Captain Hook that he must go into the cabin.  Starkey doesn’t want to go because three others have gone into the cabin already and they have all been killed.  Nobody knows what is in the cabin that is killing the men, and Starkey decides to die by precipitating himself into the sea rather than face whatever is in that cabin.  Using context and combining that with the sense of falling that this word can have, it makes sense that by “he precipitated himself into the sea,” it means that he threw himself overboard.

At Etymonline we learn that this word was first attested in the 1520’s and meant “to hurl or fling downwards.”  It is from Latin praecipitatus “throw or dive headlong,” from prae- “before, forth” and caput “head.”  The chemical sense of this word is from the 1620’s, and it isn’t until 1863 that we see it used in the meteorological sense.  Interesting, right?  So in every use of this word or one of its related words, there is a sense of falling head first or the possibility of falling head first.


Final Thoughts

If you have not read this book with a child, I encourage you to do it.  The character of Peter Pan is rather complicated.  By that I mean that he isn’t consistently one way or another.  Sure he delights the other characters and he saves them from harm, but he also disappoints them and sometimes he even lets them down.  His personality is not as simple to understand as it is in movie versions.  He seems a bit more human as described in the book, and that makes a big difference.  It has led to wonderful discussions about what to expect from him next.  The Lost Boys and the Darling children were at the mercy of his whims often.  For instance, there were times that everyone ate food and other times in which everyone pretended to eat food.  Peter decided which it would be based on his own preference.  He wasn’t trying to be mean, he just didn’t consider anyone’s needs for that sort of thing besides his own.

Another character that we found amusing was Mr. Darling.  He was so worried about appearances that some of his behaviors bordered on ridiculous.  Okay, they were ridiculous!  The scene near the beginning in which he is bragging about how he takes his medicine like a champ is particularly funny.  As readers, we saw through his false bragging.  We also saw the events of that night get out of hand because of it.  Near the end of the book, we are informed that Mr. Darling feels guilty for his part in the children leaving and has imposed a punishment of confining himself to the dog kennel!  The students had so much to say about that!  “Did he go to work like that?  Why?  Did he sleep in there too?  Why is he doing that when he doesn’t have to?  Where did the dog sleep?”

Even if you have not read this book, I bet you’ve heard the following line in a movie or play version:

“Boy, why are you crying?”

This is said by Wendy when she is awakened by the sound of crying.  Peter is sitting on the nursery floor and can’t seem to get his shadow to stick on.  Of course, Peter quickly insists that he wasn’t crying.  That’s the kind of vulnerability that he doesn’t like to show.  Well, only pages from the end of the book, we find Peter once again in the nursery.  He has come back for Wendy only to find that she has grown up and has a child of her own named Jane.  Peter is so distraught that Wendy will not ever come to Neverland again, that he cries.  It is at this point that her little girl is awakened and says:

“Boy, why are you crying?”

I will never forget what it felt like to share this story with those students as I read that line!  They immediately recognized the words that had once been said by Wendy, but were now being said by her daughter.  Their eyes jumped from the page to the other faces in the room.  There were gasps and nervous laughter as they realized that what those words meant this time was so much bigger than what those few words meant the first time they were uttered.  It meant there was a never ending ending to this story.  And we all smiled big to know it.

My students would have given up on this book if it had just been handed to them or if they had been told to read chapters by themselves.  Instead we read it aloud together.  Sometimes I read, sometimes students volunteered to read, and when we could see a lot of conversation happening, we assigned parts and read it that way.  We paused at the language illustrations that Michael Clay Thompson provided, and we sometimes stopped to talk about our reactions to the action or the characters.  I helped when a sentence was particularly long or when I could tell that what was being read was not being understood.  I shared my delight at a wording I wasn’t familiar with or a word that evoked a perfect image.  The experience wouldn’t have been as rich with an abridged version.  It just wouldn’t have.  When asked why MCT doesn’t seek out modernized versions, he said this:

“It is precisely these articulate, complex sentences and powerful words that we seek; it is the very thing that we want not to miss.”

