A Symphony of Suffixes

When I sat down to lunch with my grade level team today, I was bubbling over with satisfaction after a rich and wonderful discussion that had just taken place in my room.  I couldn’t help myself.  I had to share what had just happened.  I was too excited.

As I sometimes do, I wrote a word on the board and was asking the students to take a minute to think of what the word sum might be.  I was looking for a hypothesis.  From there we would see where the conversation went.

The word I began with today was <scientist>.

I made sure I gave time for the students to think about it.  I have a few students whose hand shoots up automatically, and when I call on them, they need to pause to think of their response.  You too?  Then I also have a consistent core group of students who love to participate, and who, once they’ve thought about it, raise their hand in order to share.  And then there are the rest of the students who watch and wait.  They tend to keep their hands by their sides and their eyes looking down.  I recognize that some are feeling unsure, but it is so important to participate in the discussion.  Today I felt that this question could be asked of one of the students in this third group.  I looked over the group and chose carefully.  The student I called on thought for a moment and then suggested <sci + en + tist>.

Me: “That’s very interesting.  Thank you for that.  What do the rest of you think about Vanessa’s hypothesis?  Is there a part of it that you have seen before in another word?  Do you recognize any affixes you’ve seen before?”

Student: “I kind of think that it isn’t <tist>, but rather <ist> at the end.”

Me: “Can you think of another word with <ist> at the end?  If we can, we will have collected some evidence that the <ist> is a suffix.”

One of the students who is usually reluctant to raise his hand, raised his hand.  I called on him.  He said, “Mist?”

Me: “Oooooo.  Now that’s an interesting word.  I want to come back to that word in a minute.  Thank you for thinking of it.”  I called on another student whose hand was raised.

Student: “I was thinking of biologist. ”

As I was writing ‘biologist’ on the board, other words were being called out.  I wrote them down as fast as I could.  There was paleontologist, archeologist, arsonist, tribologist, and zoologist.  And almost before I could finish writing the last word, a student blurted.  “Hey!  Almost all of them have an <log> before the <ist>!”

Me: “Brilliant!  Scholars are people who notice things!  Thank you for noticing that.  Can anyone tell me what a biologist is?”

Student: “It’s someone who studies living things.”

Student: “And the <o>’s a connecting vowel, isn’t it?”  (The student was referring to the <o> that follows the <bi> base.  We had looked at ‘biosphere’ earlier in the year.)

Me: “It sure is!”

Student: “And isn’t a paleontologist someone who studies fossils?”

Me: “Yes.  And an archeologist?”

Students said they heard of it, but no one knew what exactly an archeologist studied.  So I told them that this person would be studying old times and ancient civilizations.  At this point, a student who hadn’t previously joined the discussion raised his hand and said, “What’s an arsonist?”

The person who had suggested the word replied, “A person who starts fires.”  There were a few confused by that.  I could tell by their facial reactions.  I went on to say that there are people fascinated by fire and they start fires to watch how the fire travels.  Then I added that sometimes other people get hurt either fighting these fires or because they got caught in the fire.  Arsonists usually get in trouble for starting fires.

When we were ready to look at the next word, at least three people spoke at once and explained that a tribologist was a person who studied rubbing things together.  Yes, it’s true.  About a week and a half ago, we watched a TED video about Jennifer Vail, a tribologist.  She is really quite fascinating.  Obviously the students thought so too because they suggested this word and remembered a lot about the video too!  Click HERE for a link to the video in case you are intrigued.

Lastly, someone identified a zoologist as someone who studies animals.

Me: “I notice that all of these words have an <-ist> suffix, and they each refer to a person.  We call that kind of suffix an agent suffix.  There are others, but for today we are noticing this one, the <-ist> suffix.”

At this point I went back to the word <mist>.  I asked if <mist> belonged on this list.  I asked if it was referring to a person?  The student who had suggested it, said that it did not fit.  I followed up by saying that the <ist> in mist is like the <ing> in sing.  Neither are suffixes.  They are coincidences of spelling.

Me: “If the <-ist> suffix is the part of the word that tells us this word is referring to a person, which part of the word is telling us that the person studies something?”

Student: “The <log>?”

