Sitting at my desk, I’ve always had a clear view down the hallway. Each morning I heard the excited voices of the children seconds before they turned the corner and headed towards my room. One morning there was a student in the lead who wasn’t in the habit of being in the lead. I noticed but didn’t think too much of it. That is until the student came right into my room, even before going to her locker! And even before I could greet her, she asked, “Do you think that pediatrician and pedestrian have the same base?”
It’s a question I will never forget. Imagine! This student had two words in her head that seemed to share a base. She wasn’t quite sure about what meaning they shared and that was why she was there, asking me that question before she did anything else to begin her school day! I was thrilled that the question came from her own noticing of words while away from school. The curiosity and questioning I was hoping to nurture was evidently taking hold! All I remember besides her urgency and her question was that I didn’t have an immediate answer for her. But then she knew well enough that I didn’t always have an immediate answer to most word questions. (Sometimes I genuinely didn’t know, and sometimes I pretended I didn’t know so as to let the student own the moment of discovery.) She also knew I would be excited by the question and would partner with her to see what we could find out by talking about the words, thinking of other words that were possibly related and then looking in the references. As I recall, we looked at the words, talked about their meanings and how we use them, and decided they were probably not sharing a base. But because it appeared that they did, we checked with Etymonline to see if we could figure out the most likely base of each.
We knew that a pedestrian was a person who traveled by foot. We related the <ped> to bicycle pedals, the place where we put and also push with our feet. We also thought of a pedometer since the physical education teacher at our school had purchased a set for the students to use while in their gym class so they could measure how many steps they were taking. We wondered aloud if a pediatrician was a doctor who specialized in people’s feet, but were doubtful because we had heard of children going to a pediatrician and not because of anything to do with their feet. Was it the same base? The only way to know for sure was to head to Etymonline.
We saw that the noun ‘pediatrician,’ was first the adjective ‘pediatric.’ That information alone helped us understand that <-ian> was a suffix in this word. As an adjective the word ‘pediatric’ was coined in 1849 and referred to “of or pertaining to the medical care or diseases of children.” The base <ped> derives from the Greek παΐς (pais) “child.” According to the Cambridge Greek Lexicon, there was a dialectal difference that resulted in πης (pes) male and πηδός (pedos) female. The second base in this word is <iatr> which derives from Greek ιατρός (iatros) “physician, healer.” What other words can we think of that share this base?
pediatrician – one who specializes in the medical care or diseases of children. orthopedics – (Do you recognize <orth> meaning “straight, correct” from the word ‘orthography?’) Correcting bodily deformities of children or of people in general. pedophile – One who has an abnormal love of children (often sexual). encyclopedia – Originally (in Greek) it meant training a child in a circle of the arts and sciences. Do you see the morphemes in the word that represent those senses? First there’s <en> “in” and then <cycl> “circle.” According to Etymonline it is now thought that Latin authors misinterpreted this word to mean “general education.” pedagogy – The science of teaching children (originally referred to boys more than girls).
An interesting statement to note from Etymonline is this. “The British form paed- is better because it avoids confusion with the ped- that means “foot” (from PIE root *ped-) and the ped- that means “soil, ground, earth.” You may have seen the British spelling of pediatrician as paediatrician. While it is clarifying to have that British spelling explained, this statement also brings up a new question regarding a <ped> base that means soil, ground, earth. I’ve never heard of it. What words might I know that have it?
I found one quite by accident. Pedology. When I was looking for words that share the base <ped> “child,” I ran across it and assumed it meant “the study of children.” Well, it actually was used that way at one time (1894). But in 1924, its use became specific to “scientific study of the soil” based on the German word pedologie from 1862. Ultimately the base in this word derives from Greek πέδον (pedon) “surface of the earth, ground, earth.” According to Wikipedia, pedology “focuses on understanding and characterizing soil formation, evolution, and the theoretical frameworks through which we understand a soil body(s), often in the context of the natural environment.” Knowing its root makes it obvious that pedology couldn’t have anything to do with children – even if they sometimes get covered in dirt!
Next we decided to confirm what we felt sure of with ‘pedestrian.’ According to Etymonline, there is evidence of it being used more commonly as an adjective before it was used as a noun. Its adjective use has been attested as early as 1610 (Oxford English Dictionary). Interestingly enough, at that time it was used to refer to something as dull and plain. So if your writing was described as pedestrian, there was nothing out of the ordinary about it. At the OED I found this sentence from a 1969 writing. “Failing to live up to its sudden notoriety, the series has nothing to offer; just another pedestrian crime yarn.”
That sense of plain or dull comes from the literal sense of this word which has to do with traveling by foot. It was the expected thing to do before the invention of automobiles or bicycles unless you happened to have a horse! In fact, the word pedestrian can be compared to equestrian. Are you noticing the similarities in the second half of each word (-estrian)? In Latin, the word pedester was used when referring to foot soldiers. And as Etymonline shows us, you can contrast pedester “on foot” with equester “on horseback.”
The base here is not from Greek like the <ped> base (<paed> in British English) in pediatrician and the <ped> base in pedology. It is from Latin pedis “foot.”
pedestrian – A person who is walking (noun use). Something expected or plain (adj. use). pedometer – A device that measures the distance walked. pedals – The part on which you push with your feet. pedicure – A treatment for the care of one’s feet. expedite – To hasten. Literally, “to free the feet from fetters.” impede – For something to be in the way. Literally, “to shackle the feet.” centipede – A long, thin arthropod with many legs. biped – Animal with two feet. pedestrianism – Walking as exercise or as a competitive sport.
Have you noticed that I included a final potential <e> on the base in this matrix? A final <e> is always potential, and this word family illustrates that beautifully. In words like ‘centipede’ and ‘impede’ that final <e> has reached its potential and is part of the base. Notice how it signals the pronunciation of the previous ‘e’ in an expected way (/i/). In words like ‘biped’ and ‘quadruped’ that ‘e’ is not part of the base. And because it isn’t part of the base, the ‘e’ in this base is pronounced as /ɛ/ in words like ‘biped’ and ‘quadruped.’
Recently I came across the word ‘pedestrianism’ and since it was unfamiliar to me, I had a closer look. I found it when listening to a podcast. Immediately it brought this whole wonderful investigation of <ped> to life once more. It’s like one of my students said, “In orthography, you can explore words and come back to them as many times as you want, and it, like, never stops. But in spelling, once you memorize the word, the door is shut. You don’t need to go back. It’s done.” The student was spot on. Here I am revisiting what I understood previously and adding to it!
The podcast was called “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport.” , and it took me by surprise! I had heard of the dance marathons of the 1930s, but I hadn’t heard of competitive walking like this! According to a second article I read ( The strange 19th-Century sport that was cooler than football), what started as a bet in 1859, grew to a competitive sport that drew crowds as large as 10,000 by 1879! The original bet centered around a worker, Edward Payson Weston, who had missed a delivery truck and walked a long distance to catch up to it. When he succeeded at that, he made another bet with a friend based on the outcome of the 1860 presidential election. He bet on Lincoln’s opponent, John Breckinridge, to win. As previously agreed upon, the loser had to walk from New York to Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration. It took Mr. Weston ten days to get there, but when he did, the idea of endurance walking was born!
One of the biggest competitions was in 1879 and was held in the original Madison Square Gardens in New York. There were 13 athletes and around 10,000 spectators. Each athlete brought their own dieticians, trainers, doctors, and chefs. Why such an entourage? Because the expectation was that these athletes would walk a circular track for six days or until they had walked the equivalent of 450 miles! They were not allowed to leave the track, but they were allowed to have their own tent in which they could eat, drink, and nap during the walk. Whoever traveled the farthest in the time allowed was promised $25,000 dollars ($679,000 by today’s standards) and a belt of solid silver with the inscription, “Long Distance Champion of the World.” As you might imagine, there were many injuries and towards the end of the event the athletes were crawling, barely making their way around the track. It became less about athleticism and more about enduring exhaustion, pain, and injuries.
If I’ve piqued your interest, as mine was piqued, I recommend that you go to the links I’ve provided and learn more. Fascinating! It does make you wonder whether these pedestrianisms had been sort of romanticized over time, and when the Great Depression rolled around, someone suggested holding dance marathons as a way to raise (and win) money. The idea of testing endurance to such an extreme seems to be a common feature of both!
Image is available with the kind permission of www.kingofthepeds.com
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I ran across a fascinating article recently called “Anumeric People: What Happens When a Language Has No Words for Numbers?” While I immediately noticed the word ‘anumeric’ in the title, I set it aside while I read the article and imagined a life without words for numbers. What are the advantages/disadvantages? It’s quite likely that there are people in remote areas of the world whose lives don’t revolve around clocks and other numbered things. But is the ability to distinguish by number the difference between 3 and 6 items crucial to one’s existence? Obviously not, for the people who only have words to name “some,” have lived for generations. The interesting focus in this article is “how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience.” The article is not particularly long, but certainly gave me something to think about!
Now. Back to the word ‘anumeric.’
Right away I connected it to the following.
If you compare the spelling of these words, you’ll notice (as my students would) that they each have <numer> in common. If given the opportunity to write a word sum hypothesis for ‘numeric’, I might see students write both <numer + ic> and <num + er + ic>. They are both logical. The first includes the letter string that is consistent among the words and might be the base. The second includes prior knowledge of <er> being the suffix in baker, teacher, and colder.
Once we have discussed the hypotheses and the fact that both are based on what we already know to be true about word construction, it is time to find evidence that will support one more than the other. If I look in either Etymonline, Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology, or the Oxford English Dictionary, I find that all the words on our list derive from Latin numerus “a number.” Once the Latin suffix <us> is removed, we see the Latin stem that came into English as the base <numer>. This evidence shows that the <er> was part of the word’s spelling in Latin and is part of the base in English. I like to compare this situation to the <ing> in ‘bring.’ We know there to be an <ing> suffix, but that doesn’t mean that every time we see that letter string we are looking at a suffix. It’s logical to wonder about it, and scholarly to check with a reference!
Once I had looked closer at the base of ‘anumeric,’ I thought more about the prefix <a>. Thinking about its use in the article where I found it, it obviously has a negativizing sense. It has a similar use in the following.
apnea – without breathing
amnesia – not remembering
atheist – without a god
apathy – without feeling or emotion
atypical – not typical
aphotic – without light
The prefix <a> that incorporates a sense of “not, without” is sometimes spelled <an>. According to Etymonline, it is “a fuller form of the one represented in English by <a>.” You may recognize the <an> prefix in the following.
anarchy – without a ruler
anonymous – without a name
anomaly – not the same
anesthesia – without feeling
anhydrous – without water
So does this mean that every time we see a word with an <a> or <an> prefix that it contributes a sense of “not, without?” No. No it doesn’t. There are a number of words like asleep, awash, aside, and aflame that originated in Old English and in which the prefix <a-> contributes a sense of “on, in, into.” That <a> prefix can also be an intensifying prefix as it is in ashamed. An intensifying prefix is one that doesn’t contribute a separate sense to the base, but instead intensifies the action of the base. (More about intensifying prefixes to come.)
An unexpected sense
As I began a deeper dive, looking at words with an <a> prefix, I came across afraid, award, and astonish. The word ‘afraid’ was derived from Anglo-French (afrayer) and further back from Old French which influenced the spelling (affrai, effrei, esfrei) and further back from esfreer “to worry, concern.” The first part of this word is actually derived from Old French es-; Latin <ex-> prefix “out” and the second part is from Vulgar Latin *exfridare “to take out of peace.” Please note that the asterisk in this ancestor means that the spelling is unattested. This spelling is thought to be a likely spelling by those who study languages. Beyond that, just think about the denotation of this word! To be afraid is to have been taken out of peace! Don’t you love it?
Looking at ‘award,’ this is another word that was derived from Old French. It is from Old French (awarder) and further back from Old North French (eswarder). Do you notice the initial <es> spelling? To award something to someone is to give one’s opinion after careful consideration. As with ‘afraid,’ the first part is actually from the Latin <ex-> prefix “out” and the second part is from Germanic warder “to watch.” So the person choosing who will receive an award is the one who watches out for which person will be deemed most worthy!
That brings us to the word ‘astonish.’ This word, too, was influenced by its use in Old French. It is from Old French estoner “to stun, daze, deafen, astound.” If you noticed the ‘es’ in the Old French word estoner, you may be expecting that the first part of this word is from Latin <ex-> “out,” and you’d be right! The base is from Latin tonare “to thunder.” If something astonishes you, it leaves you a bit stunned or dazed, as if you were shook by thunder!
So the question with afraid, award, and astonish is whether or not they have an <a> prefix. The etymology clearly reveals that the prefix sense here is from <ex> even though we see an <a> prefix. The story of how the <ex> prefix came to be spelled as <a> can be found in the influence of Anglo-French and Old French spellings! So here we have evidence of words with an <a> prefix that represents Latin <ex>.
Assimilated forms of other prefixes
The prefix <an> can also be an assimilated form of the prefix <ad> “to” as it is in announce, annul, and annexation. You’ll notice that the <ad> assimilates to <an> when the next element in the word begins with an ‘n.’ The <ad> prefix can reduce to <a> in words like ascend, ascribe, avenue, and avenge.
In the word ‘avert,’ the <a> is a reduced form of the <ab> prefix “off, away from.”
If you’re wondering, “How will I know which prefix it is or which sense it brings to the word I’m investigating?” Fear not! A quick check with a reliable source like Etymonline will clear up which <an> you are looking at as well as which sense it brings to the base or stem!
What about other prefixes? Are they all like this?
Once I got thinking about <a> and <an> as a prefix, about all the different ways it can contribute sense to a word, I thought about all the other prefixes that I have been similarly surprised at. You see, prior to SWI, my understanding was that prefixes contribute a consistent meaning to each word they are attached to. For instance, in books that I was using to understand prefixes, suffixes, and “root words,” the prefix <re> was listed as meaning “again.” The examples given were similar to remarry, reuse, and resupply. Every prefix that was mentioned had a specific definition. Examples of some of those are below.
de – down
dis – away
ex – out
in – not, without
pre – before
un – not
con – with
I bet you’ve seen lists like this. Taking a close look at the English spelling system by incorporating Structured Word Inquiry into my teaching and learning has made me realize so much! For instance, the way in which a prefix steers the meaning of the base isn’t as “set in stone’ as we have been led to think. We’ve already had a glimpse of that with our look at the <a> prefix!