I couldn’t agree more.




“History Is Who We Are And Why We Are The Way We Are.” — David McCullough

A few weeks ago I tried something that has really sparked some interest!  I was inspired by a video I watched.  The video is embedded below.  I encourage you to take the time to watch it in its entirety, but the part of it that inspired the study my students and I embarked on was at 6:43.  The speaker had looked at a newspaper headline and identified which language each word in the headline came from.  The headline was, “Trump, pushing immigration plan, meets with family of woman killed in 2007.”  Out of the ten words (excluding Trump and 2007), he finds that 5 are Germanic and 5 are Romance words (from a romance language like French, Italian, or Spanish).  Following that interesting find, he chooses a more casual sentence:  “I had lunch with my friend, and we read some books.”  This sentence leans more toward what we might think of as the casual writing of everyday activities.  This time he found that almost all of the words were Germanic.

This look at our everyday writing got me thinking.  What would my students find if we did this same kind of activity?  In what ways would it help them understand their language better?

To begin with, I thought of and wrote the following sentence on the board:

“The three trees stood proud and tall like kings.”

I was curious to see their reaction to this activity.  I did not look at the origins of each word ahead of time because I truly love being delighted or stumped along with my students.  We often investigate and discover together in this way.

In order to keep things moving, I stayed at the computer at my desk and searched each word at our favorite etymological site, Etymonline.  The students could see each entry on the Smartboard as I called it up.  By doing it this way, I could model how to read the entry and find out the language of origin for each word.  First I asked the students if they had any idea where the first word, <the>, came from.  There were several guesses before I called up the entry for it and we found out together that it is from Old English.  I asked one of the students to come to the board and write an O.E. beneath <the>.  I also asked the volunteer to write the Old English spelling of the word (þe) beneath the O.E.  With each new word, I asked someone new to come to the board to do the writing.  Then I asked students where the word came from.  After three guesses, I called up the entry for that word so we could all find out at once.

As we moved along through the sentence, the students seemed surprised that they weren’t finding words of Latin or Greek origin.   There were even sighs of disappointment when once again we found a word from Old or Middle English.  I, on the other hand, was quite fascinated.  We had the opportunity to talk about the Old English letter thorn (þ) and then noticed it in þreo, the Old English spelling of <three>.  There was a level of surprise that the Middle English spelling of <tall>  and the Old English spelling of <and> were so similar to that of Modern English.  We had some fun imagining the Old English spelling of <king> being contracted from cyning to <king> as was mentioned in the entry at Etymonline.

The fact that the students were expecting most of the words to be from Latin or Greek, got me thinking.  I begin the year by investigating science words.  It works well as a way to introduce the idea that words have structure, a history, and both morphological and etymological relatives.  But by spending all that time looking at words that share Greek and Latin bases, my students formed a false impression of the language we use every day!  It was time to collect some data and get a more accurate picture.

So I asked them.  What do you suppose we’d find out if we each made up a sentence (like I did) and then went through and identified each word as to its language of origin?  Most thought that things would even out and we’d have sentences that were mostly Latin or Greek.  There was only one way to find out for sure, and these fifth grade students were willing to do their part!  At the time, we were finishing up writing essays on the photosynthesis process and its importance in our world.  So as students reached that final stage in which their final edits were approved, they moved on to this project.

They began by thinking of a sentence.  They wrote it in their orthography notebook, and then reached for a Chromebook so they could access Etymonline.  Once they were finished with that step, I had them print the sentence on white paper so I could put them on a lengthy bulletin board I have outside my room.  As they were doing this, we decided to color code the languages of origins so that people pausing to look at our bulletin board might recognize quickly how many words are from each language.

This is not a complete listing of the languages we found, but it includes many of the languages we found.  Here are a few examples of the student work.

