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.

Bound by Threads


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This image by Neil Packer from The Odyssey  shows the twisting, threads of Odysseus’s journey.

A brief conversation before school with a student who wrote about Odysseus being ‘bound’ to his crew and how his story is ‘threaded through’ with that of Penelope, has sparked this week’s word investigation. I picked up on Gabi’s rope and thread metaphor and suggested she should look at the etymology of Penelope.

‘…  Even Penelope’s name is connected to thread. It’s from Greek Penelopeia, probably related to pene “thread on the bobbin.” This is an amazing connection. To add to this thread idea, the fates have the threads of lives, measuring the length, cutting it when it is time. The Odyssey is a very large and complex tapestry, the strength in the threads like the strength in the bond between Odysseus and his crew, are unraveled at times by Odysseus’s own curiosity.’ (Gabi)

I am now enmeshed in threads, panels, and knotty conundrums.


From the OED:  the name of Penelope in classical Latin was Pēnelopē , from ancient Greek Πηνελόπη (Herodotus), in Homer’s Odyssey Πηνελόπεια Penelopeia (OED). 

While the OED makes a link between Penelope and ancient Greek πηνέλοψ , which designated a species of wild duck with colourful markings on its neck,The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests a ‘possible link’ to Greek pene ‘thread on the bobbin’, which came from Greek penos: web and winds back to the 5, 500 year old reconstructed Proto Indo-European (PIE) root *pan- “fabric”. Spinning out from this ancient root is the Latin branch of the etymological family pannum ~ pannus: denoting cloth, garment, which evolves to Old French pan  to indicate the ‘part of a garment that hangs down, i.e. a flap, skirt, or tail, part of a territory (c1100), part of a vertical construction in building, e.g. a wall’.  Pane which is derived from these Latin roots was attested in 1380. It was connected with bedclothes (c1245) and this connection influenced counterpane attested in 1459. Pane also denoted the side of a cloister, quadrangle, court or town and, from about 1473 on, could refer to a pane of glass and even a piece of ground or a patch of ground in a garden.

Panel is an obvious relative. It is attested early in the 14c., from Old French panel “piece of cloth, piece, saddle cushion” from Latin panellus ‘pad or lining of a saddle’. The panel referring to a group of people called on to advise, is too from the same clothy root referring to the “piece of parchment (cloth) listing jurors”. In the 1570s panel broadens to refer to “persons called on to advise, judge, discuss,”and  by 1600 panel has the additional sense of the surface of a door or wall.

Orthographically representing the final syllabic /l/

/pan(ə)l/,  but how to represent the final syllabic /l/ ? The graphemic choices are:  -al or ‘le’, ‘el’, ‘il ‘or ‘ol’.  With the obvious relationship to pane it becomes an entertaining puzzle when considering the orthographic structure of the final syllable.

The suffix ‘al’ :

There are three functions of the suffixes  :

  1.  converts nouns to adjectives: as in bridal, ‘bride+al’, tidal ‘tide+al’. This suffix is seen in  words from the Middle English period whose etymon is French or  applied to words entering English directly from Latin
  2. forms nouns of action such as approval, betrayal– both these words had earlier noun forms, betrayment or betraying and approvance, with the suffix only applying in the late 1800s
  3. refers to an element in chemistry

/pan(ə)l/  is not adjectival. It is nominal, not a noun of action, nor  does it contain any link to chemistry. This eliminates ‘-al’ as a choice, with the possibility of  ‘le’, ‘el’,‘il’ or ‘ol’ as the remaining options for the final syllable. These elements all meet the criteria that every syllable in English must contain a vowel letter.

‘il’ or ‘ol’?

Don’t get stressed over the choices ‘il’ or  ‘ol’. As the second syllable of many words  /(ə)l/ is unstressed and represented in speech by the ever present shewa –  /ə/. However, you can use stress and call on a relative to help: petrolpɛtr(ə)l/ ~petroleum /pɪˈtrəʊlɪəm/.  Often when considering  related words with additional suffixes, the stress shifts and the graphemic choice is more obvious. In the case of /pan(ə)l/ which has relatively few relatives sharing its base, neither of these options is  an obvious choice.‘il’ and ‘ol’ are the least frequent of all possibilities.


Can the final syllabic element of /panəl/ be  ‘le’ ? It is by the far the most frequent of the options. Is it a suffix? While I have longed to see and have previously analyzed ‘le’  as a suffix -‘it ain’t necessarily so’!

‘le’   may have in the past derived from suffixes forming nouns that are instrumental and or diminutive: handle, ladle, or  from verbs that are frequentative and often with a diminutive sense :sparkle, trickle. However, just because it was particularly productive in the Old and Middle English periods, does not mean that ‘le’  is a suffix in the present day. All that can be consistently true in the synchronic consideration of today – is that it is a common, final syllabic particle. 

When is ‘el’ used?

Under what conditions is ‘el’ used? While ‘le’  is the more frequent representation of /əl/, there are circumstances where this is not permissible in present day English. There’s no *mle – so pummel, camel, trammel, no *nle  -so tunnel , no *vle  so hovel, shovel, no *wle  so towel, dowel, no *rle , so barrel.

These non-permissible forms can account for the ‘el’ of panel , the default in such situations. However, panel has a diminutive sense and this hints at the possibility that ‘el’ may still be analyzable as a suffix in this word.

‘el’ as a suffix: 

‘-el’ as a suffix  evolved ‘ via Old French -el , -elle, representing Latin -ello-, -ella-. This suffix is in classical Latin used to form diminutives.'(OED) . This diminutive sense may not always be obvious in modern English where often the word is not synchronically analyzable. Sometimes it’s a faint whisper reminding us that it was once a suffix but in modern English no longer so. However, its presence is always clue of a story waiting to be uncovered. Beneath these words, is a hint of smallness: satchel, parcel, 

There are many more examples of where ‘el’ hints at a diminutive sense and some instances where it is synchronically analyzable  such as:  cartel ‘cart+el’ ; morsel , a little bite, ‘morse+el’. Panel therefore, with its original sense of a small pane or piece of cloth, is analyzed as : ‘pane+el’.The vowel suffix  removes the non-syllabic ‘e’ of the free base element.

To understand ‘le’, and ‘el’ refer to Real Spelling :Toolkit 2,Theme 4 J: Choosing between final syllabic ‘ le ‘ and ‘-al’.


A hapless panel of jurors,”Now Jurymen, hear my advice” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, 1890 dawn by WS Gilbert.

Tunnel : And while it appears we have ventured down a long dark tunnel to chase final syllabic particles and have lost our thematic thread, fear not! Tunnel is woven from threads! In the 15th century it entered English via Old French tonnelle, a net or tonel a cask. It referred to a funnel shaped net for catching birds.  Lucky Brian Lelome of  York  inherited several in 1538 : ‘To Brian Lelome all my partrike nettes called a tonnell.”(OED). It was only in the 1540s that tunnel came to indicate a tube or pipe and by the 168Os had shifted to an underground passage.This sense first used in Britain then crossed the channel to be adopted in French in 1878 (Online Etymology Dictionary). So from France and back again!


16th century qual and partridge hunters using tunnels in their feathery hunt.

Net suggests traps, knots, threads and bindings. It is of Old English origins  denoting”netting, network, spider web, mesh used for capturing,”( Online Etymology Dictionary) Net, from Old English via Proto Germanic *natjan , is  tied to PIE *ned- to bind, twist together’.

When we untangle the Latin branch of this family  we find knotty connections  derived from  Latin nōdusnode (1391) initially meaning a lump in the flesh, later a knot or lump; nodule ( 1425) a small lump. ‘Knot’, rather than ‘loop’ is beneath noose. Noose is attested in 1450 from Old French nous or nos via Latin nōdus. But this knotty Latin family has two more surprises –  denouement attested in 1752 from Old French denouement denoting an untying of a knot (plot) and  newel attested in 1363 meaning knob or knot on the stair-post derived from Old French noel, novel “knob, newel, kernel, stone” itself derived from Latin nōdus and ultimately PIE ned-.  There is also the connection of Latin nectere and its past participle nexus : bind, tie which leads to words such as connect and annex . This means the bases in present day English from the Latin side of the family are the bound elements ‘nect’ and ‘nex’  and the free base elements  node’,’noose’newel , and ‘denouement’.

On the Germanic side of the family are the free base elements  and a stinging surprise  with nettle . Nettle , Old English netele, from the diminutive Proto Germanic *natilon is ‘perhaps’ from the same PIE source *ned-.  Nettle fibre and its hemp relatives  were used for weaving.


Net is a homophone and differentiated  in British English by a double ‘t’- nett. In American English it can be a homograph and homophone with the context providing the clue to meaning. The second net (nett) denotes that ‘remaining after deductions’.It is adjectival and derived via Old French:trim, elegant, clean, neat from Latin nitere: shining, bright, glitter  a relative of neat .


From my notes as I try to untangle the family network.

There is a lumpiness underlying knots, like nodes and nodules. Knot of Old English is attested from 1000, has a  Proto-Germanic ancestor *knudn-.  Another lumpy relative from the same Proto-Germanic source is knoll, attested from 888, and perhaps too knob, 1398. As far back as Old English, knot was also used metaphorically to refer to a problem or perplexity and when we puzzle, deep in thought or confusion, we knit our brows- this usage from the 14th century. Old English cnyttan led to knit and denoted “to tie with a knot, bind together, fasten by tying,”from Old English cnotta “a knot,”. Knitting as an “act of weaving a continuous thread by loops or knots” is from 1711. Old English ‘cn’ was replaced in the Middle English by ‘kn’ and  the consonant cluster pronunciation was gradually reduced to the single phoneme/n/ by 1750 (OnLine Etymology Dictionary).

 Tangled too has a twisted and salty story. The OED states it cannot have come from Old Norse but perhaps is still of Scandinavian origin spreading from the Orkneys like the seaweed it denotes, via Proto-Germanic *thangul. Seaweed suggests entanglement wrapping around oars and nets and is wrapped around the word itself. It is attested first in English as a verb in 1340 then nominally in 1540 to refer to a species of seaweed and later again to a more generalised ‘complication of threads, hairs, fibres, branches, boughs, or the like, confusedly intertwined or interlaced, or of a single long thread, line, or rope, involved in coils, loops, and knots; a snarl, ravel, or complicated loose knot’ (OED).Tangle has also been used to refer to a ‘dangling icicle’, a ‘tall and limp or flaccid person’, or anything long and dangling including ‘tresses of hair and plants with long, winding, and often tangled stalks’. Note the particle which hints at repeated knotting or dangling.


