An Alphabet Book that Proves How Important Etymology Is!

I have read some entertaining alphabet books in my time.  My favorites are the really old ones. The antique ones with the detailed drawings.  But then again, I’ve also enjoyed the variety that has been available for a long time.  There are alphabet books that specifically name flowers, ocean creatures, plants and animals.  There are clever ones like Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers.  Each letter has its own short story and some of those stories connect as you continue reading through the book.  (I recently read this book to my granddaughter.  It was definitely written with both of us in mind!)

Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

There are alphabet books that aren’t really for children, but for adults like myself who are beginning to understand linguistics!  One such book is An ABC for Baby Linguists by Michael Bernstein.

Recently I found yet another great alphabet book, … but it’s only great if you are willing to ignore some of the statements made by the authors.

What they have collected here is a thing of beauty and wonder, yet they label it as “the worst alphabet book ever.”  The subtitle only makes their ignorance more obvious – “All the letters that misbehave and make words nearly impossible to pronounce.”  See what I mean?  How on earth can a letter misbehave?  It’s an inanimate object!  And for those who were once taught that letters can “say their name,” they can’t do that either.  (I like to prove this to my students by writing down any old letter and then putting my ear right up to it.  Then I wait.  I wait for the thing that will never happen.  The letter will never say its name nor any other letter’s name.  The letter will never push, trip, or pull the hair of another letter.  See?  A letter will never misbehave either.)

A letter WILL however, represent something.  If it is not a grapheme representing a phoneme in a word, it might be an orthographical marker. Either way, it has information to share.  We are so conditioned (and incorrectly so) to believe that a letter’s only purpose is to “say” a sound, that we don’t even consider that there is more to know!  But there is!   And this book does a beautiful job of reminding us of that!  Except …

The authors are painfully unaware of it.  The idea they had in collecting these words is fabulous.  The information they share about each word is interesting.  Their conclusions about this collection are sad and feed into the collective ignorance about how our language really works.  We don’t need more of that.  What we need is to see this collection of words as an opportunity to understand our language better.  To appreciate that our language is full of immigrants and each of those immigrant words enlarges us and completes us in a way.  To appreciate that our language has a history and that in the same way I got my lack of height from my grandfather, so do words acquire and/or lose letters according to their family tree. These words connect our humanity across the world, but also across time.

Armed with my own take on this book, I read it to my students. They thoroughly enjoyed it.  It IS unexpected, isn’t it?  What we expect is “P is for pickle” or “P is for panda.”  What we do not expect is to find the focus on the one letter in the word that is not pronounced.  After all, alphabet books have a mission to help early readers understand letters better by giving examples of words that begin with that letter.  In other words, words in which the first letter IS pronounced.  I guess in that regard, this book misses that mark.  But in my opinion, it hits a bigger mark that seems to be always missed.

The job of spelling is to represent meaning and NOT to represent pronunciation.  I think that is the beauty of this book.  It is best appreciated by people who know that P can be for pickle, panda, AND pterodactyl.

As we read the pages and flipped to the next, the anticipation of which word would represent each letter was kind of a sweet wait.  Our minds raced ahead trying to guess.  Once I finished reading it to the class, I thought it might be interesting to have some of the students find out more about some of what we saw in the book.  The students were ahead of me with that thought.

“Mrs. Steven, can I investigate <pterodactyl>?  I want to find out if there are other words with <pt>.”
“Can I borrow that book?  I want to pick something I might like to investigate!”

And then they were off!



P is for Pterodactyl

Two boys (two different classes) asked to investigate <pterodactyl>.  Let’s start with what Sam presented.  He has a word sum right under the word <pterodactyl>.  He identifies the first base <pter> as having a denotation of “wing” and the second base <dactyl> as having a denotation of “finger.”  The <o> is a connecting vowel.  All parts of this word are from Greek.

He also wrote the word in Greek with my help.  I brought in my Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon and showed him how to look it up.

Many of the words that shared the <pter> base “winged” he found at the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  This is the first year my students have had access to the OED.  They were able to find many related words by using this resource.  The thing I asked them to keep in mind, though, was how recently the words they were finding were used.  If the last time we have evidence of a word being used was 1672, it probably isn’t a word we will be using any time soon.  Perhaps it would be better to stick with more commonly used relatives!  This poster was created by Sam.  What I love about it is the key at the bottom.  Some words he marked as “interesting” and some he marked as “favorites.”