Recently the International Dyslexia Association presented a live Facebook chat featuring Sue Scibetta Hegland, who spoke on the topic of incorporating morphology in spelling instruction. The presentation was recorded and you can watch it below. In this talk, Sue uses the prefix <dis> to address the very point I am making in this post. I encourage you to watch it. Besides her point about prefixes, she makes many many others that are so eye-opening! In the paragraphs following the video, I have elaborated on the point she made with <dis>.
If you think about words in which you’ve seen a <dis-> prefix, you might think of words like disapprove, disappear, and disable. In all three of these words, the prefix brings a sense of “opposite of.” If you disapprove of something, that is the opposite of approving. When something disappears, it does the opposite of appearing. When a machine is disabled, it is the opposite of when it is able to do its intended job.
In the words distract, disrupt, and dismiss, the <dis-> prefix contributes a sense of “away” to the denotation of the base. In all three of these examples, the prefix is paired with a bound base. Looking closer at ‘distract,’ the base <tract> is from Latin trahere “to draw.” When someone is distracted, their attention has been drawn away from where it was. Looking closer at ‘disrupt,’ the base <rupt> is from Latin rumpere “to break.” When a meeting is disrupted, everyone’s attention is broken away from what it had been focused on. Looking closer at ‘dismiss,’ the base <miss> is from Latin mittere “to send, let go.” When you dismiss your students, you send them away!
A third sense that the <dis-> prefix might bring to a base or stem is “not.” This is the case in the words displease, dislike, and dishonest. When you are displeased, you are not pleased, When you dislike something, you do not like it. When you are dishonest, you are not being honest.
There are other senses as well. In the word ‘distribute,’ the base is from Latin tribuere “to pay, assign, grant.” The prefix <dis-> contributes a sense of “individually.” When you distribute materials, you are assigning those materials to each individual in the group. In the word ‘distort,’ the base is from Latin torquere “to twist.” The prefix <dis-> contributes a sense of “completely.” When something is distorted, it is completely twisted (whether physically or metaphorically). In the word ‘dissension,’ the base is from Latin sentire “to feel, think.” the prefix <dis-> contributes a sense of “differently.” When there is dissension within a group of people, they no longer are in agreement. Some or all think differently than the leader of that group.
I spoke earlier about prefixes that act as intensifiers. The example I gave was ashamed. In ‘ashamed,’ the state of feeling shame is intensified. There are others, of course. Once you begin finding them for yourself, you’ll experience a new kind of fun! Until then, here are a few I’ve discovered.
Let’s compare the words ‘reunion’ and ‘refine.’ A reunion happens when people are coming back together again to become one group with something in common. The main sense and meaning of that word, “the act of joining one thing to another,” has been consistent since it was first attested in the early 15c. The prefix ‘re’ adds that the act of joining one thing to another is happening again. These people have come together before and now they are coming together again. According to Etymonline, the word ‘refine’ was first used with a reference to metals (1580) and later to manners (1590). It has to do with reducing something to its purest form (or as close to it as one can get). The main sense and meaning of that word is “make fine.” In this word, the prefix <re-> does not indicate that a thing is becoming fine again. Instead, the <re-> prefix is an intensifier. It is intensifying the action. Whatever it is that is being refined is being made super fine.
Another example of a prefix that can intensify the action of the base is found in the word ‘corrode.’ The sense and meaning of the word since it was first attested in the late 14c is “wear away by gradually separating small bits of it” according to Etymonline. You might recognize the base as <rode>. It is from Latin and has a denotation of “to gnaw.” We see it in rodent and erode as well. The meaning connection is pretty obvious, isn’t it? That leaves <cor-> as the prefix. It is an assimilated form of <com->. We often think of <com-> or one of its assimilated forms (<col->, <con->, <cor->, or <co->) as bringing a sense of together to the base’s denotation. But that’s not what is happening here. Instead, the <cor-> of ‘corrode’ is intensifying the “wearing away.”
One more example of a prefix being an intensifier is found in the word ‘complete.’ The Latin bound base <pl> has a denotation of “to fill.” If you think about how you use the word ‘complete,’ you’ll realize that the <com-> doesn’t bring a sense of “together” to this word. The act of finishing or concluding something can be done together with others, but it can also be done alone. The prefix <com-> in this word is intensifying the “filling of something.” Check out the entry at Etymonline to see for yourself.
I hope I’ve made it obvious that when we teach children that <con> means together and <re> means again, we are teaching them only one possible sense when the truth is there are many. There’s nothing wrong with saying that <re> typically incorporates a sense of “again” to a word it is part of as long as we also say, “but let’s check to be sure. It could be doing something else as well!”
People who are hesitant to use SWI with their struggling students often say it is because their students don’t find dictionaries friendly. Mine didn’t either. That is, until they had a reason to use them. I remember the days when my dictionaries sat unused on the shelf. If I sent a student to grab one so we could look up a word, the student often said, “Nevermind. I’ll use a different word.” Since the students and I started asking questions that we were genuinely interested in exploring, those same dictionaries have become dog-eared and in come cases the pages have popped out. I couldn’t be happier! Once there was an authentic need to use the dictionaries, the students picked up the skills necessary more quickly than when we used to make up a fake scenario so they could practice. “Let’s check to make sure,” became the quick look it’s supposed to be. Students like knowing whether they’re on the right track or not, and using a dictionary lets them do that for themselves. They learn confidence by not needing to run every hunch they have by the teacher. When you avoid using dictionaries with your students because they are uncomfortable with them, you lose a huge opportunity to show them how to use reference materials and how to find out things on their own. In effect, you are helping them stay uncomfortable with them.
So do your students a favor. Make, “Let’s check to be sure,” a common practice in your classroom. Let them discover the value and worthiness of a great reference material! Thank goodness we have dictionaries and solid etymological resources like Etymonline, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and the Oxford English Dictionary! That is where you and your students will be able to distinguish which sense a prefix is contributing to a word! You don’t want your students to sort-of, kind-of understand the words they read and use in their writing. A quick “check to be sure” will create a solid definition of a word as well as a scholarly habit.
When I read about a woman in Mali having nonuplets a month ago, naturally my first thought was, “Yikes! Nine babies born at one birth?” But just this morning that news was topped when I read of a South African woman giving birth to decuplets two days ago! Most of us have heard of triplets and quadruplets, but having nonuplets and decuplets is so rare, they may be world record setting! The more I thought about the words ‘nonuplets’ and ‘decuplets,’ the more I was reminded of how many times I’ve come across familiar morphemes in words that help indicate a particular number. I also thought about the different ways we use these elements in different contexts. In thinking about these different ways to group things and the common morphemes we use to represent those numbers in words, I learned some interesting things!
Numbered sets – usually at one birth
The headline read, “Nonuplets: Woman From Mali Gives Birth To 9 Babies : NPR.” Nonuplets. How many is that? Well, obviously, the headline tells us it is nine. Nine babies born in a single birth. We recognize this word ending as connected to numbers of babies born at one delivery. And now there is this new report out of South Africa that a woman has delivered decuplets! Etymonline explains that the spelling of ‘quadruple’ came from ‘quadruplet,’ and the spelling of the ‘plet’ came from the ending on ‘triplet.’ Are these words uniquely fitted to babies? Not at all. Quadruplets are sets of four. They don’t have to be four babies. Triplets are sets of three. They don’t have to be three babies. But my guess is that most people picture sets of babies when they hear these.
According to Wikipedia (and this will come as no surprise to you either), twins are the most common type of multiple birth. Without fertility treatments, the chances of having twins is 1 in 60. The possibility of having fraternal twins runs in families. The possibility of having identical twins does not. The chances of having identical twins is more like 1 in 250.
Having triplets is much less common with the possibility being 1 in 1000. Triplets can be identical (least common), fraternal (most common), or a combination of those. According to Etymonline, in 1831 another name for triplet was ‘trin’. As you can probably guess, it was modeled on ‘twin’. Quadruplets are even less common than triplets. Although as fertility treatments become more widely used, the possibility is increasing. Quadruplets are usually a combination of fraternal and identical.
Quintuplets occur once in 55,000,000 births (without fertility treatments). The most famous set of quints to survive infancy were the Dionne sisters who were born in 1934. I have watched documentaries about these sisters. Unfortunately, the government feared the parents would exploit the quints and took custody of them. In the end, these girls were exploited by everyone. While they were at play each day, some 6,000 visitors stopped to watch them. Yikes! My mother-in-law shared a first name with one of the quints and was given this spoon at some point in her life. It was one of many souvenirs being sold. If you are interested, here is an article about the life of these five identical sisters.
Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A well-known set of sextuplets are the Gosselin siblings. They were born in 2004 and became well-known when their parents agreed to be part of a reality tv show that chronicled what life was like with a set of six babies! It was a very popular show for a while, but it took a toll on the family. Must be difficult to have a camera recording so much of your life.
When the McCaughey septuplets were born in 1997, they received a lot of media attention. One of the more interesting letters they received was from the three surviving Dionne quintuplets. The Dionne sisters offered their congratulations, but also warned the parents to keep the children out of the public eye as much as possible to avoid what they themselves experienced.
The first confirmed set of octuplets was born in 1969. Unfortunately, all eight babies died within 13 hours. It wasn’t until 2009 that a full set of octuplets (Suleman) survived infancy. It illustrates how risky multiple births are, and yet also how the field of premature infant health care keeps improving.
With the birth of nonuplets to a couple in Mali, it appears another world record has been set. Interestingly enough, the couple and their doctors thought they were having septuplets. Apparently two of the babies were hidden during the ultrasounds.
As of June 9th I read of a woman in South Africa who gave birth to decuplets! Like the couple who thought they were having seven but had nine, this couple thought they were having eight and had ten! They were delivered at 29 weeks. Guinness World Records is the group that officially verifies these things and determines world records.
Numbered sets of legs/feet
If you want to group creatures by the number of legs/feet they have, you’ll work from this short list.
Snails and slugs are obviously unipeds. You can see the one foot they use to move with. The organisms that belong to this class Gastropoda were previously called univalves. That descriptive term referred to the fact that they have one valve or shell. The name Gastropoda is equally as descriptive and revealing. It comes from the Greek γαστήρ (gastér “stomach”) and Greek πούς (poús “foot”). Its stomach is positioned above its single foot.
Other unipeds are marine and freshwater mollusks, also known as bivalvia. I bet that after learning about univalves, you can hypothesize the meaning of ‘bivalvia!’ These are mollusks with shells that have two valves (hinged parts).
Much of the information in this section of the post is coming from Wikipedia which also has some interesting information about bipedalism. They describe it as “a means of moving forward by means of two legs and feet.” Picture a moving kangaroo or ostrich for a clear idea of an organism that uses bipedalism. Of course, humans are bipeds too! Some animals like bears and some lizards who are quadrupeds move bipedally when needing to move quickly or get to a food source. Can you picture it? Here’s a pretty cool video from National Geographic that shows a lizard running bipedally across the surface of the water!
Isn’t it interesting to see the use of biped, bipedally, and bipedalism in the same paragraph? Once you understand the structure of biped (<bi + ped>), you can also understand the suffixes that have been added to change how the word might be used. As an adverb, we would use <bi + ped + al + ly –> bipedally> and as a noun describing the condition of moving on two feet we would use <bi + ped + al + ism>.
If bipedalism is a means of moving by the use of two legs, then quadrupedalism is a means of moving by the use of four legs to bear the weight of the body. The word ‘quadruped’ can also refer to a machine. It simply means anything “that usually maintains a four-legged posture and moves using all four limbs.” Most often we use this word to refer to terrestrial mammals and reptiles, but there are also aquatic quadrupeds such as turtles, amphibians, and pinnipeds. If you’re wondering what a pinniped is, I’m right there with you! At Etymonline, the entry provides us with this information.
Word investigations lead to such interesting unintended discoveries, don’t they? So seals, sea-lions, and walruses are quadrupeds in a similar fashion to zebras, dogs, and giraffe’s! A look at the entry for ‘quadruped’ reveals more information. This word is from Latin quadrupes “four-footed, on all fours.” In contrast to the word ‘quadruped,’ there is also the word ‘quadrumane.’ That refers to an animal that is four handed or with four hands and feet with opposable digits. Merriam-Webster describes quadrumanes as having hand-shaped feet. I bet you are already picturing monkeys or other animals that are primates. This word was once used more commonly in the field of zoology, even being the name of the order of mammals Quadrumana, which included non-human primates. It is now considered obsolete. As an adjective, someone might refer to another creature as quadrumanous. In that instance, they are describing that creature as ape-like.
By Dave59 at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
While reading about quadrupeds at Wikipedia, I learned that while the word ‘tetrapod’ literally means four-footed in the same way that quadruped does, there is a very specific difference between how the two words are used. When comparing the structure and etymology of these two words, you may have guessed that ‘quadruped’ has two elements from Latin (quandri- “four” and pes “foot”), and ‘tetrapod’ has two elements from Greek (τετρα “four” and πούς “foot”). Tetrapods descended from a four-limbed ancestor. Quadrupeds use all four limbs to walk/run.
“The distinction between quadrupeds and tetrapods is important in evolutionary biology, particularly in the context of tetrapods whose limbs have adapted to other roles (e.g., hands in the case of humans, wings in the case of birds, and fins in the case of whales). All of these animals are tetrapods, but none is a quadruped. Even snakes, whose limbs have become vestigial or lost entirely, are nevertheless tetrapods.”
It wasn’t until I published this post that I heard about pentapeds. It is one of the reasons I am so grateful for the broad audience my posts reach! Not having much exposure to kangaroos, I always picture them as moving fast and in that case moving bipedally. But check out this video of the walking movement of a kangaroo. Its tail is like another foot!
