Word Joy



For the past twenty-two years or so I’ve collected words like a bower bird- the bright, the shiny, the whimsical, the faded– eclectic treasures. I’ve  held them up to the light, gathered morphological relatives–– those that share the same base element. I’ve wandered their etymological paths, the twists and turns through time, place and cultures. I’ve noted the interweaving of morphology, etymology and the way this impacts the orthographic phonology in the present day.

It’s been, therefore, a delight to read Hana Videen’s The Word Hord: Daily Life in Old English. Her word hoards are far from a list of obsolete Old English words. Like a gallery of paintings, the words are placed in groups where they reference each other. When read in this way they whisper to us in the present and while many of the words have faded, others have been weathered by time to a present day form where the past is still visible. Of course words don’t exist in isolation and Videen provides a context, extracts of OE texts: sermons, saints’ lives, homilies, chronicles, leechbooks, riddles, laws and wills and poetry– Beowulf, Caedmon’s hymn, The Seafarer. There’s only a small surviving Old English collection, 400 extant manuscripts composed mainly from 900 to 1150 – only 3,037 texts which amount to a mere three million words. While there are gaps and silences, these texts give us a glimpse into the daily lives of those living in early medieval England.

Videen is an enthusiastic guide to the everyday: eating, drinking, learning, working, entertainment; friends and enemies, health; wildlife, the weather, travel, life and death, religion, and fate; imagination and storytelling. At the end of each chapter a “wordhord” is unlocked — Old English words, definitions and pronunciation guides. Videen helps us to recognise the word threads that endure and bind us to people and poets of long ago, to concepts and emotions that continue to resonate in the present. She poses reflective questions about the thoughts of this period: if there is a word for bad weather that essentially means not-weather, is weather itself inherently good?’ 

The Word Hord ‘is not like a language primer so much as an old photo album. Old English words are so familiar but also strange, like seeing pictures of your parents as children. There’s something recognisable in their smiles’ . (Videen)

Some of the words from the wordhords and their back-stories are familiar, but in the context of the daily life of this period there’s an added lustre. Consider the words of friendship:

freónd :friend

freóndspédig (adj.): is to be rich in friends

wine (n.), a friend, an equal, a protector. Today the relics of this word appear in names: Alvin, Edwin,

eaxl-gestealla (n.), a companion ‘someone whose shoulder you can literally or metaphorically lean on, a friend who is always at your side in battle or adventure’(Videen, p105). Videen notes how this compound references the early medieval fighting of shoulder to shoulder to form shield lines against un-wine: the unfriend, foe.

wyn-gesíþ (n.): a pleasant companion in whom one delights

beód-geneát (n.) table-companion from beód: board and geneát: companion, associate, vassal.

Above table companions: beód-geneátas, from The Luttrell Psalter, commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, in the first half of the 14th century.

eald-geneát (n.) old companion

heorþ-geneát (n.) A hearth-comrade (heorþ: hearth), a follower who shares the hearth of his lord.

Of course just as there are those who support and offer companionship, there are those who are ill-wishers, who seek to harm and destroy:

unwine(n): unfriend or adversary. ‘Despite it’s usefulness un-wine did not last beyond the 13th c’.

feónd (n.) :enemy, foe, the devil.

feónd-sceaða (n.) A fiend-enemy, dire enemy, robber

wearg (n.) when applied to humans:a villain, felon, scoundrel, criminal, of other creatures: a monster, malignant being, evil spirit

níþing(n), a villain and níþ (n) envy, hatred, enmity, rancor, spite, ill-will, jealousy

niþ-draca (n): A hostile, malicious dragon compounded from niþ which refers to a place low down, an abyss, as well as dark emotions– envy, hatred, enmity, rancor, spite, ill-will, jealousy, evil, malice.

Bees gathering pollen above, and lurking beneath the tree a dragon waits to catch one of its enemies, the dove, according to the text. England , 1236 to c. 1250, Harley 3244 ff. 58v-59 British library

We recognize in friend the relics of the Old English freónd and its etymological relationship to Frīg, the name of the goddess Frigg, wife of Odin, the symbol of married love–– apparent today in Friday. Freónd also shares the same distant ancestral root as frið: peace and freó.To be freó-bearn (n) is to be free born, a noble child. To have freó-dóm: is to have freedom, liberty. All can be traced to ancient Proto Indo European *pri-: to love. The sense of love developed early, the sense of free later on. In the alliterative antonym of freónd, Old English feónd , we see the relics of the present day fiend .

Feónd is a more frequent occurrence than freond in Old English text, perhaps suggestive of a world where malice seethes and hate filled creatures lurk in dark swamps or moors. However, as Videen reveals in her hoard, there are also words for joy and laughter:

wyn (n.): delight, pleasure

wyn-dæg (n): a day of gladness, pleasure

wyndreám-ness (n) jubilation

wyn-fæst (adj) joyous


‘Words in Old English are powerful and precious …Words are valuable in and of themselves. Each word carries a story ,an entire history of thoughts.‘(p.254)

The Word Hord is inspired by a love of words and Videen is a generous gifa : giver, bestower. Her word hoard has given this reader much word wyn.

Last night grey skies, steady rain, thin and miserable, trees tossing in the wind, and the sea greenish-grey and foam flecked. Thanks to Videen’s word hoard, I know this type of weather in Old English is referred to as unweder – unweather: bad, rough, or stormy weather or perhaps  ungewidere: bad weather, a storm or a tempest.

Ships tossed on stormy seas from Royal 20 D I, f. 176v, British Library

After the rain and wind, I wait in the early morning light for the magpies to sing up the sun. I am the richer for knowing that once early medieval scops: poets, created kennings, metaphoric riddles that referred to the sun as:

dæg-candel, day candle

mere-candel: the sea-candle, the sun which rises from, or sets in the sea

swegel-candel: the candle of the sky, the sun

heofon-candel: A heavenly candle or light [the sun]

weder-candel: the candle of the open air, the sun.

Le miroir historial, de Vincent de Beauvais, Français 50, 15th century

Read The Word Hord: Daily Life in Old English and at the same time listen to the audiobook . Download the beautiful word hord app. Read Hana Videen’s Blog: Old English Wordhord. Hours of word joy await!

An Accumulation of Clouds



Fishing boats, John Madsen

Fishing boats float on a glassy sea somewhere on Port Phillip Bay. They form a pair of watercolours painted by my father when I was ten. It’s not the boats that capture me but the way the sea and sky meld, the watery billows of cloud. I remember my father talking about the challenges of catching the sky, the shifting forms of the clouds. When he looked to the sky, he’d talk of Turner and Constable and my sisters and I, caught by Dad’s painterly appreciation, would pour over the art magazines he ordered every month staring at the cloud laden paintings by these sky masters.

“If a general and characteristic name were needed for modern landscape art, none better could be invented than ‘the service of clouds‘ ” (John Ruskin, Of Modern Landscape, Modern Painters ,1856)

During Melbourne’s lengthy lockdown, I became again drawn to clouds and the weather heralded by their gatherings or absence. Apt, therefore, to study the orthography of cloud . Inevitably, when pursuing one word, another beckons and another, so wander with me on these nebulous trails to consider clouds.

Cloud is a free base element with an accumulation of morphological relatives.

There have been surprises: cloudly, cloudful and cloudery. The latter, cloudery, less frequent but still current. Many words, like the clouds themselves, have thinned out and disappeared over time. Cloudiously (1602), ‘in a clouded or veiled manner; obscurely’ (O.E.D.) has long since evaporated.

Etymology and morphology influence the orthographic phonology of cloud. Gathering possible morphological relatives, as above, provides evidence to validate the base element <cloud>.

Analysis loosens a word into its elements where the boundaries are signalled by the plus sign. Each hypothesised element is supported by evidence citing examples with the same element. Angle brackets signify that the elements contained within are to be announced ( spelled aloud) rather than pronounced.

The matrix is an elemental portrait of a word family. It reveals the substrate of a morphological family. The matrix allows contemplation of related words where the denotation echoes throughout. Matrices can be small shining a light on a few key relatives or, like this one, more extensive. The elements are assembled in a lexical algorithm with the rewrite arrow prompting synthesis (placing together). It’s at this point that changes due to suffixing are made. Cloud compounds frequently .

Graphemes occur within an element, so noting an element’s boundaries and where a particular grapheme is positioned within the element is critical. The free base element <cloud> is composed of 4 graphemes: three single letter (uniliteral) graphemes and the vowel digraph <ou> in the medial position of the base element where it represents /aʊ/, a vowel glide.  

<ou> corresponding to the phoneme /aʊ/ occurs initially ( out, oust, ounce) and more frequently medially (ground, flounce, foul) but it does not occur in the final position of a lexical free base element.

When working with students the meaning of each word is discussed, announced and the position of the digraph noted.

Yes, there are words with a final <ou>, but English graphemes often represent more than one phoneme and the <ou> digraph corresponds to several phonemes.

Considering words with a final <ou>

When final to the base element, the grapheme <ou> corresponds to the phoneme /uː/ as seen in the exotic imports below:

Bayou (n) / ˈbʌɪuː / The name for ‘the marshy off-shoots and overflowings of lakes and rivers’ particularly in the southern states of the US. via French American, from Choctaw bayuk, attested in 1766.

Caribou (n) /ˈkarᵻbuː/ the name applying to ‘reindeer belonging to any of several subspecies found in North America’ . The word caribou carries echoes of the First Nation Mi’kmaq ( Micmac) people who first occupied the maritime eastern provinces of Canada. The Mi’kmaq were the people most likely encountered by Italian explorer John Cabot in 1497. Caribou, attested in English in 1660s, derived from ‘Micmac*qaripu , from an earlier form of qalipu derived from an Algonquian verb with the sense ‘to shovel snow, to clear away snow’ .

Remou (n) / rəˈmuː / attested 1780, is an ‘area of turbulence in a stream, an eddy; (also) a region of turbulence in the air’ perhaps from an unattested Anglo-Norman or Middle French derivative of moldremoudre: ‘to grind’ suggesting the ‘swirling movement of the water with the rotating movement of a grindstone.’

 Marabou (n) /ˈmarəbuː/ refers to a tuft or plume of the soft white downy feathers from the wings or tail of the marabou stork; or an exceptionally white kind of raw silk. Marabou ultimately derives from an Arabic dialect word for a holy man, such as Moroccan Arabic mrābiṭ derived from past participle of rabaṭ to tie, bind. This word became bound to the bird in Arabic. (OED)

Plate xxv ( fold-out illustration) of grallatorial birds including the marabou from The Natural History of the Animal Kingdom for Young People, Kirby,1889

However, it was in reference to feathers that marabou was first attested in English in 1819 and secondly as a specific bird name. Perhaps as the OED suggests, this occurred because the commercial product was known before the animal itself. The adoption of marabout ‘ via the intermediary language of French without the final -t, ‘perhaps reflects borrowing that was primarily in the spoken context rather than through books.’

Feathers of all kinds adorned women’s hats in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ostrich and marabou feathers were especially popular as dress and hat trimmings. Fortunately early in the twentieth century, plumage laws were passed to limit the ‘ indiscriminate slaughter of birds for decorative purposes’. (Yarwood,D Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Costume.)

Padou (n),/ˈpaduː/, a silk tape or ribbon, is a toponym , named after the French for Padua, Italy where the textile was made.

Bayou, caribou, remou, marabou and padou have been adopted into English joining a small collection of imported words where the final <ou> signals connections with French.

The Etymology of Cloud

Cloud has been spelled variously through time and in the Middle English period as cludclod, clodecludecloydkloude, –1500s clowd(e), –1600s cloude, –1700s clowd, and cloud. It was the latter with its medial <ou> digraph that endured to become the standard.

Cloud is attested in Old English, clud, where it denoted “mass of rock, hill.” It is perhaps etymologically related to clod and clot all united by an underlying lumpy clinginess. However, cloud’s metaphoric extension to the lumpy, nebulous formations in the sky occurred later in its development, in 1300, and the reference to rocks gradually faded from common use: “The last entry for cloud in the original ‘rock mass’ sense was  in Middle English Compendium of 1475.” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

 Yet people must have stared at the sky before 1300 to consider the watery vapour above and its changing formations. Before 1300 the vaporous masses or wisps were known as welkin which derived from Old English wolcenwolcn. Wolcen-wrycende was ‘cloud producing’ in Old English. Today the cloudiness has faded from welkin; it’s narrowed in sense to ‘heaven’ or ‘sky’. Herman Melville made welkin memorable when describing Billy Bud, the pure of heart, the Christ like innocent, as ‘welkin-eyed’.

Cloud is a vague general term. However, the older regional terms are poetically specific. A fossick in the OED reveals these cloud-filled terms:

A rack in 1400 referred to a mass of clouds moving quickly, also known as ‘cloud field’ in 1841.

The ‘rockiness’ of clouds still lingered in the imagination in 1400 as the secondary sense of ‘tor’ referred to ‘a heavy mass of clouds’ (OED). 

Light clouds driven by wind were called a scud’ from 1670 onwards.

From 1300 onwards, ‘overcast ‘, a compacted compound, meant ‘to cover or overspread with cloud or haze’; and ‘melt‘ referenced clouds dissolving into either clear weather or coalescing into rain.

  ‘ Behold the clowdes did melt, And showers large came pooring downe’.(1567,  A. Golding)

Small clouds were called :

‘Speck‘ in 1744 , ‘cloudlets‘ in 1788, or a ‘shred ‘ in 1836.

Small clouds portending rain were often called ‘colt’s tail ‘from 1744, ‘water wagon‘ from 1815 or ‘sop‘ from 1828.

An ‘ox-eye‘ from 1598 was a nautical term for clouds ‘portending a storm, particularly a violent storm, esp. off the coast of Africa'(OED) and abull’s eye‘ in 1849 indicated  ‘a little dark cloud, reddish in the middle, chiefly appearing about the Cape of Good Hope’ (OED)

Flat topped clouds were termed a ‘bank ‘from 1601 onwards.

Streaks of clouds may be called ‘flakes‘ in 1744, or ‘wefts‘ (1822), or even ‘streamers‘ (1871) and indicated vapour or snow. A ‘scart‘ (1861) could refer to a gust, a puff of wind, or a mere strip of cloud.

Wispy, high altitude clouds were known as ‘mare’s tails‘ (1775) or ‘hen scrattin‘ (1824) and often heralded stormy weather as did ‘goat’s hair(1844) ‘ a long straight streak of cloud foretelling storms.’

Mares’ tails and cloudlets

Large piled clouds were called variously :castle- clouds’ ( 1686), ‘stacken-cloud‘ (1823), or ‘trade-wind cloud ‘(1902).

