The Intertwining of Etymology and Entomology

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A long time ago and in a land just down the road,  my husband asked me to type up his Master’s Thesis.  I was faster at typing than he was, so I agreed.  What an interesting venture THAT was!  So many words that were unfamiliar to me, but that made perfect sense to him.  You see he was getting his Masters in Aquatic Entomology.  Of course I knew that entomology had to do with insects.  Hadn’t we spent numerous weekends at Otter Creek with a white sheet and a flashlight making observations and noting the adult caddisfly species inhabiting the area?  Hadn’t I also gone with him as he collected caddisfly larva from the same creek that he would later identify to species?  Hadn’t I been to his lab at UW-Madison often enough and checked out the artificial creek in which he was raising caddisflies?  Of course I had.  But when I typed up his thesis, I became fascinated with something other than the caddisflies.  I became fascinated with the scientific names of the insects he was writing about.  Each had a name that was either Latinate or Hellenic.  And because the names were from Latin and Greek, they carried meaning which helped me understand something about the insect named.  At that point, I was years away from understanding that ALL words have a spelling that specifically represents their meaning.  Back then it made scientific terms seem magical.

Today my husband forwarded an article about Carl Linnaeus.  He was a naturalist who lived from 1707-1778.  He created a system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms that is still in use today.  Here is a link to the article.  I enjoyed many interesting things about this article, but one of my favorites was his reason for wanting to describe all living organisms with a two word name (binomial nomenclature).  The example given in the article is that of the European honeybee.  Before 1758, it was known as the Apis pubescens, thorace subgriseo, abdomine fusco, pedibus posticis glabris utrinque margine ciliatis.  The article roughly translates that Latin to “furry bee, grayish thorax, brownish abdomen, black legs smooth with hair on both sides.”  While quite detailed and helpful in describing one species from another, it was very cumbersome to remember or write down.  Thanks to Carl Linnaeus, the European honeybee is now known as Apis mellifera  “honey-bearing bee.”

I encourage you to watch this  short video about him and his scientific contributions.

Long before my husband’s thesis was ready to be typed, I was hearing the scientific names of many insects.  As part of his Masters coursework he prepared a prodigious insect collection.  I remember that we carried collection jars wherever we went!  In this post I will focus on the some of the Order names I became familiar with during that time period.  The levels of classification are Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.  What caught my attention with the Order names was the consistent use of the element <ptera>.

I was fascinated that caddisflies were part of the larger Order known as Trichoptera.  At the time I was told it  meant “hairy winged.”  Now I know that <trich>  had a Hellenic ancestor, τριχίνος (transcribed as trichinos) meaning “of hair” and <pter> is from Greek pteron and means “winged.”  The Caddisflies in this Order are often confused with moths in the Lepidoptera Order.  They are confused because they are similar in size and color to many moths, but upon a closer look (and because of what is revealed in the name Lepidoptera), one can see a major difference.  You see, Lepidoptera is also a compound word with one element deriving from Hellenic λεπιδος (transcribed as lepidos) “a scale” and the other from Hellenic πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”

This is an adult caddisfly, Order Trichoptera “hairy winged.”

Image result for trichoptera free clipart

This is a Brown House-moth, Order Lepidoptera “scaley winged.”


Some of the other Orders of insects I learned about while typing my husband’s thesis were Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera, Siphonaptera, and Megaloptera.  There were others, of course, but looking at even these few will unlock your understanding of scientific names used in classification.

As I was looking up more information about the Order Hemiptera, which is from ἠμί (transcribed as hemi) “half” and πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged,” I found out that historically, the Order Hemiptera was split into two suborders.    The first was Heteroptera.  Its first element is from ἑτεροειδής (transcribed as heteroeidēs) “of another kind” and its second element is πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”  The second Suborder was Homoptera, whose first element is from ὁμοείδεια (transcribed as homoeideia) “sameness of nature or form” and its second element is πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”

From that we can note that insects in the Order Hemiptera are half winged.  That doesn’t mean that their wings are halved in some way.  It means instead that if they are in the Suborder Heteroptera, one pair of their wings has a tough and leathery upper half with a membranous tip and the other pair of their wings is strictly membranous.  You might say that of their two sets of wings, one set is “of another kind.”  If they are in the Suborder Homoptera, both of their wing pairs share a “sameness of form.”  Their forewings can either be toughened or membranous, but not both.

This is one of the insects classified as a Heteroptera.  You can see both the membranous wing and the leathery wing.

