There are so many interesting articles I’ve read in my life. So many books I’ve picked up that seemed like something I’d be curious about. So many assigned readings that I dutifully read. But there were words I skipped over in those articles, in those books, in those assigned readings. I knew I was doing it. But why? I skipped over words that looked so foreign to me that I just knew they were meant for scientist eyes only or professionals in a specific field. I couldn’t imagine they were meant for a regular kind of reader like myself. But I don’t skip those words anymore. And my students don’t have to skip words like that anymore either. We know where to look and what to look for! We know to seek out the structure of the word and then to find out how each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the word. We are gaining access to all sorts of words we used to skip over! Let me illustrate what I mean.
A brown marmorated stink bug hitched a ride on my dog the other morning. Once the stink bug was safely in our home, he jumped ship and proceeded to make its way across the floor. My husband, a retired entomologist (do you ever really retire from this?), carefully scooped up the stink bug and called me from the other room. After taking a close look, he handed the stink bug to me and I took it outside and set it free. (That’s what happens at the home of this retired entomologist – all bugs venturing in from the great outdoors are returned to the great outdoors!) While I was gone, my husband was busy online, looking for a picture and a bit of information about this bug. (That’s another thing my scientist husband does – verify his identification of any bug he comes across!)
It’s actually quite a coincidence that he found this particular stink bug. Just a few days earlier I had been staying with a friend a few states to the east. We were sitting on her deck when the very same kind of stink bug landed on the table. “Those things are such a nuisance!” she said. “They collect on the back of the house and garage and are so hard to control!” When I mentioned this to my husband, he said that he had seen quite a few in our neighborhood as well. Well I now knew that to be true!
So here it is. The brown marmorated stink bug. That is its common name. Its scientific name is Halyomorpha halys. As far as the rest of its scientific classification, it belongs to the Class Insecta, the Order Hemiptera, and the Family Pentatomidae. Apparently it was accidentally brought to the U.S. from either Taiwan, Korea, China or Japan. (It probably got here by hitching a ride the same way the one we saw today hitched a ride into the house.) The distressing news is that this species of stink bug is invasive. It is so adept at hitching rides, that not only is it spreading on each coast of the U.S., it is appearing in countries around the world and is therefore having a global impact! The problem with this particular stinkbug is that it wreaks havoc on tree fruits and vegetables as they are developing. Not only are the costs because of crop damage immense, the cost for control of this stinkbug are immense as well. People often find the brown marmorated stink bug around their houses or outbuildings in the fall because it is looking for a place to overwinter. If you see these bugs around your outside walls, you’ll know what they are up to!
So why am I sharing this information? What relevance does it have to what many of us do with children every day? Well, as I was reading this information, certain words were popping out at me – words that not long ago I would have skipped over, not recognizing their significance to my overall understanding. Maybe my students do the same kind of skipping words. Maybe yours do too. Here’s something we can do to reduce that urge. In the same way I will point out the words I might have once skipped over, we can model and encourage our students to do the following instead.
1. Underline words that you are unfamiliar with. Think about each one. Is there anything you DO know about this word?
Some words I would pick out of the above information would be <marmorated>, <Halyomorpha>, <Hemiptera>, <Pentatomidae>, <wreaks>, and <havoc>. Even though I know what it means when something “wreaks havoc” on something else, I am now curious to know more about these two words.
The first one that I focused on was <marmorated>. What is that? If brown is an adjective here, then <marmorated> is most likely an adjective as well. But what does it mean? Looking in a dictionary seems a logical next step. But these days there’s a bit of fun I like to have first. I like to hypothesize the word’s structure.
The word <Halyomorpha> is this bug’s genus name. But it wasn’t randomly chosen. I know that. When examining unfamiliar organisms, scientists refer to the classification system. If the organism is truly one that hasn’t yet been identified and named, the scientists does so. There are some criteria the scientist follows, so I know it is not random. I want to understand more about the sense and meaning its morphemes contribute to the finished word. At first glance, I’m wondering if the second base is <morph> and has to do with shape or form.
The word <Hemiptera> refers to the Order this bug belongs to (as far as its scientific classification). I have looked at this word before. I recognize the second base as <pter> “winged,” and the first base as <hemi> “half.” I want to review these and remind myself what “half-winged” has to do with stink bugs.