Me:  “Excellent.  So notice now that the biologist is the person who studies living things and the paleontologist is the person who studies fossils, but the arsonist is the person who starts the fire.  It is NOT the person who studies fires.  Right?  There’s no <log> in that word.  And so the scientist is the person who does the science just like an artist is the person who does the art!  <Loge> is a bound base with a denotation of “science of.”  We usually think of it having to do with studying the science of something.  That makes every word up here with <log> in it a compound word!  Awesome thinking everyone!  Now let’s get back to the word we started looking at, <scientist>.  We’ve figured out that the <-ist> is a suffix.  What are your thoughts about the rest of the word?”

Student:  “Well, I’m thinking about <science> and wondering if what happens is that when the <-ist> suffix is added to <scient>, the <t> changes to <ce>?”

Me:  “Interesting.  The suffixing changes I have seen are a final consonant being doubled, a <y> changing to an <i>, and a single, final, non-syllabic <e> being replaced.  I haven’t ever seen a change like you are describing.  Could it be that <ent> and <ence> are both suffixes and are used to get two forms of the word?  Can anyone think of a word with an <ence> suffix?”

Student:  “Coincidence!  You just said that the <ist> in <mist> was a coincidence of spelling!”

Me:  “So I did. Can anyone think of another word?  The more words we can think of the more evidence we have.”

Student:  “Evidence.  You just said the word evidence!”

Me:  “That is so funny.  I surely did!”

Student:  “How about violence?”

Student:  “How about brilliance?”

Student: “Brilliance is spelled with an <-ance>.”

Me:  “Right.  Brilliance does have an <-ance>.  I’ll write it to the side in case we think of more like that.”

Student: “And silence.”

And then it dawned on me.  And I pointed out that we can switch out the <-ence> suffix in ‘coincidence’ for <-ent> and make the word ‘coincidental’.  We can switch out the <-ence> suffix in ‘evidence’ with the <-ent> suffix and make the word ‘evidently’.  At this point the students began to anticipate that ‘violence’ could be ‘violent’ and ‘silence’ could be ‘silent’.  So we decided that the suffixes <-ence> and <-ent> can work with the same base.  And of course we thought about <-ance> and <-ant> having the same kind of relationship.

Student:  “Could it be that these suffixes are different forms of the same suffix, kind of like the assimilated prefixes we are studying?”

Me:  “That’s something to think about, isn’t it?”

I will admit that the last question put the biggest smile on my face.  I love that the students are making connections to what else they are learning about English spelling.  I love that they are asking questions and getting caught up in these classroom discussions.  It was so much fun!  I’m beginning to recognize that from February to June is my favorite time of the year.  This is when the pieces start to fit together and the understandings start falling into place.  The students start having words on their minds all the time.  Here is a picture of the board.  You will recognize how everything ended up where it did from my description above.  You may also recognize that I misspelled paleontology.  I didn’t notice that until tonight when I was looking back at the picture.

All of the above happened with the second class I see during my day.  There was one more group to come in.  They needed to take this journey for themselves, so I erased the board and started all over.  Different words were suggested, but the ending observations were the same.

Now I want to take you back to my lunchtime discussion with my grade level colleagues.  As I was going on about what the students were thinking of and what we were noticing as a class, I could tell that it was one of those times “you had to be there.”  They weren’t feeling as excited as I was.  They listened and followed along, but didn’t get why this was such a big deal for me.  And then one of them said something that explained her perspective to me perfectly.  She said, “That’s just it.  If some words can have an <-ence> and some can have an <-ance>, how will our struggling spellers know which one to use?  What can you tell them so they know which one to use?”

She is used to false rules that focus on what is on the surface of a word without having to really know much about the word.  I told her that we would need to know more about the word’s etymology to know which to use.  In the meantime, the understanding gained today will help if, for example, the student can spell ‘silent’, and want to spell ‘silence.’  Instead of phonetically spelling it as *silints (which they may do anyway – phonics runs deep), they have a chance of knowing that it will have an <-ence> suffix.  I have no magic fix-it fairy dust.  I just keep letting students see for themselves what is really happening in spelling and how consistent it is. Progress comes more slowly than others would like, but that is because instead of “know this by Friday for the test”, I am not telling students what to know.  I let them see for themselves.  I give them time to let things sink in. We revisit concepts often and hope that much of the understandings they develop here, will be theirs for life.