Image result for hemiptera

This is an aphid, one of the insects classified as a Homoptera.  You can see that both pair of wings are the same.  They are membranous.

Euceraphis species Birch Aphid Bugs Homoptera Images

Now let’s find out about the name for the Order of insects known as Hymenoptera.  Are you making guesses as to this word’s meaning at this point?  In looking at the Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott, I actually found the full word ὑμενόπτερος (transcribed as hymenopteros) “membrane winged.”  This group includes wasps, bees, and ants.  One thing to note about their wings is that the front set is bigger than the back set.

Here is a picture of a Tawny Mining Bee.  I chose this picture so you can see the smaller second set of wings.

Andrena fulva Tawny Mining Bee Hymenoptera Images

Let’s move on to the order known as Diptera.  Think about what the word sum will be.  We now know the second element in this word.  What’s left?  It would have to be <di + pter + a –> diptera>.  So far all of the elements in all of the words we have looked at have been Hellenic (Greek in origin).  The English base <di> is derived from the Greek word δοιοί (transcribed as doioi) “two.”  This group of insects includes flies, mosquitoes, gnats and more.  These insects belong in this Order because of the characteristic stated in the denotation of their name.  They have just two wings.

Here is a picture of a Green Bottle Fly.  You can see the two wings.

Lucilia species a Green Bottle Calliphoridae

Next let’s look at the Order Megaloptera.  Do you have any guesses about this word?  The second element is the same in all of the words we’ve looked at, so the first element will no doubt be describing the wings on the insects in this order.  Searching in Liddell and Scott, the first element is derived from μεγάλον (transcribed as megalon) “big, great.”  If you guessed that this order of insects includes those with big or great wings, you can pat yourself on the back!  Some of the insects we find in the Order Megaloptera are alderflies, dobsonflies, and fishflies.

Here is a picture of a dobsonfly.  Its wings are obviously larger than any others we have looked at today.

Image result for megaloptera

The last Order we’ll look at here is Siphonaptera.  There are things about this word that are similar to the ones we’ve already looked at, and yet there’s something new to notice.  First off, we see the now familiar element <pter> “winged.”  What will the rest of this word reveal?  Well, I found σίφων (transcribed as siphon) “tube, pipe.”  That leaves us with that curious letter <a> between the first element and the second.  That is a negativizing <a> that is a modern prefix to <pter>.  In this case, insects in the Order Siphonaptera are without wings!  They have no wings!  But what their name reveals to us is that they have mouthparts that are tube-like for sucking.  You guessed it.  The insects we find in this Order are fleas!  They stay alive by feeding on the blood of their host.

In this picture of a flea, you will notice there are no wings.  The tubes for sucking are hanging down near the mouth on the far left.

File:Ctenocephalides felis ZSM.jpg


There are, of course, many other Orders of insects.  We could keep making sense of their names for quite a long time!  What is an especially interesting find in the few we HAVE looked at is that Hellenic element <pter>. I wonder if you recognize it from words outside of this particular context.  The most common word I can think of is helicopter.  The word sum is <helic  + o + pter  –> helicopter>.  The Hellenic base <helic> “spiral” and the Hellenic base <pter> “winged” are joined with the Hellenic connecting vowel <o>.  Can you picture the blades of a helicopter and the way they move?

Another familiar word you may recognize is pterodactyl.  You will notice that when this element is initial in a word, the <p> is unpronounced.  The word sum is <pter + o + dactyl –> pterodactyl>.  The Helenic base <pter> “winged” and the Hellenic base <dactyl> “finger” are joined with the connecting vowl <o>.  Here is a picture of the pterodactyl.  You can see the fingers.

Credit: Joe Tucciarone

Entomology.  The word itself has an interesting story.  Using Etymonline, I found out it is from French entomologie, which was coined in 1764 from -logie “study of” and Greek entonom “insects.”  Entonom is the neuter of entonomos “cut in pieces, cut up.”  In this case, “cut” refers to the way an insect’s body is in segments and each segment is cut in or notched between the segments.  The word sum is <en + tom + o + loge/ + y –> entomology>.  The <en> prefix “in” is joined to the first base <tome/> “cut” which is joined to the second base <loge> “study, discourse” by the Hellenic connecting vowel <o> (which replaces the final non-syllabic <e>on the base).  Finally the suffix <y> replaces the final non-syllabic <e> on the base <loge>.

Here is a drawing that clearly shows the segmenting of an insect’s body.