Roundish and fleecy cloudlets were often referred to with mackerel epithets such asmackerel-back ‘1814, or ‘mackerel clouds1830 or ‘mackerel flecks(1940) or ‘mackerel sky1667. 

There’s a brutish power in ‘thunder-head ‘(1851)’ a rounded mass of cumulus cloud seen near the horizon projecting above the general body of cloud, and portending a thunder-storm’. There’s a suggestion of force too behind the term ‘storm-breeder ‘,1867, and this brutishness is metaphorically embedded in ‘hogback‘, 1933, the New Zealand term for a cloud with a distinctive arched top.

Rain storm Over Sea, Constable,1824-28,Royal Academy of Arts

The English polymath Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703) architect and scientist, too had looked to the sky.

Memorial Portrait of Robert Hooke for Christ’s Church Oxford by 2011, Rita Greer

Hooke and several of his contemporaries kept weather diaries. He, along with Christopher Wren, devised weather instruments to record the daily variations. Recognizing the lack of common terminology, he urged his contemporaries to note their observations daily and suggested a standard set of descriptions for cloud formations in ‘Constitution & Face of the Sky’:

‘Hairy‘ to indicate ‘small, thin and high exhalations’;

‘Checkerd blew, a cleer Sky with many great white round clouds such as are very usuall in Summer.’,

‘Let Waterd, signify a Sky that has many high thin & small clouds looking almost like waterd tabby, calld in some places a maccarell sky from the Resemblance it has to the spots on the Backs of those fishes.’

from A Method of Making a History of Weather, Robert Hooke, in Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London, 1667)

Local expressions persisted and while poetic and evocative as with Hooke’s ‘waterd tabby‘ analogy – the ‘tabby‘ referring to taffeta silk and its wavy coloration – these expressions lacked scientific precision and a common intelligibility.

This changed in 1802 when amateur British meteorologist Luke Howard gave a lecture On Modification of Clouds to members the Askesian Society, the philosophical debating society for scientific thinkers (1796-1807). He proposed a universal naming of the three fundamental types of cloud classification: cirrus, cumulus, stratus. His Latinate cloud names, describing the outward features of each cloud type, was inspired by Linnaeus’s natural history classification. Howard’s classification took into account the ephemeral mutability of clouds so as well as the three main cloud types, he added and named intermediate stages with four more compounds: cirrocummulus, cirrostratus, cumulostratus and cumulocirrostratus, the latter formed from three base elements, is also known as nimbus “the rain cloud”. Howard described this as “a horizontal sheet, above which the cirrus spreads, while the cumulus enters it laterally and from beneath.”

The Latin etymon sternere ~ stratum and its denotation of ‘spread, scatter, strew‘ lies beneath the spreading stratus clouds. Stratify, substrate, prostrate are morphologically related – they share the same base element. The analysis of of stratocumulus and prostrate may result in consternation! <strate> is complex base element. A matrix can be constructed with this as the base element. Yet <-at> is a Latinate stem suffix and when final is made recognisably English by the single, final, non-syllabic <e>: <pro+str+ate>. If the Latin suffixes <-um> and <-at-> are removed,<str> remains, a simple base element. English also has ‘probably’ acquired consternation ,<con + stern + ate + ion>, from the infinitive form of the Latin etymon sternere with its underlying suggestion of things things strewn and in disarray, hence confusion and dismay.

Street too has evolved from this Latinate etymon sternere~stratum brought to England with the Romans and their road building ways as ‘via strata’ : paved road.The lexical item street and the physical streets such as Watling Street ( from London to near Shrewsbury) and Ermine Street ( from London to the Humber) remained long after the sound of Roman footsteps had faded. It was incorporated early into Old English as ‘stret’, ‘strǣt’ and is found in place names such as Strætford in 1016, today’s Stratford on Avon.

Cirrocumulus clouds, cloud study 1803 – 1811, Luke Howard.

Cirrocumulus, attested in 1803, is a connected compound formed from two bound base elements and a connecting vowel letter <-o-> usually signalling Greek origins: <cirr +o +cume+ule +us > . It is derived from the Latinate etymons cirrus and cumulus. Cirrus denotes ‘a lock, curl, ringlet, or tuft of hair’, ‘ the hair on the forehead of a horse’ and a variety of tufts or tendrils: ‘tuft of feathers or crest of birds’, the arms of polypi, ‘filaments of plants similar to tufts of hair’, a ‘fringe upon a tunic.’ Wispy indeed. Latin cumulus denotes a piling up, an amassing, a heap – an accumulation which derived from a Proto Indo European root *keue- ‘to swell’ as well as ‘vault , hole’. The use of the Hellenic connecting vowel letter <-o-> with Latinate base elements occurs in post classical Latin where compounds were formed by analogy with Greek compounds as you see in the matrix <str>. And yes, intriguingly, both cumulostratus (1813) and stratocumulus (1845) exist in English referring to the same cloud formations.

Nimbus was adopted directly from Latin into English in 1606 (OED) long before Howard classified his clouds. It then had the sense of ‘a bright or luminous cloudenveloping or surrounding a deity or supernatural being’, extending to a ‘halo’ in 1728 and finally adding the greyer, gloomier sense of a rain cloud in 1776. Despite its damp greyness , Howard could still see a shimmer of associated luminescence: ‘The nimbus, although in itself one of the least beautiful clouds, is yet now and then superbly decorated with its attendant the rainbow’. ( 1803, OED)

Perhaps it was the distant association with light and power that caught JK Rowling’s imagination when she named a powerful, high-flying broomstick, the nimbus 2000 in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

“It’s not any old broomstick, it’s a Nimbus Two Thousand. What did you say you’ve got at home, Malfoy, a Comet Two Sixty? Comets look flashy, but they’re not in the same league as the Nimbus.” (Ron to Malfoy, J.K. Rowling, 1997)

Cloud Painters

The paintings of John Constable (1776 – 1837) and J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851) are dominated by cloud formations. Both produced sketchbooks filled with cloud studies. Had they read Howard’s paper and embraced his nomenclature? Did Howard’s description and explanation of cloud forms sharpen their vision? Or was it the vapours of the time – art merging with scientific thinking?

Constable had annotated a copy of Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena (2nd edition 1815) by Thomas Forster particularly the first chapter ” Of Mr Howard’s Theory of the origin and Modification of Clouds” (Thornes,J.,1979). This suggests that Constable was familiar with Howard’s work and interested in cloud formation. Yet it’s impossible to assume Constable’s cloud studies were the result of Howard’s classification. As Harris points out, he did not adopt Howard’s terminology in his annotated drawings, (Harris,A., Weatherland – Writers and Artists under English Skies). Yet, nevertheless, Constable had his head in the clouds.

Harris states, ‘it took practical knowledge to parse the sky’ and that the weather had been ‘the currency of Constable’s childhood’. Constable’s father owned several Suffolk windmills where he was apprenticed for a year. This experience and the month on board a ship sailing close to the English coast ‘seeing all kinds of weather’ gave him an ability to read the sky which is translated so powerfully in his art.

Cloud Study, 1830-35, J.Constable,Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have done a good deal of skying John Constable letters, October 23 ,1821(OED)

Skying, used nominally, is first attested in 1792, in reference to painting: ‘The action or activity of making an artistic study of the sky, or of painting or sketching the sky in a picture‘ (OED).

Skying is composed of two elements :< sky + ing > . Sky , a free base element, was a Scandinavian adoption, attested in 1200 and derived from Old Norse sky where it denoted cloud ultimately evolving from a Proto Indo European root *(s)keu- to cover, conceal. Sky and its inherent cloudiness gradually obscured Old English heofon, (present day heaven) which earlier referred to the upper regions of air. Gradually sky acquired this sense nudging aside heofon which became ‘restricted to religious and figurative uses already in Middle English’ (OED).


Cloud Study, John Constable, 1821

Turner too was drawn to the ephemeral quality of the sky. His output was prolific – over 500 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours and 30,000 works on paper. Turner was influenced by the technology of the time , coal powered boats replacing sails and like many of the romantics, he was interested in expressing the sublime, the sense of overwhelming awe.

Sublime <sub + lime> is derived from a classical Latin preposition sub and the Latin etymon limen: “lintel, threshold, sill“. The prefix <sub->has a variety of forces: below, under, beneath, imperfectly, beyond but also: up, away, towards. It’s the suggestion of up and towards that is the force in sublime and it’s this sense of approaching the threshold of nature’s power, moving upwards towards the limits that is present in many of Turner’s paintings. There is a claim that Turner was lashed Odysseus- like to the mast of a ship in order to sail close to the threshold of a storm. This experience and view of the sublime is interpreted in Snow Storm. The swirling cloud, and turbulent seas meet and coalesce around the steam boat. Whether this lashing to the mast was true or not, the viewer too experiences the force of nature and our gaze is upwards to the swirling power in this sublimely storm-clouded sky.

Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth
Snow Storm-Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,JMW Turner, 1842

Cloud forms float through many common expressions:

The origins of cloud nine attested in 1950, is vague. One popular interpretation is that it referred to the International Cloud Atlas of 1895 portraying ten cloud types of which cloud nine, the cumulonimbus, with its grand cushiony puffiness looked to be the most comfortable of all cloud types – hence a sense of pleasure, as if in heaven. However, this is thought to be rather unlikely. The number nine and ‘use of the largest one figure integer, nine, is sometimes used for emphasis’ according to Shipley (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Flying insects are collectively labelled ‘clouds’. Edmund Spenser in 1590 writes:  ‘cloud of cumbrous gnattes doe him molest.‘(The Faerie Queen) In 1667 John Milton writes of ‘ A pitchy cloud of Locusts‘.

To be ‘under a cloud’ , attested in 1605, suggests that one is ‘ in trouble or difficulties; out of favour; with a slur on one’s character’ (OED)

One of several epithets referring to Zeus is the hyphenated compound cloud-assembler (n.) a translation of Greek νεϕεληγερέτα, nephelyereta, from Cowper’s 1791 translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.(OED )

Cloud-cuckoo-land, another hyphenated compound, is attested in English in 1824, and derives from Greek Νεϕελοκοκκυγία from νεϕέλη: nephele ‘cloud’ and κόκκυξ ‘cuckoo’, the name of the realm ‘built by the birds to separate the gods from mankind’ from Aristophanes’s Birds (OED).

Greek νεϕέλη : nephele, νέφος: nephos  : ‘cloud’, floats in the connected compound nephology: ‘the study of clouds’ < neph +o + loge + y >. Nepheloid, 1848, was once applied to ‘cloudy urine’. In 1965 nepheloid resurfaced as a term in oceanography to refer to ‘a layer of cloudy or turbid water’ – the nepheloid layer.(OED)

Nebula, from classical Latin nebula mist, fog, cloud, was also applied to ‘cloudy’ urine and in 1661 to a film or membrane over the eye and later to cloudiness of the cornea. Robert Hooke saw nebulæ or hazy sunspots in the body of the sun in 1676 and Haley in 1718 saw nebula in the night sky – ‘an indistinct cloud-like, luminous object seen in the night sky, such as a cluster of distant stars, a galaxy’ (OED). Nebula now has broadened to refer to anything insubstantial. The cloudy mists of nebula are present in nebulizer “a device or machine for converting a liquid into a fine spray’ attested in 1865.

Old Norse nifl too is enveloped in cloudiness, specifically icy mist and darkness. Niflheim is the misty region north of the void Ginnungagap in the Norse creation myth. The first three Aesir thrust it deep underground where it wouldn’t freeze Midgard ( middle dwelling place, earth) and Niflheim became the chilly, mist-shrouded world of the dead ruled by the goddess Hel. It’s located beneath one of the roots of the tree Yggdraisill – the great tree of the universe.

And what of human thought? That too has been represented graphically in clouds wafting above the heads of drawn figures, capturing a character’s ephemeral thinking of a moment.

It’s ironic that ‘cloud’, this word of Old English origins, has become attached to present day technology as in cloud computing n. an open compound attested in 1996: ‘the use of networked facilities for the storage and processing of data rather than a user’s local computer, access to data or services typically being via the internet’ (OED).

I’ve  followed cloud trails through the dictionary and thesaurus accumulating words on the journey. I’ve taken too many photos in an attempt to capture the shifts, the nebulous forms, the light. I’ve consulted my old, trusty field guides:The Spur Book of Weather Lore, The Observer Book of Weather, and Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s:The Cloudspotter’s Guide. I’ve wandered through online galleries studying cloud painters of the past. I’ve fossicked through cloud atlases and the weather diaries of Gilbert White and Sir John Wittewronge. And no I haven’t, as did Wordsworth, ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’. I’ve been in the company of others who too have had their head in the clouds: Hooke, Howard, Turner, Constable, Wordsworth, Shelley. I’ve followed one word’s nebulous trails through the past, to other times, people and places.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s final verse of The Cloud, 1820, captures the transitory nature of clouds

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

And I return to the watery clouds in the paintings hanging on my wall and think of my father who too had an eye to the sky and his head in the clouds.

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Boats on the Bay, John Madsen

A Field Guide To Words: Enlightening, Eclectic, Entertaining

A Field Guide to Words enlightening, eclectic, entertaining. These Field Guides are the ideal companions for teachers and logophiles. 

The writers, two educators, share their passion for orthographic linguistics to celebrate the sense and order of English orthography. They delight in the extraordinary, the hidden stories, the wonders of a word’s past and present. 

With these guides in your hand, you and your students will be inspired to investigate and marvel at the richness of the English language. 

Our latest Field Guide to Words – PLAY highlights:

– the written orthographic statement with teacher dialogue 

– Chancery Script, the foundation for all orthographic study

– an annotated matrix 

– how to read an etymology entry

– compounds

– a key phonological investigation.

A Field Guide to Words goes beyond and beneath the surface to uncover the unity and interrelationship of morphology, etymology and phonology. 

A reissue of Series 1 (a set of 3 booklets) is also now available:

A Field Guide to Words:


Transformation & Metamorphosis 



Australia – Click on this LINK

International – Click on this LINK 

Tomato: ‘star of the earth’

In these virus anxious days we look for the small wonders that are still present in our lives. (What can we say?  We read Pollyanna at an impressionable age and one of us has played the ‘glad game’ in one form or another consistently throughout their lives!)

Every day we take a photo of something we’ve noticed in our restricted environment that we regard as a small wonder and share the tale behind it before the sun sets. Inevitably in the revealing, we view the wonder orthographically.


One of my earliest memories is triggered by the smell of tomato plants and this always leads me to my grandparents’ garden. My father’s parents were market gardeners and even in their retirement they grew seedlings in hothouses and kept abundant vegetable and flower gardens. I loved the narrow paths between the beds and loved trailing my grandfather watching him stake tomatoes.