The student who wrote the sentence presented the findings to the class.  In order to save time, I would write the sentence on the board along with the language and original spelling below each word.  Then I taped a piece of paper over the language of each word to conceal it.  When the students entered the room, it was ready.  The student presenting asked the class, “What language do you think  ____ came from?”  Then they removed the piece of paper that had been concealing the answer.  It was fun this way and all the students were engaged.

As the first dozen were completed, we began to notice some things.  We noticed how often we use the articles “a”, “an”, and “the” in sentences, and how similarly we spell those words now.  We noticed other smaller size words such as prepositions, possessive determiners, linking verbs, and pronouns whose spelling was remarkably similar to our present day spelling.  We recognized them as function words.  We began finding a few more words from Old French and Latin, but the majority of the words we used were still from Old English.  We saw the Old English letters ash (æ) and thorn (þ) pretty regularly.  It was time to learn more about Old English letters that we sometimes see in IPA, but not in Modern English spelling.  The narrator in the following video speaks pretty fast, but has a sense of humor that the students enjoyed.

We stopped every once in a while to reflect on the information we were hearing.  In Old English, thorn (þ) and eth (ð) were used interchangeably to represent the voiced dental fricative /θ/.  We wanted to know the difference between a voiced dental fricative and an unvoiced dental fricative.  Stopping to feel the difference in our mouths helped us understand the difference between voiced and unvoiced, and it also caused us to pay attention to the position of the teeth and the tongue.  That helped us better understand the use of the words dental and fricative!  After watching that video, I made a list that we could refer to while we were sharing sentences at the board.

The more sentences we looked at together, and the more sentences that were completed individually, the more the students became familiar with the Old English words we were seeing over and over.  They were feeling comfortable with Old English and even flipped that initial feeling of regret at finding many words of Old English origin to a feeling of pride at finding so many words of Old English origin.  The students began asking questions about English.  Was Old English older than Latin?  Even though we had been over at the map and talked about the invasions that happened quite often in the history of England, it was clear that we were in need of a timeline that would help the students visualize the important reasons that English changed as the years rolled by.

Finding one I liked was not as easy as I thought it would be.  Many that are available online are visually busy.  I needed one that was straightforward and that my students would understand.  My plan was to give additional information regarding certain events as we read through the timeline together.  So with the help of the following 4 webpages, I put together my own idea of important events in the History of the English Language.  In doing so I am keeping my audience in mind (my 10 year old students).  This is not meant to be complete and likely would not suit everyone’s purpose.  But it suits mine.

Professor S. Kemmer, Rice University
Richard Nordquist, ThoughtCo.
David Wilton, Wordorigins.org
Luke Mastin, The History of English

Before the students glued the two pages of the timeline together and labeled it, we read it together and paused in places to better understand certain events.  I also had the students mark off the periods in which Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Late Modern English were (are) spoken.  The students were surprised to see that Modern English began in 1500.  We wondered what the next period would be called.  What would follow “Modern English”?

To mark the beginning of “Old English”, I shared a map showing where the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons came from and another one showing where they settled.  The Angles and the Saxons became known as the Anglo-Saxons.  Here is what Etymonline says in its entry for English:

English … “of or pertaining to the Angles,” from Engle (plural) “the Angles,” the name of one of the Germanic groups that overran the island 5c., supposedly so-called because Angul, the land they inhabited on the Jutland coast, was shaped like a fish hook.

So the land of the Angles became “Angle-land”.  According to Etymonline, the Old English word for it was Englisc, and was used in reference to the whole Germanic people of Britain.  We still have words related to the Angles such as Anglians and anglicize.

