“I’ll retire to Bedlam”

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>?

tired ( #cc ) | creative commons by marfis75 Twitter: @marfi… | Flickr
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!

Tire - Wikipedia

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!


When You Have a Febriferous Illness, You Need a Febrifuge!

Ricard Canals (1876 – 1931)  Sick Child (Octavi, the artist’s son)  c1903

I received a scary call a few weeks ago from my daughter.  My 3 year old granddaughter had just had a seizure and her dad was with her, at home, waiting for the ambulance.  My daughter, who had called from her car, was on her way home from work and had just picked up her younger daughter from daycare when she received the call from her husband.  He had stayed home with June, who was sick with the fever and yucky feelings that had been going around her preschool.

We were all so scared.  I was immediately picturing my granddaughter and what was happening to her.  Was she scared?  How out-of-it was she?  How long did it last?  But then I thought of her parents and how scared they must have been.  It pulled at my heart to know all any of us could do was wait and see now.  I am still my daughter’s mom and number one worrywart of her emotional and physical well-being.  I have also grown to see what a truly wonderful husband and dad my son-in-law is, and I knew this had no doubt scared the liver out of him.

I’ll keep you in suspense no longer.  After five hours at the hospital, and after having ruled out that the seizure was caused by a Urinary Tract Infection or by the small skin infection she had on her finger, it was decided that she had a febrile seizure.  A febrile seizure is one caused by fever.  Children can have febrile seizures if their fever spikes unexpectedly and if this kind of seizure is present in the family history.  It turns out that this happened to their nephew as well.  They usually don’t happen after the age of 6, but because she’s had one now, she is more likely than other children to have another.  It was certainly scary!  Moving forward, we will all watch for signs of fever with vigilant eyes.

It wasn’t until a few days later and everything was calm again that I could think more about that word <febrile>, and wonder if it was related to February.  You see what happens once that dark cloak of “memorize the dictionary definition and you’ll be fine” has been lifted?  So many words catch my attention now.  This one was less common and therefore caught my attention right away.

According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, febrile is an adjective “of fever, feverish” first attested in 1651.  It was either borrowed through French fébrile, or directly  from Medieval Latin febrilis.  Earlier it was from Latin febris “a fever.”

At the Oxford English Dictionary I found this sentence from 1483, “Al that yere she was seke and laboured in the febrys.”  There were also the spellings febres from 1527 and febris from 1535.  Besides these Middle English spellings, I found other relatives.  I put them in chronological order according to their date of attestation.  The words with the asterisk are obsolete, although many of the others (as you may guess) are rarely used.

febrous – adj., as early as 1425, “affected with fever.”
*febris – n., 1483, “a fever.”
febricitant – n., adj., ?1541, “affected with fever.”
*febricitation – n., 1598, “the state of being in a fever.”
febrile – adj., 1651, “feverish.”
*febrient – adj., 1651, “feverish.”
*febricitate – v., 1656, “to be ill of a fever.”
*febriculous – adj., 1656, “slightly feverish.”
febrifugal – adj., 1663, “adapted to subdue fever.”
*febrifugous – adj., 1683, “adapted to subdue fever.”
febrifuge – adj., n., 1686, “a medicine to reduce fever.”
febrific – adj., 1710, “producing fever.”
febriculose – adj., 1727, ” slight fever.”  Also febriculosity.
febricula – n., 1746, “fever of short duration.”
febrifacient – adj., n. 1803, “fever producing.”
febricity – n., 1873, “the state of having a fever.”
febriferous – adj., 1874, “producing fever.”
febricule – n., 1887, Anglicized form of febricula “slightly feverish.”

Isn’t it something to see the variety of spellings/uses for this word over 400 years? As you read through the list, do you recognize the suffixes that signal nouns and adjectives?  I’m fascinated that in that entire list there is only one form used as a verb.  <febricitate>.  Do you notice the <ate> suffix there?  It was used as a noun first, <febricitation>.  This <ate> suffix signaling a verb but then changing the function of the word to a noun by the addition of an <ion> noun, is  something I always look at with my students.  In the following list, the verb form is first and the noun form is second.

precipitate, precipitation
illuminate, illumination
infiltrate, infiltration
hydrate, hydration
illustrate, illustration

Once I get them started, they continue the list on their own.  Once they see this for themselves, and they know the suffixing convention of replacing the single final non-syllabic <e> on an element when adding a vowel suffix, they don’t believe people who tell them that *<tion> is a suffix.  I don’t have to convince them of that fact.  The evidence that they have collected convinces them.