The heirloom tomatoes are grown by keen gardeners who share the bounty of their garden with the neighbourhood via an honesty box: parsley, zucchini, beans, eggs, whatever is ready to harvest.

Tomato is a free base element with a small morphological family: tomato, tomatoes, tomatoey. However, it compounds readily: tomato soup, tomato sauce, tomato blight, tomato chutney – these,  although presenting as two separate words, are open compounds.

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The word tomato, like all words, has an intriguing tale, one of exploration, cultural contact, conquest, trade and exchange.  Tomato was attested in English as tomate in 1604 from earlier Spanish tomate with its roots in Nauhatl – the language of the Aztecs, tomatl.

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Tomatoes arrived in Europe following the conquest of New Spain ( Mexico) between 1519-1521 by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. In the 16th century the tomato in Europe was a botanical curiosity.  When the tomato reached Italy it was given an Italian name and referred to as pomodoro rather than adopting an approximation of the Aztec name as did Spain, France and England. Sienese Mattioli, renowned physician and investigator of the medicinal properties of plants, noted in 1595 that “a new species of eggplant had been brought to Italy in our time” describing its blood red or golden flesh when mature noting these fruits are called pomi d’oro denoting golden fruits in vernacular Italian (Gentilcore, D. Pomodoro!). This was a generic name for many soft fruits including figs.


Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici by Bronzino,1545. This was painted just 3 years before the first recorded sighting of tomatoes in Italy. This sighting occurred when De Medici was presented with a basket of tomatoes from his estate near Florence on October 31st,1548. His steward writing to the Medici secretary noted the safe arrival of the produce:’And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.’ Tomatoes, as in this encounter, were for many years objects of wonder rather than consumption.

It took three centuries for the tomato to shake off the suspicious doubts and anxieties – it was after all a member of the deadly nightshade family. When the tomato arrived in England it was grown as an ornamental species and consumed by only a brave few. An encyclopedia of 1753 reflects the underlying doubts and prejudices shown towards the tomato’s foreignness:  “a fruit eaten either stewed or raw by the Spaniards and Italians and by the Jew families of England.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Tomato and calligraphy

‘Matagon Lilly and Tomato’ by Joris Hoefnagel (illuminator) and Georg Bocskay (scribe): script (1561-1562), illumination (1591-1596). This is one of the earliest paintings of tomatoes in Europe.

The spelling of tomato took some time to settle:

tommato, tormato, termarter, termater, termatter, tomarto, tomater, tomayto, tamayda, tamayta, termagter, termayter, tomaty even  tomatum (OED)

Eliza Acton, English food writer and poet (1799 –1859), referred to it as tomata in 1845 but by 1861 Mrs Beeton was writing it as tomato. It was around 1900 that the name tomato became the norm.( Ayto, J. Diner’s Dictionary)

Tomato despite its frequent appearance in our meals, still has an exotic aura about it with its final unitary grapheme <o> . Tomato keeps company with other exotics like: armadillo (1577), flamingo 1589, poncho 1717, garbanzo 1759, pampero (1771) the chilling wind blowing from the Andes across the pampas toward the Atlantic, fiasco 1855, finnesko (1890) a boot made from birch tanned reindeer hide with hair left on the outside, gelato (1932), macchiato (1989,) and galactico (2003) a celebrated footballer (soccer), often bought by a team for a very large fee.

Yet, unlike the examples above, tomato is not quite a loan word. A ‘loan word’ word is one adopted into English from another language with little or no adjustment to its spelling and one that does not conform to the English spelling patterns and conventions. However tomato has changed; that final <l> in Nahautal is shed during its Spanish sojourn replaced by an <e> and then in English that final <e> was eventually replaced by a final <o>.

The OED suggests that the final <o> of tomato occurred partly because of uncertainty about the quality of unstressed final vowels in Romance loanwords, and partly because of its association with potato, attested earlier in English in 1565. Tomatoes and potatoes, both arrivals from the New World, were regarded with both wonder and suspicion and the final <o reinforces this exotic aura as native English polysyllables do not have a final unitary grapheme <o>.  However, many of these words have their origins in Spanish or Italian with the suffix <-o > indicating that it is the singular masculine noun form.  This is not the case for either tomato or potato.

Potato and tomato are frequent in use and have assimilated sufficiently into English to conform to its suffixing conventions. Polysyllabic words with a final <o> that have become frequent in the host language, will take the long form of the plural, the suffix <-es>. When words are common and entrenched, they will conform to English orthographic conventions. Their status as loan words diminishes.

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These polysyllabic ‘words while familiar still maintain their ‘loan status’. As loans they take the short form of the plural suffix <-s> rather than the long form <-es> typical of nativised words conforming to English conventions.

The British pronunciation ⁄ təˈmɑːtəʊ ⁄ with ‘long’  ⁄ɑː ⁄ is typical of foreign loanwords adopted into English after the Great Vowel Shift. It reflects the ‘substitution of the closest English equivalents for the vowels in the donor language’ (OED). On the other hand the most common U.S. pronunciation  ⁄ təˈmeɪdoʊ ⁄ is comparable with pre Great Vowel shift ‘loanwords’  where the Middle English long a was diphthongized’ (OED)

The orthography of a word is so much more than surface accuracy. In this musing on tomato we’ve seen that ‘English, perhaps more than any other language, is an insatiable borrower’ (Crystal); it’s an accommodating host. In tomato lies the past and present: tales of cultural exchange, exploration and trade, suspicion of the new, and gradual  acceptance. Our meals would be so much the blander without its crimson juicy presence.

Pablo Neruda too appreciated the ordinary and in it saw the extraordinary. It seems apt to finish with the final lines of his Ode to Tomatoes from Odas elementales (1954)

‘and on

the table, at the midpoint

of summer,

the tomato,

star of earth,


and fertile



its convolutions,

its canals,

its remarkable amplitude

and abundance

no pit

no husk

no leaves or thorns

the tomato offers

 its gift

of fiery colour

and cool completeness.’

 Pablo Neruda

‘The Month of Painted Leaves’


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‘Autumpnus. Complexio: frigidus temperate in 2º. Electio: medium ipsius. Iuuamentum: gradatim procedentibus ad contraria ut calidum et humidum. Nocumentum: nocet temperatis constitutionibus et dispositis ad ptisim. Remotio nocumenti: cum humectantibus et balneo. Quid auget: humores melencolicos. Conuenit: calidis et humidis iuuenibus siue adolescentibus calidis et humidis regionibus alias temperatis.’

‘Autumn. Nature: moderately cold in the second degree. Optimum: its middle part. Benefit: gradually shifts to the contrary, i.e. hot and wet. Harm: it damages temperate constitutions prone to tuberculosis. Remedy for harm: with humidifiers and baths. Effects: melancholic humours. Advisable for hot and wet [temperaments], youth or adolescents, in hot, wet regions, according to others, in temperate regions.’ (Image and text from Tacuinum Sanitatis, 1390,  from the Latin translated ‘Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah تقويم الصحة or “Maintenance of Health” Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina. Codex Vindobonensis Series nova 2644, der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Graz)

‘Autumn cometh again heavy of apples’ Chaucer

“October 1st. Autumn rises into the bright sky. Corn is down. Fields shine after harvest.” J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

“October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight” (Thoreau, Autumnal Tints)

October 5: I am obsessing about leaves and trees and “seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness”. I am here in the United States, Buffalo, New York to be precise, waiting with my daughter and her partner for the birth of their first child. And in the meantime I walk the oak, sycamore, and elm lined streets and gasp at trees and the startling flash of colour. As an Australian who has for many years lived in the tropical lushness of the Malaysian jungle and lately returned to the steely grey- green leafiness of the Australian coast, the colour here in Buffalo is vibrant and intense. I obsess, looking for the perfect tree against a cloudless blue sky, the perfect tree that embodies autumn.

“No more photos of trees or leaves,” texts my elder daughter from Melbourne.

And while caught in the hunt for the perfect autumnal tree and leaf, I wonder about my use as an Australian of autumn and the American use of fall the former Latinate and the latter of Old English origins. Which was attested first in English?

What is autumn? What is it not?

When working with students or teachers, before leaping to resources, we first try to get a sense of the word. So: What is autumn? What is autumn not?  Often in determining what something is not,  our understanding of what that ‘something’ is will deepen.  

Autumn is not spring, not the first shoots of new life, not a vivid unfurling of greenness, not a blossoming and blooming. It carries no promise of warmth in lengthening days.

Autumn is a time of ripeness and ripening, heavy and bounteous, it’s ruddy coloured, rich and mature, it’s the fading of summer, the stage before winter dormancy. There’s an increasing chill in the air.


Autumn, the period ‘… during which the leaves of many deciduous trees change colour and are shed, the nights get longer, and the weather typically becomes cooler’ (OED), was attested in the 14th century entering English via Old French as autumpne from Latin autumnus and beyond that it’s only speculation. Perhaps Etruscan suggests the Online Etymology Dictionary, but substantial evidence like dry leaves is scattered. Chaucer wrote  this word perhaps in 1380 ‘Autumpne  comeþ aȝeyne heuy of apples.’: Autumn cometh again heavy of apples.

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Autumn is a free base element built of four phonemes: /ˈɔːtəm/ comprised of two digraphs <au> representing /ɔː/ and the digraph  <mn> here representing the /m/. I am caught by <mn>  where in autumn it represents /m/ when final, but then represents both phones [mn] when the vocalic suffix <-al>  is added: <autumn+al→ autumnal> pronounced as /  ɔːˈtʌmnəl/. The stress shifts and <mn> is now realized as [mn] . Autumn and autumnal shows that the digraph <mn> can represent [m] and [mn] depending on the circumstances of position and whether a vocalic suffix has been added. This aspect occurs in all words where the <mn> is final: damn /dam/ – damnation  /damˈneɪʃ(ə)n/; condemn /kənˈdɛm/ and condemnation/ˌkɒndəmˈneɪʃn/; hymn /hɪm/ and hymnal/ˈhɪmnəl/; solemn/ˈsɒləm/ and solemnity /səˈlɛmnɪti/.

Is the <mn> of Greek origins? I had at first assumed so. No, it’s featured in both Latin and Greek words. Damn and condemn are related and share the Latinate root damnare to harm, damage. Hymn, attested by the OED as 825, entered English via Old English and Old French but is of Greek origin: ὕμνος ‘:a song or ode in praise of gods or heroes’. The OED notes that ‘the earliest evidence for the non-pronunciation of final -n’  is from Palsgrave’s imme

<mn> is also found initially in words of the family <mnem>. These words are derived from ancient Greek μνημονικός mnemonikos relating to memory from Greek μνᾶσθαι: mnasthai :  to remember. So < mnemon+ic+s →mnemonics>, < mnemon+ist → mnemonist>, < mnemon+ize → mnemonize>. In these words <mn> is realized not as [m] as occurs when <mn> is final in a base element, but  as [n]: so /nɪˈmɒnɪk/ mnemonic.

However, when a prefix occurs before the <mn> digraph as in <amnesty  → a+mnest +y > and <amnesia → a+mnese+ia> the  <mn> is realized as [mn] :/ˈamnɪstˈi/: amnesty ,  /amˈniːzɪə/: amnesia.

The digraph <mn> can represent either [m], or [n] or [mn] depending on its position and the addition of affixes.

Autumn has a small family for such colourful presence: autumn, autumns, autumnal, autumnally, and the awkward autumnize.


Fall, the term for the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is now used predominantly in the US. It  is a free base element comprised of three phonemes /fɔːl/

It was present both nominally and verbally in OE. As a noun in OE it denoted a snare or trap, still seen in the compounds deadfall, mousefall, pitfall. Fall’s senses gradually grew so by 1200 it denoted a fall to the ground or building collapse, by the 13th century it could signify succumbing to temptation. However, the underlying sense of a downward movement always lurks beneath. By the 1540s, fall was embedded in the phrase “fall of the leaf” which by 1660s was shortened simply to “fall”. Once common in British English in the 16th century, ‘by the end of the 17th century fall had been overtaken by autumn as the more usual term for this season. In early North America both terms were in use, but fall had become established as the more usual term by the early 19th century’ (OED).

And why <ll> in fall, smell, trill, knoll, and dull but only a single <l> finally in churl, pearl, cool, steal, snail ? Gathering more words and developing a hypothesis to account for the single or double <l> in lexical words that are free base elements and have only one syllable, is an engaging inquiry for students old and young. Can students find more words to confirm their hypothesis? This inquiry of a single or a double<l> reveals an important orthographic convention of English and applies not only to <l>,  but also where <f>, <s> or <z> is final in lexical words with a free base element.

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see Real Spelling Gallery ‘conventions’ for a clear explanation of this (and other) conventions of English orthography.

The OED lists 40 distinct senses of the noun fall, the fortieth being the seasonal term, and fifty-six verbal senses. Highlights of the various senses in no particular order are:

  • that which befalls a happening, an occurrence
  • the descent of night or twilight or occasionally the approach of winter
  • the closing part of a day, year or person’s life
  • birth of animal’s young
  • a kind of veil, especially from a bonnet
  • the loss of a wicket in cricket
  • manner in which cards are dealt
  • another collective term for ‘woodcock ‘- a fall of woodcock
  • the rare- ‘alighting of a bird to the ground’
  • outflow of a river into the sea
  • shedding of blood
  • downward movement of sword, axe or blade
  • in criminal slang the arrest or period of imprisonment
  • downfall or ruin of something or someone: “Honour and shame is in talk: and the tongue of man is his fall’ Ecclesiasticus 5:13, King James bible, 1611
  • the conclusion of a passage of words or a melody: ‘that straine agen, it had a dying fall’ (Twelfth Night, Shakespeare) 

Fall compounds readily as you can see from the matrix. The compound pratfall <prat+fall> is a theatrical term attested in 1939 – a comedy fall, literally a fall on the buttocks with prat criminal slang for buttocks. The origins of prat remain murky, but it has been attested since 1560s and later in British slang it has negative connotations in indicating a person worthy of contempt as illustrated in the line from Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane: ‘Go on, you superannuated old prat!’

Fall Matrix

Older than autumn and fall is harvest. Harvest was jostled by these words to take on a primary sense as ‘ the produce of the season’ rather than specifically the season itself. And who would connect carpets and excerpts with this word on first glance? I hear the gasps of astonishment…read on!

Harvest is Old English hærfest, hęrfest growing from Germanic stock, Proto Germanic *harbitas which in turn grew from the ancient Proto Indo European *kerp- to gather pluck and harvest. Unravelled, shredded and plucked fabric is the underlay behind Latin carpere to card and pluck which eventually produced carpita –thick, woolen cloth in Old Italian or Medieval Latin and from there passing into Old French and into English itself.