Another fascinating creature that I initially forgot to mention is the octopus, an eight limbed mollusc. There are 300 species of octopuses. According to Wikipedia, the largest octopus ever recorded weighed 600 pounds with an arm span of 30 feet! It was a giant Pacific octopus. The octopus wolfi, on the other hand is the smallest known. It weighs less than 1 gram and is about 1 inch in size.
albert kok, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
There is a character in the movie Finding Dory called Hank the septapus. Apparently, Hank was born with eight limbs, but one was pulled off by a human child who played too roughly. So in a sense, he might now be referred to as a septapus. But the reality of it is that he is an octopus. He was born with eight limbs, and if one was cut off, another would grow in its place. (I hope I’m not ruining the movie for anyone.) I found this information at Scientific American. It is quite a fascinating article!
“Like a starfish, an octopus can regrow lost arms. … Rare is the octopus with fewer than eight—at least partial—arms. Because as soon as an arm is lost or damaged, a regrowth process kicks off to make the limb whole again—from the inner nerve bundles to the outer, flexible suckers. Aug 28, 2013″
That being said, while I was looking in Wikipedia for information about the octopus, I came across a species known as the seven-arm octopus, Haliphron atlanticus. One of its earlier names (1929) was heptopus! You might recognize that hepta is Greek for “seven” whereas <sept> derives from Latin septem “seven.” Seeing as the second base in the word heptopus is from Greek pous “foot,” it makes sense that this species was once named using all Greek elements. As I read further about this specific octopus, it was revealed that it only appears to have seven limbs. One of males’ limbs has the specific function of helping with egg fertilization. Because of that specific function, that particular limb is kept coiled in a sac beneath the right eye. So the reality is that it has eight limbs like all octopuses; we just don’t see them all!
Whoever created the character Hank, knew about the Latin element for “seven” and knew of the spelling of ‘octopus’ and blended the two. You might call this a hybrid word because it combines elements from two languages.
I bet you think you know about centipedes. Well, at least you think you know how many legs they have. According to Wikipedia, centipedes always have an odd number of legs. That means they would never have exactly 100! Surprising, isn’t it? In fact they can have anywhere from 30 to 354 legs! I bet they were named centipedes because it seemed like they had a hundred legs when they were seen moving. A few more interesting facts are that they are carnivorous and range in length from a few millimeters to 12 inches. Wow.
Centipede: Kingsley, J. Sterling (1890) Popular natural history: a description of animal life, from the lowest forms up to man – Vol. 1
The name ‘millipede’ comes from Latin and means “1000 feet.” If you’re going to guess that they don’t actually have one thousand feet based on what you just learned about centipedes, you’d be correct. There is one species of millipede (Illacme plenipes) that holds the record for having 750 legs. That is more than any other animal in the world! Millipedes are detritivores (eat dead plant matter) and are found in central California.
Grouped by months
There are four months in our year that also contain one of these word elements that indicate a number.
Many people might guess that October might have something to do with “eight,” but they’re not sure what. Well, it used to be the eighth month, that’s what! In Ancient Rome, March was considered the first month of the year. Interestingly enough, July was originally named Quintilis “fifth” and August was originally named Sextillia “sixth.” While March, April, May, and June were named with other ideas in mind, July, August, September, October, November, and December were named for their order. January and February were added to the end .
Julius Caesar brought about changes to the calendar when he aligned it to the earth’s revolutions around the sun. January and February were moved to the beginning of the calendar. This caused some of the months to be out of alignment with their numbered names. That’s why September, October, November, and December are no longer the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months.
It was in remembrance of Julius Caesar (and to honor him for his adjustments to the Julian calendar) that Quintilis was renamed as July. In a similar way, the month of Sextillia was renamed August to honor Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor.
Final adjustments to the calendar were made in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII who corrected some inaccuracies with the Julian calendar. We refer to the calendar we use today as the Gregorian calendar! Look at these two links (Wonderopolis and The Old Farmer’s Almanac) for more information about the naming of the months that you and your students can read together.
Grouped by millions
The following is a list that I have purposely shared with my students each year. There are so many great morphemes to know here! Let’s start with the word ‘million.’ After all, all the rest of these words share part of its spelling. According to Etymonline, it was first attested in the late 14c. At that time it was spelled milioun and used to mean “a thousand thousands.” Further back it was from Old French and spelled million. Further back yet it was from Italian millione and literally meant “a great thousand.” And the furthest back ancestor we find is Latin mille. You can see that the structure would be <mille/ + ion>. According to the Century Dictionary, “The French, who like other northern peoples, took most if not all their knowledge of modern or Arabic arithmetic from the Italians.” (I found that quote at Etymonline in the entry for ‘billion’).
Now when you look at the entry for ‘billion,’ you see that it was created from Latin <bi> “two” and million. When you look at the entry for ‘trillion,’ you see that it was created from Latin <tri> “three” and million. It is described as the third power of million. There is a pattern developing here. we can see the structure of ‘million,’ but can’t see the same structure in ‘billion’ and ‘trillion.’ Interesting, isn’t it? Every once in a while I come across words like this that are modeled on another spelling which makes them hard to analyze on their own. We can know how they came to be that way, but we can’t analyze them as we might like to. Instead, in a list like the following, we might underline the morphemic element that indicates a number. An example would be to underline the <quint> in ‘quintillion’ and mark that it means “five.”
The following link takes you to Sbiis Saibian’s Large Number Site. It is a web book on large numbers. The link takes you to the specific chapter called “The -illions Series.” I found that this chapter thoroughly tells the story of large numbers beginning with ‘million.’ I found much of the same information in my research, so I trust that this information is accurate. What’s nice is that this author has the story, along with the different versions of what to call the numbers larger than million all in one place! It’s quite fascinating, and I encourage you to take a look! The part of the chapter that deals with how these numbers came to have these names is under the the article 2.4.2 – Origin & Development of the -illions . Here’s a brief excerpt to whet your appetite!
[The term “million” doesn’t seem to exist at any time before the 13th century (1200’s). Apparently it is an augmented form of the latin word “mille” meaning thousand. By dropping the e and adding the -ion as a suffix one could translate “million” as literally “Great thousand”. It is not known who first coined this term. It was used sparingly in the centuries to follow and was sometimes regarded as a kind of slang and not legitimate language (perhaps much the same way neolisms today are regarded as unofficial ), and writers more often than not preferred the non-ambiguous “thousand thousand.”]
A particularly interesting fact is that the list doesn’t continue beyond the 20th family of million. But then, it is actually quite rare that any of these number names are used with any regularity beyond the use of trillion!
Grouped by shape
The following list is no doubt very familiar to anyone who has studied geometry. It is a list that I’m sure many school children have seen before and perhaps struggled with figuring out how to remember what each word means. To make that task easier, I usually put it side by side with the list you were just reading about – the list of numbers beyond millions. It is so interesting when you compare the two lists. Instead of me pointing out similarities and differences, the students can do it for themselves. I’ve made a chart so that you can see at a glance how all the numbered groups I’ve mentioned relate to one another in meaning. You’ll find the chart below this list of shapes.
What I have found interesting in looking at the list of shapes is that the first one (triangle) pretty clearly refers to a shape with three angles. The second shape listed is a quadrilateral which in math books is also referred to as a quadrangle. But why the two names? The word quadrangle originated in Latin as quandrangulum and was used to mean a “four-sided figure.” What’s interesting to me is that the word literally means “four angles” and yet it is defined as a “four sided figure”. Perhaps it is nothing to get hung up on since a four-sided figure will have four angles and a shape with four angles will have four sides. The word quadrilateral originated in Latin as quadrilaterus and was used to mean “figure formed of four straight lines.” That makes sense to me because I’ve seen ‘lateral’ in other words and it has always had something to do with “side.”
Sometimes the word is used generally. In the following pictures you are looking at a lateral view (side view) of a goat skeleton and also a building.
Wilhelm Ellenberger and Hermann Baum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Other times the use of lateral is more specific. Notice the darkly pigmented lateral line on this fish? Many fish have a lateral line.
Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Here is an example of a lateral pass in football. According to Wikipedia, “The ball carrier throws the football to a teammate in a direction parallel to or away from the opponents’ goal line.” So the ball is moved to one side or the other. In Canadian football this is more commonly known as an onside pass and in American football it is known as a backward pass.
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Warrant Officer 4 Seth Rossman., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Getting back to the mathematical use of these words, I also recall seeing ‘equilateral’ in math texts that I have used with children. This indicates that a shape has equal sides. And just as I have seen quadrilateral and quadrangle referring to the same shape, I have also see equilateral and equiangular referring to the same shape. Again, when we have a shape with equal sides, it will have equal angles.
Now let’s look at ‘pentagon’ which will help us understand the spellings of the rest of the words on this list. According to Etymonline, its Greek root is πεντά–γωνος (pentagōnos) meaning “five-angled or five-cornered.” The Greek root is a compound made up of pente “five” and gōnia “angle.” From this information we can see that hexagon, septagon, octagon, and the rest are words for a shape with a particular number of angles.
An interesting relative of Greek gōnia is Greek gony “knee.” Do you see what a knee and an angle have in common? The Latin equivalent to Greek gony is genu. You may be familiar with that base in the word ‘genuflect’ which is when someone bends their knee in worship or out of respect. The Old English word for knee was cneo or cneow. In Old English, the initial <c> would have been pronounced as /k/. Now you can see where our <kn> digraph spelling came from!
I brought together all of the words I’ve mentioned that have something to do with a numbered group. Might be a great discussion starter! Perhaps someone will think of another kind of group that gets numbered in this way that I haven’t thought to include. How exciting!
Can you and your students spot instances in which the same element is used in the different lists? Do you notice that The Hellenic people and the Romans had different names for elements that represented the same amount? Do any of the word elements we see remind you of words from other languages? What does the rest of the word (besides the element that indicates a number) in each list mean?
Here’s an idea for those of you in classrooms. Split your class into groups and pair up each group with one of these categories. Let the students find what they can about the words, their origins, and the way we use these words in our society. This would obviously be a project they work at each day for a week or two depending on your students. Your job is to circulate between the groups to offer guidance and celebrate what they are finding. Then let each group rehearse in a corner of the room before present their findings to the rest of the class. In my experience, the groups may not finish at the same time. That’s fine. Let them present when they are ready. Have some new investigations ready for the groups who finish first.
The sources I used today were Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, Etymonline, Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon, and the OED.
Lately, the use of the title ‘doctor’ has come into question. The wife of our newly elected President has the title of Dr. Biden, and yet she holds no medical license. She has been accused of using the title to give herself fake importance. Is it fake though? Where does this practice of granting people this title come from? What does it take to be a doctor? Can anyone be one? As usual, we need to look into the story of this word. How long has it been in use? Has it always indicated a person with medical knowledge? When did it refer to others with particular knowledge in their respective fields as well?
I started at Etymonline and found that the word doctor was first attested c. 1300 and spelled doctour. At the time it was used to mean “Church father.” Before that it was used in Old French where it came directly from Medieval Latin doctor meaning “religious teacher, advisor, scholar.” In Classical Latin it was used to mean “teacher.”
So far the only tie to a specific area of knowledge is that of religion. I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and found examples of this word in use. In the late 1300’s saints were known as doctors. In one example, a saint was known as a doctor of truth. In an example from the mid-1500’s, Christ Jesus was referred to as the heavenly doctor. And in the mid-1600’s a person was referred to as a doctor of divinity, while another a doctor of theology.
Around this same time, the sense of this word broadened to include other areas beyond religion. Notice this definition listed at Etymonline.
Look at that! Since the late 14th century, we as a society have been referring to people who hold the highest degree in a university as doctor. I looked back at the OED to verify this with actual examples and found that in the late 1600’s there was a person given the title of “Doctor of Music.” An excerpt from roughly a hundred years later mentions someone being named a “Doctor of Laws.” But as I continue to scroll through the entry, I find that people were called doctors of law as early as 1377! The noun ‘doctorate’ as in the degree of learning earned is from the 1670’s. This is not new, and it is not a fake title!
In the same way that the title of ‘doctor’ was given to someone with extensive learning in law or music, it was also given to someone with extensive learning in the medical field, although according to Etymonline it did not become popular until the late 16th century. The term “medical professional” replaced the term “leech.” How about that! Here is the Etymonline entry.
It is interesting to look at the possible roots of this word and see that they include things like “enchanter, one who speaks magic words, healer, physician, charmer, exorcist, one who counsels, and conjurer.” This speaks to the attitudes and perceptions regarding medicine as the field grew, doesn’t it? It may be difficult to separate the idea of a leech being a physician from the idea of a leech being a bloodsucking aquatic worm, but according to Etymonline they were indeed two separate words with distinctive uses. One (worm) became assimilated to the other (physician) by way of folk etymology. (Folk etymology is a popular but mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase.) Here are some interesting compound words I found at the OED.
Leech-fee … a physician’s fee
Leech-house … a hospital
Leechman … a physician
Leech-finger … what we typically refer to as our ring finger. Old English spelling was læcefinger. It was translated from Latin digitus medicus which was in turn transcribed from Greek δακτυλος ιατρικος. It was called that because it was believed that this finger had a vein that stretched to the heart.
Apparently this term narrowed in its use to refer only to veterinary practices until the 17th century when it slowly became archaic. What a great example of how the people who speak the language determining by their use of words which ones stay and which ones fall out of use! If you are wondering where the connection is between physicians and the use of leeches as a medicinal practice, that wasn’t attested until 1802. In my own mind, I thought it was earlier than that, but I’m probably thinking of the related practice of bloodletting which happened much earlier.