There’s just so much to notice about this list!  As I was putting it together and announcing the words to myself, I have to say that <febriferous> was my favorite.  I laughed at myself trying to say it even two times in a row!  Perhaps you’ll have better luck?

Other relatives that stick out to me are febrifuge, febrifugal, and febrifugous.  You’ve probably noticed the second base there, <fuge> from Latin fugare “cause to flee, put to flight, drive off, chase away.”  A febrifuge is a medicine that will drive off the fever.  I love imagining my little June’s fever being driven off by little medicine superheroes!

Interestingly enough, I came across the word <feverfew> which is from Old English feferfuge.  (Do you notice what I noticed? – that that second <f> in the Old English spelling is the unvoiced version of <v>?)  Earlier it was from Late Latin febrifugia, from Latin febris “fever” and fugare “put to flight.”  According to Etymonline, this modern English word is probably a borrowing from Anglo-French.  According to information at Wikipedia, feverfew was used as a traditional herbal medicine, but is no longer considered useful for reducing a fever.


Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
By Vsion (2005).  Photo via Wikipedia public domain.

Getting back to the word <febrifuge> and the second base in that word <fuge>, I pondered that sense and meaning of “cause to flee, drive off, chase away,” and it made sense to me that this must be the same <fuge> that I see in <fugitive>.  So I went to Etymonline and looked at <fugitive> to make sure that they shared the same ancestor.  This is what I found:

Although this seems to be a match, I noticed something about both the spelling of the Latin verb this word is from and the denotation of that verb. This word derives from Latin fugere “to flee, fly, take flight, run away, go into exile,” whereas the <fuge> in <febrifuge> comes  from Latin fugare “cause to flee, drive off, chase away.”  Do you see the difference in spelling of the Latin verb for each?  They each have a different infinitive suffix.  That means they are two separate Latin verbs!  Then I looked closely at the denotation of each and realized that the Latin verb fugare has a sense of chase away something and the Latin verb fugere is the thing that has been chased away or has taken flight! I wanted to find out related words for each so I went back to Etymonline.

First I typed fugare into the search bar.  That way I would probably find words whose ancestor is the Latin verb fugare.  I found only three entries:  feverfew, -fuge, and febrifuge.  I found something very interesting in the -fuge entry.

Look at the line following the bolded <febrifuge>.  It says, “but form from Latin fugere.” I interpret that to mean that Latin fugere existed in words earlier than Latin fugare.  I took a quick look at <fugitive> in the OED and sure enough, the word is attested in 1382, which is earlier than <febrifugal> which was attested in 1663!

It was time to look at Lewis & Short.  The infinitive form of the Latin verb is the second one out of the four.

fŭgo, fŭgare, fugāvi, fugātum
“to put to flight, drive or chase away”

fŭgĭo, fŭgere, fŭgi, fŭgĭtum
“run away”

Yep!  Two separate verbs with two separate yet related denotations.  One has become more productive than the other, hasn’t it?

There is a very thought provoking comment at the end of the post that I encourage you to look at.  It is written by someone who has studied Latin at a deeper level than I have.  She has been collecting Latin verbs, including the two I have pointed to above.  I am thinking carefully about what she has said, and I encourage you to do the same.  I know there is no rush in scholarship, so I’m not concerned that I don’t completely embrace yet what she is pointing out.  I have questions to pose before then.  This is the way scholarly learning works.  I don’t take anyone’s word for anything.  I need to understand things for myself.  I appreciate things being shown to me, but unless they make sense to me, I must keep questioning.

Now that I’ve followed that interesting path, I’d like to get back to my original question.  Is <febrile> related to <February>?  I bet that at this point you’re guessing that it is not.  If it was, wouldn’t it have shown up as a related word in the OED?  So if it isn’t related to “fever”, what is it related to?

Looking further at the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, I can add to that that this idea of purification refers to the Roman feast of purification held in February, which at that time was the last month of the ancient Roman calendar.  It was after 450 BC that it became the second month and was called solmonath by the Old English which meant mud month.