For example, one of Sam’s favorites was <pterostigma>.(Sixth from the bottom.)  He has defined it as “a pigmented spot on the anterior margin of the wings of certain insects.”  Here is a picture.  The second base in this compound word is <stigma> and it has a denotation of “mark made on skin” often made with a tool, so something like a tattoo.  I can certainly see why scientists named these spots in this way!

dragonfly wings

Another of Sam’s favorites was <pteranodon>.  (Third from the top.) He has defined it as “a large tailless pterosaur of the family pteranodontidae.” Below is a composite cast of a pteranodon.  The second part in this compound word is <anodon>.  It has the Hellenic privative prefix <an-> that carries a sense of “without” and the Hellenic base <odon> “teeth.” Once again you can see that the scientists thought carefully as they named this flying reptile.

Pteranodon amnh martyniuk.jpg
Mounted composite cast of Pteranodon longiceps (=P. ingens) at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Photo credit Matt Martyniuk

Sam loves to draw, and did a pretty great job with his pterosaur!

Now let’s look at Jude’s work.

Jude has his word sum up front along with the denotations for each base in this compound word.  He wasn’t finding too many related words, so I sent him to a post I wrote previously that focused on <pter>.  Find it HERE.  In that post, I reflected on some insect names I learned when my husband was working on his masters in entomology.   Quite a few of the insect Orders have <pter> as part of their name.

After Jude wrote word sums for the related words he collected, he created a matrix.  Here is a larger version of it.

You’ll notice that there is an <o> connecting vowel used to connect two bases to form a compound word.  I am noticing that the <dactyl> should be bolded to show it is a base and not a suffix.  The <a> that is listed alone is NOT a connecting vowel.  In the word <siphonaptera>, the <a> is a Hellenic privative prefix added to the base <pter> with a sense of “without.”  You see, a siphonaptera is an insect that has siphoning mouth parts and is without wings.  An example would be a flea.


Another related word that Jude found interesting was <iopterous> “violet wing.”  The first base is from Greek ion “violet, violet color.”  It is related to <iodine> which is an element on the periodic table and means “violet in appearance.”

Hans (
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid.
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid. Matt Meadows/Getty Images

As you can see, even though both boys investigated the same word, they each found related words and learned things that the other hadn’t.  This is one of the things I love about Structured Word Inquiry.  There is no expected “complete” answer.  There is only what you find based on the resources you use and the length of time you remain interested in the task.  An answer key would stifle the curiosity and the drive.

One other important observation Jude made when we put both of these posters side by side was that when the <pter> was initial in the word, the <p> was not pronounced.  Most of the related words listed on Sam’s poster had the <pter> base first.  On Jude’s poster, the opposite was true.  The <pter> was usually the second base, and in such words, both the <p> and <t> was pronounced.  Interesting observation, am I right?

So what other interesting words in this book inspired investigations?



M is for Mnemonic

Danny asked to find out more about <mnemonic>.  He was familiar with remembering all five of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), so he understood what mnemonic meant.

He read at Etymonline that this word was first attested in 1753, and that it has always had something to do with “aiding the memory.”  He also read that it was from a Latinized form of Greek mnemonikos “of or pertaining to memory”, and before that it was from mneme “memory, remembrance.”  That was helpful because as Danny collected related words, he noticed that although some had the <mnem> spelling, some had something different.  Some had <mnes>.

He sorted the words he found into the two lists and then looked up <amnesia>.  He found out that this word was coined from the Greek amnesia “forgetfulness.”  You see the <a> brings a sense of “without,” so to have amnesia is to be without memory. (There’s that same Hellenic privative <a>!) You’ll notice that same <a> in <amnemonic> on his poster.  I’m guessing that he found that related word at the OED because it is not used much any more.  Since it means the same thing as amnesia, there must not have been a need for both words and amnesia became the more commonly used word.

Another interesting word Danny found that has that same <a> is <amnesty>.  This word was first attested in 1570 and was used to mean “a ruling authority’s pardon of past offenses.”  In other words, when someone is granted amnesty, the party granting it is saying they will not remember your past offenses.

Published byBartholomew Collins

The big thing that Danny couldn’t help but notice was that when <mn> was initial in a word, only the <n> was pronounced.  But when the <a> was initial in the word, both the <m> and the <n> were pronounced.  It’s the same thing that happened with the <pt> in pterodactyl and helicopter!



P is for Pneumonia

Alright, you got me.  There weren’t two “P is for …” pages.  But once I saw what Danny was discovering, I thought of <pneumonia> and the <p> that isn’t pronounced and is also followed by an <n>.  The next person to come to my desk looking for a new project was Cally, so I asked her if she’d like to investigate words that begin with <pn>.  She was excited!

As Cally collected words, she noticed that there was a common sense of “lungs, breath, wind” among them.  She was familiar with <pneumonia> and knew it was a sickness that was centered in the lungs.  It definitely interferes with breathing as the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fluid filled.