Penelope’s weaving ruse revolves around the pretext of  fabricating a shroud, a textile. Textile and pretext share a common free base element text from Latin texere to weave. This is a family with many relatives  – the Latin members – text, textile, pretext, context, texture with the Greek family sharing the base hinting at skill :technology, technician, technique. Both  base elements , the free and bound trace their ancestry to PIE roots *teks- “to weave, to fabricate, to make; make wicker or wattle framework” .



Note how the base takes both the connecting vowel letters  ‘o’ and ‘i’  when forming connected compounds.‘o’ is typical of  words from Greek origins ‘i’ and more usual of words of Latinate origins. Note the  digraph in the medial position of base element that here represents the phoneme /k/– reliably a clue as to Greek origins.

Ravel, like cleave is a contronym- two opposing meanings in the one word. Ravel also is a word of weaving denoting both tangles, knots, snarls and untangling. The prefix either makes the verb intensive or indicates a reversal depending as to whether it refers to tangling or untangling. Ravel is a free base element, the particle , representing the final syllabic /(ə)l/. As seen in the section exploring panel, *vle  is a non-permissable formation in English. Ravel was used verbally first  from Dutch rafelen “to unweave,” from rafel “frayed thread.”

The Art of Stitching Anguish

I was reminded of a poignant meshing of  threads and nets in the work of Norfolk fisherman artist John Craske (1881-1943).


The young John Craske , rope in hand, foreshadowing perhaps his connection with fibres.

Fisherman John Craske became tangled in ‘strange trance-like states described as “stuporous” ‘  and lasting for weeks and months. He twice tried to sign up in the first world war, but had a nervous breakdown leaving him fragile from then on.  For a short period he was institutionalised and cared for by his loyal wife. He calmed somewhat if near the sea  and when interpreting it in paintings. Every surface in his house was covered in images of the sea and sky. When he was confined to bed, he stitched the sea, boats, fish on pudding cloth, on the fabric of deck chairs in delicate threads.  Discovered in 1937 by poet Valentine Ackland  and writer Sylvia Townsend Warner,  Craske glimmered  for a moment, but afterwards was largely forgotten. The elusive artist is the subject of Julia Blackburn’s wonderful biography Threads, The Delicate Life of John Craske.


A sampler  below is of tiny red cross-stitches forming letters on a plain background by Elizabeth Parker. She begins her stitched sampler with: ‘As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person…I can fully …trust…’.  Elizabeth who was born in 1813, was one of ten children and left home to work as a nursery maid at 13. Her distress is stitched into the sampler below where she tells that employers treated her ‘with cruelty too horrible to mention’, and how she was tempted to kill herself. Her desperate text continues with the heart wrenching question, ‘…which way can I turn… wretch that I am …what will become of me…’ The sampler ends mid stitched sentence – a thread hanging in time and space: ‘what will become of my soul’.Read more at the V& A museum here


Stitched soul searching continues in the work of Lorina Bulwer (1838-1912) but her stitches are not of the delicate  and fragile despair of Elizabeth Parker. The frenetic stitched letters are filled with tirades, ramblings and rantings. She was placed in the ‘lunatic wing’ of the Great Yarmouth workhouse by her brother  at the age of fifty-five. It appears Lorina did not get over her anger and frustration at the injustice of this. Her  texts are worked painstakingly in capital letters, without any punctuation, on  vivid coloured fabric patched together with wadding. The  text  leaps and twists from its vivid background in a three metre tangled outpouring of confusion and anger. She names people, places, accuses and  and tries to connect herself as the daughter of Queen Victoria or relatives of other  well-to-do Bulwers in the area. Her palpable anguish is threaded through each panel. Read more here at Frayed : Textiles on the Edge and here.


Penelope, John Craske, Elizabeth Parker and Lorina Bulwer in their creation of textiles expiate anguish, as if the act of  composing threaded texts, woven or stitched, would steady them in their unravelling, tangled worlds.

Smart Alecs and Clever Clogs: the disdain for intelligence


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Restoration of Sperlonga statue of Odysseus blinding Polyphemus- a clever plan. See impressive images of this sculpture photgraphed by Andre Durand here

“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.” Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

 We have  wandered far across the wine dark seas with Odysseus throughout the past few weeks. Our text of The Odyssey says he is a man of ‘cunning ‘ and ‘skilled in all ways of contending’. A recent version by Gillian Cross and sumptuously illustrated by Neil Packer opens with: “This is the story of Odysseus, cleverest of all Kings of Ithaca.”  As we enter the cyclops’ cave along with Odysseus and his men, we see the stark contrast between wit and stupidity, between the wily Odysseus and the gormless man-chomping cyclops. We see too the cleverness of Penelope, Odysseus’s equal in cunning, weaving by day and unweaving by night to dupe her predatory suitors. Clever, a word not quite positive in connotation, a word like so many of the words around intelligence – on the precipice of becoming derogatory. Students are busy uncovering the stories of the clever words. 

The Morphology of Clever: Still dominated by syllable silliness, students hypothesised <cl+ev+er>, although when asked, what is the base and is there a prefix, recognized the lack of cleverness in this quick response and wondered more astutely if the word could be analyzed as <clev+er>  or <cleve+er>.

The students recognised the ubiquitous  <-er> suffix and as they called out words that confirmed this, I seized the moment to discuss the terms derivational and inflectional suffixes,  asking if they could ‘spot my pattern’ conducted by setting several columns on the board and placing the words in each column according to whether it was the agent suffix or the comparative suffix. They had to figure out the reasons for my placement.We soon realized the need for other columns with words like shiver, slither, twitter, stammer and another for words like river, cover, feather.

The <-er> suffix

Students saw that although the letters are identical in all groupings there is a clear difference in sense and use. We saw words like farmer, baker, teacher, learner, cleaver were nouns.

The derivational agent suffix <-er> : carries a sense of someone who or something that does something; a teacher teaches, a cleaver cleaves. The agent  suffix <-er>  is nominal and ‘ is capable of functioning as the subject and direct object in a sentence, and as the object of a preposition’. (OED) 

 The inflectional <-er> comparative suffix: bears only a superficial resemblance to derivational agent suffix <-er>. It’s function is different. It compares at least two groups of entities in quality, quantity, or degree. It forms one of the three degrees of comparison the others being the positive and superlative.

Both the agent and comparative suffixes with an initial vowel letter will cause a final single consonant letter in a base element preceded by a single vowel letter, to double. So  <hot+er> becomes hotter , a comparative adjective and <swim +er> becomes swimmer when adding the agent suffix.

Frequentative element: In gathering words where <er> was potentially a suffix, we listed – dodder, totter, splinter, hover, shiver, flutter, slither, blather, slobber, clatter, glimmer, stutter, stammer. We saw these words could be verbs as well as nouns.There is a frequentative sense to these words, there is movement back and forth, repetition. 

When we examine morphemes of a current word, we of course  are operating morphologically  and so firmly in the present. It’s the synchronic aspect we are dealing with when locating words that share an element – a base or an affix.  When tracking down the origins, locating the etymons, we are working in the etymological realm. This is considering words through time- the diachronic aspect. One of course informs the other, but these aspects should not be muddied and muddled together. 

So we look for words that share a base synchronically, where ( in present Day English) the <er> can be substituted by another suffix or removed. For the vast majority of these words in our ever growing list, we hesitated, unable to remove or substitute this frequentative element. All we  can say with certainty is that <er> in this group of words is an inseparable particle, not  a suffix. It has a sense of repeated actions and movements – it is a frequentative extension: flutter, clatter, dither, bother, clamber . These words are unitary bases.  

There are words, in the list we gathered, where there is another obvious related base element. It is more likely that the second of the pair is also a unitary base element, rather than evidence that the <er> is a suffix. : <patter> and <pat>, <splatter> and<splat>, <slobber> and <slob>. In the first of each pair,  <er> is a frequentative extension, an inseparable particle. Where <er> carries a frequentative sense, it is not a suffix. The <er> of patter is the frequentative extension of <pat>.

This, lest I linger  and maunder in an <er> bedazzled haze far from the intended path, will be the subject of another post.

After this gathering, sorting and examining of words and contemplating <er> as a suffix and frequentative extension, we conclude that the word clever is a unitary base. The <element<er> is not used in the comparative sense- to do this would require the addition of the suffix <-er>, or  the phrase more clever. Clever is not a noun, so the agent suffix <-er> is not an element in the word. Nor is there any frequentative sense hovering around clever. The <er> cannot be substituted with another suffix. So clever is as clever does! 


The Etymology of Clever: The origins of this word are uncertain. It’s a mystery word except to say that it is of Germanic origins.

 c1220   Bestiary 221 in Old Eng. Misc. 7   On ðe cloðede ðe neddre is cof, and te deuel cliuer on sinnes; Ai ðe sinfule bisetten he wile. [i.e. The adder is quick (to dart) on the clothed, and the devil expert to lay hold on sins.]

Clever, referring to the hijinks of a dextrous adder, is attested in a thirteenth century bestiary and perhaps evolved from the Old English etymon clifer meaning a claw, talon or a hand – and thereby quick to seize.  Its first denotations are around dexterity and being ‘handy’ with things, a notion which still remains in the general sense of adroit, dexterous, having ‘the brain in the hand’ (OED).

Then there is a gap when clever goes underground, an absence where it’s not seen in any text until it resurfaces in the 16th century and is associated with senses of agility and sprightliness. Clever seems to have been waiting in the wings, ‘adroitly’ stepping into the lexicon at a time when deliver, with a sense of ‘expert’, faded from use.  As the OED notes ‘there is no trace of any influence of the one upon the other’. The sense-development of clever has analogies with that of nimble, adroit, handy, handsome, nice, neat, clean. The sense in which we know it today as intelligent did not emerge until the 18th century, 1704.  All this means you find uses of it where it means attractive, well designed, intelligent and sometimes in US English ‘good- natured’( Online Etymology Dictionary).