I can hardly wait for tomorrow so I can take the discussion in this same direction with my first group.  We talked about some of these things this morning, but we didn’t take it in this direction.  I’d like to see what words they think of, and if they recognize for themselves what the other students recognized today.  Below is a picture of the board from the discussion I had with my last group of the day.  I love looking at this and knowing that between the three classes, we collect a lot of evidence to support what we understand about spelling.  That much is evident.  🙂


Twelve students and twenty minutes … Let’s make the best of this!

For about two months in late fall, I worked with a group of 12 students for 20 minutes a day, four times a week.  These were students I also saw for 90 minutes every day when they came in as part of their homeroom.  This small group opportunity is part of what our school calls WIN time (WIN stands for What I Need).  As a grade level team, we talk about the needs we see and how to group the students so we can address those needs.  I asked for this particular group of 12 based on spelling errors I saw in their writing samples at the beginning of the year. What an opportunity to reinforce some reliable concepts in our language!

We started by looking at words that take an <-es> suffix versus those that take an <-s> suffix.  I picked this because it’s a great place to begin noticing things about suffixing, digraphs, and roles of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  I could have started with any number of activities.  In fact, it seems that no matter where I begin when talking about English spelling, we end up reinforcing many ideas, just in different contexts.  That is the beauty of teaching with a Structured Word Inquiry focus.  We think about something particular, we collect some words to examine what it is we are focusing on, we make some observations about what we are seeing, and in the process of all that, we deepen our understanding of many things.  Most important of all, we build an understanding of the connectedness of these concepts and facts about how our spelling system works.

Another reason I chose to start with the <-s> and <-es> suffixes is that I wanted to give this group a preview of them before we discussed them as a larger group.  It always amazes me how much we can talk about in only 20 minutes!  We began by talking about using angle brackets to represent a spelling.  When we see a word in angle brackets, we spell it out.  We don’t announce it.  When we want to announce it, we can either write the word without angle brackets at all or we can represent the pronunciation in IPA.  If we use IPA symbols, we use slash brackets.  As you can see below, I demonstrated with the word <teach>.  I also showed the students how we might represent the graphemes and digraphs in the word <teach>.  The word has 5 letters and 3 graphemes.  One of the graphemes is a single letter grapheme, and the others are digraphs.  I don’t spend too much time on what I have just described because with this group beginning in mid-October,  this information is already something we are reviewing.

The next thing we did was to talk about words that can take an <-s> suffix.  If you look at the left side of the picture below, you’ll see that as the students suggested words, I was writing the final letter of the word + s.  In this way I could encourage the students to think of words that ended in other ways (besides words that end with the same letter that was previously named).  Since we already had the word <teach> on the board, I asked what suffix we would add if we wanted to talk about the person who teaches in the next room.  In this case, we are not adding a suffix in order to make the word plural.  We are adding a suffix to indicate the verb tense.  A few of the students knew we would add an <-es> suffix to <teach>, <peach>, and <coach>, but no one knew why.

When someone asked about <bounce>, I wrote it out as a word sum.  When a word ends in a single final non-syllabic <e>, it is not as obvious to the students that the suffix being added is an <-es>.  When we compare the spelling prior to adding the suffix to the spelling of the word after the suffix has been added, it would appear that only an <s> was added.  But that is not the case.

In order to understand why we need an <-es>, I directed the focus to the word someone had thought of that ended with a final <t> – <pits>.  We announced the word <pits> as /pɪts/ and noticed that we could easily feel ourselves adding the /s/ after the /t/.  Then we announced the word <teaches> as /titʃɪz/ and noticed that immediately following the /tʃ/ we said /ɪz/.  In fact we found it awkward and unsuccessful to follow the /tʃ/ with either /s/ or /z/ by itself.  In other words, we needed the suffix to be <-es> which would add an /ɪz/ to the pronunciation of the base.

Now we took a look at <bounce> (the rest of that list wasn’t there yet).  We tested to see if we could just add an <-s> suffix to bounce.  The students realized quickly that the word ends with an /s/ already.  Adding an <-s> suffix wouldn’t work. In announcing the word with the suffix added, we wouldn’t know where one /s/ left off and the next one began!  Then they tried adding the /ɪz/ of <-es> to the base /bɑʊns/.  That worked!