The verbal sense of excerpt, <ex+cerpt> lies in plucking  and extracting something from its source and can be traced back via Latin excerpere to pluck out, to Latin carpere to pluck and gather.

Scarce too shares the same root. It entered English around 1300 via Old French scars via Vulgar Latin (‘the everyday speech of the Roman people, as opposed to literary Latin’ Online Etymology Dictionary) and Latin excerpere to pluck out. The Germanic harvest and its Latinate cousins all share an underlying sense of plucking and gathering.

harvest tree


I ended this shuffle through autumn leaves by reading Thoreau and Emerson.  Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau, August 1862, stated:

‘Henry David Thoreau was a born protestant, and few lives contain so many renunciations. He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature. He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. He declined invitations to dinner-parties, because there each was in every one’s way, and he could not meet the individuals to any purpose. They make their pride in making their dinner cost much; I make my pride in making my dinner cost little.’

2017 is the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth. His essay Autumn Tints, delivered not long before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 44, is an exuberant ode to this season published in The Atlantic Monthly of 1862. Robert D. Richardson noted Thoreau’s excitement and intensity for this season that revealed itself in thirty-three exclamation points and twenty-three words or phrases italicized for emphasis in the 25-page piece. One statement that continues to resonate one hundred and fifty-five years later :

We have only to elevate our view a little to see the whole forest as a garden.Those who merely look will observe a maple, while those who see will marvel at a living liberty-pole on which a thousand bright flags are waving. (Thoreau, Autumn Tints )

I love the reference to ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ – synonyms but by no means interchangeable. Exploring this synonym pair would make for an intriguing word inquiry with students or a blog post here at a later stage. Words and their synonyms, no matter how close, vary in nuance as Thoreau senses above, as different as the tree species I have been observing here in Buffalo.

We love to see any redness in the vegetation of the temperate zone. It is the color of colors. This plant speaks to our blood. It asks a bright sun on it to make it show to best advantage, and it must be seen at this season of the year. (Thoreau, Autumn Tints )

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Oct 24: I am so glad that our beautiful baby girl entered the world in the early morning of October 18 in such a mellow, ripe season. I am glad that when she opened her eyes to the world, the leaves of the trees danced in red and golden glory. Long may she ‘see’ and not merely ‘look’ at the marvel of nature.

If you want a different shade or tint of a particular color, you have only to look farther within or without the tree or the wood. These leaves are not many dipped in one dye, as at the dye-house, but they are dyed in light of infinitely various degrees of strength, and left to set and dry there. (Thoreau, Autumn Tints)

Finding Our Way in the World


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“A ship landing on a whale mistaken for an island in an early thirteenth century bestiary (London, British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 69r, c. 1230-1240).”

Much of this blog Word Nerdery built on a previous blog Word Nerds  and reflects the orthographic journeying of my Grade 7 humanities classes. For 18 years I have been a fellow inquirer on this wordy quest. I have learned from my students and their questions, as well as from my word wayfaring colleagues around the world who pursue the truths of the English language in their classrooms. My journey in the classroom in Kuala Lumpur has finished and as with all travellers when they reach a fork or a crossroad in their journey, I reflect on the path travelled. 

So why is orthographic inquiry important?

One student laughed and groaned during a class discussion, “You always bring everything back to words”. And it’s true – inevitably all paths lead to Rome, well to Latin, but also to Greek, Old English, Norse, Arabic, Hebrew, and the many other languages that add spice and flavour to English! So yes, groaning student, it does all come down to a word that when analyzed and considered, will deepen our understanding and thereby enrich our discussions!  

 ‘Orthography’ refers to the conventional writing system of a language by which sense and meaning is conveyed to and by its native speakers. The word entered English in the mid 15th century with a denotation of ‘correct and proper spelling’ via Old French and before that Latin orthographia which had adopted it from Greek ὀρθογραϕία  as you may have assumed from the <ph> digraph that represents the phoneme /f/. This grapheme is reliably a clue as to Hellenic origins. ‘Orthography’ is a connected compound comprised of four elements – two base elements , the first bound, the latter free, formed from Greek ‘orthos‘ correct and ‘graphein’ to write. A connecting vowel letter <o> links the two base elements: <orth+o+graph+y> . 

In English orthography three components are connected and unified: morphology, etymology, and phonology. However, it’s morphology that’s the organizing, delimiting and defining concept. All orthographic units and elements are contained within morpheme boundaries. The other concepts especially phonology cannot be properly understood without the morphological framework . 

 Orthographic inquiry goes way beyond the dictates of a curriculum document. It goes beyond marshalling the various graphemes into correct order. Words are ‘human thought made visible’ (Real Spelling). Words are, as one student stated, ‘treasure chests just waiting to be opened’.

I can only present orthographic inquiry in the light of my experience of it in the classroom and its impact on my students and myself in our quest to understand text and write clearly. Here is what we understand from our journey:

  • contained in one word are connections to other words related through a shared root and oftentimes a shared base element. Like us, words travel and in their travelling they too are changed.
  •  words grow – additional senses are added as the words travel both through different cultures and time. They reflect the past but are not static – they pick up influences from the countries they journey through and oftentimes they, like many migrants, while maintaining a link to their origins assimilate to the constraints, the form, of their adopted language. So they too have a story to be told. And when one understands words – their structure, their relatives (the morphology), understands their stories, and the way the morphology and etymology impact the graphemes and phonemes, you can begin to use them well. We have seen that words grant us power to move others, to persuade, to bring laughter or tears or fear or hatred or compassion.
  • uncovering the roots and finding a word’s relatives helps us read deeply. Metaphors uncovered in the roots run like a bloodline through related words and help to reveal the depth of a poem or text. Recently one student uncovered the metaphor of cards thrown away, in the word ‘discarded’. Another student found love buried in the related words belief ‘and ‘believe’. Another found footprints in ‘investigation’.
  •  the spelling of words make sense—there are no ‘oddballs’, ‘demons’ or ‘irregular’ words. There is a reason behind the structure of all words.

How did we go about this?

In the space of a year, our questing has been daily. From day one I used the linguistic terminology of orthography: morphological terms such as base elementsfree, bound, morphemes, elements, prefixes, suffixes (derivational, inflectional) etymological terms such as roots, clip, blend or portmanteau words, eponyms and toponyms, etymological marker letters, Latinate, Old English, Proto Indo European and phonological terms such as phonemes, phone, along with graphemes- digraph and trigraph, and the general terms lexical and function words.

We talked from the very beginning about roots and the languages that flavour English. We have talked about periods of the past and we sought truth by justifying all our hypotheses with evidence. We revised our hypotheses, often! Always our inquiry was intertwined, embedded into the classroom focus—based around a text—a poem, a picture book, one of the novels, a history reading, an event from a basketball game to saving turtles or rhinoceroses. There was never a list, an ordered set of conventions to be taught, rather words deemed important or intriguing were selected by the students or me for investigation. In considering one word, inevitably we considered hundreds. In exploring the one word, we uncovered the patterns and conventions that apply to hundreds of words. In all our forays, we found only the orderliness, the sense and the structure of English.  

Word investigation has bound us together, been the fabric running through every class. Sometimes the analysis in the form of a word sum may remain on our board for several weeks with students critiquing this and offering various hypotheses as to morphemes. Sometimes I get emails from students who have taken it upon themselves to look further and share the relatives they have uncovered. Sometimes students drop in to discuss a word before school or during lunch and yes, even after school. Often, without reminders from me, I see small scribbled conjectures in the form of word sums in their notebooks or on scraps of working paper lying around the room  – this is now how they think about a word when uncovering its meaning. Understanding of orthographic structure is built incrementally over time not in a prescribed one-off, stand alone lesson.

Through the course of a year students learn to read etymology dictionaries – The Online Etymology Dictionary has become a familiar friend; they read the Oxford English Dictionary. Students read the denotation and searched for a common root that tied a family of words together. Who would have thought ‘cull’, ‘legume’ and ‘collection’ could be related? Or ‘hope’ and ‘hop’? Who too would have connected ‘impale’ and ‘peace’ as being etymologically related? But dig deep as these students have and discover the connections of meaning that echo throughout. We talk about ‘resilience’ and read a dictionary denotation, but knowing it has evolved from Latin salire- saltum ‘ leap’ and that this root has lead to words like ‘saute’, ‘assault’, ‘assailant’, ‘somersault’, ‘desultory’, ‘insult’ and even ‘salmon’,  all carrying the connotation of leaping and springing, adds richness and vibrancy to texts.

 Always our inquiries into a word were framed around four questions concerning meaning, structure, relatives and pronunciation:

What does it mean?

How is it constructed?

What are the relatives? A relative must share a common root. A morphological relative shares the same base element – such as hopelessly <hope+less+ly> and unhopeful <un+hope+ful> or construction <con+struct+ion> and destructive <de+struct+ive>.  An etymological relative shares the same root but may have a different base element such as hopeful and hop or destruction and destroy and construe. You’ll notice that all relatives have sense of the root buried in them – a faint echo of meaning that unites them as a family. So the present day bases <strue>, <struct> and <stroy> carry a sense of building, piling up.

What are the elements of pronunciation that effect meaning? This question allows us to explore the grapheme – phoneme relationships which are driven by morphology and etymology. 

Read the comments below from the final investigations as students chose a word to sum up their grade 7 humanities experience:

I chose to analyze and reflect on the word ‘belief’. The word is a free base along with its very close relative ‘believe’. In the past, ‘belief’ used to contain a prefix and a free base element <be +lief>. That free base element has faded from use now. The word ‘belief’ first came into English in the late 12 century. It came into English as ‘beleave’ meaning “confidence reposed in a person or thing; faith in a religion.” It took over Old English ‘geleafa’ meaning “belief, faith.” The word goes all the way back to a PIE root *leubh meaning “to care, desire, love”. When I clicked on the link of the PIE root, I got some related words that were very, very interesting such as ‘love’ and ‘lovely’. I then thought about the belief of love and the definition of belief that might relate to these words. The definition for belief is “trust, faith or confidence in someone or something”. To believe in something or someone is to hold to them to your heart and think positively about them. This made me think that when you love something or someone, you hold them to heart and you trust them. An antonym for the word belief is ‘disbelief’. It means to not believe in anything or to stop believing in something.

The word belief greatly relates to this year in seventh grade  because we thought about it through every unit. In the first unit, when we studied Odysseus’ journey and the other Greek heroes’ adventures, I saw how the word belief relates to this because these heroes believed that they could get home. Their belief in the gods greatly impacted how they lived. In the next unit, we talked about religions and  belief in all its connotations connects here. We studied how different religions go around each other and are similar in some ways. Finally, in the latest unit, we focused mainly on the Holocaust and which was caused by judgments based on beliefs. Jews were discriminated only because of what they believed in and the way they lived their everyday lives. Others did not believe strongly enough in humanity to stand up for the right to one’s own beliefs … Reading and studying this shocked me so much because of how humanity can treat each other for just one simple difference or different beliefs.When people aren’t educated, this brings differences and they make them stand out. This often brings them to misunderstand different religions and therefore conflicts begin. Division and bringing out differences dehumanizes some people just because of what they believe in. I now respect and embrace different people’s religions and take it to heart if someone is making fun of another religion or a difference in someone else.’ (Delphine)

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The word I chose to represent this year is hope. Although it seems such a simple word, with only a single morpheme, it carries a lot of power.  Grade 7 Humanities has taught me that hope is an extremely powerful thing. “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” – Albus Dumbledore. We read about the story of twenty-one Jews who spent over a year living in the terrible conditions of sewers in Nazi Poland. All around them, even in their own families,  people were dying, but 10 finally emerged sane and alive. They did it by promising each other that they would one day taste freedom and lived off of the hope that they could one day experience it again, just like the people walking above their heads only a few meters aways. Odysseus spent seventeen years lost at sea, hated by the gods, but never once did he give up on getting back home, because he hoped that his son and his wife were still in Ithaca, waiting for him. It’s scientifically proven that with hope, patients have the ability to heal faster and easier. Individuals with hope significantly enhance their likeness from recovering from an illness. I’ve learned that hope can keep you alive. Hope is contagious, and the hope of one person can be an inspiration to many. ‘Hope’ and its relative ‘hop’ come from a root with the meaning ‘to spring, to leap’ and it certainly does make spirits soar.’ (Ee Jenn)

We have learned to handle orthographic analysis—through word sums to show evidence of the elements—affixes, base elements:

 We show relationships in webs:


Create matrices to indicate the morphological (synchronic) relationships:

form base

Matrix <form+ed>by students.

 Create word trees to reveal an entire family ( reveal diachronic relationships).


Watch and listen to this seventh grader’s research around the word discarded.

Consider the work below of Jae and Julia and how this orthographic way of thinking seeps into their writing.

 Jae selected the word abandon as a crucial idea running through Shaun Tan’s text the Lost Thing we were exploring in class.

Initially Jae hypothesized <a + ban + don(e) + ed> and justified the prefix <a-> with words like away, ascend. He struggled with the next two elements as he came to realize that abandon was not a compound and could not account for the <don(e)> in sense and meaning and so came to <abandon+ed>. He read and understood that this word was Latinate entering English via Old French  abandoner which developed from a French phrase . Jae went further to follow its tracks back to Proto-Germanic roots and the PIE root *bha- to speak.

We discovered that abandon as a verb was attested in 1293 ( OED) with a sense of ‘to give up or relinquish completely’ and that the sense of to ‘desert or forsake (a place, person, or cause); to leave behind’. The sense of ‘ to leave without help or support ‘was a later addition ( 1475 says OED). Digging around in the richness of OED we found ‘aband’ which provided evidence for <a+band+on>. We also discovered archaic bandon, ‘Jurisdiction, authority, dominion, control; power of disposal, full discretion, or authority to deal with. to be in or at any one’s bandon: to be under his control, at his disposal, will, or pleasure. To have a thing in one’s bandon: at one’s full or free disposal’.

Although faded from regular use now, the fact that this had been attested suggests that the base element is <band>, a bound base. The Old French word was formed from the adverbial phrase à bandon “at will, at discretion,” from à “at, to” and Old French bandon “power, jurisdiction,” evolving from Latin bannum,‘public proclamation, edict, interdict,’ This Latinate word was however, adopted from Germanic *bannan.  It is related to ‘ban’, as well as other Latinate words contraband , bandit and banns, banish and banal. The PIE root *bha- to speak spawned a vast clan. The Latinate relatives including infamy, fable, infant, nefarious, nefandous, fatuous and fate and the Hellenic relatives euphemism, dysphemism, cacophony, phoneme and xylophone, give a glimpse of the spread of this speaking, talking, proclaiming family.