File:ABDOMEN (PSF).png

People who study science expect the words they use to represent meaning.  It is one of the things I love about teaching science.  The words we use in class as we are learning any science topic are ripe with meaning.  They seem so unpronounceable and weird to the students because they have not been taught to look to parts of a word (morphemes) as parts of a meaningful structure.  Syllable division steers students away from believing that spelling makes any sense at all.  It misguides and makes them think a word’s spelling is not understandable, but it IS pronounceable.  But that is the opposite of what is true.  As you have seen with these seemingly difficult and nonsensical insect Order names,  the spelling of a word – EVERY WORD – reveals to us a structure.  Looking to understand the structure, we find the word’s story and begin to understand how and why the spelling of that word makes perfect sense.  Once we understand the structure and the word’s etymology, we can understand the possibilities for pronunciation.  As we noticed with the base <pter>, the pronunciation of this base is dependent on its placement in the word.  That is just one example of what I meant when I said “possibilities for pronunciation.”

The amazing thing is that it isn’t just science words that are spelled to represent meaning.  It is so hard for many to let go of the idea that spelling represents pronunciation.  When thinking about how to spell a word, the strategy to “Sound it out” is so deeply ingrained.  It is the only strategy many adults and children have been taught.  That makes it feel right.  But it is not.  Your logical and reasoning brain will tell you that.  So will all of these fascinating scientific names.  If it is now obvious to you that the name for the insect Order Megaloptera makes sense, it’s time to look at other words that catch your eye.  Look at math words and history words and guidance words and, well, all words.  There are revelations waiting for you in every word you read!

Phonology is something … but it isn’t EVERYTHING!

It is a hard-to-believe concept, but it’s true.  Words do not have the spellings they have so that we know how to pronounce them.  Words like busy, does, piano, action, and pretty prove that.  The truth is that words are spelled the way they are to represent their meaning.  That’s such a foreign idea to so many.  “If that was true, wouldn’t we teach that to children who are just learning to read?”  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But the majority of schools don’t.  So why do we resist believing this obvious truth?

When I first began studying orthography and learning Structured Word Inquiry, I was skeptical myself.  I wondered what people in this community meant when they said that spelling represented meaning and not pronunciation.  How can that be?  I learned to spell by “sounding words out” – by pronouncing them.  Sometimes I pronounced them in unnatural ways so that I could remember the spelling (Wed – nes – day  or  ap – pear – ance, both with parts pronounced unlike they are in the whole).  I knew what the words meant, but that didn’t have anything to do with the spelling, did it?  I learned to spell one word at a time, twenty or so words a week.  I was pretty good at rote memorization.  I also studied definitions right out of the dictionary.  They didn’t always make sense to me, but because they didn’t, I didn’t know how to reword them.  I found out when my children went to school that times haven’t changed much in this regard.

I remember when my son was in high school and had to be able to match up a list of words to their definitions.  I offered to help him study.  That was when I realized that he had figured out a system to pass the test without having learned anything useful.  If I read the word, he could give me the first four words of the definition.  If I read the definition, he could tell me the first four letters of the word the definition would match up with on the test.  Blech! He became very annoyed with me when I pointed out how useless this test was.  “Mom!  It doesn’t matter.  I have to pass the test tomorrow.  Go away.  I’ll study by myself.”

One thing is for sure.  He was smart enough to know that passing the test didn’t hinge on him actually understanding anything.  I was sad, but remembered cheating my own learning in the same way as I went through schooling years.  I didn’t cheat my learning to the extent my son did, but cheat it I did.  Neither of us were taught to look to the word for meaning – we had learned that spelling and meaning were two separate activities and rote memorization was the only way to handle them in order to pass the test.

Recently Oxford Dictionaries posted the ten most frequently misspelled words in their Oxford English Corpus (which they describe as “an electronic collection of over 2 billion words of real English that help us see how people are using the language and also shows us the mistakes that are most often made”) .  Seeing as I spend a fair amount of my teaching life looking at misspelled words, I took a look, wondering if I could predict the words that made the list.  As I was clicking, my mind was betting that the people who misspell these words (whichever they were), had an education like mine and have been taught to “sound out words” and not to even consider morphology or etymology as they relate to a word’s spelling.