If we renew our focus on the word ‘doctor’, and note its root of docere “to know, teach, cause to know,” we’ll recognize the following related words.
doctor – a person who holds a doctorate.
doctorate – the highest degree awarded by a graduate school or other approved educational organization.
doctoral – relating to achieving a doctorate.
doctiloquent – this word is rare but one I enjoy. It describes one who speaks learnedly.
doctrine – beliefs held and taught by a church, political party or other group.
indoctrinate – teach someone to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.
doctrinaire – someone who seeks to impose a doctrine without regard to practical considerations.
doctress – female doctor. Becoming less common as woman-doctor becomes more common.
docile – ready to accept control or instruction; submissive.
docility – this word began as “readiness or aptness to learn”, but since the 1600’s has meant “submissiveness to management.”
docent – a person who acts as a guide in a museum, art gallery, or zoo.
document – written work that provides information or evidence that serves as an official record.
Back to where this started …
Dr. Biden holds two masters degrees and a doctorate in educational leadership. Since the late 14th century, that kind of commitment to learning has earned a person the title of ‘doctor’. Granted, it probably didn’t include women back then, but we’re past that part, aren’t we? It can take between four and six years to complete a doctorate. That is in addition to the time it takes to get a masters. Many countries require a masters before one can study for a doctorate. The U.S. has been changing that requirement in recent years, but you can see that Dr. Biden earned two masters degrees before earning her doctorate.
Instead of choosing one doctorate program (medical) as important and all others as fake or undeserving of the title that goes along with that level of time commitment to learning, I say we encourage more people to seek that title. Our society needs experts in all areas! Our society needs more people committed to learning which in turn will benefit all of us!
This week I will be observing a lesson in a high school science class. The lesson will focus on naming ionic compounds. In preparation for this observation I asked to look over the reading materials the students will use. Having very little background in chemistry beyond that of what fifth grade students are expected to understand, I found words being used that I didn’t clearly understand. And, of course, knowing that if I want to increase my understanding of the lesson, I’ll need to understand the specific terminology, I did some word investigation.
The information tells us that this word was first attested in 1834. That means that the first time we have written evidence of this word existing is in 1834. And if you read further, you will see that it was coined by Michael Faraday on the suggestion by Rev. William Whewell and derived from the Greek word ion (ἰόν) which was a form of Greek ienai (ἰέναι) “go.” It is common to find scientific names for things attested from 1500 to present. During that time and in some cases even earlier, the Latin language was revived for scholarly and scientific purposes. This time period and the idea of coining words using stems derived from Latin and Greek is called Modern Latin. These words were coined in Modern Latin.
It is helpful to understand that the denotation of ‘ion’ is “go” because as it says at Etymonline, “ions move toward the electrode of opposite charge.” To see if I could find some more etymology, I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). The word ‘ion’ is defined as either a single atom, molecule, or a group that has a net electric charge. It doesn’t matter whether that charge is positive or negative, only that that charge is a result of either the loss or addition of an electron. Next I set out to find some related words.
ionic – <ion + ic> “relating to or composed of ions.” adjective
ionically – <ion + ic + al + ly> “relating to or composed of ions.” adverb
ionicity – <ion + ic + ity> “the degree to which something is ionic.”
ionizer – <ion + ize + er> “a device that helps an air purifier be more effective.”
ionogen – <ion + o + gen> “a substance able to produce ions.”
ionography – <ion + o + graph + y> “a form of printing in which a static electric charge draws toner particles from the drum to the paper.”
ionomer – <ion + o + mer> “a polymer that contains ions.”
ionosphere – <ion + o + sphere> “layer of the atmosphere that contains a high level of ions and reflects radio waves.”
ionopause – <ion + o + pause> “the boundary layer of the ionosphere where it meets either the mesosphere at one side or the exosphere on its other.”
ionosonde – <ion + o + sonde> “special radar used to examine the ionosphere.”
cation – <cat + ion> “positively charged ion.”
anion – <an + ion> “negatively charged ion.”
You will notice that the only two words on my matrix that form a compound word with ‘ion’ being the second base are ‘anion’ and ‘cation’. A closer look at these two words brings with it many interesting finds!
The Etymonline entry is interesting.
Notice that the word ‘anode’ is bolded. When I see that, I always follow such a word to find out more. In this case, I see that ‘anode’ is first attested in 1834. As is the case with ion, cation, anode, and cathode, the word was proposed by Rev. William Whewell and published by Michael Faraday. It’s pretty obvious that these two were needing to name components of what they were studying and finding! The first base is derived from Greek ana “up”, and the second base is derived from Greek hodos “way, path, track.”
According to Wikipedia, “An anode is an electrode through which the conventional current enters into a polarized electrical device. This contrasts with a cathode, an electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device.” This definition makes sense if we think about the literal translation of ‘anode’ as “up a path or way.” If ‘cathode’ is the electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device, then I’m guessing that the first base in ‘cathode’ must have a denotation of down. According to Etymonline, <cat> is indeed derived from Greek kata “down.” So in this case, as the current enters the device it is on its way up (anode), and when it leaves it is on its way down (cathode).
Back to ‘anion’. This word has a literal translation of “go up.” An anion has more electrons than protons, so it is negatively charged. You might say that the number of electrons is what “goes up” in an anion.
Here is the Etymonline entry.
Are you noting the same year of attestation once again? And the same scientists who coined this word? Another interesting thing to note is written right after the date of attestation (1834). It says that ‘cation’ is from a Latinized form of Greek kation “going down.” It is a Latinized form because the Roman scribes wrote the Greek letter kappa as a <c>. Since we now know that an ‘anion’ has more electrons than protons and has a literal sense of “go up”, it makes sense to think of a cation as having less electrons than protons (positive charge). The number of electrons is what “goes down” in an cation.
A word about the pronunciation of anion and cation.
It might be tempting to pronounce ‘anion’ similarly to ‘onion’ and ‘cation’ to what we hear in the portmanteau word ‘staycation’. But we would only be tempted to do that because of the commonly used suffix <-ion>! When the <-ion> suffix is added to a word like ‘one’, we end up with ‘onion’. The IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘onion’ is /ˈʌnjən/. The IPA representation for ‘anion’ is /ˈænaɪən/. Compare this pronunciation to that of ‘ion’, /ˈaɪən/. Do you see what is similar? The <ion> base is pronounced differently than the <-ion> suffix! Let’s see if it is the same with ‘cation’. If we think of the pronunciation of ‘staycation’, we would represent it with IPA like this /steɪˈkeɪʃən/. But the IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘cation’ is /ˈkædˌaɪən/. If you compare this with the pronunciation of ‘ion’, you will once again notice that the base <ion> is not pronounced the same as the <-ion> suffix!
Where else do we see this Hellenic base <cat>?
cataclysm – <cata + clysm> “wash down.” Originally a flood, now a large-scale or violent event.
catalog – <cata + log> “list down.” Also spelled <catalogue>.
cataplexy – <cata + plexy> “strike down.” An example is when an animal pretends it’s dead.
catarrh – <cata + rrh> “flowing down.” It is inflammation and discharge from a head cold.
catastrophe – <cata + strophe> “turning down.” It is the reverse of what is expected.
catatonic – <cata + tone + ic> “toned down.” A mental illness in which the person is immobile in both movement and behavior.
catabolic – <cata + bole + ic> “thrown down.” According to Wikipedia it is the breaking-down aspect of metabolism.
There are other words that also have this Helenic base, and its sense and meaning isn’t just limited to “down.” I just included a few words with that specific sense so we could easily connect it to what we see in ‘cation’.
Where else do we see this Hellenic base <ana>?
anadromous – <ana + drome + ous> “running upward.” An example is fish going upstream to spawn. (The <drome> base “run” is the same as in ‘dromedary’)
analeptic – <ana + lept + ic> “take up.” A drug that restores your health.
analysis – <ana + lysis> “loosen up.” A loosening of something complex into smaller segments.
anabolic – <ana + bole + ic> “thrown up.” According to Wikipedia it is the building-up aspect of metabolism.
Like <cata>, <ana> isn’t just limited to one sense and meaning. I chose words with this base and this sense so we could more easily see the connections to ‘anion’.
I always find it helpful to collect more information about words I’ve heard, but am not completely familiar with. When I saw similar words like anode and anion, and also cathode and cation, I knew that I would need to understand both bases in each of these compound words in order to keep their meanings straight. I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anode’ and ‘cathode’ has to do with a path or track. An anode is the electrode through which the electrical current enters a polarized electrical device, and a cathode is the electrode through which the current leaves. I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anion’ and ‘cation’ has to do with movement. An anion has more electrons than protons and is negatively charged. A cation has more protons than electrons and is positively charged.
Knowing that <ana> has a denotation of “up” helps me picture an arrow pointed up indicating that the number of electrons is higher than that of the protons in an anion. Knowing that <cata> has a denotation of “down” helps me picture an arrow pointed down, indicating that the number of electrons is lower than that of the protons in an cation.
Now I feel better prepared to learn about naming ionic compounds.
The more I bring up morphology with people (as it relates to teaching reading and spelling), the more I realize that it is not very well understood. Just a day or two ago a teacher asked how to help her 5th grade students who read quite well, but had significant problems with spelling. Man. Her students sounded like so many of the students I have known! So I responded with this. (It may seem like a long response, but I wanted to be clear about what I was saying.)
“I would be interested in knowing the types of spelling errors they are making. Does it have to do with an unawareness of morphology? It is common for me to see ‘barely’ spelled as ‘barley’ until I ask what the structure of this word is. In my first question to the student I ask if they think the word has a prefix or suffix. The student will say <ly>. Then I ask what the base is, and they tell me it is <bare>. I ask them to announce the word sum for the word. They will say <bare + ly>. Then I ask them if the <ly> will replace a single, final, non-syllabic <e>, and they respond with, “no.” Finally I’ll ask them to spell the word. They say, “bare ly.” (I teach them to leave an ever so slight pause between the morphemes to show they recognize those morpheme boundaries.)
My guess is that your students are spelling phonetically which is rarely the same as correctly by the time they are in fifth grade. You mentioned having checked the usual things, but you didn’t mention word structure. It can account for misspellings that indicate a lack of understanding about suffixing conventions, unfamiliarity with free and bound bases, and unfamiliarity with prefixes, suffixes and connecting vowels.
No matter what grade you are teaching, if you are teaching children to spell words based on sounds they hear as they pronounce the word, sooner or later that strategy will fail for them. Incorporating the influence of morphology and etymology on English spelling is a huge missing piece. It helps with reading AND writing.
If you’d be willing to share some of the students’ misspellings, I’d be interested in seeing them. I have taught spelling through morphology, etymology, and phonology in fifth grade for 8 years now. Students come in spelling phonetically, and I teach them to spell with word sums. The discussions we have, and how quickly they establish a broader understanding of English spelling is something to behold.”
The woman thanked me for my response but then said something very telling as far as her understanding about morphology. She said that she lives in a foreign country and the words in their language don’t have many Greek or Latin roots, so she doesn’t teach much morphology. Hmmm. It isn’t hard to imagine how this woman got the impression that teaching students about morphology means teaching Greek and Latin bases. Many teachers who don’t have the background knowledge to truly understand English spelling rely on materials put out by people who may be focused on vocabulary building rather than focusing on a word’s structure. So often the teaching of morphology gets reduced to teaching words that have common Greek or Latin bases as if that’s all there is to it.
Teaching students to understand and use morphology in order to understand English spelling will often involve looking at Greek or Latin bases. That’s a fact. But it may not! Looking to understand a word’s structure may lead students to Old English or Old French or any of a number of languages that are left out of the books that focus solely on Greek or Latin roots. And my biggest complaint about the materials I’ve seen that are currently available to teachers is that they don’t really address the morphemic structure of words at all!
For instance, let’s say they pick the Latin verb ducere “to lead,” and state that it might be spelled ‘duce’, ‘duc’, or ‘duct’. That is followed by a list of words that might include introduce, deduces, seduction, education, and reducing. The rest of the page is a fill-in-the-blank for the students, usually related to the meaning of the words. Is this terribly false information? Not really. But does it teach morphology? Not really.
Are the students asked to hypothesize a word sum for the words? Do they recognize for themselves the prefixes and suffixes in each of these words? Do they know the sense that each prefix used brings to the denotation of the base? Do they know whether the suffix is inflectional or derivational? Do they find out why the author says the spelling is sometimes ‘duce’ and sometimes ‘duc’? And what about ‘duct’? There’s no <t> in the Latin verb ducere, so where is that <t> coming from? Do they find out why the ‘duc’ in ‘education’ is pronounced differently than the ‘duc’ in ‘reducing’?
Some of you reading this may know enough to recognize that some of my proposed questions could be investigated by looking at the word’s etymology and at least one question needs to involve an understanding of grapheme/phoneme correspondences. It just goes to show you that if you want a full explanation of a word’s spelling, you need to look at the interrelationship between the morphology, the etymology, and the phonology. The etymology and the morphology inform the phonology. They provide the reasons for the grapheme/phoneme choices.
I found the following video on Youtube. I was searching for information on morphology that might broaden some of the narrow views some people have of it. Overall I like this video. It addresses content and function words which is a very helpful classification to know. Understanding the difference between these two groups of words has been helpful when teaching spelling and grammar! I also like the tree diagram that explains what is included under the heading of “Morphology.”
If I could change anything though, it would be to use the word ‘bases’ instead of ‘roots’. It makes sense to me to reserve the use of the word ‘roots’ to refer to the furthest back relative of a word. So, if the furthest back we can trace the <duce> in ‘reduce’ is Latin ducere, that Latin ducere is what I would call the ‘root’. For discussions of the main morpheme in a Modern English word (<duce> in ‘reduce’), I would call that main morpheme a ‘base’. I don’t see these two as interchangeable since they describe distinct situations.
The other thing I would change about this video is to have the host spell out all morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words. I know that pronouncing morphemes is a very common practice, but just think of how the repetition of spelling out those morphemes would help them hold a place in a student’s memory. If the student is trained to remember a pronunciation, there is no guarantee two children with slightly different personal pronunciations of a morpheme will spell it the same!