By User:Hel-hama – Vectorization of File:Britain peoples circa 600.png drawn by User:IMeowbotborder data from CIA, people locations from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1926 edition, with clarifications supplied by en:User:Everyking per references used in en:Penda of Mercia. Anglo-Saxon coastline from Hill, ‘An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England’ (1981) (the grey areas marked ‘sea, swamp or alluvium’ show where little Anglo-Saxon settlement occurred, because (according to Hill) there was at different periods either large areas of mud, marshland or open sea)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4684278

Another event that I felt needed a map to illustrate what was happening in Britain was that of the Danelaw being established.  As you can see, Britain was divided into Anglo-Saxon ruled areas and Danish or Norse ruled areas.  A treaty between the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, and the Danish ruler, Guthrum, promised a peaceful existence between the English and the Vikings.

By Hel-hama – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19885072

Because 1066 is such an important date in the history of our language, I specifically looked for a video that would spotlight the significance of its events.  As we were coming across words from French, we had talked a bit about the Battle of Hastings, but I could tell something was missing.  The students weren’t understanding how French and English were existing side by side.  This video does a nice job of explaining just how that worked.  With this background, the students will be able to picture the two languages blending into one as the Norman nobility changed its perspective c.1300.

Curious about an idea that the Old English people had a word that named the animal and the Normans had a word that named the meat, two boys asked if they could investigate animal and meat words.  They wondered if this “Old English/Norman French” connection was the case with all the animals/meats they could think of.  One of the boys lives on a farm and had a particular interest in this collection.  Here is what they found.

There were a few interesting discoveries as you might imagine.  They were surprised that <steak> was from Old Norse, and that <rabbit> was from Middle Dutch.  I wish you could have heard the bubbling-over fascination with which they shared these lists!

The timeline was not created to be part of an in-depth study, but rather to suggest some things to consider when we think about how our language developed and became what it is.  In the coming months, I plan to ask which event my students would like to know more about so that we can revisit this timeline and better understand the people who brought about changes to the English language.  Just as we try to help students develop a “math sense”,  this kind of exploration has helped the students develop a “language sense.”

Moving on in our familiarity with Old English, I showed the students a book I purchased last year.

The first lesson can be found on Youtube.  I like listening to the pronunciation of the Old English in the video version.  My students did too.  They could figure out what was being said because of the pronunciation and being able to see the words.  The book has further lessons, and there is a site you can access to listen to those as well, but there is no video portion.

Again we had the chance to point out that in Old English the <h> was first and the <w> was second in the word hwā (who).  To hear both letters pronounced will help students remember why they are both present in so many of our modern words, even though the <h> is now second and no longer pronounced.  Another thing the students found interesting was the way a person’s age was phrased.

“ic eom golde!  ic eom nigon and twentig gēar eald.”
I am Golde.  I am nine and twenty years old.

The students also recognized:

wīf for wife,
mōdor or mother,
fæder for father,
sunu for son,
dohtor for daughter,
sweostor for sister,
brōðor for brother,
hund for dog

The first time we watched it, we paused to practice saying the Old English and sharing any reactions.  The second time we watched it, we kept silent and individually followed along with the narration being presented.  The next day when the students came into the room, I had written this on the board:

According to the book, the translation is, “Hello!  Be you well!”  or simply, “Hello!  Be well!”  As you can see, we are having fun embracing our Old English roots!

Seeing as we have Beowulf listed on our timeline, I found a video of a bit of it being read in Old English:

Then I found a short video of The Canterbury Tales being read in Middle English:

Then I found some Shakespeare being read in Early Modern English:

There is a beauty in each of these recitations.  My intention here was to have the students listen to each reading without struggling to understand what was being said.  I wanted them to appreciate the differences between poetry written in Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English and yet enjoy and recognize the beauty in each.

Our Data

Two of my students volunteered to keep track of how many words were from each of the different languages.  Each day they looked at newly submitted sentences and added to their count.  They also tallied how often a single word (from Old English) was used.  Here are the stats for our results:

Sentences submitted:    49
Total words:                  354

At this point, we were expecting Old English to be the biggest category in a pie chart or bar graph, but this visual representation of our data made several students say, “Oh, wow!”