Here is their list:
*accomodate (accommodate)
*wich (which)
*recieve (receive)
*untill (until)
*occured (occurred)
*seperate (separate)
*goverment (government)
*definately (definitely)
*pharoah (pharaoh)
*publically (publicly)

Once you begin to study orthography and use Structured Word Inquiry, it doesn’t take long to see how easily the above spelling errors could be avoided altogether.  The people misspelling these words do not understand the spelling – have not been taught to understand the spelling.  Let’s look closer at each of these.  Along the way I’ll point out the information that would actually help a person understand and remember these spellings.

accommodate   (*accomodate)

Before we talk about spelling, it’s always important to talk about how the word is used.  What does it mean?  I could talk about the fact that my classroom can accommodate 30 students, meaning that the space is adequate to fit that many students.  I could also use it if I was talking about accommodating the needs of a student who has a broken leg.  In that sense, I am fitting the needs of the student by perhaps getting a different type of desk.

A person without any understanding of morphology might be wondering, “Is it two <c>’s and one <m>, or is it one <c> and two <m>’s?”  That person might even write the word down on a piece of paper with several different spellings to see which one looks right.

Here’s what you understand when you understand morphology.  All words have structure.  That structure will include a base element and perhaps affixes.  A base element will either be free (doesn’t HAVE to have an affix) or bound (MUST have an affix).

Let’s look at the structure of <accommodate>.  This word consists of four morphemes:  two are prefixes, one is a base, and one is a suffix.  Its structure is <ac + com + mode/ + ate>.

The first prefix is <ac->, and it is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> “to”.  When a prefix is assimilated, it means that the final letter in the prefix might change to better fit phonologically with the first grapheme of the next morpheme in the word.  In this case, the original form of the prefix is <ad-> “to”.  Seeing as the next morpheme begins with a <c>,  the <ad-> assimilated to <ac-> to better match the phonology of that <c>.

The second prefix is <com->, and it is an intensifying prefix.  That means that it brings a sense of force or emphasis to this word.  There are people who have learned this prefix and will tell you that it means “together”.  Well, it does bring that sense to some words we find it in.  But there are prefixes that can also be intensifiers, such as this one!

The base element of this word is <mode>.  It is a free base element from Latin modus “measure, manner”.  This base can also be found in words like:

modify, modular, accommodation, model, modest, and yes, even commode!

The suffix is <-ate>.  It is a verbal suffix.

Let’s put the morphemes together and understand this spelling:  <ac + com + mode/ +ate –> accommodate>.  If you stop yourself from thinking of there being a double <c> and instead think of the prefix <ac> plus the prefix <com> plus the base <mode (replace the <e>)> plus <ate>, you will have spelled this word with very little problem.  At the same time, you will understand that the denotation of this word is “to fit with emphasis”.  Compare that denotation with a connotation (how the word is used now), and you will have the spelling AND the meaning, and understand both!

It is important to recognize that pronunciations are affected by many things.  I will include a generally accepted pronunciation for each of these words.  But please know that there may be pronunciation variations in different parts of the country / world.  The pronunciation is /əˈkɑməˌdeɪt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:


It is interesting to note that the first <o>, which is stressed, has a different pronunciation than the second <o>, which is unstressed.


which   (*wich)

We often use the word ‘which’ when we are searching for more information about one or more things or people in a specific group.   One might ask, “Which book is yours?”

This word is a free base.  It has no affixes.

To understand the spelling of this word, we need to look at its etymology.  I have several sources I use when researching words.  One of my favorites is Etymonline, but I also have copies of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

This word is Old English in origin. According to Etymonline, it was spelled both hwilc (West Saxon, Anglian)and hwælc (Northumbrian).  (Notice that the <hw> is now <wh>).  It is short for hwi-lic “of what form”.  It is interesting to note that in early Middle English there were two other forms (hwelch and hwülch).  They later lost their <l> and became hwech and hwüch.  Both of those spellings disappeared in late Middle English.

When you understand that the <h> has always been part of this word, and that in fact, it used to be the first letter, it is easier to remember that it is STILL part of this word.  It is pretty obvious that those who misspelled this word used phonology alone.  But its spelling takes us back to Old English and the important evidence that the <h> has always been part of this word.

The pronunciation is /wɪtʃ/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:



receive  (*recieve)

This word generally means to be given, presented with or be paid for something.  I receive a pay check.  I have received several awards.  I received help from my neighbor.

Now I’m willing to bet you are already thinking, “i before e except after c … blah, blah, blah”.   I came across an article by The Washington Post recently.  To read it, CLICK HERE.  It seems a statistician named Nathan Cunningham plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to check out this age old rule.  He found that in words with a ‘ie’ or ‘ei’ sequence, <i> came before the <e> almost 75% of the time.  So then he checked for the “except after ‘c’ part”.  He found that in words with a ‘cie’ or ‘cei’ sequence, ‘cei’ occurred only 25% of the time.  That leaves 75% of that group of words to be exceptions!  So much for that rule! Yup!  The rule with lots and lots of exceptions.  And as any good researcher will tell you, if your rule has a lot of exceptions, you need a new rule!