Perhaps, etymologists argue, clever is derived from an East Anglian dialect word or maybe from Norwegian ‘klover’ or East Frisian  klüfer and perhaps even  Old Norse kleyfr with a sense of easy to split which makes it, perhaps, a relative of the word ‘cleave~ cleft’: split. Clever, a mystery word, is shrouded in ‘perhapses’ and ‘maybes’.

 Compounds like: clever-clogs pleasingly alliterative, clever boots, clever-sides and phrases like ‘too clever by half’ , ‘clever is as clever does’, hint at a darker side – an edginess to clever, not quite studious, and not so positive in connotations.  Clever, like many of the words connected with intelligence, is on a precipice. Cunning, crafty and sly  initially with positive connotations of skill have pejorated, plummeted down a negative slope, as too with many of the words associated with learning. Consider smart and the smarty words compounded with Alec and pants. Then there are boffins, eggheads, nerds, and geeks all words that mock, ridicule or distrust learning.

We  ranked words from the most positive to negative and speculated about the disdain for the intellect. Perhaps it’s merely a comment on the practical or pragmatic versus the academic  or as Burridge suggests ,’our overriding pursuit of ‘relevance’ and the ‘real world”. Yet there is more than this in the connotations of some of these words (crafty, sly, cunning) a sneering, a suspicion of ‘jiggery- pokery’, of being duped. Students suggested a jealousy of intelligence and a human need to ridicule it as seen in the stereotypical images hovering around ‘nerds’.

Clever: This is a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to any thing a man likes, without a settled meaning. [Johnson, 1755]

Before clever came to mean intelligent there was keen (1000), nimble (OE ) quick at grasping, comprehending, or learning; (hence) clever, wise.’, witty (1100) ‘Having (good) intellectual ability; intelligent, clever, ingenious; skilful, expert, capable’, and the wonderful smeigh (1200) meaning clever or cunning, skillwise (1300) with a sense of intelligent,discerning and clever. 

Below our arrangement of words from brilliant and bright at the most positive to crafty, shrewd, cunning and sly at the most negative end of the spectrum. Lots of discussion around the nuances of these words. Students chose one of these words to investigate and we arranged ourselves this time from the oldest to most recent of words.

And who is smart Alec of this post’s title? Or smart Aleck?  What has he done to deserve the appellation? Is this like a clever Dick – an annoying  ‘know-all’?  Cohen ( Studies in Slang, 1985) first linked what had been deemed a generic term to Aleck Hoag of 1840’s New York – a pimp, con-man, expert of the ‘panel game.’ Aleck used his dubious skills in collusion with his wife, Melinda, to steal wallets from unsuspecting males besotted by Melinda’s charms. However, just as Alec is coming into focus, the 2013 OED revised entry pours cold water on poor old Alec: ‘ no contemporary evidence of the name being applied to him has been found, and it first appears rather later in a different part of the United States.’ So the Alec of smart Alec too a mystery, a conjecture.

Below a clever girl, who championed cleverness in girls, Dame Elizabeth Wordsworth, grand niece of the Poet William Wordsworth. Read more here

NPG x13332; Dame Elizabeth Wordsworth by Unknown photographer

If all the good people were clever,

And all clever people were good,

The world would be nicer than ever

We thought that it possibly could.

But somehow ’tis seldom or never

The two hit it off as they should,

The good are so harsh to the clever,

The clever, so rude to the good!

So friends, let it be our endeavour

To make each by each understood;

For few can be good, like the clever,

Or clever, so well as the good.

by Elizabeth Wordsworth


Earth-Mothers, Geographers, Orbiting Moons and George


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Above a silver medal representing the known world  in 1580 made to celebrate Drake’s circumnavigation of the earth. He was the first Englishman to accomplish this. (Neil MacGregor ) With this crossing, the English conception of the geography of the world changed. Knowledge of the earth had shifted. Knowledge of the roundness of the earth and the ability to circumnavigate it, reflects in Shakespeare’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream written fifteen years later (MacGregor)

OBERON: We the globe can compass soon,

swifter than the wandering moon.

PUCK: I’ll put a girdle round about the earth

In forty minutes.

While Puck’s earth-girdling boast leaves us gasping, marvel at the earthly connections between an earth-mother, a geographer, orbiting moons and someone called George  Read on!

Our first word investigation involved synthesizing words rather than analyzing them. Students examined the matrix  below.


Matrices are a powerful way of showing many words at the same time. Elements within the matrix combine to form words. Neil Ramsden, designer of the mini matrix maker states that matrices ‘provide a graphical shorthand for illustrating families of interrelated words’. You read a matrix from left to right selecting elements to make a word. You may use only one element from a column at a time.You don’t have to take an element from every column of a matrix – but you must not “leapfrog” over a column’.

Our journey with words begins this year with the matrix centred on <ge>.

ge base element
This was a simple start to the year but one that revealed  as much as it reviewed.  Why are some elements bold ? Some students explained the bolded elements were the base element. Others looked puzzled. We established that every word must contain a base element and this carried the most meaning in the word.

What type of base element is <ge>?

A few hands fluttered uncertainly “Bound?” and these students explained that words could contain free and bound base elements. New knowledge for some.

Yet, on this matrix there were several base elements. What words can you build using more than one base element?

What is the term for a word with two bases or more?

“A two base word”?

 We reviewed the term ‘compound word’. Many knew words such as whiteboard and birthday as compound words.The fact that two bound base elements make a compound word or that a compound can be comprised of a bound and a free base element was new information. I introduced the term connected compound  – words formed when the base elements are joined by a connecting vowel letter as in <ge+o graph+y>. The <o> is not part of the base element. Typically the connecting vowel letter <o>  is found in words of Greek origin.

We examined geography further. Are there prefixes in this word? So many students assume that the first element in a word is a prefix. Not necessarily so! Are there suffixes?

We wrote out the elements in a word sum <ge+o+graph+y>, spelling aloud each element, ‘announcing’ rather than ‘pronouncing’ the elements. And yes as we ‘announced’ each element, hands are theatrically raised and the final non-syllabic <e> theatrically removed. For many the kinaesthetic nature of raising hands to indicate a morphemic boundary helps to consolidate this and when combined with writing out as a word sum, the meaningful elements become even more embedded in long term memory.

Many students know changes to an element occurs when a suffix is added. Later we will investigate this so that all can hypothesize, investigate and express their understanding of this fundamental pattern that will remove a final non syllabic <e> from an element when followed by a vowel suffix. Later still, we will investigate final consonant letter doubling that occurs under certain conditions, again when a vowel suffix is added. Many know various changes happen, but they  are unaware as to why these changes occur, only providing an empty, “That’s just what happens.”

Are there any connections to the word geography and what we are currently studying – Greek mythology? A few vague comments about Greece being a country and that we’d discussed it’s mountainous terrain .

Are there any elements that give a clue as to the origins of this word? I had thought perhaps students may have commented on the <ph> digraph which is often a clue as to a Greek past. Several newcomers looked perplexed by the idea that words had an origin and a story to tell.

Geography: This was the segue into the Online Etymology Dictionary to discover that the base element <ge> with its denotation of ‘earth, land, country’ came from the Attic and Ionic dialects of ancient Greece, ge : ‘the earth, land, a land or country’.  At this entry there were excited gasps – Gaia! We discovered the bound base element shared the same root as Gaia the primordial earth goddess.

The etymology of geography was an opportunity to help students begin to use the etymology dictionary  purposefully. They don’t go there to hunt down a morpheme. Nor do they just grab at the first thing they spot. They go there to locate a root and read about the way the word has evolved over time on its journey into English and the way it continues to unfold in the present day. The entry tells of the date a word is attested. We talk of working somewhat like archeologists sifting carefully through the diachronic layers until we locate the root. We work carefully through all the links, the words in red.The entries also tell of the senses a word has carried and continues to adorn itself with as it lives in the world. This dictionary will not indicate base elements, nor should it as that is the realm of morphology. Reading the etymologies of words allows us to linger in the past and trace the journey of a word being buffeted by the cultures and countries through which it travels.

Geography, attested in 1487 denotes ‘the describing of the earth’ while an earlier word geometry, 1330, denotes the ‘measuring of the earth’ in reference to measuring of land and surveying.I loved the discovery of the Old English word eorðcræft, “earth-craft”, the equivalent to geometry. Geographer, describers of the earth, is attested later again in 1534 .

<ge>  also occurs in words where it is the star of the elements, the unitary base, such as : gein: <ge+in> from Greek γῆ earth :’A brown precipitate obtained by boiling mould or decayed vegetable matter with alkalies.’

Geode <ge+ode> another word where <ge> is the only base element, is attested in the OED from 1623 and defined in Elisha Coles’s English Dictionary of 1676.

Geode and earlier geography are word artefacts of a time between 1500 and 1650 when the number of words available for English speakers ‘more than doubled’ with many taken into English from Greek or Latin. The population shift to cities, the increasing availability of books  and the  rise of the grammar school meant ‘the scene was set for the emergence of the English dictionary'( Simpson). The earliest of the monolingual dictionaries were ‘hard word’ dictionaries and although the subtitle of Elisha Coles’s dictionary still referred to ‘hard words’, it was the beginning of a wider list of words including ‘cant’ and regional terms.


Coles’s English Dictionary ‘explaining hard words’, fourth edition of  1685.

What a delight to discover that another bound base in English, <gee> ,  is derived from Greek γῆ : ge :earth. We see it in the words  perigee and apogee.

Perigee <peri+gee> attested in 1595 denoted ‘The point in the orbit of the moon, an artificial satellite, etc., at which it is nearest to the earth’ and apogee <apo+gee> also of 1595 initially denoted, ‘The point in the orbit of the moon, or of any planet, at which it is at its greatest distance from the earth.’The metaphorical sense of ‘culmination’ developed around 1600 (OED).