The base <febr> “fever” may have had many related words a few hundred years ago, but not that many of them are still in use today.  The word that we commonly use is <fever>.  Does that mean it’s a newer word?   Interestingly enough, it’s not.  According to Chambers, it developed from Old English (c1000) fēfer, fēfor.  It was borrowed from Latin febris “fever” and is related to fovēre “to warm, heat.”  Later on in Middle English (1393) it is spelled fievre where it was borrowed from Old French fievre, which was from Latin febris.

This word also has a lot of related words that have become obsolete.
We no longer use:

feverly – adj., 1500, “relating to fever.”
feverable – adj., 1568, “characterized by having a fever.”
feverite – n., 1800, “a person ill with fever.”

On the other hand, many related words I found at the OED are still very much in use today:

fever – n., 1000, “abnormally high body temperature.”
fever – v., early OE, “affected with abnormally high body temperature.”
fevery – adj., OE, “affected by fever, perhaps causing fever.”
fevering – adj., ?1200, “becoming feverish.”
feverous – adj., 1393, characteristic of having a fever.”
feverish – adj., 1398, “relating to fever.”
fevering – n., 1450, “a feverish state.”
fevered – adj., 1605, “showing symptoms associated with a high temperature.”
feverishness – n., 1638, “the condition of having a fever.”
feverishly – adv., 1640, “in a manner relating to a fever.”
feverless – adj., 1662, “without a fever.”
fever tree – n., 1727, “bark of certain trees used to treat fevers.”

Take a look for a moment at the above list and notice how many of those words you have used.  Then notice how old those words are.  Words amaze me every day.  There is so much to know and so many connections to make!  I can’t help but wonder about these two bases, <febr> and <fever>.  They both share the Latin root febris and the same denotation, yet the one is much more recognizable than the other.  The <febr> base is still around, but probably more well known in the medical field.   The sciences are full of words with roots in either Greek or Latin.  The <fever> base is still very much around also, and known well by the common people — by the ancestors of the common people who spoke the Old English language.

One of my very favorite things to discover are bases that look the same but aren’t.  Today I found two!  I wouldn’t have done so without the help of excellent reference materials, and without having been taught how to use those materials.  I am grateful that for now my granddaughter is feverless, but like I said earlier, her parents are vigilant.  Should she get a febriferous illness again, they are ready with a febrifuge.

Below is a picture of Cinchona pubescens.  This is an example of a fever tree.  According to Wikipedia, the bark of several species of this flowering plant yields quinine which was an effective treatment for the fevers associated with malaria up until 1944.


Credits : US Geological Survey – Photo by Forest & Kim Starr




“Outer Beauty Attracts, but Inner Beauty Captivates.” ~Kate Angell

Like many native English speakers, those who are learning English often express disappointment that words that have identical letter strings do not rhyme (bomb/tomb/comb, read/red, thought/though/through). It’s interesting to me that my own attitude about that has become one of fascinated interest. Where someone else might throw their hands up and cross their eyes, I smile and pause to consider what might be going on with those words. Then I head to a trusted etymological dictionary (usually Online Etymology Dictionary​ first) to investigate and check out my hypotheses.  At times I search through a second or even third etymological resource.  Maybe I end up in either my copy of Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary or Liddell and Scott’s  Greek-English Lexicon.  I might even be led to Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling for further understanding.  The point is that I will look because I expect there to be an explanation.  Those who throw their hands up and cross their eyes have never been taught that an explanation is possible.  What a shame.  Because an explanation is not on the surface of the word, those people think it doesn’t exist.  I guess they’ve never applied the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” to a word.  What a difference that has made for my students and me!

This morning I was reading THIS ARTICLE in Huffpost called “35 Confusing Things About the English Language”.  Nine out of the 35 comments listed were related to the expectation that things with similar spellings should be similar in their pronunciations.  That’s 1/4 of the comments!

Since I don’t fluently speak another language, I’ve never stopped to wonder whether or not a letter or letter combination in another language is reliably pronounced one certain way.  I’ve just always understood that in English it’s not that way.  As my respected orthography teacher says, “English spelling represents the language we already speak.  Its job is not to teach us how to speak our own language.”  The job of English spelling is to represent meaning.  You see, words are a combination of morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest functioning unit in the construction of a word’s meaning.  As morphemes are joined, the word’s meaning emerges.