My next question to the students was, “Why does the word <bounce> have a final <e>?”  No one was sure.  There were guesses about the vowels in the word, but in this word, the <e> had a different role.  I asked if anyone could think of two more words that were similarly spelled.  The words <spice> and <fence> were suggested.  I asked, “Why weren’t we able to just add an <-s> suffix?”

“Because there was already an /s/ at the end of the word and it would end with /s..s/!”

Of course that led to lots of students trying to demonstrate how it wouldn’t work.  But that’s okay.  I know they understand.

“Does the <c> always represent /s/ in a word?”

“No.  It’s a /k/ in <cat>.  Oh!  The <e> tells us the <c> is /s/!”

We noted that in <spice>, the <e> was doing two things.  It was also indicating that the <i> would be pronounced as /aɪ/.  Next I asked if they could think of words that ended with a /s/ pronunciation, but were not spelled with a <c>.  They quickly thought of horse, house, and mouse.  We discussed the role of the single, final non-syllabic <e> in these words.  The <e> in these words had yet a different role!  It was preventing the words from looking like plurals when they clearly weren’t!  My favorite examples of where leaving off the final <e> would truly confuse a reader are please and pleas and dense and dens.  A student may not recognize why someone would think *hous is a plural word since *hou isn’t a word in English, but they will recognize that dens are where some animals live.

I left our notes on the board and explained the work my WIN group had done to my regularly scheduled classes.  The 12 were scattered among three classes and were eager to explain things for the rest of their class when the opportunity came up.


Day 2

The next day I wanted to continue looking at words that take an <-es> suffix.  I wanted to focus on the ending grapheme/phoneme correspondences when the word was in its singular form.  I listed the headings and together we noticed which graphemes could represent those phonemes.  In the first column, I started by underlining the final <tch> trigraph and/or the <ch> digraph. then we moved to the middle two columns that ended up including four different graphemes that could represent a final /s/!  As you can see, I wrote out word sums so they could see over and over that with these word final phonemes, we would need to use an <-es> suffix.  I also underlined the final graphemes in each word.  As we went along, the students tried adding an <s> pronounced as /s/ and then quickly knew they needed to add an <-es> pronounced as /ɪz/.  With words in the last column, we talked about the single, final non-syllabic <e> that was following the <g>.  The students wondered aloud if it was like the <e> that follows a <c>!  So then we could compare the <g> grapheme (when followed by an <e>) to the trigraph <dge>.

The last thing I did was to point out the vowel in front of the trigraphs <tch> and <dge>.  I asked if the students recognized whether they were considered short vowels or long vowels.  We said them together and they identified them as short.  I underlined them in red.

Again, I left our work on the board and shared our findings with the three larger classes.


Day 3

While sharing with the larger groups yesterday, someone asked about words with a final /z/ phoneme.  How brilliant, right?  Of course we added another column today and explored the graphemes that could represent the phoneme /z/.  Once more we went over the different final graphemes and proved to ourselves that they couldn’t take an <-s> suffix, whether it was representing an /s/ or /z/ phoneme.  The words with these final grapheme/phonemes needed to take an <-es> suffix that would be announced as /ɪz/.


Day 4

Today we went back to explore the words with either a final <tch> trigraph or a <ch> digraph.  The students brainstormed a bunch of example words of each.  Then we made observations about what was immediately in front of each.  We began to notice some consistencies.  In front of a word final <ch> digraph there was either a consonant or a vowel digraph.  In front of a <tch> digraph there was a single short vowel.  We wondered if this could explain why a <ch> is used in <bench> and not a <tch>.  It was time to get the students working on their own.  I split them into groups of two.  This is my favorite group size for word investigation.  Here are the specific topics of inquiry for each group:

~words in which a consonant precedes a final <ch> digraph.
~words in which a vowel digraph precedes a final <ch> digraph.
~words in which a single vowel precedes a final <tch> trigraph.
~words with a final <t>, but whose pronunciation changes when an <-ion> suffix is added.
~words with a final <t>, but whose pronunciation changes when a <-ure> suffix is added.
~words that take an <-es> suffix.

And they were off!  They got out their orthography notebooks and turned to the next available page.  One in each group grabbed a Chromebook so they could look at Word Searcher to find words with the targeted word ending.  They also had a dictionary handy in case there was a word they didn’t know.  I walked around to make sure each group was clear on what they were looking for.  Then I let them work on their own for the rest of the time.