Having analyzed morphemes, uncovered the root and the diachronic and synchronic relatives, this student then turned his thinking once more to the text, The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan, that had provoked his inquiry.  He wrote:
f8cmns83The idea of abandonment is played out through ‘The Lost Thing’ over and over again. The lost thing is abandoned, deserted in a strange and unfamiliar city. Because nobody wants to help it, it becomes gradually more lost—losing a sense of its surroundings, and perhaps itself too. When examining the etymology of the word, we can trace it back to one of its ancestors, Proto-Germanic *bannan. This means ‘proclaim, summon, outlaw’ —the lost thing is made an outlaw solely because it’s.. lost.

This acts like a black label in society, causing its abandonment to become more troubling. When ‘Shaun’ takes the lost thing home, his parents persuade him to abandon it. They are too busy going on with their daily lives to care or feel troubled about the lost thing. This sense of becoming lazy and complacent in society leads things to be abandoned, just like the big, friendly, and red creature found in this peculiar city.

When something is abandoned, we cease to see the worth in it – we lose our sense of care and love for the thing that we must have once felt differently about. We fail to speak for it. Perhaps it’s in our nature to abandon something when it gets… boring. Like a child with  a new toy, it only can be entertaining for so long. Things get abandoned every day, for different reasons.

I feel that ‘The Lost Thing’ represents this very idea – of people being swept up in their lives, but not swept up by its excitement – no, in fact, swept up by the same, old, dull lifestyle. They don’t notice the lost thing which stands out brightly with its curvy edges against the blocky horizon, or its bright red colour against the grey of the pavement.

We should not let our senses become dull to small details and fine changes, because once we are blinded to difference, we will abandon anything – not because we want to, but because it’s invisible to us.’

Finally he wrote the ‘tiny tale’ below that further illustrates his understanding of the word ‘abandon’.

‘We don’t fit in. Our voices do not blend with the others. We do not and cannot sing their songs. We are the abandoned – dejected, rejected and ejected.’ ( Jae)


 Below Julia has pursued her inquiry around the word ‘humanity.’ Note how she has hypothesized through word sums, and created a word tree to find roots and related words, both synchronic and diachronic.

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Following this she wrote:

‘When I look back at my year in 7th grade, there is also a word that I think always lay hidden beneath any unit, project, material, or assessment. It was the word ‘humanity’. This word seems to be what connected our three different units as a whole.

Throughout the units, we kept in mind questions like: What did humanity do? How did humanity tackle a problem? How can humanity improve? What is humanity, and how do we weigh its value?  For example, In the Mythological Journey, we asked ourselves what makes a hero? However, at the same time, we also confronted the idea of how humanity could become a hero as a whole, instead of just a group of people. It was a little bit different in the religious journey, as we looked at how humanity was different yet had similarly connected through the aspects of religion. We had looked at humanity realistically and fictionally, but what happened when we looked at it historically? In our historical Journey, we saw how humanity could transform into the most gruesome being in the world, just by a simple act of manipulation, and the power to unite people through the cause of discrimination and scapegoating. We saw humanity as a whole who we were and what we had become, but one aspect we didn’t touch was the future humanity because we couldn’t predict actions that hadn’t already been made. We could only learn from those in the past, but this information is enough to make us, the future generation, understand how to respect and control humanity. Because, humanity is one of the most beautiful creatures in the world, but if you trap it inside a wall of lies, humanity becomes vile. That is what we have seen, and now it is our turn, to make it an obligation to never trap humanity with lies ever again.   

When you start to understand the deeper meaning of a word it is like you were to look at the word in an entirely different manner. This is what I discovered when I annotated the word ‘humanity’. I realized that the word ‘humanity’ actually stems all the was back to a PIE* root called *dhghem, which meant “earth”. I thought of it as quite funny how the word humanity, which means human race, could stem back to a word meaning: ‘earth’. On the other hand, as I started to think with my more poetic mind, it actually made quite a lot of sense., because when we were in the Mythological Journey, I learned that humans were made from clay. And as we all know clay is made by dirt mixed with water, and where does dirt come from? The earth! It all made sense! We humans technically stem from the earth! Words are so magnificent if you are able to uncover their secrets.’

Read more tiny tales that came after research into words that students regarded as the essence of Tan’s The Lost Thing: discarded, conformity, belonging, lost, sympathy, forgotten, uniformity, acceptance, oblivion.

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We have charted our ways through orthographic seas, but unlike the thirteenth century seafarers above who mistook a whale for an island, we have learned to recognize the English language for what it is: a living, evolving organism. We have not constrained orthography to phonology or regarded ‘phonics’ as a safe landing. Rather we have recognized the unity of the three components – morphology, etymology and phonology and thereby experienced the order and sense of a spelling. These seventh grade students and their teacher have found their way in a world of words.

And to my fellow educators and students – continue to wonder about words, question everything. Do not fall prey to the banal or become tempted by the quick and easy. Think and dream about morphemes and follow the vestiges, the footprints, through other times, other places and hear the murmur of humanity.

Refugees and Arrivals


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This 1944 map shows the flux of the Mississippi River for the past 1000 years, each colour showing an old channel.The history of its change was recorded in the Geological Investigation of  the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, published by the Army Corp of Engineers in 1944. Rivers feature in this word investigation and this map echoes the flux occurring in words, the twists and turns of meaning as the past, like the meanders above, impacts the present.

Word investigations are rarely carried out in our humanities classes just for the sake of developing skills to investigate a word, or to teach spelling or to expand a student’s vocabulary. Of course, the investigations do all this, but the primary aim of any investigation is to deepen understandings of the concepts, texts and issues at the heart of our year long conversations in humanities.

Most often our orthographic investigations arise from a picture book which helps frame our discussion, serves as an introductory exploration of themes, and is a text that we can return to, only to discover with each return that it is not a going back or a repetition of the initial experience, but that with each rereading we discover and understand more. We read these texts and images conversing about motif, theme, character development, and note the balance between word and image, the dance of the visual in harmony with the word.


Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is one text students continue to pour over. We spent a week reading and discussing this rich narrative. This was a surprise to students as there were no words – at least no English words, any text within the book being written in the language of the Nameless Land. We discussed the way a settled group perceive newcomers, the arrivals. We wondered how the names we attach and labels we give for the arrivals effect our outlook and their fates. These words became the basis of our word study.



As we discussed the various words for people who move or shift places, I asked the class to rank them on a continuum from positive to negative. Any time words are compared involves discussing what it is and what it is not. Synonyms are not identical. Similarities in meaning exist but each is not a replica of the other. They fall along degrees of proximity to a particular word. Two identical words cease to coexist in English, one will shift and change to take on slightly different connotations, such as occurred with Old English derived ‘heaven’ and the arrival into English of Norse ‘sky’. I did not specifically ask students to discuss the meaning, but the thinking necessary to rank, demands clarity about each word. Listen to the excited group discussions, then whole class discussion.

Matching the denotation

Students matched the denotations I had printed from the dictionary, carefully reading these arguing, questioning, and discussing words.

Matching the root to the word


Next I gave each group the roots only  – no root denotation, no indication of the language of origin. I overheard statements such as, “Isn’t <ere>‘Latin?” “Why the asterisk?” “Why is there a hyphen after some roots? ” “There’s a<y> , does that mean it’s Greek?” Examining the root, can help students to identify the base element and graphemes that surface in present day English.


The discussion around connotations, hypotheses as to the elements, matching word to denotation, and matching word to root, raises questions to pursue in research and prepares the students for a thoughtful interrogation of the resources – The Online Etymology Dictionary, John Ayto’s Word Origins and the OED. Their hypotheses and questions provoke the impetus for the next stage of the investigation. Each group or pair of students chose a word to investigate further. Below samples from the research of ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’, both words students had considered when reading the The Arrival.

Student research on refugee

The students below researched ‘refugee’ tracking its route from 5,500 years ago into present day English. They discovered that it arrived in English in the 1680s. Refugee <re+fuge+ee>  is derived from the Latin infinitive ‘fugere’ and the past participle ‘fugitivus’, denoting fleeing, taking flight. Buried in the word refugee lurk suggestions of persecution and massacre. Discovering the date of the attestation of this word in English, we wondered:  what event or forces propelled this word into the English lexicon at that particular time?

The bloody persecutions behind refugee:

Investigation of the period refugee entered English, uncovered power struggles, religious persecution, bloody massacres, revoking of edicts, and calculated terror. St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 24, 1572 was fuelled by hatred towards Huguenots and the fear of power slipping from Catholic hands. This provoked the bloody Catholic rampage where the streets of Paris  were littered with Huguenot bodies.


Painting of the St Bartholomew Day Massacre by Huguenot painter Francois Dubois. Note the body of murdered leader de Coligny hanging from the window. Note also the same leader’s body shown decapitated on the ground under the window with Duc de Guise standing behind it. Note also the picture of much vilified Catherine de’ Medici emerging from the Louvre to inspect the bodies.

The spark igniting this orgy of violence was the wedding of Huguenot Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre, to Catholic Marguerite de Valois, daughter of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, and sister of Charles IX. Many prominent Huguenots had gathered in Catholic dominated Paris to attend the wedding, a dynastic alliance ‘intended to cement the peace between Catholic and Protestant factions in France after a decade of civil and religious war. It failed miserably.’ (B. Diefendorf).

 Poor harvests and increased taxes resulting in increasing food prices juxtaposed with the luxury of  a royal wedding fanned tensions among an already hostile population. Two days earlier there had been a bungled assassination attempt of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. With orders to cull Huguenot leaders, including Coligny, the bloody flames of slaughter and hatred spread throughout Paris and the countryside. When a group, led by the powerful Catholic Guise, dragged Coligny from his bed, killed him, and threw his body out of the window, the tension exploded in a wave of popular violence.

 Protestants were hunted throughout the city, including women and children. Chains blocked streets to prevent escape from the mob.The bodies of the dead were collected in carts and dumped into the Seine.‘Corpses floating down the Rhone from Lyons are said to have put the people of Arles from drinking the water for three months'(St. Bartholomew’s Day). Modern estimates for the number of dead across France vary, from 5,000 to 30,000. (Mikaberidze, Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes)

Not surprisingly shortly after this event in 1578, the word massacre is attested in English with the OED citing Scottish historian of the time, Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie: “ The xxiiij day of August..the grytt..murther and messecar of Paris wes committit.” Massacre “wholesale slaughter, carnage,” from Old French macacre, macecle “slaughterhouse, butchery,” of unknown origin; perhaps related to Latin macellum “provisions store, butcher shop’ (Online Etymology Dictionary). The OED refers to theories linking the word to mace– the ‘weapon consisting of a heavy staff or club, either entirely of metal or having a metal head, and often spiked’.

The 1598  Edict of Nantes ended the French Wars of religion by granting the Huguenots religious freedom. However, this was a fragile tolerance as Henry IV’s successors wanting an ‘absolute monarchy , continued to feel threatened by the Hugeunot power and a new wave of persecution began’ (Flavell). With a Huguenot revolt of 1629, Cardinal de Richelieu declared void the political clauses of 1598. In 1685 Louis the XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes causing an escalation of vicious persecution.

50,000 French Protestants fled to England with 10,000 fleeing to Ireland, all part of a mass exodus of 200,000 people. 750,000 Huguenots endured in France under oppressive “dragonnades”, the domestic terror whereby soldiers with’ a licence to bully, plunder and abuse were forcibly billeted on Protestant homes'(Independent).

Refugee in English dates from the  exodus of French Huguenots who migrated after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Diarist John Evelyn wrote of this in 1687 :  “The poore & religious Refugieès who escaped out of France in the cruel persecution.’ Refugee initially denoted “one seeking asylum”changing after 1914 to one fleeing home and in this sense to civilians in Flanders heading west to escape fighting in World War I’ ( Online Etymology Dictionary).

These refugees were not always embraced in England. As early as 1631, the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers claimed its members were “exceedingly oppressed by the intrusion of French clockmakers”. In 1708 a “Foreign Protestants Naturalisation Act” offered most Huguenots citizenship rather than “denizen” status. Yet the Church of England was suspicious of Calvinist worship and, ‘at least until the 1690s, pressed hard for French conformity to Anglican rites.'(Boyd Tonkin: Independent:Refugee Week). Of those fleeing to England, many Hugeunot settled in Spitalfields area of London where food and housing were cheaper and more freedom from ‘the economic control of the guilds.’ Spitalfields had a silk industry but with the influx of skills and Huguenot diligence, the industry thrived and was regarded as ‘weaver town’.’The wealthier Huguenots built large houses in Spitalfields, both for their families and for the weavers they employed. These houses, which still remain, are distinctive, with enlarged windows in the attic to let in the maximum light for the weavers.'(BBC) Gradually these arrivals integrated and in doing so even their names became Anglicised, such as LeBlancs to White,the Tonneliers, Coopers.The French refugees took on the occupations not only of weaving, but gold- and silversmithing, clockmaking, furniture making, printing and bookbinding, papermaking. Huguenots also made important contributions to the fields of science and medicine, politics, law and the military.


One student’s research on the word refugee and some of the family.

While our investigation focused on refugee, we enjoyed the discovery of compound words such as lucifuguous, shunning the light, nidifugous  fleeing the nest, and demonifuge referring to ‘a substance or medicine used to exorcize a demon; (also more generally) anything thought to give protection against evil spirits'(OED).The latter is attested in 1754 with examples cited in the OED of incense, priests’ robes, peals from church bell towers and salt as possible demonifuges. Not a word of regular conversation or idle banter these days.

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All year we engage in conversations and readings about identity. We talk about the forces  shaping us, how others perceive us, the image we present to others and how we are perceived by others. It becomes a weaving in and out of history, the perils of labelling others and of courage during times of oppression – it’s a year long conversation around difference and belonging.

Before we investigated the morphology and etymology of ‘arrival’  students considered what it is ‘to arrive’. Talking first in pairs, then small groups and finally as a whole class we shared what we understood about ‘arriving’.


Implicit in ‘arrival’ is a ‘departure’ and an ‘elsewhere’. To  arrive means you must have been somewhere else.  ‘Arrival’ suggests an end point has been reached, a destination, a separation from the other. Listen carefully – can you hear the faint rustlings from over five thousand years ago echoing in the present, the faint tearing and scratchings, perhaps the soft splash of oars in water?