But an even bigger reason for not pronouncing morphemes when announcing a word sum is because until the word is complete, we don’t know the pronunciation. One of my favorite examples of this is the bound base <dict>. If you try to pronounce it as you would a finished word, how would you do it? Would you pronounce it as you do in ‘diction’, ‘indictment’, or ‘predictable’? Have you noticed that the base is pronounced differently in each word I mentioned? If we model pronouncing it as we hear it in ‘predictable’, then a student is sure to mispronounce the word ‘indictment’. Or when hearing the pronunciation of ‘indictment’, the student probably won’t recognize that ‘indictment’ has the same base as ‘diction’, and therefore a meaning connection between them. After all, the vast majority of students are not taught that a specific spelling represents a specific meaning. They are taught instead that a specific spelling represents a pronunciation and that a word’s meaning is what you will find in a dictionary. What a loss for the student!
This video points out that morphemes can be free or bound. By definition all affixes are bound. The name ‘prefix’ and the name ‘suffix’ give that away, don’t they? Looking at each word’s morphemes we can understand how they both function in a word. ‘Prefix’ is composed of the morphemes <pre-> “before” and <fix> which derives from Latin figere “fasten.” Its literal meaning is “fasten before.” ‘Suffix’ is composed of the morphemes <suf>, an assimilated form of <sub> “up from under” and <fix> “fasten.” Its literal meaning is “fasten or place under.” So a prefix is fastened before the base and the suffix is fastened after the base. No matter how many suffixes a word has, they all follow the base. Similarly, all prefixes are found in front of a base.
Bases are the only morpheme that can be free. Most of us are familiar with free bases and recognize them easily. When asked to name compound words, a student might say, “chalkboard, playground, rainbow, hallway, and starfish.” They have been taught that compound words are the result of two words being combined and becoming a new word with a new meaning. So, for example, a star and a fish are different than a starfish. That is true information about a compound word, but it isn’t the whole picture.
If I was asked to name some compound words, I might name a familiar one like doghouse, but then I might also name emancipation, automatic, ice cream, and biography. Don’t recognize them as compounds? It’s probably because instead of including only free bases, they include one or more bound bases. And in just the same way that an affix must be fixed to another morpheme, so must a bound base. The reason that you might not recognize these as compound words is because you have most likely only been taught to recognize free bases. So when you look at one of the words I’ve mentioned, you’re not sure how to identify its structure because you haven’t been taught morphology.
Let’s take a closer look at the compound words I named. (The etymological information that is included in this post was found at Etymonline.)
‘Emancipation’ is composed of two bases along with one prefix and two suffixes. The prefix is <e->. It is a clip of the prefix <ex-> “out.” This prefix is fastened to the first bound base <man> from Latin manus “hand.” The next morpheme is another bound base <-cip>. It is a vowel shifted form of the Latin verb capere “take.” That bound base is followed by the suffix <ate> which would make this a verb if there wasn’t the final suffix <ion> (noun forming). The word sum is <e + man + cip + ate/ + ion>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “the act of taking out of one’s hands.”
‘Automatic’ is composed of two bound bases that are joined by a connecting vowel. It is a connected compound. The first base, <aut> from Greek autos “self,” is joined to the second base, <mate> from Greek matos “thinking, animated,” by the Helenic connecting vowel <o>. The <-ic> suffix signals that this word is an adjective. The word sum is <aut + o + mate/ + ic>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “self thinking or self animated.”
‘Ice Cream’ is composed of two bases that are not connected. It is an open compound. The first free base <ice> is from Old English is “ice, piece of ice.” The second free base <cream> is from Middle English creyme, creme, creem “the rich and buttery part of milk.” When we see this word, we recognize that it is a compound word. Some interesting etymological information is that in the 1680’s the word was ‘iced cream’. The word sum is <ice + cream>. The bases provide the sense of a dessert in which flavored cream is partially frozen through a process.
‘Biography’ is composed of two bound bases joined by a connecting vowel. It also contains a suffix. It is a connected compound. The first base is <bi> from Greek bios “life”. It is joined to the second base <graph> from Greek graphia “record, account” by the Hellenic connecting vowel <o>. The <-y> suffix in this word signals that it is a noun. The word sum is <bi + o + graph + y>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “a record of someone’s life.”
Now that we’ve looked at a few different kinds of compound words, let’s go back and update the definition of a compound word. Instead of stating that a compound word is the result of two words being combined, let’s say that it is the result of two or more bases being combined. In this way, the bases don’t have to be free bases (able to stand alone as a word). They can be free bases, bound bases, or a combination of the two!
At this point, you may be saying, “Is it really worth going into such detail about the structure of a word?” And I would argue that it definitely is. The true benefit of teaching students that words have structure and guiding them as they hypothesize what that structure might be is that the students will quickly realize that bases and affixes that they see in one word will appear in others as well! Let’s take another look at one of the compound words I mentioned.
‘Emancipation’. The word sum is <e + man + cip + ate/ + ion –> emancipation>.
Where else might we see the <e-> prefix?
erupt “break out”
educate “lead out”
erode “gnaw away”
evade “go or walk away”
Where else might we see the <man> bound base?
manufacture “something made by hand”
manicure “care for hands”
Where else might we see the <-cip> bound base?
participate “take part”
anticipate “take care of before”
principal “take first position; chief leader”
principle “take first; origin, source”
Where else might we see the <-ate> verbal suffix?
excavate “hollow out”
irrigate “bring water in”
decorate “embellish or beautify”
estimate “approximate judgement”
As we now look at the <-ion> noun-forming suffix, it is interesting to note that it is often paired with the <-ate> suffix!
excavation “action of hollowing out”
irrigation “action of bringing water in”
decoration “action of embellishing or beautifying”
estimation “action of approximately judging something”
Besides noting the suffix convention of replacing the single, final, non-syllabic <e> on the <-ate> suffix when adding the vowel suffix <-ion>, there is also the phonology of the <t> in the <-ate> suffix to notice. The list of words that have <ate> final are pronounced with a final /t/. But once the <-ion> suffix is added and the single, final, non-syllabic <e> has been replaced, the <t> now has a /ʃ/pronunciation. I have found that students make less spelling errors when they understand the structure. Let me explain what I mean. So with ‘excavation’, the word sum is <ex + cave/ + ate/ + ion>. From the first day of the school year, I tell my students that my goal for them is to spell words by spelling out the morphemes rather than spelling the words letter by letter. They can’t imagine spelling a word any other way than letter by letter, but by the end of the year many have indeed made that change. And they feel like their spelling is stronger for it. This word is a good example of how that can be possible. The student announces the word they are spelling. Then they parse it into morphemes. When they get as far as <ex + cave + ate>, they know that in adding the vowel suffix <-ion>, they will be replacing the single, final, non-syllabic <e>. Then they proceed to spell out the <-ion> suffix. At no point does the consideration of a ‘shun’ spelling cross their mind. Through our repeated writing of word sums, the students have come to know that even when pronunciation shifts in a word family, the spelling doesn’t. ‘Excavate’ wouldn’t become *’excavashun’ because they know the structure. They are no longer spelling by what they hear, but by what they know of the morphemic structure. And that structure is, of course, aided by etymological information.
You can see that in noting the morphological structure of one word (emancipation), my students have thought about the structures and meaning connections to at least 16 others! THIS is how we build vocabulary (which aides in comprehension) and strengthen spelling (which makes writing less laborious). When we seek connections in this way, students become aware of many more affixes which in turn helps them hypothesize logical and reasoned word sums. This isn’t to say we never get stumped in trying to fully analyze a word’s structure. We get stumped often. But we don’t give up or call English crazy. We look at our resources and based on the evidence we find, we write a word sum. That means that at times we are limited by our resources and sometimes our ability to understand the resources. That’s okay. The really important thing is not to analyze further than you have evidence for. Offer a word sum you can support with evidence. Once you parse a word by how it looks or how it sounds, you have abandoned the methodical scientific aspect of Structured Word Inquiry.
Now spotting a particular base or affix doesn’t guarantee the student will automatically know the word it is in. But it does mean that the student will pause and think about the word. They will wonder if the morpheme they recognize is indeed the same morpheme that we have looked at in class. If they have recognized a base element, they will pause and try to see if the denotation of the base element can give them a clue to the meaning of the word they have just found it in. It might also be that the word is very familiar, but the student never before recognized that it could be further analyzed. In this case they are often delighted to now see the structure they were previously unaware of. For me, I remember how I felt when I realized that ‘been’ was really <be + en> and that ‘happen’ was <hap + en>. Having a real understanding of how words are structured, where those morphemes come from, and what sense and/or meaning they bring to a word has brought me such joy! I wonder about words all the time. And researching their heritage to better determine the morphemes is a pursuit powered by fascination. I never know what I will find and that is so motivating!
The benefits of teaching morphology are many. Here are a few specific benefits that I have seen in my classroom.
~ Students are able to identify the structure of the words they use. They don’t have to wait to know about an <-ous> suffix because of some arbitrary suffix scope and sequence. If it is used in the words they use, and they routinely identify other suffixes, then they will already understand some things about suffixes in general and grow their understanding of word structure in general.
~ Students will recognize that frequently the words they read have more than one suffix or more than one prefix. There is so much information revealed when the structure is understood. Often the stress in the word shifts with the addition of a suffix (when adding that suffix adds another syllabic beat). Specifically pointing that out to children helps them see that ‘photograph’ and ‘photography’ or ‘interrogate’ and ‘interrogative’ are related words even though they are pronounced in a way that makes them feel like two totally different words.
~ Students will learn the difference between free and bound bases. They will recognize familiar bases when they encounter them in unfamiliar words and quite possible by able to figure out what the unfamiliar word means. My students have given me numerous examples of this happening to them.
~ Students will come to know the suffixing conventions well because they will encounter it often as they write and announce word sums. Not only will they understand what the suffixing convention is, but they will understand why it is needed or why it is not in a specific word. That means that they will be able to apply that understanding on their own to the vast number of words they will encounter for the rest of their lives!
~ Students will spell a word by thinking through its structure and by spelling it out morpheme by morpheme. They will write words sums and announce them, acknowledging any suffixing conventions that were applied.
~ Students will learn the functions of the single, final, non-syllabic <e>. My students have typically come into fifth grade with only a “sound it out” spelling strategy which doesn’t work at all for a non-syllabic <e>. Understanding why that <e> is there has helped many of my students who used to leave it off in words like continue, house, and breathe.
~ Students will understand that a prefix brings a sense to a word, but that the same prefix doesn’t always bring the same sense to every word it is a part of. This is when an etymological resource is important. An example of this is in the word ‘corrode’. The prefix <cor-> is an assimilated form of <con-> (which is generally thought to bring a sense of “together” to words it is part of). The base is <rode> and has a sense and meaning of “gnaw”. (If you are recognizing that it might also be a base in the word ‘rodent’, you are right!) In the word ‘corrode’, though, the prefix is an intensifier. It intensifies the action of the base. So if a battery corrodes, you can imagine it intensely gnawing at the components around it!
~ When a student is reading and comes to a word they don’t think they know, they can spell it out, looking for recognizable morphemes. It might just be that they haven’t yet encountered that base with an attached prefix before. This strategy works more often that you might think.
~ Students will become familiar with the idea that one grapheme can represent more than one phoneme. The example I will use is the grapheme <t> in <act> representing the phoneme /t/. When we add the <-ion> suffix, the grapheme <t> now represents the phoneme /ʃ/. In word families where the pronunciation shifts, it is crucial that the student understand that it is the spelling that is consistent. When they know the morphemes in ‘act’ and ‘action’, they won’t be tempted to use an <sh> in the spelling of ‘action’. They will understand the difference between a word divided into syllabic parts and a word analyzed into its morphemes. Students acquire word meaning and spelling by learning morphemes. Syllabic division is used as an aide to pronunciation.
~ Students will learn that words have a history and that even alphabet letters have a history. Often this history part, this etymology, helps us understand a modern spelling. As an example, my students understood the <ph> spelling in ‘sphere’ when we learned that the word is from Greek sphaira and I was able to show them the actual Greek spelling, σφαιρα. The second letter in the Greek spelling is phi. It was the Roman scribes who transcribed it as <ph> since they didn’t have the letter phi in their alphabet.
~ Students will encounter and build an understanding of connecting vowels. These vowels can connect two bases, a base to a suffix, or a suffix to another suffix. They are used when one or more of the bases in the word is from either Greek or Latin. The use of <o> as a connecting vowel is specific to Greek and the use of <i>, <u>, or <e> is specific to Latin.
~ Students will learn about bases that derived from Greek and Latin, many of which we notice when studying the sciences. They will also learn that the majority of the words we use every day are in fact from Old English. When identifying a morpheme such as the base element, finding out its language of origin helps us see the bigger picture of how our language has evolved. They will become aware of the influence of Old French and more.
~ Because we don’t deal in “right” or “wrong” answers and instead deal with “likely” or “less likely” based on the evidence, students are much more willing to hypothesize a word sum. They also discover that once you investigate a word, even though you learned a lot, there is always more to learn. Once the awareness is established, specific bases and affixes seem to appear left and right! My students have described it this way, “With spelling, once you know the word the door is shut. You don’t need to go back. With orthography, you can come back to the word as many times as you want. There will always be something else to notice.”
Morphology can’t be taught as a stand alone any more than phonology or etymology. You have probably noticed in the list above that in identifying a word’s structure, etymological information is often necessary. Once the etymology has been considered and the morphemes in the word sum identified (matching the understanding of the person writing the word sum), the grapheme/phoneme correspondences are noted and oftentimes better understood because of the etymological research involved. Deciding for a child that learning morphology, etymology AND phonology is just too much, and that they only need to focus on sounds in order to read, is denying them the opportunity to see the bigger picture of our language. It is setting them up to view English spelling as full of exceptions that have no explanations. And it’s not that there aren’t explanations, it’s that someone is keeping a full two-thirds of the story from the child, thinking that later on some other teacher will supply that. The problem is that when reading and spelling difficulties arise, no matter the grade level, the advice is to start back at step one. Many children are never offered the full picture, the complete story, the understanding they deserve. Teaching morphology can’t be taught in isolation. So making the commitment to teach morphology is making the commitment to teach the combination of morphology, etymology, and phonology. It is making the commitment to show students how all the parts work together to build an understanding of a word within a language. It is empowering the student with the ability to read a word, write that word, and to see meaning connections across words because of what they understand about morphemes.