Day 5

Another group work day.  They were collecting words and keeping track of them in their notebooks.  I walked around and checked in to make sure they weren’t collecting words they didn’t know when there were plenty of words they did know to choose from.  That seems like something I shouldn’t have to do, but my students are new to tasks that ARE NOT busy work.  They are used to mindless spelling tasks in which they aren’t expected to really think about what they are doing and why.  After years of Words Their Way, they are used to shifting words into piles that don’t necessarily make sense to them.  The words are moved there because of some surface-y reason that does not have any basis in the logic of our English spelling system.  And the students learn to do the task without asking the kinds of questions that lead to a better understanding that logic.


Day 6

I circulate, guiding the students in now grouping the words they found.  If they found a vowel digraph in front of the <ch> digraph for instance, how many words did they find with that same vowel digraph?  How many different vowel digraphs did they find?  Each group had some organizing to do before they could make observations.


Day 7

By this point, the groups were not all at the same point in their investigations.  That makes sense because they were investigating different things.  When one group starts making a poster or chart, the other groups get a little concerned.  They ask, “When is this due?” I always tell them that they will be given the time they need, provided they stay focused and productive each day.  The groups that were investigating digraphs and trigraphs were given large graph paper so they could share their findings by creating bar graphs.  The groups looking at a word final <t> and what happens to its pronunciation when an <-ion> or <-ure> suffix is added, made their own posters.  I asked them to include a page where they color coded the graphemes and phonemes in each word so we could see how the grapheme <t> ended up representing more than one phoneme.

As the groups finished, I asked them to write scripts.  What would they say as they presented their findings?  I told them that when they had a script written, I would revise it, edit it, and then I would record their presentation with my camera.  They liked that idea!  I liked the idea that they now had to think through their observations as they were writing them down.  This took several days, and the video recording took several more for each group.  When one group was completely done, I gave them another investigation that could easily be finished with our regular classroom work (back with their homeroom groups).

Here are the videos sharing the investigative work they did.



As I was filming these, I saw that a few groups of students chose words that they didn’t know.  I was hoping to catch those prior to the presentations, but obviously I didn’t catch them all.  When I asked the students if they knew those words, an interesting thing happened.  They said they did!  And then they proceeded to announce the words.  Do you see here what I see?  The students who struggle with reading and writing the most believe that announcing a word means you know that word.  Can they use it in a sentence? No.  Do they know what it means? No. But they have been taught (without the words necessarily having ever been said out loud) that announcing a word is what’s important in reading.  It is more important than what the word means.  Fluency over comprehension.  That is what the students think.  This is why I will always push the idea that a word’s meaning is the most important thing to know about a word.  Once we know its meaning, we can research to understand its spelling and then its pronunciation.

I have seen the effects of the small group work with the students mentioned in this post.  On a day that we were reviewing suffixes, they spoke up confidently about when to use <-es> versus <s>.  In the group work we are currently doing, they no longer sit quietly.  They contribute.  They question.  In their daily work I am still seeing spelling errors.  Of course I am.  I cannot single handedly help 75 students understand every single spelling error they make.  But what I can do is help them understand some of the consistent patterns we see in English.  Notice I said to “understand some of the consistent patterns.”  Up until now they may have been required to memorize lists that had consistent patterns, but that is not the same as understanding why a spelling is one way and not another.  What I teach helps them understand the spelling of many words – even words they don’t know yet.  I am teaching how the system works, not just how a single word is spelled.

Once the last group was finished with video recording, the WIN groups were reshuffled so that other needs in other areas could be addressed.  I have a new group now.  We are not working on word investigations.  This time we are reading Peter Pan and stopping to talk about the colorful and often times unfamiliar vocabulary used.  We also pause to look at the specific writing techniques of James M. Barrie.

And just in case you are wondering, our current project is focused on the topic of assimilated prefixes!

Sometimes I’m Sorry … Sometimes Not So Much

A couple years ago as my students and I finished reading Love that Dog by Sharon Creech, we reflected on the poems we had been introduced to while we read the book.  As a final project, I challenged them to write poems that were modeled after and inspired by William Carlos Williams’ poem, This is Just to Say.  It is a delightful confession to eating something that the writer fully knows is not for him to eat.  The poem captures those every day moments that happen when people share a space and a relationship.  The student poems were so good!  I remember smiling as each was turned in.  I knew I would repeat that activity with the next year’s students!