The word <Pentatomidae> is the stink bug’s Family name (again, as far as its scientific classification). I am immediately wondering if the <penta> is the same <penta> we see in <pentagon> and is referring to five. I also have a suspicion about the <tome>. If it is the same <tome> that is in <entomology>, then it has something to do with cut or section.
The word <wreaks> is a word I know the meaning of. It has to do with “bringing about.” I have it on my list because I’m interested in its history.
The word <havoc> is another word I know the meaning of. It has to do with “a mess, a calamity.” I have it on my list because it doesn’t feel like a native English word to me. I’m curious about its origins.
2. Write a word sum hypothesis and then begin researching. Perhaps it will be helpful to find some etymological information about it. Perhaps looking up the word in a modern day dictionary will be helpful as it will help you know if you are on the right track as you search for the ancestor of each base.
My first thought is to hypothesize the structure of an unknown word. By the end of the year, this first step becomes a favorite activity of my students – thinking about and making a hypothesis. In this word, it might be logical to identify the <-ed> and <-ate> as suffixes. When I do this, I have a better idea of how to find this word at Etymonline if the word (spelled as I found it) does not appear there. My hypothesis would be <marmor + ate/ + ed –> marmorated>.
My next step is to look at Etymonline. The word <marmorated> is not listed. I remove the <-ed> suffix and search for <marmorate>. It is not listed either. I start typing m.a.r.m.o.r.a. … and <marmoreal> appears as a suggestion. I search for that, thinking that this word shares my hypothesized base. I find the entry:
I was curious about other words we use that might have this same base. I looked at Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher, but didn’t have much luck. I knew my next place had to be the Oxford English Dictionary. I love that resource because it lists words that have existed but are not necessarily being used anymore. And sure enough, there are a number of entries related to <marmor>. The oldest (c. 1480 and now obsolete) is marmor “marble.” The most recent (1948) is marmorealize. It is used when something should be immortalized – as it might be with a marble statue or marble inscription. The OED identifies this word as one used very infrequently, so it would be no surprise if you’ve never heard of it. In fact, it is suggested that this word might have been spelled to resemble the structure of memorialized, but never caught on the way memorialized has.
I found 12 entries related to <marmor>! Two other interesting words were marmoraceous and marmotinto. I like marmoraceous because, well, it’s fun to say! I can easily imagine how it could be used. I might go tell a friend that a stone I found on the beach was marmoraceous (resembling marble). I like marmotinto because I discovered that it was a decorative art. It was coined in 1844 but has since become obsolete – a lost art form. “A decorative process in which sand of various colours is distributed in marbled patterns on a surface and fixed, and perhaps given a smooth finish, with gum.” I found the pictures below at Wikimedia Commons. If you are interested, there were a few more there as well.
“The Hermit”(59cms by 44cms) is a Sand Painting by Benjamin Zobel(1762-1830), probably an early work by this Georgian sand artist using a mix of white lead and gum arabic to stick the sand to the baseboard – hence the blackened colours of the background. Collection: Brian Pike, sandpainter.
Picture of Balmoral castle using the marmotinto style, the art of creating pictures using coloured sand or marble dust.
Here’s something cool. As I was looking to see if I could find what <Halyomorpha> denotes, I found an article at Bug Guide called, “Halyomorpha halys (Stal) (Heteroptera: Pentatomidae): A polyphagous plant pest from Asia newly detected in North America by Hoebeke, E.R. and M.E. Carter. 2003. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 105: 225-237.” What I think is particularly cool is the word phrase “polyphagus plant pest” in the article title. The word <polyphagus> is another one of those words that is easy to skip. But it doesn’t have to be. The first morpheme <poly> is the Hellenic form for “many” (as opposed to Latin <multi> “many”). The second base <phage> has a denotation of “eat.” We see it in the word <esophagus> “the passage that carries and eats”, <coprophagy> “eats feces,” <lotophagi> “lotus eaters,” and anthropophagous “cannibal, man-eater.” Phew! Not necessarily a discuss-over-dinner kind of a list, but still interesting! To get back to the word <polyphagus> in the phrase “polyphagous plant pest,” we can see that this stink bug is a pest because it eats many kinds of plants instead of just one. That makes it harder to control. Understanding <polyphagous> enriches what we understand about this stink bug’s diet!