I thought I had completed this post when I stumbled across a reference to a Geomancy Almanac which had me hurtling back to the Online Etymology Dictionary and the OEDGeomancy attested in 1390  denoted:’Divination by means of signs derived from the earth, esp. the pattern formed by a handful of earth thrown down upon a surface. Also: divination by means of lines or figures formed from the random placement of dots on paper.’ Another connected compound: <ge+o+mance+y> from two Greek roots: γῆ earth and μαντεία: manteia: divination, oracle, from Greek μάντις : mantis :seer, prophet soothsayer (Online Etymology Dictionary). Note the connection in the second root to mania “madness, frenzy; enthusiasm, inspired frenzy”



from the Geomancy Almanac, mid 1500


So many earthly connections from Greek Gaia the earth , to the describing of earth in geography to geodes , rocks with hollow sparkling crystal centres, to moon orbits of the earth, to soothsaying based on earth signs. And what’s George got to do with the earth? The etymology of the name indicates a'”husbandman, farmer,’ properly an adjective, “tilling the ground,” from ge “earth” (see Gaia) + ergon “work’ (Online Etymology Dictionary).

By George! This year’s Grade 7 Word Nerds are off to a rollicking start!


Reckoning of a Year in Words




The images above show two of the 8 folded crepe paper pages from the 1910 woodblock print calendar published by Takejiro Hasegawa 1853–1938. There are  8 folded crepe paper pages with each month as a single page colour woodblock print. Calendar– ‘the way in which the natural divisions of time are arranged with respect to each other for the purpose of civil life’ (Chambers) from Latin calendarium, account book from Latin kalendae the ‘calend’, the first day of month when accounts were reckoned, from calare :to call, proclaim, summon.

From August to June, a school year and a reckoning of what we understand about words. I worry that one year of thinking orthographically is not enough. I worry that our year of hypothesising morphemes and investigating the roots to locate a word’s relatives, words connected in meaning and that share a common root and often times a common base, will be a distant memory left behind in middle school. I worry that students will be given lists and asked only to copy a definition and impale the word in a sentence then move on to the next word where each word’s story will lie mute and the relatives remain undiscovered.

Yet  student reflections on their end of year portfolios tell a different tale. Many wrote of the importance of etymology and the legacy this leaves in the language.  Reading their statements, I feel encouraged that this knowledge will not disappear. It may lie untended for a while, but an intriguing word may lure this year’s word nerds to the dictionary and once opened, they will wonder about the origins and perhaps analyze the morphemes.

Lachie, inspired by  Visualizing English Word Origins, wanted to show his mum what he now understood about the diachronic layers of English.

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 1.14.09 PMScrumptious and posh:

‘I feel I learned a lot about words this year, and it helped me to more thoroughly understand the past. When we studied literature like The Odyssey or The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas I saw what effects words have, they can make you cry, laugh or smile. Words tell stories of adventures and journeys. Words can sound scrumptious and posh. Words have stories of their own. Words have taught me that there is a deeper meaning behind everything. We researched roots and bases and morphemes, each branching into something new…Through this year, through words, I have found out more about myself; what I like and don’t like, and how I fit in or don’t fit in. We have learned to think about difference, and how conforming and not conforming to regulations is a difference, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the worse. ‘ (Laurie)

Words like a puzzle piece in history

‘This whole Humanities year, words and their history have been the most prominent of forces and ideas in the class. Ms. Whiting, being a word addict, fanatic and enthusiast, has included words into completely unrelated topics, where she quickly and impressively broke down a word in front of us, or when she asked us to travel back in time and study them. At the beginning of the year, I thought that words were simply… words. A language that we use to express ourselves, nothing more. But deeper into the year, I realized that there was more. So much more. The history of words and the people that use them and the thoughts people have and the way people say it all mattered. Every word had a tale, a tale that stretched back through time itself. I myself took insight from the word <loss>. A simple- to- say word. Four letters. Not very hard. But the weight of the past and life of this one word was like a puzzle piece in history. Its ‘tail’ was long enough to stretch back to the Old English Period; which can be as old as the year 700.  Each word was connected to an enormous spider- web that kept the most beautiful and complex system of sounds- languages. We learned that words themselves have a story; a story that is made up of other, magnificent words. … Words have the ability to change someone’s mind, mess up their emotions, inspire them, puzzle them, make them believe.’ (Sean)

Breathing, hearing,writing and talking words

Tiril, a new English speaker, wrote: ‘Words, words, words and more words. I breathe words, I hear words, I write words and I talk words. There are so many words. Every word has a story; where it come from, when it was first used and what it first meant. All words has a base element, some also has suffix or prefix too. When you study one word, so many more are revealed and connected and you find more questions than answers, but knowing the family of the word helps you understand the individual word. During this year I have done a word study on Heffalump, floss and dream. In class we also studied different words, suffix and prefixes. We learned how to use web pages such as Etymology Online and the OED. The word I have studied the most lately is the word dream. I learned where the word dream come from, when dream was first used and what dream first meant and a lot more. Before I started this year I didn’t think about that word or that it has another meaning , or where all the different words came from or when they was first used. Throughout this year I have learned all of this and how to find it if I meet new words I want to know more about. Words can be nice and useful, but can also be used as a weapon, instead of bombs and guns. A historical example we saw this in was when Hitler used words to manipulate laws and people to his advantage and how he used words to become a dictator, the supreme leader of Germany. Word study is important and I will continue to use what I have learned about words in 7th Grade throughout my life’.(Tiril)

More interesting than I expected

‘At first when I had heard word study, I thought uh-oh. I never really got the concept of word study and the use of it in my life. However, as I learned more about it, I found it more interesting than I had expected it to be. Suddenly it opened my range of vocabulary, because there were so many words that came from the same base.  Throughout this year of 7th grade it lead me to an insight of what it truly meant to use words. I saw that words had the power to manipulate and dominate,to provoke  deep emotions.’ (Celes)

More than bricks

‘I’ve learnt that words are more than bricks that make up a sentence (if the sentence was a wall). Throughout the humanities journey, I have discovered that words have more meaning hidden in them which I would’ve never thought to discover. When I chose my word, <malevolence> it was because I thought that the word sounded interesting. Malevolence really is full of history, and if you know where to look, you’ll be able to uncover the amazing story. Through vowel suffixes, bound bases, affixes and all sorts I have found that each part of a word has a reason. From Mrs.Whiting I have also discovered new words that seem to have more magic to them than the words I previously used. Mrs.Whiting also says that words are weapons, and learning words are like fighting back. Which is true, and the use of words could’ve been a less impactful tactic instead of War.'(Megan)

Changed by words

‘Word Study has been an important part of our humanities year and has deepened my understanding of words and where they come from. Word study started out feeling slow and boring but as we got farther into the year and deeper into words, the more connections I saw and the more interesting it seemed. Word study has changed me and has given me a new curiosity that humanities has never given me. Before I would never give much thought to words past the definition, but now I see connections and I want to learn more about the word. So nowadays I have a much better understanding of the word and find them so much more interesting. Word Study has offered me a chance for a new insight into the world.'(Jose)

An insight on humanity
‘ At first I was skeptical about Word Study and its relevance, and found it to be quite boring and tumultuous. Eventually though, I appreciated just how much value and significance words and the study of words actually have in our lives. Words are perhaps the most powerful tools we have, they can move someone to tears, create atmospheres of joy, and even fear and bring about any emotion we are capable of feeling. Words can be moulded and merged with others to create anything the human mind can imagine. There is history weaved into word study, and this study can gift us not only the power of words, but an insight on humanity. I honestly cannot believe how much I have grown to enjoy words, word study and what it can carry.’ (Nanami)

Caught in a sea of words

‘Word study has taught me a lot this year. It has taught me about the morphemes of words: bases (free, bound), prefix, suffix. As I studied words, I learned how they are little treasures, their secrets are drawing me in. They have caught me “in a sea of words”. There is no escape now. It isn’t like I would like to anyways. It helps me understand words better, and now I can’t see words the same way. If I learn a new word, what I want to do is go onto www.etymonline.com and look up the root, figure out the morphemes, and get down to the overall meaning of the word. Wherever I go next in the world, whatever school I may go to, I will take this with me. Whenever I find a new word, I will figure out what it really means, and I will try to inspire others to learn about words this way.'(Sasha)


From the 1910 calendar published by Takejiro Hasegawa. Read more about Japanese crepe paper souvenir calendars at Letterology.


After our year together my hope is that these students will, like Dylan Thomas, have ‘tumbled for words’

I fell in love–that is the only expression I can think of–at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. . . . There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable.

(Dylan Thomas, “Notes on the Art of Poetry,” 1951)

Black Sheep, Embarrassing Cousins.


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Spalatin, aka Georg Burckhardt, friend of Martin Luther, secretary to Frederick III, was asked in 1510 to compile the Chronicle of Saxony and Thuringa. This was not finished but throughout  this work are 1000 images from the Lucas Cranach workshop, including this family tree. See more at the wonderful  BibliOdyssey and  the It’s About Time blogs. Presumably  one of the wives died in the family above with a daughter born to one wife and two sons to the other. The sons appear to deny any relationship with their half sister by turning their backs on her. It’s hard to tell who is the eldest.

When a family assembles, the immediate and the distant relatives, the cousins and second cousins once removed, there are bound to be some members we stare at  in wonder, incredulous at our shared DNA. Surely not, we hope, too eccentric, too wild, too unlike us! So too with words.

During the research, over a month ago, where students pursued one word through the mists of time, there were similar gasps of surprise. Through the centuries run complex bloodlines – often confusing but presenting us with some remarkable relatives. Tracing the ‘bloodline ‘back to its deep roots (PIE) inevitably one word relative astonishes.

It was up to the students to track down the stories, to ‘root’ out the relatives of each word. This was done in small bursts in the humanities classroom, not nearly as much as I would have liked, but mainly out of school as part of the homework. Before school, during lunch, in emails to me, or after school , students would share their discoveries, hypotheses and plans for the next stage. At the beginning of the year students would often ask, “Is that right?” Now discussions begin with, “This is my thinking so far and here’s why.”

Excited to share their investigations with their peers from another class, students  developed a series of slides to guide them. They made connections between their word and the texts we had read this year. We paired the class up with small groups and they presented and dealt with questions through three rounds.The sharing was lively and animated as they helped their peers to understand the terms root, base element – free bound, or some patterns in the orthography of the word – why a  <y> becomes an <i> when suffixes are added, why a letter doubles.  After the presentations, students made screen-recordings, flatter than the original live sharing,  but  capturing their research for their electronic portfolios. Below is an example of the research and the surprising relatives exposed as one student dug to the roots when investigating two words.

Hop and hope? Related?