When I saw she had the word <pneumatic> on her list, I asked her to google “pneumatic drill.”  She did, and immediately understood what it had to do with air.  She watched a few Youtube videos in which someone was demonstrating how a pneumatic drill works.  I asked her to pick one out that we could show the class.  She chose this one.  It does a great job in explaining how the compressed air is used to move the drill bit up and down.

Another word that Cally found pretty fascinating was <pneobiognosis>.  I found this entry in An Illustrated Dictionary of Medicine, Biology, and Allied Sciences by George Milbry Gould.  Notice how the entry names the three stems used to create this word.  The first is πνειν (transcribed as pnein) and has a denotation of “to breathe.”  The second is βιος (transcribed as bios) and has a denotation of “life.”  The last is γνωσις (transcried as gnosis) and has a denotation of “knowledge.”  But what does the word mean?  How do those denotations combine to make a word’s meaning?

Next we went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  Cally read that this word is pretty rare.  It was first attested in 1890, so it’s not that old.  I guess that there are other words we use more often to represent this meaning.  You see this word was created to describe a situation in which a newborn has died and there is an examination of the lungs and chest to see whether or not the baby had ever breathed.  So did it die before or after birth?  While it was kind of a sad thing to think about, it was interesting to Cally to see bases she knew (<bi> and <pne(u)>) used in an unfamiliar word like this one.

When I saw the spelling of another word in Cally’s notebook (pneumatique), I saw an opportunity to point out something to her.  Together we googled this word.  Here is the first entry that popped up.  There were several others on the same page written in French as well.  As you can imagine, Cally wondered why the entry was in French.

“Perhaps Google recognized this word as a French word,” I responded.  “I have a suspicion it is the spelling of the suffix here that is giving this word a French identity.”

So we looked at the OED.  The entry there listed this word as French.  It was defined as “a letter or message sent by a pneumatic post system in Paris.”  My first reaction was to wonder aloud if this is the system we see at our local bank.  We pull up in our car, put our deposit slip in a container that sits in a tube and then watch as the container is sucked up the tube and into the bank.  Cally had seen the same thing and agreed that it was a pneumatic system for transporting money or paper.  But then I noticed something else.

“Cally.  Look at the use of the <-ic> suffix on <pneumatic> in the definition.  Let’s find out more about that suffix and it’s connection to <-ique>.”

I sent Cally to Etymonline to search for <-ic>.  This is what we found:

“Oh!  These two spellings are the same suffix!  Cool!”
“Yes.  Sometimes it is more common to use one over the other.  In the U.S., we spell this word with an <-ic> more often than an <-ique>, but they are both acceptable.”


Because writing this post is such a reflective process, sometimes I think of questions as I am writing that I didn’t think of in the moment.  Right now I am wondering about the words <critic> and <critique>.  There is not just a suffix spelling difference with these two words.  There is a meaning difference as well.  They are obviously morphological relatives with a common denotation, but the <-ic> is an agent suffix in this case whereas that is not the case with the use of the <-ique>.  In other words, they are not interchangeable because each brings a different sense to the overall meaning of the word.  The same applies to the words <mystic> and <mystique>.  But then there is <communique>.  We switch to the <-ic> suffix when we add the <-ate> suffix, as in <communicate>.  It seems that in some words these two suffixes are interchangeable, and in some word families they are but not strictly.  In yet other word families they may not be at all.  Hmmmm.  This sounds like a great investigation for one of my students next year!


One last word that intrigued Cally was a very long one.  It was <pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis>!   After sending Cally to several dictionaries, we came to the conclusion that there is not a consensus on this word’s history.  At Etymonline it is mentioned that it may have been invented by seventh grade students in Norfolk, Virginia.  At Lexico Dictionary there is mention of it being created in the 1930’s and invented “(probably by Everett M. Smith, president of the National Puzzlers’ League) in imitation of very long medical terms.” All sources do agreed that this word describes a lung disease from breathing in very fine ash or dust.



P is for Psychic Pterodactyl

I know, I know.  This is the third investigation regarding an initial <p> that can be unpronounced in a word.  But when I read aloud the “P is for Pterodactyl” page in the book, the pterodactyl was indeed described as psychic which immediately stirred up Samantha’s curiosity.  I sent her to find some words with an initial <ps> where the <p> was not pronounced.  Look at what she found!

Samantha grouped the words she found by their spelling.  One of the bases she noticed was <psyche> “soul, spirit, mind.”  In her left hand list, you’ll see the words she found.  You will also notice that she wrote the denotation of the base as if it were the definition of the word.  That’s not very helpful.  All of the words have something to do with “soul, mind, spirit of life,” but they aren’t synonyms.  The affixes and bases that combine with the target base provide variations to the overall meaning of the word.