But then, just a few years back, I happened upon an entire book of poems that were inspired by this same William Carlos Williams poem.  The book is called This is Just to Say:  Poems of Apology and Forgiveness.  It is written by Joyce Sidman and is perfect for reading aloud to students.  There were poems written to teachers, to school secretaries, to classmates, to parents, and to pets.  The first half of the book are the poems of apology, written to a specific person.  The second half of the book are the poems written in return, all offering forgiveness.  Each revealed in rather beautiful and vulnerable ways a tender relationship between the person who wrote the poem and the person the poem was written to.  We often forgot that the entire collection of poems came from the creative mind of Joyce Sidman!  My students laughed, “awwwwed” and even cried as I read most every poem in the book in a single sitting.  After hearing the poems by Joyce Sidman, they sat down to write their own poem of apology.

I found these poems to be touching – funny, heartwarming, and in some cases, tragic.  In other words, the students were able to bring the everyday moments to the forefront and let our less-than-perfect actions and reactions be revealed.



Dad, I’m sorry
for stealing your pizza.
You left it on the table
with the top open,
leaving the scent of heaven
roaming through the house.

I snuck to the table,
stole it,
and ate it all.




I’m sorry I was not there to help you.
I let you outside and let you wander.
I did not hear or see you for quite a while.
My mom and I got really worried.

Later that day we found you on the road.
We buried you in your favorite spot
outside with all your favorite toys.

I will always remember when
we were little and we would snuggle.
And when you would fit into a chihuahua bed.

We buried you with a baseball
with everyone’s memories written
all over the baseball.

I will always love you, dead or alive.
I love you, Dottie.



Sorry for Being Annoying

Sorry for not stopping my mouth from talking.
I just can’t stop.
My mouth is moving,
and my tongue is whipping.
I just can’t stop.

Maybe it’s because when I say something,
you laugh,
and I just keep on going.
I have funny things to say!

It’s just the fact that
they come to my brain
and slip out of my mouth.

Sometimes you say weird things too,
and I laugh.
But then I think
maybe they don’t like my comedy.
I’m sorry.

Just kidding!
I’m way too funny!



Dear Sasha,

I’m sorry I let you outside
and forgot you were out there.
You sat out there for an hour,
until I remembered
and went to get you.
But you weren’t out there.

Not on the lawn,
Not on the deck,
Not even under the deck
chasing chipmunks.

I looked all over town for you.
No luck.

I went back home to look again.
Then I looked in the one spot

I hadn’t looked yet,
the garage.

I opened the door and sure enough,
there you were sitting on the couch.



The Soccer Mistake

Dear Sammy,

I’m sorry for accusing you
of tripping people in soccer
and for being a bit aggressive.

I’m also sorry
for all of the bad things
that have happened to you.

I think you’re
the best soccer player in the grade.

Sincerely your friend,



My Apology To My Brother

I’m sorry
for not being the best
at the video games we play.

I aspire to be better,
but I’m not the best anyway.
It doesn’t help
when you yell and scream at me.

I know I can’t win on my own,
and that’s why I play with you.
I’m trying to get better.

For now,
it’s just us two.




Dear Wishley,

I’m sorry that
I threw an orange at you.
I just got carried away
so I threw it at you.

You said I was jealous, and
I had no friends.
I was so mad.

I didn’t realize
it would hurt like that.




Dear Muffin,

I miss when you would slobber on me
and how it was like you always knew
what I was thinking.

I’m sorry that I didn’t
get to say goodbye.
You know that.

If I would have
gotten the chance to,
I would have.
I miss you.

You were such an amazing dog.
I miss when you would
shove your slobbery nose in my neck
while I was asleep.

I miss you.




Explorations and Discoveries Via Voyages

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”   Marcel Proust

We were watching a TED talk  about the interesting forms of life found at the bottom of the ocean.  The presenter, David Gallo, used the above quote.  He was referring to being open to what he might see as he voyaged to the bottom in his submarine, Alvin.  The TED talk was fascinating.  Gallo’s enthusiasm and excitement kept the attention of my students and myself.  He made us feel as if we were on the voyage with him and seeing what he saw.  And he got me thinking about the word <voyage>.