Olivia was amazed to reveal a possible connection between hop and hope. Both have Old English roots . Hope, as a verb, is used 200 years before its nominal use. Attested from 800 with a sense of ‘looking mentally with expectation’, it shifted slightly to take on the sense of ‘to desire with expectation, to look forward to.’ And how does that connect to hop? It’s somewhat of a leap, but Klein suggests the idea of ‘jumping to safety ‘ connected to the notion of ‘a place of refuge’ and from there it’s just a ‘hop’ to  ‘hope’.  And as Ms Steven’s class of intrepid fifth grade orthographers noted, the final non syllabic <e> not only lengthens the medial vowel <o> from /ɒ/ to /əʊ/, but also prevents doubling of the <p> when a vowel suffix is added.

‘When you wish upon a star’

Olivia went further to find that a  surprising relative of <wish > is none other than Venus. Wish of Old English wyscan: to cherish, desire , evolved from Proto Germanic*wunsk which in turn grew out from PIE root*wen-(1) to strive after, wish, desire and this led to Venus. Venus appeared in Late Old English and was from Latin, the Roman name for the goddess of love and sexual desire from the same PIE root that produced wish.

Venerable and venerate are obvious relatives of Venus, sharing the bound base element <vene>  from Latin venus ~ veneris but there are other surprising relatives – venom entering English in the 13th century from Latin venēnum a drug, medical potion but also a charm, a seduction with an underlying sense of a love potion. Then venison and venery from Latin venari ~ venatus the infinitive and past participle of to hunt, to pursue.  From the mid 15th century venery had acquired an additional sense where the hunt had become metaphoric and implied pursuit of a different kind – that of sexual pleasure. In assembling the matrix and rummaging through the OED, we discovered the compound word: venefice :’the practice of employing poison or magical potions; the exercise of sorcery by such means’, attested in 1380. This led to a small cluster of words such as venefical, venefic.  All ultimately from the same PIE root , *wen-(1) that spawned wish!

Is <-ison> a suffix as in <vene+ison> ? The OED suggests it is a ‘suffix of ns., repr. Old French -aison, -eison, -eson, -ison:—Latin -ātiōn-em (at a later date adopted in the learned formation, which is thus a doublet of -ison), -etiōnem, -itiōnem. Examples include comparison, fermison, garrison, jettison, orison, venison, warnison.’

However, we thought <venison> should be analyzed as <vene+ise+on> and recorded it as such on the matrix below where it will remain until we util we find evidence suggesting otherwise. When the OED states <-ison> is ‘thus a doublet of <-ation>’ we were doubtful . While <-ate > regularly precedes the suffix <-ion> ,<-ation> is not a single morpheme, rather it is built from the morphemes <ate+ion>. We have hypothesized this to be the case for the so called suffix <-ison> and instead suggest <-ise+ion>.





While you marvel at the words formed around the base element <vene>, there is still more to astound. From the same PIE root  *wen-(1), come the Germanic relatives: winsome , win and ween . Ween attested from 888, with the senses of expectation and hope, opinion, belief and probability, now has faded from regular use, except in the compound  overween and overweening.  But perhaps the most surprising of all is ‘the runic name for the Old English runic letter  ᚹ (= w) and of the manuscript form of this (Ƿ ƿ) in Old and early Middle English'(OED), so called because ‘of it being the first letter of that word which literally means delight or pleasure.’ (Online Etymology Dictionary).

This ancient root *wen-(1)  has given us the Latinate bound base <vene> and the free base elements from the Germanic branch of the family: the homophones <win> and <wynn> , <ween> and <wean>, and of course where we began with <wish>. We noted the echoes of charm, desire and a sense of striving and pursuit resonating through all these family members.

Listen to Olivia’s presentation below.



And with the discussion of venison it seems logical to consider the hunt and  an image from Gaston Phoebus’s book of the hunt. Diseases of dogs and their conditions. (Bel France, Paris, XV th century. Paris, BnF Department of Manuscripts, French folio 40v 616.)


Venery , the hunt or chase, was attested in 1330. The images above are from the Livre de Chasse by Gaston Phoebus. Gaston III, Count of Foix (1331–1391), was known as Phoebus (Latin, from Greek Phoibos: “bright, shining, radiant) and so called either due to his good looks or golden locks ( see 64 of these wonderful illustrations here).

Phoebus, the handsome venerer wrote a hunting  advice manual between  (1387–89) and dedicated it to fellow hunting enthusiast Phillip the Bold , Duke of Normandy, father to the wonderfully named John the Fearless. His hunting manual was made up of four books: On Gentle and Wild Beasts, On the Nature and Care of Dogs, On Instructions for Hunting with Dogs, and On Hunting with Traps, Snares, and Crossbow.  Phoebus obviously took hunting seriously -he owned sixteen hundred sporting dogs and two hundred horses.  However, the excitement in the end may have been too much for him as in 1391 Phoebus had pursued his final bear. He collapsed and died while washing his hands after a bear hunt.

‘Word study at the beginning of the year was quite boring for me; torturous even. But now that I look back at it, I don’t regret anything. I learned about a multitude of things related to words. I learned about how to use my sources to help me find the root of a word, to find its origin, to break it up into morphemes, and to get deeper understanding of the word. Now I could tell you the denotation of exclusion for example, I could tell you all about hope, and how it connects to wish, and how wish connects to Venus… It’s a never ending cycle of possibilities, and you learn so much from the experience of looking deeper into a word and its history. We haven’t only looked into the morphemes of words; but we’ve also thought about how words and their meanings connected to the topics we were studying. This year, I went into depth with the word “Hope”, and this experience has taught me to look at words differently.’ (from Olivia’s year long reflections on her portfolio)

Scroll to the bottom of the page on the V&A site here to experience the sounds of a medieval hunting song  known as a caccia ( Italian for chase) Hounds At Court and Dogs in the Forest.To further pursue terms of venery read here and marvel at the poetic terms often referred to as company terms or collective nouns,such as a murmuration of starlings, an unkindness of ravens, a murder of crows, a singular of boars, a tiding of magpies. If entranced by these and you wish to pursue these further, then read an earlier post  here.













Larking in the Mud of Time


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We’ve been scavenging in the mud of time, mudlarks sifting through the lexical sludge to uncover word treasures. From the muddy past, we’ve plucked surprising relatives – some close, some distant.

As we began trimester three, we reflected on our year in humanities so far: the poems, novels, picture books we’d read, the history we’d examined.  What one word best captures the ideas we’ve discussed? From a plethora of words, each student narrowed on one word that appealed, a word they wanted to spend some time getting to know deeply. We began by talking about what we thought we knew about the word before looking at resources: we hypothesized morphemes, predicted the period the word was attested, predicted the journey into English. In order to do that, we spent time discussing the history of English, and scavenging in various dictionaries.

In the video clips below, you will hear  initial thoughts: speculations, confusions and questions. You will hear my hesitations, fumblings and at times muddy thinking.

Thoughts about <revolution> :

Thinking about individuality:

Finding the way with <lost>


Students discuss why they chose <voice> to investigate and what they have discovered so far.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • in the quest for one one word, so many more are revealed
  • in the quest, you find more questions than answers
  • knowing the  family, helps you understand the individual word, helps you see the thread of meaning that binds all those derived from the shared root
  • the series of invasions that led to the development of  English and the British exploration,trade, and  colonization has to led to many exotic imports
  •  words are not fixed in their meaning- they shift and change over time
  • you need more than one resource to uncover the word stories

Here’s what we need to work on :

  • record base elements and any morphological analysis in the angle brackets
  • spell aloud the elements rather than pronounce them
  • identify the second and fourth principal parts of a Latin verb , the nominative and genitive forms of a noun
  • use the term ‘root’ if we are discussing etymology. Do not confuse this term in morphological discussions
  •  awareness that a root may produce more than one base element
  • greater awareness of the roles of a single, final, non-syllabic <e>

This students sums up our learning so far:


My head is spinning and I go to bed muttering the words. It has been challenging  conferencing with each student throughout the research , but this too is the most important and exciting part. The conversations are collegial.   

I am impressed by these ‘lexeme-larks’ fossicking in the river of words where like the mudlarks they pull out their treasures from the depths of the past.  Words, like the artifacts plucked from the anaerobic Thames mud, are fragments of social history and holding them to the light, exposing their roots and morphemes, we understand more about humanity.  In the mud of the Thames, old and modern artifacts lie side by side : nails from ships built in the time of Henry VIII., Elizabethan clay pipes, bone and glass; so too with the words we have  found. Words from the Old English period rub shoulders with words from the Middle English and Modern English periods, words from Latin, Greek, ancient Germanic and even Proto Germanic roots are exposed in our scavenging and in following these  twisting roots through time, we uncover more words.  Stay with us over the next few weeks as we share our finds.

Mudlark  a compound noun was formed on a humorous play on ‘skylark,’ is attested from 1785 as a noun and verbally  from 1870.  ‘1. slang. A hog; pork. Now rare.2. ‘A person who scavenges for usable debris in the tidal mud of a river, harbour, etc. Also: someone who scavenges for such debris in a sewer; (in extended use) a beggar who operates near a river (rare); a person who cleans out or clears a sewer (rare). Now chiefly hist.’ (OED)

The mud-larks collect whatever they happen to find, such as coals, bits of old-iron, rope, bones, and copper nails that drop from ships while lying or repairing along shore …they may be seen … at daybreak, very often, with their trousers tucked up, groping about, and picking out the pieces of coal from the mud. ‘ (Henry Mahew, London’s Labour and the London Poor, 1851)


Clay pipes recovered from the Thames by deft mudlarks. See more finds at Thames and Field

Read Thames Treasures: mudlarking finds from the foreshore to read of  recent mudlarking discoveries or the gallery images of finds at Thames Museum or the beautifully photographed fragments and shards at London Mudlark

Visit the Tate Gallery to explore artist Mark Dion’s Tate Thames Dig of 1999.

We continue our research and will share this in the next few posts.

Basking in the Brilliance of the Game


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James Naismith and wife Maude practise shots with a peach basket in 1928. Read more here

Sometimes an investigation is of the moment, quickly grabbed and opportunistic.  You can milk the moment for all its worth to reinforce the idea that words are the basis of everything – yes, even basketball.