Besides wasting time memorizing a rule that you can’t count on statistically, there is another reason to abandon the “i before e” rule.  It simply doesn’t take into consideration what else is important about a word – like its morphology and its etymology!  Let’s get out of the land of ‘hit and miss’ and look at this word seriously.

Based on other words I have investigated, I might make a hypothesis about this word’s structure like this:  <re + ceive –> receive>.  I know that in words such as recall, reclaim, and refill, <re> is a prefix.  It could be a prefix in this word too, although I need specific evidence pertaining to this word to be sure.  I need to look at where this word comes from – its etymology.

This word has come into English by way of Old North French receivre.  Further back, it is from Latin recipere  (re– “back” + cipere, combining form of capere “to take”).  Looking back in time, this word has had a meaning and sense of “regain, recover, take in, admit”. When I look closer at the Latin verbs capere and its combining form cipere, I find other words that share this base <ceive>:

~perceive (<per-> has a sense of “thoroughly”, thus when you perceive something, you are thoroughly taking it in in order to comprehend it),
~deceive (<de-> has a sense of “from”, thus when someone deceives you, they take from you – they cheat you),
~conceive (<con-> is an intensifying prefix, meaning it gives emphasis to the base, thus when someone conceives either an idea or a baby, they are taking something in and holding it)
~transceiver (which is a relatively new word – 1938, created by combining transmitter and receiver).

So what we learn from this word’s history is that its spelling has been fairly consistent since the 1300’s.  No gimmicky rhymes needed.

The pronunciation is /ɹəˈsɪv/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note that the final <e> is non-syllabic and is preventing this word from ending in a <v>  (no complete English word ends in a <v>).



until  (*untill)

This word means “up to (either an event or a point in time)”.  If you say, “I will wait until you call,”  it is functioning as a subordinating conjunction. If you say, “We swam until 5:00,” it is functioning as a preposition.

This word is a free base in Modern English.  It has no affixes.  It might be tempting to identify the <un> as a prefix, but all you have to do is compare the etymology of the <un> in this word to that of the <un-> in words like unhappy and unzip.  They do not share ancestors, nor do they share denotations.

This word, as most, has an interesting story.  The verb ’till’  meaning “to cultivate the soil” was first attested in the 13th century.  It is from Old English tilian “cultivate, tend, work at”.  There is a thought that the idea of cultivating and having a purpose and goal may have passed into Old English with the word ’till’ meaning “fixed point”.  It was then converted into a preposition meaning “up to a particular point”.  ‘Until’ was first attested in the 13th century.  The first element <un> is from Old Norse *und “as far as, up to”.  (The asterisk next to the Old Norse spelling means it is reconstructed.)  So when we put the two parts of this word together, we get <un + til –>  until>  “up to a particular point”.  The use of ’til’ is short for ‘until’.

It isn’t about “one ‘l’ or two”.  It’s about the word’s story.

The pronunciation is /ənˈtɪl/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:



occurred  (*occured)

If something has occurred, it has happened.  It could be an event or even a thought.

Someone who is misspelling this word, doesn’t understand its morphology.  That would include how suffixing conventions are applied.  The structure of this word is <oc + cur + ed –> occurred>.  Notice that the final <r> on the base was forced to double when the vowel suffix <-ed> was added.  This happened because of the position of the stress in this word.  The stress is on the second syllable – the one closest to the suffix.

This word was borrowed from Latin occurrere “run towards, run to meet”.  The prefix <oc-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ob-> bringing a sense of  “towards”.  The base is <cur> “run “.   This base is seen in present day words including curriculum, current, recur and concur.

This word is pronounced /əˈkɜɹd/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note that the initial <o> is unstressed and that affects its pronunciation.



separate   (*seperate)

This word generally means to divide or cause to be apart.  I might separate old coins from new coins.

Growing up I remember this word being one that I could never get right.  The reason I misspelled it time after time is because all I had was its pronunciation to work with.  Had I known its morphology and etymology, I would have had a better chance of remembering its spelling.  First, let’s look at its morphology.  The structure of this word is <se + pare/ + ate –> separate>.