Several images popped into my head…

~the name of an old television show my brothers used to watch when I was a child – “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”,

~people waving and shouting “Bon Voyage!” to people on large oceangoing boats such as the Titanic.

It got me thinking.  In both of those situations the voyage itself is a trip across or down into a large body of water (and in the case of the Titanic, an unintentional “down into a large body of water”).  These are major undertakings.  What other kinds of journeys are considered to be voyages?

As silly as it sounds, my mind went to another television series, “Star Trek: Voyager”, that my children watched at times during its run from 1995-2001.

And at that point I thought of Voyager I and Voyager II which are the unmanned spacecrafts originally launched in 1977 that are still sending us information from the outer reaches of space!  As I was watching the video I have included here, the following words popped out at me. “It’s discovering new things because it’s going where nothing has been before.”  That sentiment is similar to what I heard David Gallo use in his TED talk.  It was the connection between a voyage, exploration, and discovery.

With a solid idea of how I think of this word, and of how I have heard it used in significant ways, I was ready to explore it further.  You see, what I have learned since happening upon Structured Word Inquiry is that there is discovery beyond a word’s current day usage.  It is something I now look forward to.  It’s like a special gift I used to overlook because I was looking for fancy paper which would make it catch my attention.  Instead, the wrapping was the word itself.  You might think of it as having been camouflaged in its own spelling!

My first stop is the dictionary that is on my Mac desktop.  The definition of <voyage> confirms what I already knew – that a voyage is a trip, generally by sea or space.

Next I check in at Etymonline.

The word <voyage> wasn’t used as a verb until the 15th century, but was used as a noun as early as the 13th century.  That is when it was first attested.  Before that it was used in Old French, spelled voiage, and used to mean “travel, journey, movement, course, errand, mission, crusade.”  As I think of those words, the only two I might link to discovery or exploration are mission and crusade.  Further back in time this word existed in Late Latin as viaticum “a journey.”  The next note in the entry says that in Classical Latin viaticum referred to the “provisions for a journey.”  This is even further away from the sense that is so prevalent in today’s use of the word!  Further back in time we see that this word is from via “road, journey, travel.”  This piece of information is quite interesting, don’t you think?  I have used the word <via> to mean “by way of.”  I might say I travel to Madison via highway 12/18.  Before I take off down that “road”, I want to see what other resources say about <voyage>.

Next I look in my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Again we are looking at <voyage> as a noun before it was used as a verb.  The entry says that probably before 1300 it was viage “a traveling, journey.”  Around 1300 the spelling was veyage; borrowed from Old French veiage, vayage, voiage, vaiage and was used to mean “travel, journey, voyage.”  The spelling voyage was first recorded in English in 1527, probably influenced by the spelling of the verb.  The spelling of the verb is attested in 1475 in Caxton’s translation of the History of Jason.  It was borrowed from Middle French voyager, from the Old French noun, voyage.  The dictionary goes on to conclude that <voyager> is probably formed from the English verb voyage + er.

Next stop is the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here I find this word used in 1297 to mean “an act of traveling; a journey by which one goes from one place to another (esp. at a considerable distance).  One thing I love about the OED is the examples of this word in actual use.  I can read sentences that include this word from as early as 1297.  What I find when I do that is that people were taking voyages for many reasons.  Some were just heading home.  Some were on a pilgrimage which has a different sense then a voyage with a destination.  Others were possibly part of those crusades mentioned at Etymonline.  A sentence from c1550 states, “Thei..toke their viage toward Rome, destroying all thinges on everie side.”  And another from 1564, “The consuls toke then their viage to invade Carthage”.  Since these were typically long trips, it would make sense that the people traveled by horse, yet there is another sentence from 1584, “We must take our voyage on foote the space of forty dayes by the waters side”.

And then there are many examples of how this word has been used to refer to trips over water from as early as 1310.  From what we know about early explorers, that is not surprising.  As I kept reading through the entry, I saw that in 1667, the word was used to mean a journey, but in a different sense.  “So stears the prudent Crane Her annual Voiage, born on Windes”.  This sentence is from Paradise Lost and is referring to the bird who, while voyaging, is carried by the winds.  Here is where the sense and meaning of <voyage> leaves the ground and the water and ventures into the skies!  In 1893, the earth itself is referred to as taking a yearly voyage around the sun.