We followed the route, the journey of ‘arrival’  through Anglo-Norman French, via Old French to the Latin phrase ad ripa ‘ to shore’. Arrive is attested in 1275 in English as a verb and about 100 years later it is used nominally. Once we discovered the Latin root, we were able to trace the etymological trails to a Proto-Indo European ancestor and the routes of other relations migrating to English, other ‘arrivals’. In our scratching through the layers of time  we uncovered family we would never considered as relatives: the Germanic ‘rift’, ‘riven’, ‘rivet’, ‘rifle’ and the Latinate ‘riparian’ and ‘river’ as well as the borrowed words, also Latinate, flaunting their ‘foreignness’ as loan words in English today – French riveria and Spanish ria.

Rifle: The verb rifle as in plundering, looting, or carrying off booty is of Germanic origin as is the weapon rifle. Both share the same Germanic and ultimately PIE root *rei- : scratch, tear, cut, but entered French en route to English. Plundering, booty-hauling rifle is the earlier arrival, attested by the OED in 1391 as an Anglo-Norman word. A rifle, the firearm, is attested in 1775 from the US  as a ‘type of gun, usually fired from shoulder level, having a long barrel with a spirally grooved bore, intended to make a bullet spin and thereby have greater accuracy over a long distance. Also: an artillery piece having a spirally grooved bore’ (OED) . The compound ‘rifle gun’ was earlier in use from 1685.

Reap: is ‘probably ultimately from the same Indo-European base as rive  ‘although the exact relationship is difficult to explain phonologically,’ (OED). Ayto suggests tentatively that reap may well go back to PIE root*rei- to to tear, scratch and ‘hence denote the ‘stripping of fruits and seeds from plants’. Ripe is from Old English reopan and according to the OED of the same Germanic base as reap and therefore rive, probably with original sense ‘that which is (ready to be) reaped or harvested’.

Not fooled by superficial similarity

It’s tempting to connect derive and rival to arrive, but really you would be paddling up the wrong stream! Derive, rivulet and even rival are connected morphologically – they share the same base element and on the surface this appears similar to arrive, but investigate further, to the root structure to see that these have evolved from Latin rivus “stream, brook,” from PIE *reiwos, from root *reie- “to flow, run” ( Online Etymology Dictionary).

Derive, rivulet, and rival are flowing, watery words. When something is derived from something else, it is a flowing away from. A rivulet is a diminutive form of Latin ‘rivo’ from Latin rivus stream or brook. As for the watery  flow in rivalry, a rival we discovered, is one who is paddling in or sharing  the same brook – it’s easy to see how this developed from neighbourliness to a sharp competitive edge : ‘Its etymon, classical Latin rīvālis (originally) person living on the opposite bank of a stream from another, person who is in pursuit of the same object as another from rīvus stream'(OED).

River on the other hand is is about tearing and scratching and cutting, the process of river formation. River initially referred to the banks, rather than the flow of water although the Old French riviere extended to include the flow of water and it was the dual senses of river, both banks and water, that Middle English adopted in its ‘borrowing’ of ‘river ‘in the latter half of the thirteenth century. Yet for such a common feature of the landscape, river is somewhat of a newcomer. Before river flowed through English, ea was the common word for flowing water, rivers. It is attested around 896, and according to the OED is still used in Lancashire, the fen country, referring to  drainage canals. Ea‘s distant Latin relative is aqua.


In forming a matrix, it’s always tempting to add as much as possible. But to what purpose? A matrix is a gathering and an appreciation of the elements that constitute an immediate family in present day English. It offers the reader a chance to slow down and consider. A matrix, like all good portraits, should not be cluttered. This is a morphological portrait of a family and as such reflects the immediate relationships around a single base element in present day  English. A matrix is strictly synchronic and so only the Latinate branch of the family is included in this matrix despite the temptation of Germanic riven and rivet with their connotations of tearing and cutting. The tree diagram above shows the broader family, the relatives – Germanic and Latinate, the sprawling  family lineage with all its twists and turns of the past, offering a diachronic perspective of the making of this family.

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We have talked at length about belonging. We began the year inspired by Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) where short videos show the journeys of eight people forced by political circumstances to travel illegally through the Mediterranean area. Khalili  invited each person to trace their journey in ‘thick permanent marker on a geopolitical map of the region’. We hear the subjects’ voices and watch only their hands marking their journeys across the map.

Our students recreated imovie maps of their stories and journeys until their arrival in Kuala Lumpur.  We have been arrivals, some of us in many places, and understand the sense of dislocation, the longing at times for elsewhere, the slow movement towards belonging. And while we may miss family, friends from elsewhere, we know our families have chosen to move. We know nothing of the enforced departures of Bouchra Khalili’s subjects, nor have experienced the terror of fleeing for our lives as we have learned about in the texts we have read, the news programs we view, the stories we have heard from refugees in Malaysia.


Francesca Sanna’s haunting Journey was another powerful text shared in class reminding us of Tan’s statement that ‘the history of humanity is a history of migration under duress: of people leaving their life and home in search of a better life'(Sketches from a Nameless Land).

And so we meander towards arrival once again.  Word investigation, the orthographic account and stories of word journeys, the arrivals into English, reflect more than the spelling of a word, more than the hypothesizing of the morphemes, more than a tracking of relatives. Words are artifacts and shine a light on humanity and moments in time. They help us reflect on the present. In the case of refugee and massacre we see the darker side of humanity that punishes difference, that persecutes and slaughters. In arrival we recognize the journey and hope of all those who leave an elsewhere and cross rivers or boundaries to touch shore in another place and try to make sense of an unfamiliar world, to belong.

For more on St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre  listen to BBC In Our Time discussion of St Bartholomew Day Massacre and watch historian Barbara Diefendorf’s: Blood Wedding: The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in History and Memory where she discusses ’causes and implications of the 16th-century Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in France and the myth-making power of history.’

Of the Rhinoceros, Nasal Speech, Carrots and Saveloys


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Sturdy, head down, nudging the confines of the frame, Albrecht Dürer’s 1515  Indian rhinoceros stands, armour plated and beady-eyed. Behind both artifacts—woodcut and the word  rhinoceros, there is a story.

Of course we analyzed ‘rhinoceros’. However, before the immediate rush to resources, I ask students to hypothesize and justify their thinking. This is as much of an assessment as any formal ‘test.’ Slowing down to consider and reconsider, to justify a hypothesis reveals understanding and misconceptions. It also means that students read the resources with greater care to confirm or revise their initial hypothesis when examining the Online Etymology Dictionary, rather than approaching this resource with a mindless expectation that the answer will reveal itself in a neat morphological algorithm.

You will see from the video above that these students recognized ‘-os’ was a Greek suffix and speculated that the digraph ‘rh’  is too of Greek origins using evidence to support this claim. This group of students finally concluded that ‘rhine+o+cere+os’ made structural sense. ‘rhine’ is a bound base element, ‘o’ a connecting vowel letter that students now spot regularly and ‘cere’ another bound base element- not as they had initially thought another suffix . Students hastily assumed that when a base has been identified anything that follows will be a suffix!

Note how the students now automatically insert a potential final, non-syllabic ‘e’ in the final position of both bases. We have as yet no evidence of this ‘e’ surfacing in other words sharing these bases, but its insertion prevents the possibility that the final consonant in both bases will  double with the addition of a vowel suffix. Some students are able to justify its inclusion, for others its a pattern they have observed that will emerge more clearly as their understanding grows.

The OED finds the earliest written use of rhinoceros was in 1398 entering English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French rinoceros. While in Middle French it was recorded variously : rynoceron (15th cent.), rhinoceros, rhinoceront, their etymons from classical Latin rhīnocerōt-, rhīnocerōs, also rīnocerōs, and in ‘post-classical Latin and scientific Latin also rhinoceront- , rhinoceron’. However, these were derived from the Greek ῥινοκερωτ- , ῥινόκερως. So  ῥινο- ‘rhino- ‘ compounded with ancient Greek κέρας: keras horn.   pιν :rhin is used before a vowel which derives from  ῥις: rhis: nose. Beyond that, little more is known.

The first base element  of the connected compound  ‘rhinoceros’ is ‘rhine’ and found in a host of words including these intriguing words: rhinencephalic: the olfactory lobe of the brain; rhinolalianasal speech; rhinologista nose specialist; rhinorrhagia—excessive nose bleeding and excessive mucus discharge is indicated in rhinorrhoea. We enjoyed  discovering the specific name for the hairless moist area at the tip of the nose in many mammals as rhinarium, it’s also the term for the ‘flattened olfactory organ situated on an antenna of insects’.


Our analysis of the elements ‘rrhoea’ and ‘rrhage’ was based on evidence from the OED  which states that ‘Classical Latin –rrhagia is derived from ancient Greek ραγία : rhagia to denote ‘bursting, breaking forth from’. ῥαγ-  rhag is the stem of ῥηγνύναι :rhegnynai: to break, burst (of uncertain origin).’ We noticed when initial in a base element, /r/ is represented by the digraph ‘rh’ and after a vowel letter  /r/ is ‘rrh’.

The creation of matrices are so instructive—they force us to question elements,suffixing patterns, suffixes, connecting vowel letters, but ultimately it’s about meaning. It’s the placing of of all the close relations, those sharing a base element and therefore root, in the matrix. Matrices represent synchrony —they artfully  reveal the morphemic elements of words sharing a common base element that currently exist in the language.When examining or constructing the matrix all elements are arranged and on view so that we can contemplate and synthesize them. For this reason a matrix is so much more powerful than a list which is finite and never exposes the elements. In constructing all the matrices of this post, we have ruminated long and hard about many of the elements  such as Greek -ῖτις’  ‘itis’  which ‘was already in Greek used to qualify νόσος :nosos:disease, expressed as ἀρθρῖτις : arthritisdisease of the joints. Apparently on the analogy of the diseases: νεϕρῖτις : nephritis—disease of the kidneys, πλευρῖτις : – pleurisy, ῥαχῖτις: rhachitis,’—spinal disease, –itis’ generalized in modern medical Latin and become in English the term for inflammation. It is even now used as a word- a base element itself.(OED)

The second bound base element, ‘cere’ in rhinoceros: ‘rhine+o+cere+os’ is from Ancient Greek  κέρας , κερατ- : horn. The letter ‘k’ was ‘little used in classical Latin, conforming most of its words to a spelling using ‘c’. This pronunciation of ‘c’ shifted to /s/’ (Online Etymology Dictionary).  Students saw that Greek κέρας , κερατ- : horn derived from the reconstructed PIE *ker-(1) horn or head.

This family is old and has been remarkably fertile—the idea of ‘horn’ and ‘head’ thrusts into all branches of the Indo-European language family. Ancestors from the Greek , Latin, Old English and even Sanskrit branches have impacted many offspring in English to name horned animals, horn-shaped objects, and projecting parts.

The Greek relatives:

The Greek branch of the family  :κέρας: keras ~ κερατ: kerat: leads to English keratin:‘a fibrous protein forming the main structural constituent of hair, feathers, hoofs, claws, horns.’ Derivatives are scientific referring to the horny texture of the cells of the epidermis or ‘coating of pills with a horny substance, so that they may pass through the stomach without being dissolved’ keratinization, keratinize. In mathematics a keratoid is a horn shape and a keratectomy is the removal of part of the cornea to correct myopia. However, the most surprising of family members is carat—the measure to determine the purity of gold.

Of carat and carrots- homophones from the same root

The connection between carat and Greek κέρας:keras was a surprise. Spelled variously from the time of its attestation in English (1552), its  immediate etymon was French carat, and that was via Italian carato  which was from Arabic qīrāṭ (and qirrāṭ ) ‘weight of 4 grains’, and ‘according to Freytag from Greek κεράτιον ‘little horn, fruit of carob or locust tree, a weight = 1/ 3 of an obol’. (OED) The humble carob bean, horn shaped, had  a reputation for uniformity in weight. From the 1570s carobs were used for measuring the weight of diamonds.  The Greek measure was equivalent to the  ‘Roman siliqua, which was one twenty- fourth of a golden solidus of Constantine; hence the word took on a sense of “a proportion of one twenty-fourth” and so 18 carat gold means 18 parts gold to 6 parts alloy.’ (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Carat and carrot are homophones and also surprisingly etymologically related. The vegetable carrot was familiar to Greeks and through them the name Greek καρωτόν  karoton “carrot”. The Romans too knew of carrots, Latin carōta, and they introduced them to Britain. However, as Ayto  states in his entertaining The Diner’s Dictionary, we would be hard pressed to recognize ‘this dingy, yellowish tough root as a carrot today’.

Rather, the modern orange carrot emerged from Afghanistan initially as a purple rooted variety, then spread its roots westward conveyed by Arabs. Spreading from Spain to northern Europe and finally in the Middle Ages to the ‘Low Countries’, the orange carrot of today was cultivated. It was in the sixteenth century that it finally crossed the English channel to appear in Britain along with its French name carrotte. It became rooted both in British soil and its colour in the popular imagination, so that expressions such as carroty and carrot-head were common epithets for the red-haired by the seventeenth century.  By world war two the carrot was common enough in England and readily available compared to other food  sources, so that the propaganda of carrots stimulating excellent eyesight and night vision was born. And it’s link with horns and therefore rhinoceros? The Greek  καρωτόν karoton ” evolved from κάρᾱ kara “head, top” and this, Online Etymology Dictionary suggests cautiously, is perhaps from PIE *kre-, from the root *ker- (1) “horn, head”.


While sugar was rationed during World war 2, the humble carrot was not and propaganda concerning its powers to develop night vision during blackouts became rooted in the popular imagination!


AS with carat and carrot, cranium too has been Latinized but is also from the Greek branch of the family, Greek κρᾱνίον skull. It was adopted into Medieval Latin and first written evidence in English is from 1543. Less obvious is the etymological connection to migraine.  Migraine entered English via Middle French in 1425 from French ‘migraine’ where it developed from Old French with a sense of ‘pique, vexation’. The ‘mi’ may be all that remains of  Latin ‘hemi-‘ which combined with  ‘crania’ leads to hemicrania ultimately  from Greek ἡμι-hemi- and κρᾱνίον: kranion: skull.


The Latin relatives: ‘corn’, ‘cerebr’

There are  even more wordy delights down the Latin branch of this ancient family . Find as many as you can from the matrix below centered around the free base element ‘corn’. In all words in this morphological family, the horn projects.


English ‘corn’ as in the hardened skin of foot or hand derived from Old French corne which in the 13th century referred to animal horns and later toughened skin. The Old French etymon derived from Latin cornu: horn and ultimately also from PIE *ker-(1).