For instance, the first word she has listed is <psychologist>.  The word sum would be <psyche/ + o + loge/ + ist>.  This is a compound word with a second base denoting “study” followed by an agent suffix indicating a person.  A psychologist then, is a person who studies the “soul, mind, spirit of life.”  A more current definition according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who has, or claims to have, insight into the motivation of human behavior.”  What the bases and affixes add to the overall meaning of the word is important!

Another on that list is <psychosis>.  I’m sure the ending on this word feels familiar.  We see it in halitosis, neurosis, osteoporosis, fibrosis, and mononucleosis.  Notice anything about all of those?  Yup.  They all have something to do with a medical condition.  That is what the <-osis> brings to the word.  Someone with psychosis would have a disordered mental state, usually involving a loss of contact with reality (from the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).

The last word in that list is pretty interesting as well.  The word <psychedelic> is a word I heard a lot when I was young.  Bright flowy colors moving on a wall were psychedelic.  Most art images reminded me of the thoughts and feelings that can spill out of our heads.  The colors were always bright.  I was a little too young to understand the drug culture of the times.  But when I look at the word <psychedelic> now, I am intrigued by what the rest of the word means.  The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) lists it as being from Ancient Greek ψυχή (transcribed as psyche) and Greek δηλουν (transcribed as deloun “make visible, reveal”).  In combination, this word describes the effects of mind altering drugs, and the idea that the drugs made the soul and mind visible.

Love, 1969 - Peter Max

Love  Peter Max 1969; c. Peter Max, Fair Use

Notice that in Greek, the letter that was later transcribed into Latin as <ps> was ψ “psi.”  The Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ps>.  In Greek, both the <p> and the <s> were pronounced.  In the same base we also see the Greek letter χ “chi.”  Again, the Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ch>.  The pronunciation was /kh/.  You may not recognize the Greek letter, but you’ll recognize the <ch> spelling with the modern /k/ pronunciation in words like chemistry, chorus, and school.

The next group that Samantha found had a base of <pseud> “false.”  She did a much better job of defining the words on this list.  The first word on this list is <pseudonymous>.  This is a compound word.  The word sum would be <pseud + onym + ous>.  The second base <onym> is Greek for “name.”  I see that at Etymonline the word <pseudonym> is a back formation of <pseudonymous> which is originally from Ancient Greek ψευδώνυμος “under a false name, falsely named.”  This <onym> base is present in many commonly used words like synonym “same sense or name,” antonym “opposite name,” eponym” named after a person, “toponym” named after a place, “acronym” formed from first letters of words,” and my favorite, anonymous “without a name”. (There’s the same Hellenic privative prefix <an> that we saw in Sam’s investigation of <pteranodon>, in Jude’s investigation of <siphonaptera>, and in Danny’s investigation of <amnesia> and <amnesty>.)

One last word that is interesting is <pseudepigrapha>.  What I like about this word is that it  is proof that the <o> we see in all the other words Samantha listed is not part of the base – it is a connecting vowel!  What we have here is a compound word made up of <pseud> “false” and <epigrapha> “write on.”  If we look closer at the second base we see <epi> “on” and <grapha> “write.”  This completed word was formed in Modern Latin, which means it was purposely put together using classical stems.  This word was coined in 1842 “ascription of false authorship to a book,” according to Etymonline.


****  Final Thoughts

I could continue.  Another student looked at <qu> because of the page that started, “Q is for quinoa.”  This person didn’t find other words in which the <qu> was pronounced as it is in <quinoa>, but still the investigation was fruitful.  Check out the two lists this student created and what was noticed.  This person noticed that many words with a <qu> has something to do with four.  The second list were words that had something to do with making noise.

Here’s what Etymonline has to say about <quinoa>:

Some of the words in this book are loan words from different languages, but many are not.  All have delightful tales to tell.  I challenge you to look up the story of why <czar> is spelled that way.  It is not the Russian spelling.  Why not?  Etymonline has the story. Then there is <gnocci> and <gnomes>.  Did you know that the first garden gnomes were imported to England from Germany in the late 1860’s?  And what about <heir>, <honest> and <herbal>?  Instead of “the <h> is misbehaving,” why not seek understanding?  Why not find out where this word came from and how its etymology might very well hold some clues to its spelling.  I see the possibility of some fascinating stories and some interesting word families.

So let’s go back to the authors assertion that these words and letters are misbehaving and not following the rules.  I say it is not the letters who are misbehaving.  I say it is the rules. Who set such a narrow view of words anyway?  Why are so many bamboozled into thinking that spelling is solely to represent sound?  This book proves that that notion couldn’t be further from the truth!  This book proves how lost we can get when we ignore etymology!