The prefix <se-> has a sense of “apart”.  The base element <pare> is from Latin parare with a denotation of “make ready, prepare”.  The suffix <-ate> is a verbal suffix in this word.  The base element in this word, <pare>, is also seen in words like:

~apparatus (The prefix <ap-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> and brings a sense of “to”.  Apparatus helps to make things ready or be prepared.)
~preparation (The prefix <pre-> brings a sense of “before”.  When you prepare, you make things read before you need them.)
~pare (This is a free base that means to “trim or cut close”.  Again we see the denotation of “make ready” in the image of this word’s action.

The pronunciation is /ˈsɛpɹət/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

sɛpɹət /
It is interesting to note that the <a> is not typically pronounced in this word.  The final <e>, which is the final letter in the <ate> suffix, is non-syllabic.  That means it is not pronounced either.


government  (*goverment)

A government is a way to regulate or control members or citizens  of a particular region (state or country) or of an organization.  In the United States, we have a federal government with different branches that creates laws for the entire country, and we also have state governments making decisions for each of the fifty states.

Why does this word get misspelled?  Again, it is because of the way it is pronounced.  So let’s look at this word’s morphology and phonology as we have with every other word so far.  The structure of this word is <govern + ment –> government>.  People who leave out the <n> in this word, don’t think about the word’s structure.  The base shares its spelling with all words in its word family.  See the matrix below.

The base element <govern> was first attested in the late 13th century, and at that time it meant “rule with authority”.  It is from Old French governer which meant “steer, be at the helm of, rule, command”.

The pronunciation is /ˈgʌvəɹmənt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:


It is interesting to note that the <n> is not typically pronounced.  This is evidence that it is important to have knowledge of a word’s morphology and etymology when trying to understand its spelling!



definitely  (*definately)

When used, this word is intended to remove all doubt.  I will definitely watch your dog this weekend.

The structure of this word is <de + fine/ + ite + ly –> definitely>.  The single final non-syllabic <e> is replaced by the <-ite> suffix in the final spelling.  The suffix <ite> is adjectival, but the addition of the suffix <ly> makes this word adverbial.

This word is from Old French definir, defenir  “to finish, conclude, come to an end, determine with precision”.  Before that it came directly from Latin definire “to limit, determine, explain”.  The prefix <de-> brings a sense of “completely” and the base <fine> has a denotation of “to bound, limit”.

This word is pronounced /ˈdɛfənətli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note that both <i>’s are unstressed which affects their pronunciation.  The final <e> on the suffix <-ite> is predictably unpronounced.  The final <y> on the <ly> suffix also has a predictable pronunciation.



pharaoh  (*pharoah)

A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

This is a free base with no affixes.

This word has an interesting trail to follow.  It was first attested in Old English as Pharon.  Earlier it was from Latin  Pharaonem.  Earlier yet it was from Greek Pharao. Even earlier it was from Hebrew Par’oh.  But its origins are in understandably Egyptian Pero’ where it meant “great house”.  Note that the spelling sequence of ‘pharao’ was present in Greek and in Latin.  That is the spelling sequence we currently see.  Once again the spelling represents where the word came from and what it means, not how it is pronounced!

This word is pronounced
/ˈfɛɹoʊ/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note that the <ph> represents /f/.  This is a signal that this word has a Greek heritage.


publicly   (*publically)

When something is done publicly, it is done for all to see.

The structure of this word is simply <public + ly>.  The <ly> suffix can be an adverbial one.  The misspelling listed shows a misidentification of structure.  There are many words that actually HAVE that structure, including basically, magically, comically, and tropically.  This brings us to an important point!  Just because two things are pronounced the same, it doesn’t mean they are spelled the same.  It doesn’t take much time or effort to check with a reference book!

The word ‘public’ was first attested in the last 14th century.  Earlier it was used in Old French public.  It comes directly from Latin publicus “of the people, of the state, common, general”.  The meaning of “open to all in the community” is from 1540’s English.

This word is pronounced /ˈpʌblɪkli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note the predictable pronunciation of the final <y> of the <-ly> suffix.




Think about the words on this misspelled list.  Everyone of them has a spelling that can be explained by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology , and its phonology.  I’ll say it again … by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology, and its phonology.  Teaching all three is so powerful.

It’s time for schools to change the way they teach children about words and spelling!  Phonology is just ONE ASPECT of a word.  When it is seen as THE ONLY THING (as it is in most every classroom), students are cheated out of the opportunity to understand a word’s story.  And understanding a word’s story is often the thing that connects a word’s meaning to its spelling.  Understanding a word’s meaning leads to understanding the word in context, which in turn increases reading comprehension.  How could it not?