Did you know that a horn wound was a cornada? A matador’s nightmare! Or that cornucopia, a compound formed first as a phrase in Latin, refers to the horns of the Greek goat Amalthea who nursed young Zeus? The second element of cornucopia, bound base element ‘cope’ is formed from Latin com +ops and denotes  power, resources. This is  the same source as Latin opus work. The myth tells of  Amalthea‘s horn breaking but in various versions the horn is blessed and becomes a symbol of abundance. Cornet can refer to either the wind instrument  originally made from horn or a headdress particularly that of the sisters of Mercy or one where the lappets of lace hang down the cheeks.

Cornicle‘little horn’ refers to the horns of a snail. The ‘-icle’ appears to be a suffix as evidenced by cubicle, testicle, particle and follicle. While the horns of the snail may seem diminutive, not so for a marginalia knight  of medieval manuscripts. Theses knights  cower and tremble at the  alarming cornicles!  Read more about this here on The British Library blog: Knight vs Snail .


The underlying metaphor of corner is that of a projecting point. Corner is attested around 1278 from Anglo Norman and derived from Vulgar Latin cornarium  which is derived from  cornu: horn. The unusual cornery is an adjective of  1576, a lurking word, ‘abounding in shadows’.  Cornage is horngeld or a form of feudal payment determined by the number of horned cattle and a cornemuse of 1384 ,’corn+e+muse’ is a connected compound and an early form of the bagpipe. To cornify is to cuckold—and yes cuckold is etymologically linked with the cuckoo. (Read about cornify and horns and the word cuckold).

Even  the English county Cornwall is etymologically related. Old English Cornweallas , ‘Corn Welsh’ from Welsh Cernyw, Cornwall is from proto-Celtic *Cornovjo-s, *Cornovja. The OED cautiously states it Cornwall is probably derived from Celtic corn, cornu, ‘horn’, in sense of a projecting corner or headland. (OED) The Online Etymology Dictionary states Cornwall has a literal sense of “peninsula people, the people of the horn”.

Cerebral 1816, “pertaining to the brain,” from French cérébral (16c.), from Latin cerebrum “the brain” and “the understanding” is from PIE *keres-,  and too from the PIE root *ker- (1) “top of the head”. The sense of “intellectual, clever” is comparatively recent, from 1929.

Latin cerebellum, is the diminutive of cerebrum brain; in ancient Latin it was used only in sense ‘small brain’. For this sense the Romanic languages have formed a secondary diminutive French cervelet, Italian cervelletto. (OED)


To consider the morphological structure of both cerebral and rhinoceros is an opportunity to also examine the graphemes of the base and to investigate the phonology of ‘c’. Why in cerebral and and rhinoceros is the ‘c’ pronounced /s/? When does the grapheme ‘c’  become pronounced as /k/?

Of Saveloys and Rhinoceros

Saveloy is a free base element but has derived from the same root as cerebral and cerebellum. The 19th century saw saveloys rise to sausagey prominence – Dickens refers to them in Pickwick Papers and in the musical version of Oliver, orphaned children sing wistfully of ‘pease porridge and saveloys‘. Saveloy, attested in 1784 and etymologically a’ brain sausage’, is the Anglicised version of French ‘cervelat ‘ which was borrowed from Italian cervellatta, a diminuitive of cervello brains which derived from Latin cerebellum and this takes back down the path to PIE *keres– from *ker-(1) and so a distant relative of  the second element in rhinoceros.

The Germanic relations: ‘reindeer’, ‘hart’ and ‘horn’

Old English ‘horn’ has led to the present day free base element ‘horn‘ which refers to the projections from the head of animals as well  “wind instrument” originally one made from animal horns. This too traces back down the Germanic family branch to the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *hurnaz and finally to the  PIE root *ker-(1 )  Derivatives from these roots have led to the related base elements : bound ‘rein’ from ‘reindeer , and the free base element ‘hart’  from Old English heorot which also lurks in the shadows of the name Hertfordshireliterally a ford frequented by harts!


Above harts 1520, “Harts. A bone, a feather, animal scratching itself. A bird.” From an herbal and bestiary , The Tudor Pattern Book, published in East Anglia c.1520-30 via Bodleian MS. Ashmole 1504. Note the horns.

An Aside: Pattern books

Medieval book illustrators aimed to produce  rich illustrations  and kept ‘pattern books’ as notebooks to record designs, figures, motifs, borders that caught their fancy. These were all derived from earlier works such as stained glass windows, books, paintings. Such notebooks “helped to circulate artistic traditions and ideas around the manuscript making community. Because they were working documents, passing between many different people, few medieval pattern books have survived.”  Pattern books are part-bestiary, part-herbal and an important visual record of early cultivated plants. This pattern book  was produced in East Anglia in about 1520.’ BibliOdyssey


 Dürer’s Rhinceros

There have been two famous captives on the small island of St Helenea, McGregor reminds us—Napolean of course, and briefly one that attracted gasps of admiration and wonder, an Indian rhinoceros en route to Portugal!

The rhinoceros was a gift from from Sultan Muzafar II, ruler of Gujarat, to the governor of the Portuguese colony in India. Somewhat overwhelmed by the animal, the governor forwarded this wonder to King Manuel I of Portugal. As Neil Macgregor observed “getting  a rhino weighing between one and a half tons onto a 16th century ship must have been quite a task” (MacGregor, A History of The World in a 100 Objects p.483)

The rhinoceros and keeper Osem left India in January, 1515 with ‘vast quantities of rice—an odd choice of diet for a rhino but less bulky than his usual fodder’. 20 May, 120 days after departing India, the rhinoceros arrived in Lisbon.

The bewildered beast was for the gaping Europeans another recovered antiquity—Pliny the Elder had had described such creatures in Natural Histories. For Europeans these creatures, once star attractions in Roman amphitheatres, were now  known only through Pliny’s text. The Europeans were astonished and the rhinoceros doubtless bewildered.

The Portuguese king had elephants in his menagerie and to test Pliny’s claim that the elephant and rhinoceros were bitter enemies, he organized an encounter. However, while the rhinoceros advanced towards the tall beast, the elephant, overwhelmed by the crowds, fled.

Rhinocerus fever gripped the Europeans: sketches were made, an Italian ‘ditty’ composed in homage and letters written describing the wondrous creature. It was one such sketch and a letter that made its way to Nuremberg inspiring Dürer’s woodcut. His wood cut led to an estimated 4000 to 5000 copies of this print sold in Dürer’s lifetime. Yet Dürer himself never saw a live rhinoceros.

Looking to curry favour and approval with the Pope  for Portugal’s empire building, the King sent the rhinoceros as a gift to the pope. However, the ship carrying the rhino sank in a storm off La Speza and the unfortunate rhinoceros, chained on the deck, for a brief moment the wonder of Europe, drowned.

Tragedy still continues to haunt the rhinoceros today, but this time it’s the Sumatran rhinoceros, the smallest of the species. We learned in a seminar through visiting documentary producer Lydia Lubon, an alumnus of our school, that the Sumatran rhino is rapidly ‘running out of space and time’. As we watched the documentary we realized we were staring extinction in the face.



The collective term for a group of rhinoceros is a ‘crash’ and once the earth resounded with  rhinoceros crashings—today it’s more of a murmur, faint and pain-tinged.  Rhinos are wanted animals, slaughtered for their horns. ‘… for the most part solitary animals but in large groups they are a crash, a term that is surprisingly in the ancient books of venery. While crash speaks to the rhino’s charge, much of the rest of the animal’s life is subsumed with delicacy. Female rhinos communicate with their young with a series of gentle, high pitched mewls and attract mates by whistling softly through their noses.’ ( A Compendium of Collective Nouns, 172)

By a focus on just one word ‘rhinoceros’, we have uncovered many words. We can so easily be ensnared in Listomania, duped into thinking more words are always better and require students to look up the definition, use in a sentence and then move on to the next in the endless list to plug their vocabulary deficits. Yet think about rhinoceros and consider how many other words on our quest we have encountered, how deeply we know this word.

Word investigations illuminate all subjects showing that words, events and cultures coalesce and when understanding the word and its relatives, we understand more than the word. Through one word, the world, the past, present and future  is opened to us. Here in this nose and horn filled quest, we have touched on history, learned of a time when the Greeks and Romans knew and encountered this wondrous creature, encountered art and science and in bringing these fragments together we can only wonder at the folly of mankind and the rapidity with which we destroy the world and the creatures around us.

’50 million years ago many diverse rhino species were found in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia … 350-8 million years ago, the furry Wooly rhinoceros, close relative of the Sumatran rhinoceros roams Northern Europe and East Asia. Human hunters may have caused the animal’s extinction.’ Between 1600-to 1900  the population of the Indian rhinoceros which once roamed in great numbers through the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins of India Pakistan and Nepal is decimated. In 1910 less than 50 of the animals were found in India.

Africa’s s  northern rhinoceros has been ‘driven past the point of no return. There are only five left alive, and only one male. He is under constant armed guard to protect him from poachers, and has even had his horn removed to deter them. The other African species, the black rhinoceros, is critically endangered. There are thought to be seven or eight subspecies, of which three are already extinct and another is nearly gone’. (BBC,Baraniuk)

The smallest of the species, the Sumatran rhino,  is too critically endangered represented by a mere three captive individuals. it shares with the Javan rhinoceros  ‘the bleak distinction of being world’s most endangered rhino. ‘(National Geographic)

The Bornean rhino in Sabah was confirmed as extinct in the wild in April 2015, with only 3 individuals left in captivity.

The mainland Sumatran rhino in Malaysia was confirmed to be extinct in the wild in August 2015.

‘In March 2016 there was a rare sighting of a Sumatran Rhino in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. The last time there was a Sumatran Rhino in the Kalimantan area was approximately 40 years ago. This optimism was met with despair as that very specific Sumatran Rhino was found dead several weeks later after the sighting. The reason of the death is currently unknown’. (CNN News, April 2016)

Once there were creatures with noses and horns, they roamed Europe, an artist Dürer in the 16th century was so inspired and drew one. Today we watch the rhinoceros hurtle towards extinction.


Read more about the  Rhinoceros below:

BBC The Story of Rhinos and how they once conquered the world: 

Rare Sumatran Rhino Found for the First Time in 40 years

Sumatran Rhinoceros

Save the Rhino

Live Science Facts about Rhinos

One Kind:Sumatran Rhinoceros and video

Of Books and Ink-Dabblers


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‘I am a child of books,’ begins Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s wonderful new picture book, A Child of Books.


‘I sail across a sea of words’. If you love books and words and stories and art and wit and whimsy … then this is the book to buy – a book  celebrating imagination and stories and words. This book inspires poetry, reading and art, a book where the boundaries of image and text blur as do the roles of illustrator and writer. It is, as the end papers give an inkling, a book built out of other books. Every page references other texts, texts that have shaped the author-illustrator pair in a poetic homage to books and imagination. 

This book had us wondering about the word  book . Students recognised immediately that book is a free base element. It is comprised of three phonemes /bʊk/ represented by the graphemes ‘b-oo-k ‘. The medial vowel phoneme is a digraph and can also be found medially in words such as good, hood, school, blood, hoof, stood, took, groom. As you you say these words you’ll realize the phonetic variety of ‘oo’ : /ʊ/, as in hood,  good, stood, took, but  /uː/ as in groom, swoon , school, loot,  and  /ʌ/  in blood, flood.  The digraph ‘oo’ can be found initially : ooze, oodles but only represents /uː/. The digraph can be final in too, woo but here its role is to ‘bulk up’ the word –  lexical words are longer than many function words, or, as in ‘too’, the ‘oo’ differentiates it from its homophones:’to’,and ‘two’. The final phoneme /k/ of  book is represented by the grapheme’k’.

Final /k/: I am often surprised that many can write these words accurately but have no understanding as to why a grapheme occupies a particular position – in this instance why ‘k’ and not ‘ck’– both are possible representations in the final position of a base element. Look at the  data a small group of students used to form their hypothesis. Hypothesize yourself then listen to their explanation. 


Both the digraph ‘ck’ and the single grapheme  ‘k’ represent /k/ in the final position of a monosyllabic word. Under what circumstances is ‘k’  used, when is ‘ck’  the grapheme of choice?

Appropriately  book has a riveting story and like fairy tales, forests are an integral part of the setting. Book is of Germanic origins and in it you hear the rustle of pages, like wind in the leaves of a tree – a beech tree to be more precise. Book  and beech are distantly related- both from Proto Germanic *bokiz “beech”. Some etymologists suggest that runes were scratched onto the wood of the  tree, others emphasise the writing was on wooden writing tablets, possibly from beech trees. The original denotation in OE was a ‘written record’ but by the 9th century book ‘applied to a collection of written sheets fastened together.’(Ayto)


Appropriately in A Child of Books the forest is made of books.

From books to housing them:

And what of the places where books are kept, libraries? The first written evidence of library was in Middle English in 1374 from Chaucer’s Boethius :‘The walles of thi lybrarye aparayled and wrowht with yuory and with glas. This arrived via Old French from Latin librarium “chest for books,” from liber (genitive libri) “book, paper, parchment.” The semantic evolution of ‘material for writing on’ to ‘writing, book’ is found in Latin liber which denotes bast,the inner bark of the lime or linden’(OED ). So from  bast with writing on it, to book. But there’s more to this tree filled tale- Latin liber can be traced back to PIE *lubh-ro- “leaf, rind”. 

Generous benefactors gave books to libraries as universities were established. In the libraria communis of Oxford, established by Bishop Cobham of Worcester in 1320, the books were chained to prevent theft – an indication of their value. Knives were not allowed in the library and the students were closely supervised by a chaplain to ensure no wet clothing or ink spills would damage the precious texts (Flavell). French does not use the same etymon for library; rather it turns to Greek biblion: ‘book’ as the basis for  bibliothèque :library. In French librarie is reserved specifically for bookshop.


Chained library of Hereford

‘And the preest shal wryte in a libel thes cursid thingis’ ( Bible1382 ,OED)

In English the Latin root liber has also led to  liberetto , the diminuitive of Italian libro and denotes the text of an opera or another vocal work, and to libel  arriving via Old French in 1297. Initially libel referred to ‘a little book or short treatise ‘( ‘el’ often a clue as to smallness) to a ‘ formal written declaration or statement’ to a plaintiff’s allegations, to a publicly  defamatory leaflet circulated to slander someone’s character and so by 1618 to refer to ‘any false and defamatory statement in conversation or otherwise… applied to a portrait that does the sitter injustice’. So from small books to scurrilous slander.

We discovered also that codex, ‘a manuscript volume: e.g. one of the ancient manuscripts of the Scriptures’ (OED) too has a woody, tree connection. Codex, a loan word from Latin cōdex , is the ‘ later spelling of caudex trunk of a tree, wooden tablet, book, code of laws.’This root ‘caudex’ has led to the present day English bases code and codicil (short writing or a small tablet).