The above quote by Albert Einstein is one of my favorite. I have hung it in the hallway in anticipation of our Science Fair every year. But after a few years of replacing spelling instruction with Structured Word Inquiry, I began to realize how well it applied to what we were doing with words. I love that scientists aren’t expected to have answers ready at every turn. Science is methodical and takes the time it takes. Even when research is finished and conclusions are drawn, it is understood that those findings are temporary. They are the current understanding and are open to further questioning and research at any time. And when someone takes the time to research, test, and publish new findings, those findings are thoughtfully considered by fellow scientists who either accept or challenge them. In that respect, science is not static. It is always moving towards a deeper understanding. If you are using Structured Word Inquiry, you will recognize the parallels here.
When I think about the first part of the quote, “If we knew what we were doing,” I recognize that SWI can feel like that sometimes, especially at first. You want to just jump in and use it with students, but so many things nag at you. “What if they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer? What should I do first? What needs to be taught before I begin with SWI?” Personally, I ignored those kinds of questions when I started and asked instead, “How long before my students are asking the kinds of questions that Dan Allen’s students ask?”
(It was on the weekend before we returned from winter break in 2012 that I happened upon Dan Allen’s blog and found out about Structured Word Inquiry. What drew my attention were the questions the students were asking about words and spelling, AND the fascinating discussions that followed. I couldn’t wait to bring it to my students and see what we could learn! How could SWI deepen our understanding of words and help with the spelling struggles that are typically seen in a classroom? It was two days after reading and talking with Dan and Real Spelling that I began talking about words with my 5th graders. Our human resources were Dan Allen, Real Spelling, and Pete Bowers from WordWorks. What a team!)
One of the first words we investigated as a class was ‘prejudice.’ We first encountered it while reading a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.. It stood out as an interesting word, along with discrimination, segregation, emancipation, equality, separate, justice, integration, civil, and protest. Prior to January of 2013, we would have briefly talked about these words as they were used in the reading, and perhaps the students would have matched up the word to its definition on a worksheet. No doubt a few of my students would have probably requested that these words be added to their weekly spelling test as “challenge words.” But now I was looking forward to something different, something worthy, something that would change our understanding of English spelling. After we investigated this word together, I split the students into small groups so they could each investigate one of the other words and share their findings. So what did we learn with that very first investigation? And how did that investigation shape all the ones I’ve guided students through since then?
Let’s start with a screen shot from one of my earliest blog posts. It was published on January 23, 2013.
You will notice that all five hypotheses identify <pre> as a morpheme. More specifically, the students identified it as a prefix that they were familiar with. The first hypothesis feels like syllabic division, doesn’t it? The last hypothesis illustrates a knowledge of letters being “dropped” in spellings, but not a knowledge of when or why. This was a great first step.
It is necessary at this point, to remind you that when I began bringing SWI into my classroom, my own understanding of English spelling was on a par with that of my students. These were great hypotheses, but my own preferences over which one might be most likely were based on what “felt right” rather than what I could support with evidence. I was talking the talk, but was in the weeds as far as having a personal knowledge of the regularities of English spelling. But then again everything we do and want to understand begins with that first step, doesn’t it? I was more excited to see what we could all learn through SWI than I was scared to reveal my own lack of knowledge. My excitement overpowered my fear, and that turned out to be a good thing for all of us!
In the second step of our investigation, we read the entry for ‘prejudice’ at Etymonline. We learned that this word was first attested in the 13th century. At that time it meant “despite, contempt.” Earlier in the same century, this word was used in Old French with the same spelling we see today. Prior to it being in Old French, it was in Medieval Latin and spelled prejudicium. Earlier yet it was spelled praejudicium in Latin where it meant “prior judgment.” This earliest spelling could be analyzed as prae “before” and judicium “judge.” We talked about the fact that the sense and meaning of this word hadn’t changed much in all the years that it has existed. We use it today to denote a sense of prejudging a person and usually in a negative way. At that point we felt ready to collect some words that might be related. We were off to use Word Searcher by Neil Ramsden.
It was at this point that we missed an opportunity to have a better understanding of what we would be looking for at Word Searcher! We had boatloads of enthusiasm, but lacked experience in conducting word investigations. You see there was a hyperlink to the related word ‘judge’ in the entry at Etymonline that we ignored. There was pertinent information related to the spelling of ‘judge’ that would have made us look differently at the words we found. But we were eager and jumped a little too quickly to the next step.
We found a list of words that we knew to be related in meaning to both ‘prejudice’ and ‘judge.’ We thought about the spelling of each word and noticed which letters were exactly the same in each word. We wrote the word sums listed below and created the accompanying matrix. The following is another screen shot from that January, 2013 blog post.
At this point we were pretty pleased with ourselves. We had noticed that all of the words had <jud> in common. We made the leap that it was the base. Did I really think that <ge> was a suffix? I thought, “Maybe.” I mean, my head was just as full of “spelling is random” as my students’ heads were. Let me interject that at this point I had been teaching for 18 years, and none of the spelling curriculum I had been handed talked much about suffixes beyond <ing>, <ed>, <s>, and a few others. You added them to words, you removed them, and you learned rules like “Double, Drop, Change.” Our spelling books focused more on the “vowel pattern” (pronunciation) and word use. My college education didn’t include much information either. There was a Language Arts textbook that was focused on teaching children to read, but it didn’t really reveal much about spelling. Anything I knew about words and how they can be considered to be made up of parts, I deduced from my own K-12 schooling and by noticing words when I read. Obviously I was missing some pretty foundational pieces! Everything I was learning as I introduced Structured Word Inquiry to my students was as new to me as it was to them. And I must say we had a glorious time learning together!
What is it that I missed?
Had I followed that hyperlink at Etymonline to the entry for ‘judge’, I would have learned that as a noun, it was first attested in the mid 14th century. At that time it was used to mean “public officer appointed to administer the law.” Earlier it was from Old French juger, and further back in Latin it was spelled as iudex and meant “one who declares the law.” I might have been confused by the spelling in Latin. Why was an <i> the first letter in the Latin spelling? In Spellinars I have taken since (particularly Latin for Orthographers), I learned that in Latin, <i> and <j> were considered to be the same letter. It may sound confusing, but the people who spoke Latin understood its use well. Here is an excerpt from the book Letter Perfect by David Sacks which gives more information on this.
“… the shapes j and i were being used interchangeably to mean either a vowel sound or a consonant sound (which in English was “j”), and similarly, shapes U and V were used interchangeably for a vowel or a consonant, “u” or “v.” In the hands of printers of the 1500s and 1600s, shapes J and V gradually became assigned to the consonant sounds. Later J and V would officially joint the alphabet as our final two additions, letters 25 and 26.”
There are, of course, a number of books available that will provide a more complete understanding of these two letters, along with all the rest. As I reflect on finding out that letters, too, have stories, I am reminded of a particularly lovely moment from a year ago. We were looking at a sentence on the board and focusing on each of the words. We were noticing what language each word was from. A student raised her hand and asked a question that no student has ever thought to ask before. “If words have histories, and letters have histories, where do punctuation marks come from? Do they have histories too?” I still smile and can picture the student asking it. I think it stays with me because it reveals how curious this student had become about our language. I like to picture this student slowly opening a door and seeing more of what’s on the other side, bit by bit. The eyes widen in wonder. Back to Etymonline’s entry for ‘judge.’
A less hurried scholar wouldn’t have stopped with the entry for ‘judge’ either. I should have kept reading. The next entry as you scroll down is for <judge> as a verb. Its attestation date as a verb is 200 years earlier than as a noun! At that time it was spelled iugen and was used to mean “examine, appraise, make a diagnosis.” Moving forward to c 1300, it was used to mean “to form an opinion about; to inflict penalty upon, punish; try (someone) and pronounce sentence.” Now moving back in time prior to its attestation date, this word is from Anglo-French juger, Old French jugier. Further back it was from Latin iudicare meaning “to judge, to examine officially; form an opinion upon; pronounce judgment.” From there we learn it is from iudicem (nominative iudex) “a judge.” What comes next in the entry is very interesting. The Latin iudicem was a compound of ius “right, law” (see just (adj.)) + root of dicere “to say.” You can see that in the spelling of iudicem, right?
And then in the next paragraph there is this, “Spelling with -dg- emerged mid-15c.” If I look back at the spellings of this word as it moved from one language to the next, I see that in Latin the first three letters were <iud>. In Anglo-French and Old French, the first three letters were <jug>. Then in mid-15c. the spelling with <dg> emerged. Hmmm. A good place to get evidence to illustrate this is the Oxford English Dictionary. There are citings of the word being used over time. Below I have listed the year and how one of the ways it was spelled at that time. What is interesting is the inconsistency in spelling prior to 1500. Then from 1500 to 1600 we see a consistent spelling, but with <i> instead of <j>. As we learned earlier, it was with the use of the printing press that the <i> (when representing a consonant) came to be represented with a <j>. It is also when <j> became an official letter of our alphabet.
What this information tells me is that the <ge> can’t possibly be a suffix in the words judge, judgment, judgmental, misjudge, or in many of the other words that were included in my first matrix. What this information makes clear to me is that ‘prejudice’ and ‘judge’ do not share a base in modern English! The <ge> cannot be a separate morpheme from the <jud> in the word ‘judge.’ How do I know that? Because if I think about the graphemes in this word, I will note that there are three (j.u.dg) with the single final non-syllabic <e> functioning as a marker (marking the pronunciation of the <g>). If the <d> is part of the digraph <dg>, it cannot cross the boundaries of the morphemes to do that. Remember that a morpheme is made up of graphemes that represent phonemes. And letters in two different morphemes can never combine to become one grapheme.
That understanding is something I didn’t have when I made that first matrix. And that’s okay. I believe that a matrix is more like a snapshot of one person’s understanding at a given moment in time than it is like an answer key for anyone else. It is so tempting to see a matrix that someone else made and grab it to use in your own classroom. In fact earlier this summer I saw a teacher happily sharing a whole set of word matrices that she made in preparation for this fall. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But is there a good chance that many teachers will happily use those without looking carefully at them ahead of time? I think there is. If there is something on the matrix that they question, my hunch is that they will distrust their own thoughts and assume that someone else’s work must be right. It is so important to carefully look at a matrix and to question things that maybe you wouldn’t have put on there yourself. My first matrix is a good example of that. If other teachers use it without questioning that <ge> suffix I listed, they will spread their own misunderstanding. They won’t be spreading mine because I have moved on from what I understood then. From that one matrix, I made two that reflected our new understanding. This is a common and acceptable part of learning, isn’t it?
I’m so glad that this experience was one of my first. I’m glad I blogged about it then, and now I’m glad to be able to reassure others new to SWI that they can expect to learn along the way. Here are two valuable things I have kept in mind as I have continued to jump into word investigations with students in the years since.
Let go of the need to be right all the time in front of students. I used this opportunity to celebrate having learned something that probably felt quite obvious to others. It’s not my fault that I didn’t learn about graphemes, phonemes, and morphemes until that point in time. The students can relate to that feeling. How often have you seen that look on a student’s face – the one where you know they are feeling bad because they didn’t know something everyone else seemed to know. I make it a habit to share how delighted, even giddy I feel when I’ve learned something that I didn’t even know I didn’t know! Enthusiasm is catchy! And modeling this kind of response to having a misunderstanding gives students a healthy alternative to feeling bad. There should be joy at having learned something. And when a misunderstanding becomes an understanding, learning has occurred!
There is another side to this need to be right and to be ready. Often we feel obligated to anticipate the questions that the students are likely to ask and to be ready with an answer. If an unanticipated question is asked, we still feel the need to answer it as best we can. What if we didn’t feel the need to answer every question? Some of my absolute best classroom moments have happened when I put the question back on the student and listened to them think through their own question. Or let others respond which gave the original questioner a different perspective – one that they didn’t have to assume was correct (like they might if it came from the teacher). It is also a powerful thing to say in front of your students, “That is a brilliant question. I have no idea what the answer is. But I can tell you this. I will be thinking about your brilliant question all day!”
Don’t rush through the etymological story in order to get to the matrix. The teacher I mentioned previously that shared a whole set of matrices with other teachers did so thinking she was doing them a favor. They even thought that she was doing them a favor. But what none of them realize is that researching and gathering a list of related words in preparation for a matrix is a marvelous opportunity to walk through a word sum hypothesis yourself. Certainly there are words that may stump you (is that a prefix or a base?), but by figuring out where to look or perhaps who to ask, you get better at the process. And when you feel better at the process, you can exude a calm when faced with uncertainties in your classroom. Because of your experience, you will offer suggestions of where to look for the evidence to support the current thinking in regards to a specific word. Exactly what do those teachers using someone else’s matrix know about the story of the base on each of those matrices? What interesting tidbit can they share with their students (or find with their students) about that base’s history? Can any of the graphemes in the base’s spelling be explained by information found in the word’s ancestry? How old is the base and what language did it originate in? Of all the words that can be completed using the elements on the matrix, which is the oldest? The newest?
There are many reasons for using a matrix with students. A person definitely doesn’t need to know everything I’ve mentioned above in every instance. But there ARE interesting things to know, and quite often it is those interesting parts of the word’s story that are memorable to the students. And we want the students to remember the words, right? A matrix can be part of an activity, but if you present filled out matrices to your students week after week, what are your students learning about determining a word’s structure for themselves? Think of it this way. Is using someone else’s summary of a book a great way for you to completely understand the book yourself? Of course not. You would be missing many of the finer points. Make sure your use of matrices is part of a larger picture of a word. It should include the sense and meaning of the word, its etymology (which can reveal so many things), and a look at its grapheme/phoneme correspondences. The matrix celebrates a family of words. The other questions of SWI reveal the details of that family.