Another interesting use of this word is in a figurative sense to describe certain events of human life and even what happens after life.  Here’s an example of this use in a sentence from 1390.  ” Fourtiene yer sche was of Age, Whan deth hir tok to his viage”.  If my interpretation of this is correct, a 14 year old girl was taken on death’s voyage.  Here’s an interesting sentence from 1529.  “Yt much more special assistence of god with his christen churche in their spiritual viage”.  I wonder if that is in reference to someone’s deepening of faith (spiritual voyage).  One more from 1771, “Among our fellow-lodgers at Berwick, was a couple from London, bound to Edinburgh, on the voyage of matrimony”.  These examples show this word having a sense that indicates a journey with a goal or destination.

Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life Youth, 1842 (National Gallery of Art)

This is such an interesting word!  I feel like I could almost create a timeline to show how it has gone from meaning simply traveling on land, to including water, to journeying in space, and even to have other figurative senses which are vital to a writer’s mind.  It’s time to go back to Etymonline and follow that link to Latin via “road, journey, travel.”

The entry is referring to <via> as a preposition “by way of.”  It was first attested in 1779 and is the ablative form of via “way, road, path, highway, channel, course.”  Further back it is from the Proto-Indo-European root *wegh- “to go, move, transport in a vehicle.”  Continuing in the entry we see that this PIE root is also the source for our English word <way>.  There are a number of words that include a form of this stem, via “road.”  I have encountered this base before and have found it helpful in visualizing a word’s meaning.

obvious – from <ob-> “in front of; against” and viam “way.”  When something is obvious, it is right there in your way and you cannot avoid seeing it or dealing with it!

impervious – from <im-> “not”, <per-> “through”, and via “road.”  When a surface is impervious (such as blacktop), the water runs off of it because it cannot filter through the road.  One of the activities I have done in my classroom to show the difference between an impervious surface and one that is pervious, is to grab a paint tray.  I put a piece of felt on the left side (to represent grass and dirt) and leave the other side open (to represent a parking lot surface).  Then the student drizzles water from the top.  How many drops does it take for the water to reach the bottom on the pervious side?  How many drops does it take for the water to reach the bottom on the impervious side?  It is surprising how much water the piece of felt will hold.

deviate – from <de-> “off, away” and via “way.”  When someone deviates from the plan, they are not sticking to the agreed upon path!  They are going off in their own way.

previous – from <pre-> “before” and via “road.”  We think of something that has happened previously as something that has been on this “path” before – something that has gone this way before.

trivial –  from <tri-> “three” and via “road.”  This word is one of my favorites because of the following scene I associate with it.  At a place where three roads meet, people traveling on those roads might stop and chat.  These people are traveling by foot for the most part and no doubt look forward to a bit of friendly conversation.  It is a very public place and the topics of conversation are the little things everyone’s life is full of.  One might discuss the weather, their business (crops perhaps), politics, or family happenings.  And if you are already putting two and two together, you are noticing that these things could be considered trivia!



From 1890 Baby’s Annual Pictures and Stories for Little People.  It was published by D. Lothrop Company.

Every time I conduct one of these word investigations, I feel like I have embarked on a voyage of sorts.  Not because I began at point A with a question and arrived at an endpoint with an answer, but rather because like the satellites Voyager I and Voyager II, my question has been launched and is still out there.  My curiosity is still aflame.  My interest is lit and I am receptive to understanding more about any of this when it becomes obvious to me – when it is right there in my path.  My smile will only broaden and I will listen attentively.  I seek to voyage back in time to consider how a given word was used by the people who spoke it and/or wrote it.  I seek to explore its current spelling and understand the significance of the graphemes and their corresponding phonemes. I seek to discover the bigger picture that includes a particular word, but also its relatives, be they morphological or etymological.  Think about it.  After 40 years, Voyager I and II are still transmitting information to the earth, even though they continuously travel further and further away.  We could say, they have boldly gone where no man has gone before!  If you are or were ever a Star Trek fan, you will recognize those words.  Hmmm.  Now I’m thinking about the word <trek>.

“We don’t receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves.”  Marcel Proust