So back to my search for what <Halyomorpha> means. This one stumped me. I could find a lot of references to this insect genus name, but I was not able to find a source that defined it. I still thought that the <morph> part had to do with a shape or form. That would make sense. But I couldn’t find <haly> or <halys> (the species name) in any dictionary. If I googled either one, the entries took me back to information about this insect. It was when I was at a site that listed all of the different species of the Halyomorpha that it hit me. I noticed that different species of these stink bugs were different colors. So I thought to myself that if the colors changed among the different species, what didn’t? What did all of these species have in common? That was when the word <halitosis> popped in my head. Whoa! Could the <hal> in <Halyomorpha> be the same <hal> we see in <halitosis> “bad breath” and be representing the ‘stink’ in stink bug? That sure seemed logical!
I found the Latin verb halare “be fragrant, emit vapor.” It seems so obvious. I know that this word could be a hybrid word, meaning that the two bases are from two different languages. In this case, <hal> is from Latin and <morph> is from Greek. But I am nagged by the <y> that follows the <hal>. Is it part of the base? If it is, have I found the right base? If it’s not, why is it there? I went to my copy of Lewis and Short to find more information about halare. As I expected, it means to emit vapor or fragrance. I kept looking through the lemmas, searching for <haly>. I found <Halys>, which is the species name of this stink bug. I was interested to know more about it as well and its relationship to the genus name Halyomorpha. It seems that Halys was a river in Asia Minor – now known as the Kisil-Irmak. It was also a man’s surname. The first entry for Halys wasn’t very helpful, but the second one gave me pause for thought. Scientists name things after themselves all the time. Perhaps this genus and species is named for the scientist who first identified and named it! Maybe that’s why I am having such a difficult time finding information on the etymology of this word!
For now, I am willing to say that I have two hypotheses. One is that the <hal> in Halyomorpha is from Latin halare “be fragrant, emit vapor”, and the <morph> is from Greek morphē “shape, form.” This makes sense to me. The other is that the <haly> in Halyomorpha is the surname of the scientist who first identified and named this insect. This also makes sense to me. The important thing here is that I have not closed the book on this word. I will continue to be interested in it, knowing that there is evidence out there that I have not yet seen, and when it comes my way I will be ready for it! In a very big way I am delighted that I did not find the evidence that supported my thinking with this word. This kind of thing can happen. It reminds me of what I often say to my students, “Just because I don’t know why this word is spelled the way it is, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. It just means I haven’t found the right evidence yet.” There’s no need to get frustrated or to get mad at the word and call it something offensive such as “irregular or misbehaving.” Instead, I get to keep my thinking on it open. I get to keep it on my radar so to speak.
As I mentioned earlier, I have looked at this insect name before. I know that <Hemiptera> literally means “half wing.” In this situation that means that part of the wing is membranous and the other half of the wing is not – it is leathery. The first part of this word is <hemi> and means half. You have probably seen it in the word hemisphere, which means “half a sphere.” The second part of this word is <pter> which means “winged.” You have no doubt seen it in the words pterodactyl and helicopter (although you may not have recognized it in helicopter).
I found the following information at ThoughtCo. The <penta> in this word is from Greek pente “five,” and the <tome> in this word is from Greek tomos “section.” Cool. Here is the evidence to support what I was first thinking about this word. I’ve seen <penta> in words like pentagon (five angles) and pentathlon (athletic race with five events). I remember seeing <tome> in words like entomology (because of distinct body parts, it looks like they have been “cut in” between each section) and atom, which means “not cut” (the smallest particle that cannot be cut further and still have the qualities of that element).
According to ThoughtCo., scientists disagree as to why this particular insect is classified as Pentatomidae. Some say it is because its antennae are divided into five sections. Others say it is because of the body shape of the insect – that it has five sections. Looking at the stink bug, they both make sense to me!
Halyomorpha halys and Plautia stali on young fruits of Chocolate Vine (Akebia quinata (Houtt.) Decne. ), in Mount Ibuki, Maibara, Shiga prefecture, Japan. This photograph was found at Wikimedia Commons.
According to Etymonline, the verb <wreak> is from Old English wrecan (c 725) and at that time was used to mean “avenge, drive out, punish.” The sense of “inflict, cause damage or destruction is from 1817. A rarely used related word is wreaker. That, of course, is the person who does the wreaking. Someone who is wreakful is someone who desires revenge in a situation. Another rarely used word is wreakless. Someone who is wreakless is unavenged or unpunished.