Teaching spelling and reading via phonology alone makes spelling a giant guessing game.  For example, there are a number of graphemes that can represent the phoneme /iː/.  I can think of <ea>, <ee>, <y>, and <ei> off hand.  There are no doubt more.  A student faced with memorizing which grapheme to use in which word based on pronunciation alone is clueless – literally!  That student NEEDS the clues that morphology and etymology provide.  Why not teach a student where to find the information needed in order to make informed decisions about a word’s spelling?

Another huge disadvantage of teaching as if spelling represented only pronunciation is that our students never see for themselves how words are connected to one another.  They miss realizing that each word is a member of a larger family.  The family is full of words that all share a common base with a common ancestry and a common denotation.  Why are words like busy, business, and businesses found on different spelling lists?  Why not present them together so a student can see they are part of the same word family?   Or present them together so the students can internalize an understanding of the suffixing conventions that can happen within a family of words.  The matrices I have created above do just that.  They help us see connections among words that we have not been taught to see before now.

Let’s go back to the list of commonly misspelled words.  Oxford Dictionaries only gave us their top ten, but I’m willing to bet there are hundreds and hundreds of such words in their Oxford English Corpus.  I say, let’s raise the bar for our students.  Let’s give them engaging word work that supplies them with resources for all the clues they need in order to understand a word’s spelling.  What schools have been teaching students during reading and spelling instruction  — phonology alone  —  has not worked for the vast majority of students.  If it had, we would not see the spelling errors we do.  We would not hear adults blaming the English language when they misspell a word or misunderstand a paragraph.  We would not hear parents claim, “I was a terrible speller too” at parent-teacher conferences, as if not having been taught to understand our language is a trait one inherits much like height or hair color.


What Does It Matter?

I was having a discussion with a secondary level English teacher about teaching words with Latin and Greek roots.  This teacher was feeling lukewarm about the current program/workbook being used in his district to teach them.  I was gushing about what my students have been doing, and how they’ve been learning about words from Old English.  Then I went on to tell him about having my students recognize clues in a word’s spelling that hint at the word’s origin.  And that was when he asked it.  The question that revealed just how little he knew about our language and the reasons the words in it have particular spellings.

“What does it matter if a word comes from Latin, Greek, or Old English?”

Now, let me just say, I completely understand where this question is coming from.  If all you are doing with regards to spelling is rote memorization, then there would seem to be no need to know more about the word.  BUT as a person who has crossed that line so to speak, I can explain it like this.  Remember watching The Wizard of Oz and noticing that the movie starts off as black and white, predictable and drab, but the minute Dorothy lands in Oz everything is in color? Everything becomes instantly interesting and memorable?  It’s like that.  It’s the difference between skimming the surface for information and seeking a deeper level of knowledge.

As classroom teachers there is often that desire to provide students with the opportunity to dig deep, yet there is this thing called a schedule.  There are places to be and other things needed to be taught.  The result is that we skim topics more often than we should.  We have moments of depth, but those moments are saved for “big” topics that come up in reading, science, social studies or math.  Who ever thinks of creating deep meaningful investigations in spelling?  Or grammar?  Or vocabulary?  But don’t you see? That is where it makes the most sense to do so.  These are the basic places in which our ability to communicate is born.  This is where we begin to put words together – to think, to speak, to read, to write.  But investigating words has never been modeled for today’s teachers by their teachers.  For the most part, teachers use their own childhood classroom experiences as a guide for themselves.  Sure, methods and strategies have changed, but not much has changed as far as teaching reading or spelling.  Aren’t we still teaching phonics and rote memorization of spelling words?  Knowing whether a word came from Latin, Greek, or Old English didn’t matter to my teachers back in the day, and for many who are still following the way it’s always been done, it doesn’t matter now.

If you are a passionate vegetable gardener, you know there is a difference between different varieties of tomatoes.  You can talk about those differences with enthusiasm in your voice.  You know which variety will make the best spaghetti sauce, which the best ketchup and which will be best for fresh eating.  It’s the same for someone who can talk about cars and the different models built over time.  That person knows great stories about certain failed models and which designs have stood the test of time.  What about someone who constructs buildings and knows about the strengths of the possible materials to use?  That person is prepared to use specific materials for specific reasons whether those reasons be for strength or aesthetics.  You see?  Once you dig past the surface and begin to understand your subject matter, that subject matter reveals its importance to you.

It definitely matters.   When a word was born.  Where a word originated.  Which languages a word passed through.  These are the bits of etymological information that tell a word’s story.  And that story is what explains a modern word’s spelling.