Last week and over the weekend the Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools, of which we are a member, held tournaments in the region, and ISKL, our school, hosted basketball. A lot of games, a lot of keen students eager to support our girls’ and boys’ teams, a lot of cheering. Before we left the classroom for the courtside bleachers to cheer on our teams, I ruthlessly exploited the students’ desire to watch by asking them to first hypothesize about the word <basketball>. And as with all words, there is a story to be told!

We all knew the meaning of ‘basketball’- both the ball and a game that many of my students play. I asked students to hypothesize a date that this word may have entered English and consider the language of the etymon. We are beginning work on knowledge of the various periods in the development of the English language and key events such as the invasions, revolutions, writings that shaped English. Most students glance only briefly at the date of a word’s attestation and the language from where the word entered English. Even then they don’t regard it as an artifact thinking about what this might show about the culture that has adopted this word at this time and place. They are often far too swift in their reading of an etymological entry and miss a lot of the story in their effort to clutch at the first thing that appears as a root. Slowly they are becoming aware of the main periods in the development of the English: before Old English, Old English, Middle English and the Early Modern, Late Modern and the Present Day English periods. We have timelines of this around the room. The OED divides this timeline, into even more sections with interesting overviews:  English in time

As you would expect with limited knowledge, there were a variety of wild guesses as to the time when basketball was attested. Yet the majority felt that <basketball> as a game was modern – few were convinced the game existed in the Old English period, while the majority thought this word a coinage of the Late Modern Period. Marshall, a keen basketball player himself and reader of many sports magazines and texts, was fairly certain that the word had been generated by an American in the 1890’s.

Before leaping into the dictionary we analyzed the word itself- commenting that the word is a noun, a compound word and therefore two base elements from two different roots.  There were several hypotheses. All students were convinced that <ball> was a free base element. From this point, we discussed  whether <basket> could be analyzed into two morphemes <bask+et>. Listen to the student below discussing <basketball>.



The suffix <-et>

We discussed the possibility of <-et> as a suffix. In order to form a hypothesis, of course you need evidence. We quickly assembled words such as casket, ballet, tourniquet, fillet, blanket, market, racquet. Some students speculated that words such as fillet, ballet, tourniquet  were French  – they ‘sounded French’ and as another student said, “In those words the <t> isn’t pronounced.” We talked about market, casket, racquet also being French but maybe as another speculated, “ Maybe they’d (the words) hung around in English longer and so the <-et> is said.”

 <-et>  as a suffix forms diminutives from nouns and ‘represents Old French -et masculine, -ete (modern French -ette) the feminine’. In English the suffix occurs chiefly in ‘French words adopted into Middle English, as: bullet, crotchet, fillet, gullet, hatchet, mallet, pocket, pullet, sonnet, tablet, turret. ‘ The OED notes that ‘most of these are now used without any consciousness of their original diminutive sense. To us, basket had no obvious sense of smallness.

A bath, to bask, and to bathe : baking hot

While <bask> is indeed a free base element those students analyzing basket as <bask+et> quickly realized that <bask> denoted ‘bathing in, luxuriating in something.’ They used familiar examples from here in Malaysia of lizards, snakes and even tourists on beaches basking in the sunshine.  Bask , we later discovered, is of Old Norse roots baðask,  bathask, attested from 1393, acquired initially in the sense of ‘wallowing in blood’ . ‘To bathe, especially in warm water or liquid, and so transferred the sense of to ‘be suffused with, or swim in, blood:’ ‘The child lay bathend in her blood. And for the blood was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.’( 1393 John Gower, Confessio Amantis, OED ). The sense of lying in pleasant warmth occurred three centuries later, in the 17th century and the OED cites Shakespeare in As You Like (1616) as the first to use <bask> in the sense of : ‘To expose to a flood of warmth, to suffuse with genial warmth’: Shakespeare As you like It ii. vii. 15   ‘A foole, Who laid him downe, and bask’d him in the Sun.’


Illustration of the motley fool basking in the sun by Hugh Thompson for Shakespeare’s As You Like It, from the Hodder and Stoughton edition, 1913


The Old Norse etymon, is reflexive of the verb batha, to bathe and not etymologically and therefore not morphologically connected with baskets! So bask , bathe and bath are related, all separate free base elements and emerging in English from Proto Germanic roots in different time periods : bath in the Old English period bæð, and ultimately from the PIE root *bhe- “to warm”. The earliest attestation according to the OED is from 864 . Bathe, the verb, is attested slightly later but still in the Old English period around 1000 from Old English baðian and pronounced differently due to i- mutation. (Read Douglas Harper’s brief and lucid explanation of i-mutation here with examples of other OE words where this occurred).  Lying beneath all, bask, bath, bathe, is the connotation of heat. However, dear readers, there’s more … When fossicking amongst the PIE root *bhe-,*bho-, we unearthed another related word : <bake>. We gasped at the now obvious heat connection!


As we realized there was no possible meaning link between bask, and basket, we concluded that the first base element in the compound <basketball> was a free base element. The origins of basket, we discovered, still confound etymologists. We saw that it has been attested from 1300 so entering English via French in the Middle English period. Chaucer used the word in the Pardoner’s prologue, 117: I wil do no labour with myn hondes, Ne make basketis and lyve therby.’ But the rest beyond this time is pure speculation – perhaps Latin bascauda– a table vessel or kettle or perhaps even from a Celtic etymon indicating a wicker basket.


Smith College  women’s basketball team, obviously 1902!



Many students predicted <ball> was from the Old English period. In the class there are Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish speakers and all noted the similarity of their  mother tongues’ word for ball. They recognized that these languages, like Old English, are Germanic which helped them hypothesize about the Old English origins. However, ball is a homophone- as one student noted and as such is of two different roots. The ball where you dance is a descendent from Latin ballare which in turn evolved from Greek ballizein ‘dance’. This root has also led to other family members such as ballad, ballet, ballerina.

The round, spherical ball which dribbles, bounces and rebounds throughout the game of basketball entered English in the Middle English period perhaps from Old Norse bollr,  or from an unattested Old English etymon *beall. These evolved from the hypothesized Proto Germanic root *balluz.  Many of the male students were entertained to discover that this Germanic etymon also led to bollocks or ballocks, a word derived from OE bealluc  for testicles, and quite acceptable in every day speech until the end of the seventeenth century when it was regarded as ‘coarse slang ‘ and not recorded by Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755, nor seen in the OED until 1972.

Despite the entry into the hallowed pages of the OED, the scent of coarse language still hovered around the word in 1977 when John Mortimer and Geoffrey Robinson were called on to defend a ‘particularly studious young university graduate who sung under the sobriquet of Johnny Rotten’ (The Justice Game, Geoffrey Robinson). There was much righteous outrage over the title of the Sex Pistols’ Album: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.

John Mortimer called in a Professor of English from Leicester University as an expert witness to explain the etymology of ballocks, bollocks informing the judge and jurors of the word’s Old English heritage, its reference to the tubers of orchids and citing Eric Partridge’s research of the colloquial or slang senses which include an apparent 17th to 19th century reference to the clergy: ‘In 1684 the Officer Commanding the Straights always referred to his chaplain as Ballocks’. In the late 19-20th century bollocks /ballocks took on the sense of nonsense and later a muddle or confusion in army references from 1915.  Etymology won the day and the charges were dismissed.

‘What sort of country are we living in if a politician comes to Nottingham and speaks here to a group of people in the city centre and during his speech a heckler replies ‘bollocks’, are we to expect this person to be incarcerated, or do we live in a country where we are proud of our Anglo Saxon language? Do we wish our language to be virile and strong or watered down and weak?'(John Mortimer)

This was a great opportunity to point out the different registers of English with the more formal, medical connotations of Latin derived testicle and the more everyday, colloquial use of bollocks. The Germanic stem *bal-, *bul- was also the source for the receptacle ‘bowl.’


The receptacle bowl too can be traced back to the PIE root *bhel-(2)’To blow, swell, with derivatives referring to various round objects.’ (AHD). This ancient root is shared with Old English bolla  which denotes ‘bud, round pod, globular vessel’ hence Old English heafodbolla ‘brainpan, skull’ from the Germanic root *būl- ‘to swell, be swollen’. The OED states that the ‘normal modern spelling’ of <bowl> would be ‘<boll> which came down to 17th century in the sense of a ‘round vessel’. However ,<boll> now remains in use denoting a ‘round seed-vessel’. I immediately think of those pesky weevils attacking cotton bolls – the boll weevil.

The OED further informs the word-curious that ‘early Middle English pronunciation of  <oll> as /ɔːl/ (compare roll , poll , toll , etc.), has ‘left its effects in the modern spelling <bowl> in the sense of ‘vessel’’ (OED). While this conveniently separates this form from other senses, such as <boll>, it collides with the homonym bowl as in ‘playing bowls’.

John Ayto shows that the other <bowl> was originally ‘simply a synonym for ball’. This bowl, the action of rolling a ball in the Middle English period (1420) is from French boule ball, from Latin bulla ‘bubble’, hence, ‘round thing, ball. ’ The Latin bulla is also behind boil, the papal bull (the round seal on papal edicts), bullion, bullet and bulletin.



From the Bodlian library MS 264,fol.21v, University of Oxford. The illustrations from this manuscript are by a Flemish artist,Jehan de Grise  in 1344. The marginilia are filled with playful images including the bowling trio above. Read more here.

James Naismith , a Canadian and qualified doctor, physical education instructor and minister, athletically adept in: lacrosse, rugby, gymnastics, swimming, fencing, track and field, responded to the challenge of rowdy, energetic students going stir-crazy during the blizzard filled winter months of 1891 by creating the game of basketball. In the clip here from We the People you can hear the 77 year old Naismith discuss his first game of basketball – a tackling, kicking, punching game resulting in several black eyes, a concussion and a dislocated shoulder! In the controversial 1936 Olympics in Berlin, basketball was played with 23 nations participating and James Naismith handed out the medals- all to American teams. No such scrummages and tackling in the games we watched last weekend despite the fierce competition!

Thinking about words can happen on the spur of the moment. Word research can be motivated by a book, news, a conversation, poetry, song. The lessons can extend over days, weeks or like this exploration, a quick and bracing plunge into the morphological and etymological oceans. Basketball has has helped students to solidify morphological and etymological understandings, we’ve followed the elements through time using a variety of resources, followed false leads, but been the richer for this and walked to the court appreciative of Naismith, balls and baskets.