A morpheme, either alone or in combination with other morphemes, constructs meaning. Each morpheme on its own might not carry specific meaning, (I’m thinking of a connecting vowel here and perhaps some suffixes) but each has a function in connecting the morphemes that do. In a completed word, every morpheme can be identified, and its function (as it relates to the construction of the word’s meaning) explained. Morphemes are bases (free or bound) and affixes.  The base carries the principle meaning in the word.  Affixes are either derivational (alter the meaning of the word by building on the base) or inflectional (have a grammatical function).  All prefixes are derivational whereas suffixes are either one or the other.  Very few people have been taught to look at a word and automatically think about what its morphemes might be and what sense and meaning they bring to the total word.  Instead, most people look at a word and think that the spelling of the word dictates its pronunciation.  Then they get frustrated that sounding out the letters doesn’t always result in a recognizable pronunciation of the word in question.

I have to wonder if it isn’t our own fault that we have this unrealistic expectation that words spelled similarly must rhyme.  After all, think about how we teach reading in our country.  Imagine yourself looking in on a primary grade classroom where students are being taught that word families include words that  1) have a certain string of letters and  2) all rhyme.  Here’s an example:

What is at the head of this “family”?  It is a string of letters that carries absolutely no meaning.  After completing worksheets and lessons focusing on many many “families” like this, a student might very well expect that whenever a string of letters seen in one word is also in another, the two words will rhyme.  Why wouldn’t they after having it demonstrated to them over and over?  Are they ever told that it doesn’t always work that way?  Are they ever shown examples of words that share the same string of letters but that DON’T rhyme?  Right from the start children are being told something that isn’t always true, only they aren’t told that it isn’t always true.  In other words, we are setting them up with this unrealistic expectation.  As they begin encountering words for which this is not true, they look to their teachers for explanations.  Unfortunately many teachers were never given an explanation themselves, and so have no explanation to share.  And boom!  The English-spelling-is-crazy-and-makes-no-sense fallacy is born to yet another generation.

What if?

What if we used that idea of a word family to signal something more helpful to a child’s comprehension AND spelling of words.  What if we taught children right from the start that a word family is a group of words that share a base, and that a base carries the main sense and meaning found in all words built from that base.  And most importantly, that sometimes the base is pronounced the same among words within a family, and sometimes it isn’t.  Here’s an example:

The base element here is <sign>, and it has a denotation of “mark”.  Now look at all the words I’ve listed that are morphological relatives (that means that they all share the spelling of the base AND they share an ancestor.  Their etymological root is Latin signum “identifying mark”.  As you think about each of these words, think about their meaning and how it has something to do with making a mark, marking something, indicating something, a symbol, or a designation.

THIS is a word family.  There is a meaning relationship and there is a spelling relationship among these words.  The meaning relationship is verified by checking an etymological resource to find evidence that they all are from the same root.  I found out that the root in this case is Latin signum by looking at Etymonline.  I began by searching for <sign>.  I know it is a free base (is a word without needing affixes) and found it as both a verb and a noun.  Its use as a noun is just a bit older, but both uses were attested in the 13th century.  Then I read both entries to find the origin of <sign>.   According to Etymonline, other interesting facts about the various uses of this word over time include:

“Ousted native token. Meaning “a mark or device having some special importance” is recorded from late 13c.; that of “a miracle” is from c. 1300. Zodiacal sense in English is from mid-14c. Sense of “characteristic device attached to the front of an inn, shop, etc., to distinguish it from others” is first recorded mid-15c. Meaning “token or signal of some condition” (late 13c.) is behind sign of the times (1520s). In some uses, the word probably is a shortening of ensign. Sign language is recorded from 1847; earlier hand-language (1670s).”

Isn’t it interesting that <sign> became preferred over the use of <token>?  When we teach children to check whether two words share a root and therefore a denotation, it is likely they will also learn something about a word’s story (find themselves delving into etymology).  They will also have looked at the etymological evidence to see if there is anything that helps explain a word’s spelling.  This particular base has had the spelling of <sign> right from the start, but there are other words whose spelling makes sense once we know the word’s origin or influence by languages along its diachronical journey ending in our modern day use.

Teaching children about a word family like this results in them understanding that words have structure.  Every word has a base element.  We build related words by adding other bases or affixes to the base.  Look back at my word web to see how obvious the structure of most of these words is.  When we teach children about a word’s structure, we are teaching them about a word’s morphology.  Announcing word sums is a way to reinforce our understanding of word structure.  Take <designate>.  The word sum is <de + sign + ate –> designate>.  It would be announced as “d e  plus  s i g n  plus  a t e  is rewritten as  de sign ate.”  The elements are spelled out, the arrow is announced with “is rewritten as”, and when spelling the finished word there is a slight pause between the elements to show recognition of those boundaries.