One of the biggest reasons so many people don’t understand English spelling is because they don’t know much about where our words come from or the clues present in PDE (Present Day English) words that tip us off to a word’s birthplace.  Let me explain with examples:

Words with <ch> pronounced as /k/ such as choir, echo, orchid, dichotomy, and chronicle are from Greek.   I know because I routinely investigate words and pay attention to what I see.  So do my students.  In our journey to learn more about our language, we’ve learned a bit about the Greek alphabet.  Here’s a video of  my students reciting it.

We know that one of the letters was χ (chi) .  When the words with χ  were transcribed into Latin, the scribes wrote <ch> since Latin did not have that same letter.  Another letter was φ (phi), and a similar thing happened with Greek words that had φ in them.  That letter was transcribed as <ph> since that same letter didn’t exist in Latin.  So words with <ph> pronounced as /f/ such as photograph, sophomore, philosopher, telephone, and hydrophobia are also from Greek.

You might recognize Greek letters as representing college fraternities and sororities.  Isn’t it interesting that the words fraternity and sorority are from Latin frater “brother” and Latin soror “sister”, yet those organizations have historically chosen Greek letters to identify themselves?  The first was the fraternity Phi Betta Kappa.  It was established in 1776 and the name comes from phi (φ) + beta (β) + kappa (κ), initials of the society’s Greek motto, “φιλοσοφια βιου κυβερνητης”, meaning “philosophy is the guide of life”. There is a thorough history of the first fraternity at this Colonial Williamsburg site.  The first sorority was Alpha Delta Pi and was established in 1851.  I could not find the significance of the three Greek letters used as I could with the first fraternity.  Ah, but I digress.  Such is the life of a scholar!  Can you imagine what it feels like when your students become scholars and rush into your classroom to tell you about a word they investigated the previous evening?  It’s positively delicious!

Recognizing and understanding these things helps with spelling, reading and pronunciation.  Those are obvious once you begin this journey with your students.  But knowing the etymology of a word also brings a beauty to the words we speak every day.  It’s like getting to know a student throughout the year.  By the end of the year, that student is special to you because you understand who he/she is as a person.  You see the beauty that radiates and the potential that lies within.  Words are not so very different.

Here’s one more:  words with a medial <y> such as hymn, hydrosphere, lyric, myth, type, cycle, and syllable are typically from Greek.  This is something your student might discover if they investigate the phonology of the single letter grapheme <y>.

As you can see in the picture, two different students looked closely at the grapheme <y> and the phonemes it represented in a number of words.  As the heading of each list I had my students use IPA symbols because they represent pronunciation no matter the word’s spelling.  The IPA symbol that represents the grapheme <y> in words like hymn, myth and syllable  is /ɪ/.  The IPA symbol that represents the grapheme <y> in words like hydrosphere, cycle, and type is /ai/.  Knowing the possible phonemes when a <y> is medial is helpful when considering a word’s pronunciation.

Another discovery as my students were investigating specific graphemes happened with the consonant digraph <ch>.

If you notice the middle column, you may be able to guess that these words are either from French or spent enough time in that language to have their spelling affected by it.  What a cool explanation for words in which the grapheme <ch> is represented by the phoneme /ʃ/ as it is in crochet, chef, parachute and others!

There are other clues that will signal that a word is from Greek.  For instance, look at connecting vowels.  They are found in words of both Greek and Latin ancestry.  Words whose base elements are from Greek might use an <o> connecting vowel.  Words whose base elements come from Latin might use an <i>, <u> or <e>.   Connecting vowels follow a base element and need to be followed by another element.  They can be used to connect two base elements to create a compound word (as in tachometer and  conifer).  They might also connect a base element to a suffix (as in igneous and partial).  Knowing about connecting vowels helps when determining a word’s structure or morphology.

Just think of all the great things one can be aware of when having knowledge of a word’s origin!  What I have shared in this post is a very short list.  There are many more delightful things to recognize regarding words from Latin, Old English, French and other languages as well.  Experts don’t all agree, but many will say that over 60% of our modern words come from Latin, Greek and French.  That’s enough to convince me that my students and I need to know more about the language we use!

So why does it matter?  Why is it helpful to know which language a word was born in or influenced by?  Because that is where the word’s story is.  Because that is what explains the word’s structure and spelling.  Because that is where we build an understanding that spreads across many of the words in our language.  Because that’s where we find clues to a word’s pronunciation.  Because that’s where we begin to appreciate what a beautiful language we have.