“A Loaf of Bread,” the Walrus said …


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Tenniel’s image of the duplicitous oyster and bread eating duo.


“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,

“Is what we chiefly need:

Pepper and vinegar besides

Are very good indeed–

Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,

We can begin to feed.”

 Throughout my childhood I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, particularly many of the rhymes such as The Walrus and the Carpenter. Now, still in the thrall of sandwiches, I appreciate it even more. I love the sandwich lurk performed by the wily Walrus and Carpenter on the gullible oysters: a  beguiling ‘come for a walk’ ruse on the sand coupled with misplaced oyster trust.

However, it is the bread in which the unfortunate oysters are swaddled, that now captivates me.

What makes up bread? It’s not just barley, wheat or rye!

< bread> pronounced /brɛd / is both a noun and verb, although the expansion to verbal usage takes 679 years. Morphologically <bread> is a simple word, a free base element. The base is made up of:

  • 5 letters
  •  4 graphemes
  •  4 phonemes as seen when it is transcribed in I.P.A.: /brɛd/.
  • There is one medial vowel digraph <ea>  representing the shortened vowel phone /ɛ/. Along with dead, and lead (n.1), the vowel shortened in Middle English the period between 1150-1500 (Online Etymology Dictionary).

So why not just *<bred>? For a start it would clash with the past tense of <breed>. The  <ea> digraph in <bread> signals a different meaning from <bred> and connects the word with its Old English etymon bréad. I am fascinated by the <ea> digraph; it’s been something of an obsession as I mull over questions and continue to gather evidence with my students. However, rather than the vastness of the <ea> digraph quest, it’s a narrower focus on <bread> in this post.

To understand the frequently misunderstood terms letters, grapheme, phoneme   watch: Real Spelling’s Orthographic Phonology.

The etymology of bread

Bread attested in 950, is of Old English origins, bréad, plural bréadru. The denotation then was “bit, crumb, morsel; bread”.  Bread originally denoted a piece of food. As bread is the most common and available of food staples, its senses gradually changed from ‘piece of bread’ to ‘broken bread’ to ‘bread’.The Old English bréad is derived from Germanic *brautham with cognates in German brot and  Swedish brod. The initial  denotation of bread as ‘ piece, bit, fragment, was similar to Latin frustum’ (OED).

However, beyond the hypothesized Germanic root, the story is unclear.
Some etymologists favour tracing  bread to a P.I.E. root *bhreu with the claim of a link between <bread> and< brew>. However, the O.E.D. states emphatically that there is no evidence for this. In Old English the word bréad is rare. So what was the usual word in Old English that referred to bread? None other than <loaf> – the close relationship indicated by the phrase a ‘loaf of bread’.

A medieval baker with his apprentice. The Bodleian Library, Oxford.


OE hláf:loaf was the more common term for <bread> – and like bread, attested from the 9th century. Some etymologists suggest a connection with Old English hlífian ‘to rise high, tower’, in reference to the ‘rising’ of leavened bread. The OE etymon can be traced to Proto-Germanic *khlaibuz , although beyond this the story is cloudy. However, before 1200 <bread> displaced <hláf> as the name of the substance, leaving  <loaf>  the sense of the whole unsliced bread.

 ‘To loaf around‘ is not idling while snacking on bread. The homophone <loaf>, a verb and the antonym of work, is formed from the back formation of loafer as in ‘idler’ . Loafer has also denoted  a type of shoe since 1937, presumably for idle pursuits. This loaf, of uncertain etymology, is of a different root to the bready loaf and is attested from 1837.

 Lords, ladies and bread 

The connection of nobility with bread is surprising.The Old English word for <lord> was hláford. This is from an earlier compound hláfweard where the second element is OE weard: guard which becomes unstressed and reduced to hlaford. No doubt dear reader, you have spotted in both Old English etymons, the element hlaf which gave ‘rise’ to <loaf>.  The word <lord> denotes the head of a household in his relation to the servants and dependents who ‘eat his bread’ ,a sense comparable with OE hláf-ǽta : ‘bread-eater’, a servant (OED).

The original Old English form for <lady> was hlǣfdige. Again you see evidence of <loaf> in the first element of the Old English etymon, a compound like hlafweard, that emphasizes the importance of bread.The second element of this compound is unattested OE *dīge: kneader. This is etymologically related to dough as is dairy,  once the place where the female kneader of bread, the  ‘dǽge’  worked. ( Read more)

Today, lord and lady cannot be analysed morphologically. They are are simple words, free base elements, but lurking beneath the denotations of lord and lady is the suggestion of power and control; those who dispense bread, the staff of life, have indeed power over the lives of others.

Dough is a free base element, a noun, but later is used verbally. Its orthographic structure signals that it is neither the animal <doe> nor the musical note <doh> and as English orthography always does, the meaning is signalled in its orthographic structure. The word is simple- no affixes, not so the story!

Dough is a free base element composed of five letters, and two phonemes, with the letter string <ugh>. The <ugh> is not there to confuse. It is not an example of irregularity, nor a tricky word, nor an oddball! These are merely the labels we attach when we struggle to understand or become obsessed with categorizing into small boxes only to find orthographic entities cannot be so easily confined. Rather <ugh> in the final position of the base element <dough> is an etymological marker, often a clue as to Old English roots. Yes <ugh> can be a trigraph and in a final position it often signals /f/, but not always. Sometimes as in <dough>, <though> and <plough> its role is etymological, a connection to a time and place in the past. It’s important to remember pronunciation shifts over time and accents vary. In the north of England <dough> was pronounced: /dʌf/.

Duff, 1840, the variant form of <dough>, now denotes a dough or paste,  or ‘a flour pudding boiled in a bag; a dumpling’ such as a ‘plum duff’. Ayto describes the ‘plum duff’ as a ‘fortifying pudding’ essentially the same as in its beginnings before going upmarket as the Christmas pudding. The plum, which little Jack Horner pulled out from a pie, is not a ‘plum’ but a raisin. Read sociologist Henry Mahew’s 1861 description of the plum duff sellers on London streets here.

The plum pudding, the up-market plum duff :“Twice ten are twenty, We shall all have plenty, Each a slice, how very nice!” From ‘Oh Dear, Oh Look at the snow’ by Jack Frost from a Victorian Christmas Advent Calandar

Too much plum duff or the rich Christmas pud can cause the unwary lurid nightmares.

Alarming illustration by Alfred Crowquill, for the  poem  ‘What I saw after eating the Christmas Pudding” . Be warned!! from Cambridge University Special Collections

Dough, like bread is attested from the 9th century and can be traced to PIE root *dheigh- denoting mould, form, knead. The Old English element *dig- , as noted earlier, formed the second element in lady . The proto Germanic *daigaz denoting ‘something kneaded’ led eventually to <dough>.  Dough carries connotations of working by hand, of kneading, shaping and moulding into loaves.

Latin fingere~ fictum

It was not only in Old English and the Germanic languages that this PIE root with its  kneading and shaping connotations spread its tendrils. Latin fingere ~ fictum, the second and fourth principal parts of the Latin verb that are relevant to English orthography, denoted ‘shape, form, devise, feign,mould’.  Once the suffixes are removed from the Latin stems, the twin base elements emerge: <fing> and <fict>.  The Online Etymology dictionary observes that ‘the related Latin words included the literal notion “worked by hand,” as well as the figurative senses of “invented in the mind; artificial, not natural”.

The derivatives in current English: feign, effigy, fiction, indicate the English bases of <fige> ,<fict>, and <feign> echoing faintly of things shaped. From the past participle fictus is ficture, a noun denoting feigning, obsolete, but the need for this may re-emerge. While <fing> does not appear to be as productive as its twin base element <fict> there is the wonderful adjective fingent denoting ‘given to fashion or moulding’, formed on the present participle of Latin fingere. I rummaged further in the OED to unearth fict , in 1609 a free base element, used nominally, adjectivally and verbally denoting a musical term in which ‘the accidentals were supplied, instead of being left to the singer’s discretion’.

Two girls on their way home from the bakery in Cuijk Holland, Netherlands

The value of bread:

Both bread and dough have a slang use as money.They are two of 2,500 terms for money that are recorded in the HTOED ( another fascinating line of research for students with access to the OED) Dough and bread still carry the connotations of a life necessity or livelihood. Dough is the earlier in expanding to this colloquial sense, attested in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, then spreading to Canada, Australia and Britain soon after. Bread on the other hand was slower to rise to this moneyed sense,not until 1939 despite it being connected with making a living since 1719 ( see sense 5 OED). This underlying sense of money and livelihood is carried through in the compound words breadearner (1602), and breadwinner (1821). In Australia this idea was changed to the expression ‘to earn a crust’ in 1916:

‘A bloke can’t be partic’lar ‘oo must battle fer a crust’ (C.J. Dennis~ The Sentimental Bloke)

Crust: Upper crusty or upper crust in reference to social superiority was expressed from 1836 onwards. Crust is of Latin origin, crusta, attested in English since 1330 and denoted: ‘the outer part of bread rendered hard and dry in baking’. The Latin root shifted to crouste in Old French which formed the basis of modern French croûte and croûton, the latter of which migrated into English the early 19th century (1806). Latin crusta also led to words such as crustacean as well as crystal and custard – originally a pie enclosed in a crust (Ayto). Add the <y> suffix to the free base element <crust> and you have the adjective crusty which can denote people who are : ‘Short of temper; harshly curt in manner or speech: the opposite of suave or affable‘ (OED). This figurative use is attested since 1570 joining a long list of synonyms for the irritable.

Both ‘crust of bread’, ‘loaf of bread’ are rhyming slang for head sometimes abbreviated in the imperative “Use your loaf!”

Kneading bread:

Knead a free base element, denotes: ‘to mix and work up into a homogeneous plastic mass, by successively drawing out, folding over, and pressing or squeezing together;  to work up (moistened flour or clay) into dough or a paste; to make (bread, pottery) by this process’ (OED). Today it is pronounced /niːd/. The graphemes signal the difference of meaning from its homophone <need>. Knead is made up of the consonant digraph <kn> and the vowel digraph <ea> this time representing the phoneme /i:/. 