The third major consideration in teaching children about a word family as I have described it is that pronunciation piece.  Studying a word family teaches children the reality about whether a common string of letters will always rhyme.  It won’t.  And with this kind of word family representation, they won’t ever think it should or be surprised that it doesn’t.  As an example, let’s look at the family for <sign>.  When we pronounce <sign>, <signer>, <cosign>, and <assignment>, the base is pronounced [saɪn].  But what happens when we pronounce <design> and <resign>?  The base is pronounced [zaɪn].  And when we pronounce <signal>, <signify>, and <signet>, the base is pronounced [sɪgn].  In these three words the <g> is pronounced.  But it isn’t pronounced in eight of the family members I’ve included in this web!

Just think about that.  If spelling were there so we knew how to pronounce a word, most of the words in that one family would have different spellings.  But they don’t!  They are spelled the way they are to represent the meaning that they all share!  The meaning and the shared spelling is what binds these words together into a family.  We don’t have to blame the English language because words that look like they might rhyme don’t.  Instead we need to appreciate the fact that the unpronounced <g> in this family is a marker letter, and as such, it marks its meaning connection to members of this family in which it is pronounced.   Pronunciation is not consistent enough to be the reason for a word’s spelling, but a word’s sense and meaning is!

You may be thinking that <sign> is a word that would not be studied in a primary classroom.  But why not?  Surely the children know some of its related words.  They don’t need to be able to read the words to understand that they all have <sign> in their spelling.  They can talk about what the words mean and the teacher can talk about the structure, meaning, and even point out the differences in pronunciations of the base.  More of the students will understand this than you might think, and the rest will be gaining a foundation for a more accurate understanding of how our spelling system actually works.  Any classroom should make it a point to look at words that interest the students no matter how many letters the word has!  If the focus is always on the structure, the meaning, the word’s relatives, and the interesting things to note about the word’s grapheme/phoneme relationships, then the word is the vehicle for the understanding.  Perhaps have an “I Pick – You Pick” philosophy for choosing words to look at.  It will really drum up interest!

Look at this word web that is centered around <dog>.  As you include more and more of these, you can start the discussion with, “What do you notice?”

It will not take long before students say things like, “I see the word <house> in <doghouse>”.  Then you know it’s time to talk about compound words.  This word web could also lead to a discussion about the final pluralizing <s>.  Maybe your students could quickly help you make a list of plural words and you could write them in two columns:  those in which the final grapheme <s> is represented by /s/, and those in which it is represented by /z/.  It won’t be long after that before they will be pointing that very thing out in plural words they are reading!  And then there is the doubled <g> in <doggy>.  It is not too early to talk about the doubling convention that happens when we add a vowel suffix to a base.  Explain it and talk about it as an interesting thing to notice.  Say something like, “I think I’ve seen that in the word <scrubbing> as well.  Keep your eyes open.  If you see a word that you think has a doubled consonant because of a suffix being added, let me know, and we’ll look at it together!”

Here’s another great tip:  Don’t put a word web like this away until you have given students a chance to think of other words that might belong to this family.  It will give you the opportunity to see what kinds of connections they are making.  What if they suggested ‘hot dog’?  Instead of responding yourself, give the other students the opportunity to respond.  “What do the rest of you think?  Does it belong?  Why or why not?”.

This kind of word family is the only kind of word family.  You can still talk about rhyming words if you want, but don’t call them families.  If you are using them to help a child read, begin incorporating true word families as I have suggested.  Sometimes we decide what our students can and cannot handle.  Sometimes we misjudge them.  If you are hesitant to study word families, your students will be the ones to convince you otherwise. When they point out something as they are reading in class, when they bring in a word web they made on their own at home, when they explain a suffixing convention you have previously explained, or even when they ask a question about a suffix that you didn’t expect them to, you will know they are on their way to building an understanding about the reliability of our spelling system.  And you can feel great knowing that the group leaving your classroom has been taught to see below the surface of the word.  They’ve peeked beneath the cover and are now judging a word by its structure (morphology), story (etymology), and grapheme/phoneme correspondences (phonology).  And they are captivated!

I encourage you to click on the comments.  The link is just below the end of this post in small letters.  Peter Bowers has written a great response and has included links to research that may be of interest.  Like I said, check it out!