From the Voynich manuscript 50r

Examine a codex  from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library  that still confounds cryptographers, linguists, botanists, historians and scientists – the Voynich manuscript , a codex created on vellum dated to the fourteenth century. Elaborate hoax or is there really a code to crack? Read here and here.

Colophon: This word was new to us and we hypothesized of Greek origins, the digraph ‘ph’ a reliable clue. Arriving in English in 1628 via Latin from Greek κολοϕών summit, ‘finishing touch,’ it denoted a ‘finishing stroke’ but by 1774  referred to ‘the inscription or device, sometimes pictorial or emblematic, formerly placed at the end of a book or manuscript, and containing the title, the scribe’s or printer’s name, date and place of printing, etc. Hence, from title-page to colophon.'(OED) Yet the story does not finish with a flourish here. Rather it climbs to even further heights!

The ancient PIE root *kel- (4) denotes”to rise, be elevated, be prominent; hill” and has led to Greek word kolonos hill and  Latin collis hill , columna “projecting object,” culmen “top, summit,” cellere “raise,” celsus “high”. The Germanic branch of the family from PIE *kel- (4) has produced Present Day English hill via OE hyll from Proto-Germanic hulni-.

 Below in the colophon – at the end of the manuscript of St. Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah‘,  the self-portrait of  the scribe Hugo.


From the Bodleian Library  a self portrait of a scribe and illuminator. France,Normandy, the Benedictine abbey of Jumieges, 11th century,MS Bodl.717, fol.287v

Student-made matrices, after researching the Latin roots, reflect their understandings of related words around the free base elements ‘script’, ‘scribe’ and ‘scribble’ derived from the Latin root scribere ~scriptum: write, draw,make lines. The second and fourth principal parts of the verb- the infinitive and supine, are the parts relevant for English orthography. This gives clues as to the base elements that emerge in present day English.

Early Germanic borrowing of this Latin root led to Old English scrífan (-scráf, scrifon, ge-scrifen), ‘to allot, assign, decree, adjudge, impose as a sentence, impose penance, regard, care for’. (OED) From the OE root the word ‘shrive’ ,’shrove’ and ‘shrift’ evolved.  Shrive refers to hearing someone’s confessions and the specialized sense of prescribing penances is seen in Shrove Tuesday, a word of the 15th century, alludes to the practice of confession at the beginning of Lent. Short shrift initially referred to the brief time for a condemned criminal to confess before execution later extending to little or an absence of consideration. (Online EtymologyDictionary)




Below a few other unusual scribble related words we enjoyed:

Scribbledehobble: a nonce-formation by James Joyce ‘on scribble … probably influenced by such a word as hobbledehoy, the etymology of which is obscure. Hence, the name given to one of Joyce’s notebooks ‘. ‘Of the fifty Finnegans Wake notebooks now in the Lockwood Memorial Library, University at Buffalo, the Scribbledehobble book is the largest… It contains words, phrases, clichés, anecdotes, ideas, scraps of information and other memoranda.'(1961 Times Lit. Suppl. 20 Oct. 754/3

Scribble-scrabble: a reduplicated word of 1590.

Scribblelet: a word  of 1599, now faded, once denoted ‘ an insignificant scribe or writer.’ We hope that this was not how our friend Hugo (above) was regarded.

Scriblearian:  ‘ A member of the Scriblerus Club formed c1713 by Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, and others, who produced the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (publ. 1741) in order to ridicule lack of taste in learning.'(OED)

What students have learned:

”Scripture’ is made out of two morphemes, the Latin roots scribere ~scriptum show that there is a twin base element. These two base elements have become scribe and script in present day English. These bases are free base elements because they stand on their own and don’t need affixes. At this stage of the year, I feel that I understand better how to divide up words into morphemes without guessing and actually finding a reason behind the morphemes. Dividing words into morphemes isn’t guessing or syllables, you need to find a proper reason in the root language. I still struggle with finding more related words because I don’t always know if these words make sense or not and how to find out if they do. One question I have from this work is how do I know if a word that I have just made from adding affixes to a base element makes sense?’ Delphine

‘While working with the Latin root  scribere~scriptum, I have developed my knowledge of words. I now am able to quickly recognize free and bound base elements, compound words, prefixes, suffixes, connecting vowel letters and many more word study elements. At first, I was slightly confused with most of them, but while creating the matrixes, I learned more prefixes and suffixes, and also understand the removal of the final, non-syllabic ‘e’s better. I realized that knowing roots can help my understanding of other, unfamiliar words that I might not have seen before, but if I happen to see a similar root, I can guess a denotation of the word.’Olivia

A scrivener was ‘a professional penman; a scribe, copyist; a clerk, secretary, amanuensis’ in 1375 a word which had evolved from the obsolete words escrivein esciveyn. The  unaccented’e’ is aphetic,meaning over time it fades.  These words trace back to Latin scibere. So from these Latin roots many base elements in English ‘script’, ‘scribe’,’scribble’ and ‘scrivener’ and from the OE borrowing ‘shrive,’shrove’ and ‘shrift’. All bases are free and a sense of writing, marking and recording lurk behind them all.

Victoria Lord writes of the difficult conditions endured by scribes, often in uncomfortable conditions. ‘They worked as long as the light was good enough to see by and their marginalia record their fatigue.’ Marginalia grumblings included:

“Let me not be blamed for the script, for the ink is bad, and the vellum defective, and the day is dark.”

“Cithruadh Magfindgaill wrote the above without chalk, without pumice, and with bad implements.”

“New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.”

“Writing is excessive drudgery . It crooks your back,it dims your sight,it twists your stomach, and your sides.”

“The book which you now see was written in the outer seats,” wrote one unhappy monk, “while I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.”( p.137, Book)

Marginalia grumbling did not just include the moaning about the conditions or the implements. Written also in the colophon are book curses– threats of excommunication and hell for those who dared to steal the texts.

Book Curses

‘May grace be to the reader, indulgence to the benefactor, anathema upon its thief’ (Anathema! Medieval Scribes and The History of Book Curses,Grogin)

“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.”

And our favourite book curse – each sentence begins in Latin and  ends in German. We were delighted to discover this combination of languages in verse is called macaronic and yes, connected to the pasta macaroni!

Hic liber est mein
Ideo nomen scripsi drein.
Si vis hunc liberum stehlen,
Pendebis an der kehlen.
Tunc veniunt die raben
Et volunt tibi oculos ausgraben.
Tunc clamabis ach ach ach,
Ubique tibi recte geschach.

This book belongs to none but me
For there’s my name inside to see,
To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming “oh, oh, oh!”
Remember, you deserved this woe.

‘So boc is writen wid enke’ (1250,  Meid Maregrete)

Ink : 1250 is the earliest sighting  of the word ink in an English text found by the OED. The process of applying coloured wax applied to the face then fixing it with heat was  in Greek ἐγκαίειν : agkaien  burn in,  compounded from ‘en’ in and ‘kaien’ to burn. English encaustic evolved  from egkaustikos. Greek ἔγκαυστον egkauston referred to the purple ink used by emperors for document signing. From these Greek roots, Latin encaustum or encautum developed and passed into French as enque. In 1250 this seeped into English as enke, inc, inck, ynke , inke, finally settling as ‘ink'(OED). However, as Lacey and Danziger illustrate in their chatty book The Year 1000, trees too are involved in this word as ink is created from galls found on oak trees. Read below:

‘It was an oak tree that provided the ink, from a boil -like pimple growing out of its bark. A wasp had gnawed into the wood to lay its eggs there, and in self -defence, the tree formed a gall around the intrusion, circular and hard-skinned like a crab-apple, full of clear acid. Encaustum was what they called ink in the year 1000, from Latin ‘caustere’ to bite because the fluid from the galls on an oak tree literally bit into the parchment, which was flayed from the skin of lamb or calf or kid. Ink was a treacly liquid in those days. You crushed the oak galls in rainwater or vinegar, thickened it with gum arabic, then added iron salts to colour the acid.’(Danziger and Lacey)

We also discovered in our search for related words, the obsolete term ink-dabbler denoting a scribbler. These paper-pedlers! these inke-dablers! ( 1616, B. Jonson, Every Man in his Humor , OED).

You might, like I did, assume the noun inkling is related to ink. It was the transitive verb inkle that appeared first in English, in the late Middle Ages where it denoted  ‘to utter or communicate in an undertone or whisper, to hint’. Beyond the first attested date of 1340-70, the OED inkles murky origins. The earliest attestation by the OED of inkling was in 1400 and offers no connection with pen, parchment, paper or ink . Yet The Online Etymology Dictionary goes further and hints at a tentative relationship to Old English inca “doubt, suspicion, question, scruple”. ‘Nyngkiling’ is the earliest representation of  present day inkling  apparently not a misdivision but rather ‘a nasalized variant of nikking “a hint, slight indication,” gerundive of the Middle English verb nikken “to mark (a text) for correction” (mid-15c.), from nik (n.) “a notch, tally”(Online Etymology Dictionary).

In the 1930s C.S.Lewis, JRR Tolkein, son Christopher, Owen Barfield and other writers and scholars associated with Oxford University expropriated ‘inkling’ as the name for their informal literary group, Inklings- a pun on the word ink and the diminutive OE suffix ‘-ling’ and thus created a playful connection to ink and writing.


Word Inquiry  in our class is often sparked by literature. Words and a book go hand in hand and using picture books to frame conversation around  year long themes are a fundamental part of our study . Words are not isolated, plucked from the air to dissect, rather they arise from our interaction with texts, from conversation. Jeffers and Winston write and illustrate the phrase ‘ For we are made of stories’ and I would add that stories are made of words and each word too contains a story, often written in books and printed with ink. As Samuel Beckett writes (The Unnamable) ‘the words are everywhere, inside me, outside me, […]  impossible to stop, I’m in wordsmade of words, others’ words’.

Other texts we love featuring books and libraries:

The Treasure Box by Margret Wild and Freya Blackwood, another book where the power of words and stories  and the resilience of the human spirit is a theme in a text where each illustration is a collaged from words, fragments of book and paper.

The Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers- a brilliant book by Jeffers collaged from books about Henry who devours books.

The Strange Library Haruki Murakami

For an informative read on the evolution of books read the beautifully presented Book by Keith Houston

Of Sirens, Spartans and Espadrilles


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Salvador Dali  wild- eyed but eternally stylish in a pair of espadrilles.

What connects sirens, espadrilles and Sparta? This was the question left hanging at the end of class when I invited students to investigate these words through Online Etymology Dictionary for homework. The next morning students reviewed their information with others at their table groups. There were gasps of astonishment and laughter as to where one word had led them.  Terms like ‘attested ‘ and ‘roots’, peppered their talk and I heard comments : ‘Well, the Romans must have taken it from ancient Greece  because it was in Greek first’ and ‘No, you can dig back further, you can get to a Proto- Indo European root here.’

And what is the connection? It’s twisted, tangling ropes and fibres again! The question above allowed students to take a short plunge into the Online Etymology Dictionary and to follow the trail of clues. In their first etymological investigations, students grabbed at the immediate precursor to a word, the etymon just before the entry into English. Now, towards the end of the first trimester, they are beginning to understand how to read this rich resource and how to persevere through the information, to follow side-paths and to go deep into the past.

Siren , attested first as a serpent in 1340 (OED) then as the figures from Greek mythology in 1366 (OED). The word entered English via French and Latin but is of Greek origin. Its Greek root ‘seira’ denotes ‘cord, rope’ with a metaphoric suggestion of  sirens as entanglers and binders. This referred specifically to the sirens that Odysseus encountered as well as being applied more generally to any deceitful woman. Siren came to be used for a warning device that made listeners run away or duck for shelter in order to be be safe. So in the same word two opposite meanings – sirens that lure and entice and sirens that also signal danger –  another contronym! ( We’ve beginning a list: cleave, ravel, sanction).Three years ago a  previous class had investigated this word and turned their understandings into an animation: see here and here.   Sirens represented as either fishy or feathery hybrids, have no need for shoes, let alone a stylish pair of espadrilles. However, it’s ropes that tie the espadrille and the siren together .


Siren holding a fish from a ‘Theological miscellany including the Summa de vitiis’  composed after 1236 from Harley Manuscript 3244 , f 55. Read about the amazing Harley Manuscripts here.

Espadrille was a complete surprise to us all . Espadrille sounds exotic- it isn’t pronounced like a word that is native born or one that has settled in the language very long. It still carries its ties to foreign places and suggests an otherness. The espadrille as a shoe originated in the Pyrenees and as a word from Latin spartum where it denoted Spanish grass or broom, the plant from which the hemp soles were made, from Greek sparton- σπάρτον ,‘rope made from spartos’- σπάρτος, the Spanish Broom. It entered Provençal as espardillo and from there with its ropey soles stepped into French as espadrille and with a stylish quickstep into the English lexicon where its orthography has remained unchanged since 1882.


Making the coiled rope soles of the espadrille.

The name Sparta derived from Greek sparte and  refers to a “cord made from spartos” – the same grass or broom that soled the espadrille.  Greek sparte  ‘grew ‘from PIE *spr-to- which in turn is connected to the root *sper- (2) “to turn, twist”. Spiral too is of Greek roots, speira “a winding, a coil, twist, wreath, anything wound or coiled,” from PIE *sper-ya-, from the same base *sper- (2). The reference to Sparta is bound in the ‘cords laid as foundation markers for the city’ or as The Online Etymology Dictionary says, ‘the whole thing could be folk etymology’ (Online Etymology Dictionary).


Sartium Junceum (Spartium Hispanicum) or Spanish Broom from an engraving of 1620 by B. Besler, Vol. 2 ‘Ordo collectarum arborum et fruticum aestivalium’. 

Students, through this etymological romp, learned to:

  •  fossick and to follow a trail in etymological entries and  to revel in the tale to be discovered.
  • identify the date of attestation
  • identify the root
  • recognize the graphemes that surface in the present day orthography of the word.

When you wander through the entries in the Online Etymology Dictionary , unexpected pleasures await. We scrolled down the entries beneath Sparta,  to stumble upon the brilliant entry on laconic with the perfect, pithy example – no rope binding this word to the others, just a tie to Sparta and Spartan brevity and austerity. Read the entertaining entry here.

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,
splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

(Dylan Thomas, Notes on the Art of Poetry)

 Delight and oddity and light are there too for the discovering in Online Etymology Dictionary or on the Etymonline Page on Facebook . It’s Thomas’s excitement and exuberance for words that I hope my students experience in their etymological wanderings and wonderings as they scroll through this resource in pursuit of a word’s story.