I guess my big message here is to mix up the way you use matrices. Sometimes you create them, and sometimes your students create them. Sometimes they are part of a full investigation, and sometimes they are used alone because there is something specific you want to highlight. ALWAYS carefully consider a matrix that someone else has made. If it jives with your understanding, great. If it doesn’t, don’t assume that questioning it is off limits. It doesn’t matter who created it! Be discriminating and teach your students to do the same. This is part of achieving a more solid understanding no matter what you are examining.
I have met many wonderful people while teaching my “Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom” online class. At the first thought of using SWI, there is hesitancy. There is a feeling that there is so much to learn before they could ever start using SWI with children. It is true that there is much to learn. But there are resources, classes, workshops, and people to help. And there are the wise words of Aristotle.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
Definitely take some classes and ask some questions. By all means purchase a subscription to Real Spelling’s Tool Box 2! And then begin doing, so you can learn.
When I realized the article was focused on the word ‘the’, I smiled. Putting aside whether or not it is in fact the most powerful word, we can all agree that it is certainly common. While it is not difficult to write a single sentence without this word in it, you’re not likely to find an entire paragraph without its use. In this article the author makes a great point, “While primary school children are taught to use ‘wow’ words, choosing ‘exclaimed’ rather than ‘said’, he doesn’t think any word has more or less ‘wow’ factor than any other; it all depends on how it’s used.” The ‘he’ referred to in this quote is Michael Rosen, poet and author.
I’m sharing this particular quote because I couldn’t agree more. While it feels right to bring to a student’s attention words like benevolent, pterodactyl, photographic, and emancipation, it is also right to bring to their attention words they already know how to spell, pronounce, and use. But that is less likely, isn’t it? There seems to be this driving task behind the teaching of reading: Teach all the words. Once the child “knows” a word, move on to the next. And how do we as teachers quickly judge whether a child “knows” a word or not? Speaking for myself, I used to question words that they couldn’t pronounce far more often than a word they could pronounce. I figured that if they couldn’t pronounce it, perhaps they were unfamiliar with it and then also didn’t know its meaning. And that might well be the case in many situations. It didn’t mean I shouldn’t question the words they pronounced smoothly, but since students at a fifth grade level can pronounce so many words, it is difficult to wonder which of those they don’t know the meaning of. (This is one of my personal struggles with frequent fluency tests and phonics teaching outside of the context of a word. I see where being fluent is needed, but because it is easy to test, we tend to do it a lot. And that sends the message to the students that speed is a sign of a great reader which we all know is not necessarily true.) When you pair fluency up with pronunciation before the sense and meaning of the word has been established and understood, we end up with students who read well, but comprehend poorly. My concern is that we pass along another unintended message about what is important to our students.
It’s probably impossible to rid oneself completely of teaching things you don’t intend. But if you are constantly aware of what you are teaching and the manner in which you are doing it, if you are constantly reflecting on whether or not that manner is the most effective way, and if you are constantly comparing what the students understand to what you intended them to understand, you stand a better chance of recognizing those unintended messages and doing something about them. It is another reason I wish we could do away with one-size-fits-all reading/writing/vocabulary programs and instead teach oureducators how the English language works. When a teacher comes to rely on a manual for “right and wrong,” too many stop seeking answers to questions that come up. The assumption is that if there were answers, they would be in the teacher manual. But they aren’t. Imagine having Structured Word Inquiry as a college requirement! We could then give students the opportunity to address the questions they have about English spelling, and teach them how to go about investigating their questions.
What specifically do most educators teach a child about a specific word? Well, I think it depends on the word. With the words ‘benevolent’, ‘pterodactyl’, ‘photographic’, and ’emancipation’, most would teach pronunciation, spelling, and meaning, either generally speaking or in the context of where the word was noticed. With the words ‘the’, ‘because’, ‘of’, and ‘their’, most would teach pronunciation, spelling, and point out their use in sentences (teaching meaning is not as clear-cut with function words).
The above paragraph describes teachers who are given a program to use and decide what is important for students to know about a word based on what they remember about their own learning of spelling. Teachers who incorporate the Four Questions of Structured Word Inquiry into their word study also bring in awareness of morphology and etymology to explain a word’s story and spelling. I’m not being judgy here, I just know how ill equipped I was before I found SWI. I believed I was giving them everything they needed. Wait. That’s not true. I knew I wasn’t helping them understand a word’s spelling, but I didn’t know how to fix that. I didn’t know where to learn more. When you’re handed a teacher manual, you assume it has everything you need to teach, explain, and understand spelling. Hardly.
Function and Content/Lexical Words The list of shorter words I’ve mentioned are called function words. Few students are taught about function words and lexical/content words. The more you know about why words are categorized this way, the more sense it makes to share that information with children. The following video gives you some basic information about these two categories. I would add that some words (adverbs for example) are less accurately placed specifically in one of these categories and more accurately placed on a spectrum that lists content words at one end and function words at the other. In other words, depending on context, a word might be functioning more as a content word or more as a function word. The other great point this video makes is that we reduce the stress on function words far more often than we reduce the stress on content words in speech. Explaining that to children would help them understand why they misspell those words when writing down sentences instead of words in isolation. It isn’t that the word is difficult, it’s what happens to the word when we speak as we do in our stress-timed language.
Another recognizable quality of content or lexical words is that they have at least three letters. That helps you understand the difference between ‘in’ (in the box) and ‘inn’ (a place to stay for the night). Think of the words ‘be’ and ‘bee.’ Which is easier to define in isolation? I bet you’ve answered ‘bee.’ That’s because it’s a content or lexical word. The function word ‘be’ is more difficult to define on its own because we don’t use it that way (on its own). It has a function in the sentence. Like the analogy the man used in the video, the function words kind of “hold up” the content words. In the sentence, “It’s going to be raining soon,” the word ‘be’ is reduced and is definitely “supporting” the content word ‘raining.’ If you can’t hear yourself put more stress (emphasis) on ‘raining’ than you do on ‘be,’ write down the sentence and ask someone else to read it. It might be easier to spot that way. Of course the fun of speaking a stress timed language is that you can move the stress in the sentence to emphasize different words and change the meaning of the sentence. That sentence could also have the stress on ‘soon’ (but it still wouldn’t be on ‘be.’
Every year, once my students have become familiar with using the Four Questions of Structured Word Inquiry, I ask them to choose any word to investigate. I’ve had students who chose a favorite food (bacon, cheese), a favorite animal (hippopotamus, octopus), a favorite object (amethyst, tractor), a random word from a book they were reading (perfidiousness, mission), and even their own name (Sawyer, Jade). But not until this year did I have a student who chose a function word! And guess which one he chose … you guessed it! The.
He was so surprised that there was this much information about such a short word! He and I discussed the Old English letter thorn (þ) that he saw in the Old English spellings in the entry at Etymonline. The chart in the entry is something this student recreated in his poster. He was a bit familiar with the earlier spellings of se (masculine), seo (feminine), þæt (neutral), and þa (plural) because we had watched the following video in which we learned the Old English names for common animals.
The first thing the author of this video does is explain why we will see different spellings for the early Old English spelling of ‘the.’ Here is a screen shot of that information as the author lays it out:
The spelling of <þe> replaced these forms in late Old English (after c.950). Old English had ten different words for ‘the’, but since there was no distinction between ‘the’ and ‘that’, both senses were embedded in those ten.
Reading further at Etymonline, I found out that ‘she’ probably evolved from the feminine form of ‘the’, sēo. The Old English word for ‘she’ was heo or hio, but there was a convergence of ‘he‘ and ‘heo‘ in pronunciation, and by 1530 ‘she’ and ‘he’ were separate words. We still see the original <h> in the word ‘her.’ (As I was checking out other resources for this post, I saw at the Oxford English Dictionary that there is another theory about how ‘she’ got its spelling. Check it out if you are able.)
Looking back at the boy’s poster, it is interesting to see the consistent <the> spelling of each related word with the exception of ‘thilk.’ This word is interesting because it was a contraction of the words ‘the’ and ‘same.’ So it was þe “the” plus ilce “same.” Several resources I looked at listed this word as archaic, so I went to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was first attested in 1225 and the most recent example they had of this word in use was in 1909. It had a sense of “this same one” or “the same.” I also googled the word to see if it would come up in any modern context. No such luck. In fact, Google assumed I was spelling the word incorrectly. That was more evidence that this word is not used much any more.
Because we study grammar in my classroom, the student knew that ‘the’ is an article, a definite article determiner. That definiteness is important in the comprehension of a thought. For instance, if I say, “Sing me the song,” you and I both know what song I am referring to. There is a definite song I want you to sing. If instead, I said, “Sing me a song,” I would be using the indefinite article ‘a’ and neither of us would have a specific song in mind. In fact, you might ask me what I’d like you to sing!
Last fall my students each wrote a sentence so we could investigate and identify the origin language of each word. We were trying to see if there was one ancestor more common to most of the words we use day to day. It was the second year I lead the students in this activity. If you are interested, you can read the blog post about it from January 2019: “History Is Who We Are And Why We Are The Way We Are” — David McCullough An interesting side piece of data that we collected showed how often we used certain words in common speech. The students wrote 49 sentences, and then we tallied how often we saw each word in those sentences. Here are the results for the most commonly used words:
As you can see, ‘the’ was used 22 times! And of the 16 words that were used more than once, 11 were function words. I didn’t count ‘like’ as a function word, but depending on its use, it certainly could be. Remember when I said earlier that function and content words work better on a continuum than on distinct lists? The word ‘like’ illustrates that beautifully. Depending on its use, it can be a preposition, conjunction, noun, adjective, or an adverb. If it is used as a preposition or conjunction, it will be placed on the function word side. If it is used as a noun or adjective, it will be placed on the content word side. Here’s another graph of the function words that are specifically determiners:
What we notice here is that the article determiners were more commonly used than the possessive determiners. That wasn’t surprising considering what we’ve noticed in our study of grammar. Article determiners are the most common type of determiners. In case you are not familiar with determiners, they announce nouns. They are generally found in front of the noun they are announcing, but not necessarily immediately in front of the noun. In the case of “my shoe,” the possessive determiner is ‘my,’ and is immediately in front of the noun it is modifying. In the case of “every small chance,” the quantifier determiner is ‘every.’ It determines or announces the noun ‘chance’ and is in front of the adjective that also modifies the noun ‘chance.’
I think the importance of this data collection was the recognition that function words are indeed the foundation in our sentences. They are there to point our attention to the content words. The other fascinating thing was what the students noticed about the spelling of the function words. Words like ‘in’, ‘to’, ‘we’, and ‘an’ have had the same spelling since they were used in Old English. In looking at so many other words whose spelling changed over the years, it was weird at first to see this. But then we realized that function words are used constantly and because of that, their spelling didn’t change like that of other words that were used less frequently! An analogy might be, “If you never get off the train, you never get the opportunity to grab a different jacket!”
I encourage you to read the article that inspired this blog post. There were other senses of ‘the’ discussed, and they were rather well explained. It certainly broadens one’s thinking about a word we’ve all known since we were perhaps three years old, and yet haven’t paid much attention to! Once the reading and spelling of the word was established, attention moved on to other words. Perhaps it’s time to take a second look at some of our function words and recognize their place in our lexicon, in our sentences, and what happens to them in normal speech. It’s certainly an important aspect of spelling that was missing from my own education (and perhaps yours too?) and also from any teaching manual out there. Let’s make sure our students have the advantage of this understanding!
If you are interested in hearing more about stress and how it affects function words in speech, I recommend videos by Rachel’s English. Here is one that I have found extremely helpful. This whole idea provides further proof that our language is a stress-timed language and NOT a syllable-timed language. What that means exactly is another understanding that isn’t found in teaching manuals. We spend so-o-o much time teaching children about syllables when our language isn’t syllable-timed. We spend almost no time teaching children about stress even though our language is stress-timed. We need to stop relying on those programs and those manuals, and start learning about our language for ourselves!
There was quite a hub-bub about the campaign rally scheduled recently in Oklahoma. Several current medical and social issues caused this rally to be questioned more than most political rallies in our past. And of course, the whole event got me thinking about the word ‘rally.’ A political rally is nothing new in this country. I believe the first political rally was held by George Washington when he was running for his second term! Prior to his political campaign and the rallies that took place to support that, he often had a need for rallies of a slightly different type. Accounts of the battles indicate that there were many times during the American Revolution when the soldiers needed to hear words of encouragement from their leader. They needed to be brought back together and reminded of what was at stake in that war. They needed a pep talk of sorts. Other times during the conflict, they needed to be rallied (brought back together) so that they were ready for the next advance.
Washington inspecting the colors after The Battle of Trenton by Edward Percy
Moran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The idea of pulling a group of people together to encourage them to think in a certain way was what the word ‘rally’ meant then, and it is what the word means now! You may be familiar with the phrase “Rally ‘Round The Flag.” That is a line from the Civil War era song, “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Here is a link to the story of this song. It was written days before it was played on July 24, 1862 at a huge war rally held by Abraham Lincoln, who was trying to recruit as many as 300,000 volunteers to fight for the Union. This article includes the words to the song and a version of the song.
Of course there are rallies that are not political in their intent. Most everyone who has attended a secondary school with a sports team has attended a pep rally! They are especially commonplace in the U.S. I’m not sure about other countries. The goal of a pep rally is to stir up some school spirit! There is music by the school’s pep band, there is chanting by the school’s cheerleaders, and there is lots of encouragement offered to the members of the particular sporting team being featured.
At Etymonline we see that this word was used as a verb (1600) before it was used as a noun (1650). The verb meant “bring together.” Before that it was from French rallier, and before that from Old French ralier “assemble, unite again.” As you can see the original sense and meaning of this word persists today! Looking closer at the etymology of this word, we see <re-> “again” and alier “unite.” At this point in the Etymonline entry we are directed to the related word ‘ally.’ That word is first attested in the late 13c. Notice that it is older by 300 years! At that time it meant “to join in marriage.” Further back it was from Old French alier “combine, unite.” Notice the spelling difference between Old French ralier and Old French alier! The only difference is the <r> which represents the <re-> prefix “again.”