Stepping Beyond Pronunciation and Definition…

Many people think that if you can pronounce a word and understand what it means, that there is nothing more that matters.  What a mistake!  What about cultivating an enjoyment and fascination of words?

If my students learn enough about words, they are going to see them as connected to other words with the invisible threads of familial relatives.  They will learn about a word’s roots and the fascinating journey it has taken on its way to being a modern English word.  They will learn that from historical events new words emerge, and that even without a major event, new words are entering our language all the time.  They are going to understand a structure they never noticed before by studying word sums.  They’re going to be a bit choosier about words when writing.

In my last post, I shared some of the “word posters” that my students have been working on.  They are on display in the hallway we use most often.  Heads are turning constantly as people walk this hallway.  It is a glorious sight!  But more than that it is an opportunity for my students to look deeper into a word.  Deeper than just its modern day definition and spelling.  It’s been an opportunity for my students to connect a present day spelling to a word’s roots, relatives and past spellings.  They’ve found out that not all words were born at the same time, nor in the same language!



Some of the words chosen were free bases, and some were not.  In order to collect words for a matrix, this had to be determined right away.  Kaeleb had a rather enjoyable journey finding out about the base of <computer>!  Before he went to any resources, he hypothesized that <er> was a suffix.  His reasoning was that he could easily use the word <compute> in a sentence.  As he began his research at Etymonline, he found that <com> was a prefix meaning “with” and the base was from the Latin root putare meaning “to reckon”, originally “to prune”.  I shared with Kaeleb what I knew about the Latin infinitive suffix -are.  That helped him identify the modern base to be <pute>.

I mentioned to Kaeleb that if he typed the Latin root putare in the search bar at Etymonline, he would get a list of words that share that root.  Now that he knew the bound base,  he could get busy collecting words and figuring out word sums, so he could create a matrix!


As you can see, he enjoyed identifying a great many members of this word family!  As I was looking over his matrix, my eyes hesitated at the words <amputation> and <deputy>.  This is what I love about pausing to look past the spelling and definition.  Wow!  A connection between computer, amputation and deputy?  Even though Kaeleb explained his understanding of the meaning they shared, I needed to look at the resources for myself.   With the word <amputate>, the prefix <am-> is a clip of the prefix <ambi-> and means “about” and the base <pute> takes on its original meaning “to prune, to trim”.  With the word <deputy>, the prefix is <de-> and means “away” and the bound base is again <pute> meaning “to count, to consider”, literally “to cut, to prune”.  So the deputy is considered as having the full power of an officer, but is one position away from being the sheriff.


When Elizabeth chose the word <illusion> neither she nor I expected such an interesting study!   She hypothesized that this word had an <-ion> suffix, but didn’t recognize either <illus> or <illuse> as a word.  It was time to look at Etymonline.  We found out that the prefix <il-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <in-> meaning “at or upon”, and that the base comes from the Latin root ludere meaning “to play, to mock, to tease”.  This part was a bit confusing for Elizabeth since the root ludere didn’t share the <lus> that we see in <illusion>.  I immediately recognized the Latin infinitive suffix <-ere> and took Elizabeth to Latdict to see if we weren’t looking at twin bases.  (I haven’t talked about twin bases with my students yet, but when opportunity knocks, I say, “Go for it!”)

At Latdict we found the four principal parts of this Latin verb.  They are ludo, ludere, lusi, lusus.  In order to find out if we have twin bases here, orthographers look at the second and fourth parts.  The second verb part is ludere, and when we remove the infinitive suffix, we have <lud(e)>.  The fourth verb part is lusus, and when we remove the supine suffix, we have <lus(e)>.  These two verb parts are not the same, so we have determined them to be twin bases!  Embracing the idea that there could be such a thing as twin bases, Elizabeth wondered if bases could be triplets!  That led us to asking questions and getting clarification from our favorite Old Grouch in France.   (“He’s not grouchy at all,”  my students quickly discovered.)

After that, Elizabeth went to Etymonline and typed ludere, the Latin root, in the search bar.  That took her to a list of modern words that share that root and have either <lud(e)> or <lus(e)> as their modern base element.  Once she determined the word sums for her collected words (some from Etymonline, some from Word Searcher, some from the dictionaries in our classroom), she created her matrix and recounted her discoveries about the word <illusion>!

Here are a few of the other posters on display in our “Hallway of Word Histories”.


DSCN5975 DSCN5977