Once again, Etymonline reveals some fascinating information! This word was originally part of the expression cry havoc, which meant “give the signal to pillage!” Now if you’re like me, you want a clearer idea of what it means to pillage. In the 14 c. it was used to mean “plunder, loot, ill-treat.” So havoc was the signal given to the soldiers to seize the plunder. Can’t you almost hear the cry and picture the frenzy that would follow?
After checking with the OED, I found out that the sense of pillage and plunder has slowly been replaced with the sense of “destructive devastation,” and in a weaker sense, “disorder and disarray.”
3. Sit back and think about what you now understand better about what you were reading and also what you love about investigating words.
marmorated – Halyomorpha – Hemiptera – Pentatomidea – wreak – havoc
Let’s begin with what I better understand about the marmorated stink bug. If I were to describe it, I would not hesitate to use the word marmorated, knowing that it refers to the marbled pattern on the insect. I can picture the insect’s back having no distinct repeatable pattern, just as marble has no distinct repeatable pattern. It belongs to the Hemiptera Order and the Pentatomidea Family. If I know that, I also know that it has wings that are half leathery and half membranous. I also know that this insect has five segments on its antennae and five segments on its back (which is shaped like a shield). I know that it is a polyphagous insect, meaning that it feeds on several different kinds of plants. That, of course, makes it harder to control. It’s damage is widespread in a given area, and this insect is reproducing and enlarging its areas faster than we’d like. In other words, it’s invasive. When it is described as wreaking havoc on fruit and vegetable plants, that means that these bugs are destructive and devastate the fruit and vegetable crops. The harvest is compromised greatly and the financial loss to the grower is huge. It may be named (Halyomorpha Halys) because of the bad fragrance it gives off, but that is just one theory I have. It may also be named after the scientist who first identified it.
Isn’t it amazing that when we pull a word out of context to give it a closer look, we can’t help but understand the context better?
Now let’s take a moment to think about how joyous it is that skipping words in a passage is no longer something anyone need do. I can so clearly remember the days when students were asked to look up the words they didn’t recognize in a text. Of course, they pretended they knew them so that they wouldn’t have to struggle to find the word in the dictionary. “Please, Mrs. Steven, just tell me what the word means. Don’t make me look it up! Please!” If I turned them down, I would find some students copying the papers of other students. Using the dictionary was a task that wasn’t fun – especially if you couldn’t remember the spelling of the word! But think about it. All the students were doing was copying down some definition that didn’t make sense to them. They copied it because they were asked to. In many cases, they didn’t read it as they copied, and they certainly wouldn’t have understood it if they had. This was busy work to them. Very few learned what words meant and how to use them by doing this.
With the kind of word inquiry we do now, the students find out so much more than just a definition. The goal is to find out the word’s structure and its story, and that is what the students find interesting. When they are engaged and interested in the research, it is not busy work. The dictionaries in my room have become dog-eared. I couldn’t be happier about it. They are used everyday by many students. Because the students know what they are looking for and why they need it, they willingly use it as part of their research. Imagine all the reading that is happening during this research!
Another wonderful thing that happened during this inquiry is that I couldn’t find a definitive explanation for the word <Halyomorpha>. When teachers are beginning this work in their classrooms, it is one of the things they fear most. “What if I can’t explain a spelling? What if I don’t understand what’s going on with a spelling?” When this happens, you model for your students what to do. You find what you can and make whatever observations you can. You make a hypothesis or two and then put it aside. It is a far better idea to teach students to go as far as they can based on the evidence collected, than it is to allow them to make wild guesses based on their hunches. Hunches and skipping words are a thing of the past. Research, hypotheses, collecting evidence, and making observations are what leads to understanding in the present.
Yet another satisfying aspect of this work is the way you inquire into one word, but learn several others along the way. We are always stretching our understanding and broadening the sense we have of a base element. If I hadn’t been investigating Halyomorpha, I wouldn’t have run across polyphagous, which I was able to connect to esophagus and coprophagy. (I once had a dog who ate her feces. Gross!) I also made connections to pentagon, pentathlon, entomology, and atom by looking closer at Pentatomidae. And let’s not forget the beautiful and intriguing art pictures made with sand and marble dust! I appreciate knowing that art form existed. It must have taken a long time to complete one of those and to keep the grains of sand and marble dust from mixing!
Say you did this with a student. Say they picked out some words from the text and with your guidance did what I have done here in these three steps. When finished, you place the list of words in front of them and have the student explain the text again, including their newfound understanding of each of the words.
Then, watch them smile.