Before I go further, I just want to mention how much I love the fact that ‘rally’ and ‘ally’ have a common ancestor! Think about the word ‘ally’ for a minute. We think of our allies as those who join us and work with us for the mutual benefit of both. According to Etymonline, ‘ally’ has had a sense of “form an alliance, join, associate” since the late 14th century. We saw certain nations become allies in both World War I against the Central Powers and then against Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II. It is not a stretch to think that once you form an alliance with someone or some group, the two people or groups are now allies. And who better to rally with than your allies!
The Oxford English Dictionary lists several variations of this first sense of this word. The first is “a rapid reassembling of forces for renewed effort or fighting.” That is certainly the same sense we see in accounts of war. While reading an account of the Battle of Trenton (American Revolution) at the History Channel site, I came across the following use of this word:
“Rall attempted to rally his troops but was never able to establish a defensive perimeter, and was shot from his horse and fatally wounded.”
A second variation is that of a “signal for rallying.” In order for the soldiers to know they are to rally, there must be some kind of signal. A commander might tell someone to sound the rally! It was no doubt a specific bugle or drum signal.
A third variation would be “a meeting of the supporters of a cause to demonstrate the strength of public feeling or to inspire or foster enthusiasm.” My New Oxford American Dictionary describes this sense as “assemble in a mass meeting.” I would venture to say that people the world over have seen or participated in such mass meetings in the last year. Recently there have been (and continue to be) protests/rallies for causes like Black Lives Matter. Earlier this year there were protests or rallies for Climate Change as well. I imagine you could name several rallies that you’ve seen in the news with other particular focuses. I remember participating in a rally myself back in 2011!
A fourth variation would be in the context of boxing. The word would be used to mean “a sustained exchange of blows.” I went to Google to find ‘rally’ used in this way in a recent headline or story. I found, “Boxers Rally to Defeat Willamette” from September, 2018. But on closer examination, this story is about a volleyball team who rallied (to come together to restore spirits and enthusiasm). As you no doubt noticed, instead of finding this word used with this sense as a noun, I found it with another sense as a verb. The next headline I found was, “Boxers Rally for Win in Home Opener.” Again, this had nothing to do with boxing. It was about baseball which you may have guessed from the phrase ‘home opener.’ The third headline I found was actually about boxing! “Boxing World Rallies Against Devin Haney for …” In this story, one boxer had made a blatantly racist remark against another and a large number of boxing enthusiasts rallied (came together to send a solid message). So I was unlucky in finding an example of this word used in this sense as a noun at all. I wonder if it is because there is a more commonly used word for this particular sense. I’m thinking of the word ‘volley.’ I could easily find reference to a boxer receiving “a volley of well-placed blows.”
Michael Gusnick, Torsten Schmitz by Thomas Lehmann
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-0325-010 / Lehmann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA 3.0 /
CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)
A fifth variation would be “a concerted effort by a team, player, or competitor, especially one made from a losing position to draw even or take the lead.” This sense applies to the sporting headlines I found in the previous paragraph! Many times a team or player rallies with the hopes of coming from behind to win. At the site The Bleacher Report, I found this list: The 20 Most Outstanding Sports Team Rally Songs. One of my favorites off that list is “New York, New York” which is a rally song for the New York Yankees. Do you know it? It became popularized by Frank Sinatra.
Now an obviously different sense of ‘rally’ has to do with car racing. A rally is “a race for motor vehicles, usually over a long distance on public roads or rough terrain and typically divided into several divisions.” The Sports Car Club of America describes a RoadRally this way: “Because events do not involve speed, teams do not need specialized equipment for their car. Although there are classes for vehicles with RoadRally-specific equipment on them, often teams will do the events with only pens, paper and a wristwatch. On the rare occasion the RoadRally is held at night, a small flashlight might be needed. Entry fees for the events are typically less than $40, and often events will even have classes for RoadRally novices.”
By oisa – https://www.flickr.com/photos/oisa/763487574/, CC BY 2.0,
London Maximillion Jaguar XJ220 leaving the start in London in 2007
In referring to a rally, but wanting to switch the word to a verb, one could say, “The driver rallied his car in Italy.”
There are just so many interesting words within our reach every single day. Even when you think you understand a word, there is always something new to discover. There is always a deeper understanding to gift to yourself! I also find that with every investigation I conduct on my own, I become more and more familiar with my resources and what the internet can make available to me. I prefer to use more than one resource simply because each is written by a different person, and in doing their own digging for the information, may have come across different resources themselves. More information is always clarifying! When there are discrepancies, it just means I need to look further and think about what information I need to know in order to reconcile the discrepancies I see. Sometimes the discrepancy is simply my misunderstanding of linguistics and language. So I ask questions of knowledgeable people and I reread trusted sources.
Don’t forget to conduct your own investigations. The more often you do it, the better equipped you are to teach others how to go about an investigation. I have found that the more discoveries I have made for myself, the less I want to “make things easy” for my students. If I enjoy the moments of discovery this much, why would I rob my students of the same joy? I guide them, I lead them, I help them understand the signposts along the way, but I let them see it for themselves! And everyday we rally around words!
Our school year has ended. Nobody is going to deny the unusual circumstances that we were all thrown into during the last ten weeks of our school year! In fact I can never remember a single situation affecting schooling worldwide like this pandemic has! Teachers and students the world over scrambled for weeks trying to see if any teaching style could match the face to face teaching/learning we are all so used to. But that burden is done for my school district. Our school year is over. Our rooms are ready for summer cleaning, and our fifth grade students are ready to move on to the middle school in the fall. In the midst of what has not at all felt normal, those simple acts of getting our rooms ready for cleaning and our students ready for the next grade have brought us back to the routine we expect at this time of year.
But there has been one more big change in my building. Six of my colleagues have retired. SIX! If you work in a large district, that probably seems like a pittance. You probably lose many more than that to retirement each year. But in my world, we don’t. I have worked in the same district and at the same grade level for 26 years. I know each of the six retirees personally. One of them I knew as a parent when both of our children were in second grade together. Another of them was our children’s second grade teacher. One is married to a former pastor of my church down the street from our school. One has been my 5th grade colleague for all of my 26 years. Only two of the six began working at our school after me. So you can see just how unique this retirement situation is, and how odd it will feel to begin a new school year without the personalities that have brought joy and camaraderie for so many years.
I often speak of the staff at our school as one of our strongest assets, and because these six people have been so special, I spent a lot of time thinking of what their retirement means to me. And then (if you know me at all, you know where this is going), I began to wonder what the word ‘retirement’ means to anyone. What is its story? As a kid I used to think it meant that someone was tired of doing their job, so they stopped doing it. Is it really as simple as that?
Starting at Etymonline with the word ‘retire,’ I found that this word was first attested in the 1530’s. At that time it was something armies did. It meant “to retreat.” It was borrowed from the earlier Middle French word retirer “to withdraw.” The <re-> had a sense of “back” and the <tirer> had a sense of “draw.” Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, We get a better idea of how this word was used in French.
Middle French, French retirer to pull or draw (something) back (12th cent. in Old French),
to remove, withdraw (something from someone) (13th cent.),
to remove (someone from a particular place or position),
to free (someone from captivity),
to keep (something) in reserve,
to deter or turn (someone) aside (from a vice, etc.) (all 15th cent.),
also (reflexive) to withdraw, go away (end of the 14th cent.),
to go off to somewhere peaceful or secluded,
to withdraw somewhere for protection,
(in military context) to retreat (all 15th cent.),
(reflexive, of the sea) to ebb (c1500),
(reflexive with de ) to give up (a habit, etc.) (1508),
(reflexive with de ) to cease to perform or pursue (a specified activity, mode of employment, post, etc.) (1538),
(reflexive with de ) to cease to frequent (someone) (1553)
The OED goes on to say, “French retirer shows a number of senses not paralleled in English, especially senses related to the core meanings ‘to take back, take away, remove’. In modern French the meanings ‘to leave employment’ and ‘to withdraw (something) from service’ are usually expressed by constructions with retraite (retreat), rather than with retirer.” Isn’t that last bit interesting? What we in English speaking countries refer to as retiring, the French refer to as retreating. What is extra interesting is that both of those words come to us from French!
Checking with my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, I find that ‘retreat’ is first attested (in English) in about 1300 and was a signal for a military withdrawal. It was borrowed from Old French retret, retrait, and is from Latin retrahere “draw back.” Since it can be traced back to Latin, it is an older word than ‘retire.’ As I mentioned above, ‘retire’ was first attested in the 1530’s.
Heading back into Etymonline, I find that it wasn’t until the 1640’s that this word was applied to a person withdrawing from an occupation. Interesting. Retiring from a job simply meant to withdraw from that job. The sense and meaning hasn’t changed! But it has broadened. By the 1660’s, it was also used to mean “to leave company and go to bed.” Every once in a while I come across this use in a story. Perhaps you have too. Someone might say, “I’m feeling tired. I’m going to retire for the night.” As we’ve found out earlier, as this word was associated with the military, it meant “withdraw, lead back,” but by the 1680’s it also meant “to remove from active service”. That is a very similar sense to retire from one’s occupation, isn’t it? The final sense listed at Etymonline is from 1874, and it is the baseball sense of “to put out.” So to retire the runner, could mean you threw the runner out at the base.
Two words that I found while making this matrix fascinated me. The first is ‘retiracy.’ I’ve never heard of it that I can remember. Etymonline describes it as modeled on ‘piracy’ in 1824 American English. Sounds like humans playing around with their language again! I can’t wait to wish my friends fun in their retiracy!
The second fascinating word on this matrix, and the only word here that does not have anything to do with leaving a job, is ‘tirade.’ When I think of a tirade, I think of a long, often angry speech, or perhaps two people bickering back and forth. The interaction is drawn out, hence the base <tire>!
Have you noticed that so far there’s been no mention of being fatigued, exhausted, or tired? So if the base of ‘retire’ does not have the same base we see in ‘tired,’ then what’s the story of <tired>?
credit to marfis 75 on flicker
Combining what I found in Chambers and at Etymonline, I read that before 1460, this word was spelled tyren. It was developed from Old English tēorian at about 1000 and in Kentish tiorian before 800. It was used to mean “to fail, cease; become weary; make weary, exhaust.” The fact that the <tire> in ‘retirement’ and the <tire> in ‘tiresome’ come from completely different languages gives us evidence that they are not related etymologically, and most certainly won’t be related morphologically. They are two completely different words!
Even though most people wouldn’t consider the kind of tire we see on our cars to be confused with either of these other bases, I’d still like to address it. After all, it is another base that has this same spelling of <tire>. If you’ve never looked up this word, you are in for a treat!
This word dates back to 1485 and was used to mean a band around a wheel. At that time it was spelled <tyre> and meant the iron rim of a carriage wheel. What’s fascinating is that it is a shortened form of the word ‘attire.’ The prefix is an assimilated form of <ad-> “to” and the base is <tire> “equipment, dress, covering.” According to Etymonline, “The notion is of the tire as the dressing of the wheel.” My Chambers Dictionary gives further information indicating that the band of rubber on the rim of the wheel was first recorded in 1877. It was first used on bicycles before being used on cars. I’m sure the iron lengthened the life of a carriage wheel before then, but I can’t imagine what kind of a bumpy ride it provided! And it’s obvious that improvements have been made on the rubber tire ever since! Another fascinating thing about this word is its spelling. When it first appeared, it was spelled <tyre>. From the 1600’s through the 1700’s, the standard spelling was <tire>. But then at the beginning of the 1800’s, the British revived the spelling of <tyre> which still remains standard in Britain while in the United States, the spelling remains <tire>.
While we’re on the subject of tires (as in the covering on a wheel) I found an interesting bit on the word ‘tire-iron.’ Originally this was one of the iron plates off of the older fashioned wheels and was used to pry the tire off the wheel. The name ‘tire-iron’ caught on in 1909. We still call the tool we use to pry a wheel off of the rim a tire-iron, and now you know why.
Before I retire this topic …
Did you recognize the title of this post? It is a line from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In the passage, he has just had an exchange with his nephew and is reflecting on how silly it is to celebrate Christmas when you haven’t any money. It is the last line in the following excerpt:
“There’s another fellow,” muttered Scrooge, who overheard him: “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.”
So now that you know more about the word ‘retire,’ you can understand that Scrooge means to withdraw from this conversation and head straight for the insane asylum in London, (St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital, which was commonly referred to as Bedlam at the time). He can’t understand how people with very little money can be so full of joy, while he who has more than he needs, is miserable. He sees this disconnect as him being surrounded by insanity. His pursuit of wealth doesn’t just cloud his thinking, it blocks him from pursuing human relationships, where real happiness lies. I find it remarkable that a look at a word I kind of had a sense about, in a passage I’ve heard many times, suddenly creates a sharper focus on the meaning of that word. In turn, the deeper understanding of the word shines a brighter light on the overall meaning of the passage, as if being viewed from a wider lens.
Perhaps people associated retired with having something to do with being weary or fatigued, because generally the people who choose to retire are older. As of November 2019, the most common age for retirement in the U.S. was 62. Those people have worked at their jobs for many years and it is not a stretch to imagine they might be tired of it or tired because of it. And that may certainly be the case for some. But if we look at the words and understand what they mean, we can better understand how to use them! We can get an orthographical kick out of the fact that we have three bases, all spelled exactly the same (<tire>), but deriving from three different ancestors and with three distinct meanings! Some of those who are beginning to see the value in teaching children about morphology are still wagging about teaching them etymology. Yet here’s evidence that etymology can hold the key to an understanding that neither morphology nor pronunciation can provide on their own. That’s why we must teach students to look at all three.
As a farewell to my colleagues I wrote up a shortened form of this post and gave it to each. I closed with a quote from the Century Dictionary that I particularly love.
“Retirement is comparative solitude, produced by retiring, voluntarily or otherwise, from contact which one has had with others.”
I think of my colleagues, my friends, as withdrawing from employment at our school and enjoying comparative solitude. They will leave the “noise” of education behind and take with them every laugh between friends, every tender moment, and every triumphant teaching joy. They will immerse themselves in comparative solitude. I couldn’t wish for anything better than that! Congratulations, my dear friends!