The “miscellaneous” category included words for which we couldn’t find a definitive origin, words from Greek, and words the student researcher wasn’t sure of.  The category called “Romance Languages” includes words from Latin.  Latin is not a Romance language itself.  Romance languages were derived from Latin.  Here is the same information in a bar graph:

Next we made a bar graph that shows the breakdown of the Germanic languages:

And here is a breakdown of the words from Latin and from the Romance languages derived from Latin:

One other thing that we collected data on was how frequently certain words were used.

Next we sorted these frequently used words by their part of speech.

Because we have been studying grammar, we were really not surprised that the articles “the” and “a” would be the most frequently found determiners.  Determiners are found in most sentences.  Prior to this study, we never really stopped to wonder what language they were from.

The subject pronoun “I” was the most frequently used pronoun.

I recognize that some words listed here can function as other parts of speech, but in the sentences used in our study, they were functioning as verbs.  The students were not surprised that “like” and “is” are so commonly used.

Although we have talked about function and lexical or content words before, this was a perfect time to review them.  So many of the words we used frequently  in this study were function words!  That in itself points to the difference between the two categories.  Function words are those that point to a grammatical relationship between words in a sentence.  They are more difficult to define when isolated because that is not how we use them.  Function words are generally determiners, conjunctions, auxiliary and linking verbs, and prepositions.  Lexical or content words are generally nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and some adverbs.

Wrapping it Up

So what have we learned?  For one, we’ve proven to ourselves that Old English is indeed the bedrock of our language.  In the sentences we thought of, 80% of the words we used were of Old English origin!  After looking at six or so sentences, we began to realize that most of the words we use would be of Old English origin, but 80% is a bigger percentage than any of us were expecting.

We’ve also learned that even though many words in our language are Latinate, fifth grade students don’t use that many of them on a daily basis.  Many will be found as the students begin to increase the amount of academic writing they do at the next levels of their education.  When writing reports and essays, we tend to use a tone that is of higher register.  When we do, words of Latin and Greek heritage naturally become part of our writing.  This point goes back to the video at the beginning of this post in which the narrator noticed that a newspaper headline was composed of words of which 50% were Germanic and 50% were Romance.  Writing for a newspaper calls for use of a higher register than writing a note to a friend would.

Along the way, the students had exposure to some of the events that shaped our language.  Since so many of the words we found were from French, I felt it was especially important to give the students information about the Norman Invasion of 1066.  The student’s interest has been piqued and they are looking forward to learning more!  Learning about this particular event inspired the separate investigation by the boys who looked into words for animal names and words for the meat of those same animals.  As these same students begin studying the American Revolution in their Social Studies class, I hope to point out other words (like parliament) that began to be used as part of our language at about this same time.

Students were able to listen to examples of poetic writing in Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English.  There is a beauty in listening to a language you don’t quite understand yet can appreciate for its rhythm and meter.  They were also able to listen to and understand some conversational Old English.  That in particular helped because many of the same frequently used words in Old English are still frequently used words in Modern English!

This entire exploration came from an observation and a heavy dose of curiosity.  The data collection was a logical next step in order to prove or disprove our initial hypothesis.  During our look at the ancestry of words in the sentences we each wrote, observations we were making inspired us to take a look at other aspects of our language and its history.  All in all, we have begun to develop a sense of our language.  Isn’t that cool?  Beyond learning the specific stories each word, letter, phrase has to offer, beyond learning the suffixing conventions, beyond learning the various functions of a single final non-syllabic <e>, beyond all of the specific things it is important to learn, we have begun to develop of sense of our language.  The students are internalizing the idea that our language has evolved.  That the spelling of our words has also evolved.  That the spelling of our words began with that word’s sense and meaning and not with pronunciation.  That just as our language began with the Anglo-Saxons and changed slowly over time, it continues to change today and will probably look and sound different a couple hundred years from now.

Here, in the words of the students, is a video of this project.