Old English cnedan is “to knead,” from Proto-Germanic *knedan. Originally it was a strong verb – past tense cnæd, past participle cneden. It’s not just the word itself that has a history, so too the graphemes. In this case <kn> once <cn> was fully voiced.  Old English <cn> was frequent – at least 82 entries- but by Middle English the <cn> was ‘lost or turned to <kn>’ (Online Etymology Dictionary). By 1750 the pronunciation was reduced to the /n/. The orthography of <knead> with its <kn> digraph indicates that the function of a grapheme signals more than mere pronunciation.


Baker kneading and baxter baking bread (detail)from psalter by an unknown illuminator, Belgium, mid-1200s.

Of bakers, baxters and batches:

Bake is Old English origin, the verb bacan derived from proto Germanic *bac which can be traced back to PIE *bhog- from *bhe- to warm.This emerged in Greek as ϕώγειν:phogein to roast, parch, toast. Bath too may have derived from this PIE root, originally suggesting heating rather than immersing in water, likewise the word bask.

Batch from unattested Old English *bæcce ” is something baked,” from bacan “bake”.  Batch is to bake as watch is to wake and match (n.2) “one of a pair” is to make, as speech is to speak (OED).  In 1440 batch referred to the process of baking and extended around 1713 to include “any quantity produced at one operation.”

Baxter from Old English bæcestre, was the feminine form of bæcere, from bacan to bake. Although used of women as late as 16th century in Old English, it too could refer to men and in Middle English referred to both sexes. Today it survives as a surname smelling faintly of freshly baked bread.

Bread types:

Zito’s Bakery, Bernice Abbott, 1937:  Zito’s Italian bakery in Greenwich Village, was one of many storefronts Abbott photographed capturing a changing New York in the late 1930s. (Berenice Abbott/The Jewish Museum)

As I peer in through Zito’s window, I wonder about the etymological origins of ciabatta,  focaccia,  brioche, and baguette. Say them aloud and they become a small poem.

Although baguette is attested from 1727, it wasn’t until 1958 that it denoted:”a long, thin loaf of French bread”. It entered the English lexicon from French, via Italian and the root Latin baculum a stick. English borrowed the diminuitive bacillus in 1877.

Consider carpet slippers, worn down-at-heel and you have the inspiration behind  ciabatta from an Italian word meaning old slippers, attested in English from 1997.

The Norman etymon broyer to knead is at the heart of a delicious brioche. Broyer became French brier and in the 15th century led to brioche. It migrated into English, around 1824. While its pronunciation suggests French, the Norman etymon broyer: to grind, pound derives from West Germanic *brekan to break and reminds us that the Normans were men of the north- Norse men.

The hearth is the focal point of focaccia. Attested since 1881, it’s been “borrowed” from the Italian etymon focaccia of the late 14th century.This was from post-classical Latin focacia feminine form of focacius ‘bread baked in the hearth’, from classical Latin focus: hearth. (OED).

Yeast is a vital ingredient of leavened bread and a free base element made up of four phonemes, four graphemes with the <ea> digraph in the medial position representing /i:/. Yeast of Old English origins gist, derived ultimately from a PIE root *yes- “to boil, foam, froth”. The ancient PIE root produced Welsh ias: boiling and Greek: ζεῖν zein to boil, ferment. This Greek root has led to a word far away from the bakery and the kitchen – eczema. Attested since 1753, from the Greek etymon ἔκζεμα: ekzema, the itchy, inflamed skin condition still carries connotations of boiling.

Boulangerie: photographer the great Willy Ronis

This wordy ramble, ‘a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk’ of bread, bakers and baking returns to The Walrus and the Carpenter, companions on their oyster eating binge.  Etymologically, a companion, 1325, denotes a friendship formed around bread. A companion denoted one’s ‘messmate with whom one habitually eats meals’: <com +pane+ion>. The bound base element <pane> has derived from Latin panis bread and the word itself via Old French. This Latin root leads to pannier– initially a bread basket but extended to any large basket for provisions, and also pantry originally ‘a room or set of rooms in a large household in which bread and other provisions are kept’ (OED). The panter or its variant form pantler was the officer in a household who supplied the bread and had charge of the pantry, the bread-bearer, even bread-controller  regulated the distribution of bread in the royal household and had supreme authority over all the bakers of the kingdom; bread-choppers (1600) and bread-chippers (1616) pared the crusts – occupations long since faded.

Insisting on the primacy of phonology when teaching and you sever a word from its roots, denying its past and the cultures that shaped it. Bread, a humble word, so easily swallowed, taken for granted, yet as with all words, when considering the orthography, there are stories to be told, and a time and place that connects to the present, ” … in tracing words to their origin, we are tracing simultaneously civilization and culture to their real roots.(Dr. Ernest Klein)




My Portmanteau is Packed; I’m Ready to Go


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When you have initialed portmanteaux and assorted suitcases, it would seem that concerns of travelling light are irrelevant. Above, Marlene Dietrich and her monogrammed luggage. Was this packed for a staycation? Perhaps she was travelling to a motel?

When I first began writing this post, I had not seen blue skies for over a month here in Kuala Lumpur. Tall buildings were swathed in a greyish ‘haze’. I sat on our verandah and watched the grey smog slither over the trees on the hill nearby and inch closer. The sun when it rose, protested in an unnatural blood-red. The normally blue water in our pool  turned a virulent green. School was cancelled as the API readings crept up. More people wore masks. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore choked in polluted air brought on by the clearing and burning of grasses in palm-oil plantations on peaty ground. It’s a slow smoulder that seems impossible to stop and wreathes all in its nebulous clutches.

More than 117,000 fires detected by ASA satellites this year, have been burning to clear land for farming or palm oil plantations. The burning has removed thousands of hectares of forest and polluted the air. Students can glance out the window and come close to accurately estimating the API reading – a sad skill.

“It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries” (Read more here George Monbiot, Guardian).

It was enough to dream of Marlene Dietrich’s portmanteaux and head off for smogless skies. Was haze a euphemistic term for smog?  It isn’t quite so shocking as smog smog reeks of pollution while haze is, well, vague. Both are free base elements although smog is the classic example of a portmanteau or blend.

Haze: Ironically the etymology of haze is just that – hazy! Haze is a free base element, first attested in 1706, but possibly a back-formation from hazy. This means that the adjective hazy is the older word, 1620s, with haze formed after this, almost  a century later according to the OED. It can now be analyzed into two morphemes: <haze+y>. There is the suggestion that haze and hazy are connected with Old English hasu , haswe ‘grey’, or even the German ‘hase’: hare. The latter may be due to the medieval superstition involved  around ill fortune and hares. Beware of bringing a dead hare onto a fishing boat and never ever utter this word while onboard ! (Online Etymology Dictionary).

However, this etymology like haze itself, is vague and indefinite.The denotation refers to ‘an obscuration of the atmosphere near the surface of the earth, caused by an infinite number of minute particles of vapour in the air’. In the 18th century haze referred to a ‘thick fog or hoar-frost’; but now usually to a’ thin misty appearance, which makes distant objects indistinct, and often arises from heat’. It later broadened to the figurative sense: ‘a condition of intellectual vagueness and indistinctness; the obscurity of a distant time.’ It can be used verbally as seen in this 1691 example from J. Ray N. Country Words  ‘It hazes, it misles, or rains small rain.’

Haze, the verb, (verb1, OED) is a homonym with the denotation of  ‘force (new or potential recruit to the military or a university fraternity) to perform strenuous, humiliating or dangerous tasks.’ This word derived from Old French haser: to irritate that led to an early sense of fright, scare or scold, then to a nautical sense of punishment through harsh work, and finally evolving to cruel horseplay. So a  different root from the misty haze. The two forms, superficially identical, are most definitely not related.

Smog attested from 1905 is a newer coinage and in reference to the suffocating situation of smoke and fog in London perhaps coined by Dr H.A.Des Voeux when he presented his paper on behalf of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society. It is a blend of two free base elements <smoke> and <fog>. Of course smog cannot be analyzed  into morphemes. Morphologically it is a simple word (no affixes), where two morphological fragments and the meanings from their parent words have been compacted into one new lexeme. Smog is therefore a free base element. Affixes can be attached to this new base to create a small group of relatives.

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Smaze, less prevalent than smog, was coined in 1953. It is a blend from smoke and haze.

1969 saw the emergence of the word vog first in Hawaii, from volcanic and fog. It refers to the smog containing volcanic dust and gasses.

Fog like haze is most likely a back formation from ‘foggy’. Both foggy and fog are attested at the same time, perhaps of Scandinavian origin in the 14th century where it meant ‘long grass’. The connection between grass and fog is suggested by places overgrown with long grass, then to grassy wetlands hence to boggy, marshy areas and so to the vaporous air rising from these places.

I was surprised to discover the fleshiness of the adjective foggy in 1562  – flabby, spongy in consistency, but also applying to people: ‘Unwholesomely bloated, swollen with flabby and unhealthy corpulence, puffy’. The OED cites a wonderfully alliterative reference from 1529: “All foggy fat she were‘  by the poet J. Skelton in his  Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng. (Tunning from Old English tunne meaning the cask for storing ale or wine and Elynour, the coarse, foggy, public-house owner and brewer). The senses of fleshy, corpulent foggy have faded from usage.

The OED indicates that foggy in its various senses is ‘somewhat doubtful,’ but shows  a ‘plausible’ development of meaning from ‘resembling, consisting of, or covered with ‘fog’ or coarse grass’; covered with moss to boggy,marshy to ‘of the flesh and people – corpulent, bloated, puffy to that of food that puffs one up, to the floating thick particles in ale, to the air, mist and cloud- thick and murky. The figurative sense of ‘obscure, dull, bemuddled, confused’ is from 1603 (OED). However, the Online Etymology Dictionary says this connection is ‘tempting but not proven.’ Perhaps, as Ayto suggests, Danish fog as ‘spray, shower or snowdrift’ may be the more accurate etymology. 

Further intrigue when I discovered the link between fogey/fogy and foggy. The OED suggests a possible ‘substantive use’ of the adjective foggy as in fat, bloated, or in the sense of moss-grown. Originally referring to an invalid or garrison soldier in 1785, it quickly pejorated further by 1790 to mean ‘a man advanced in life; esp. one with antiquated notions, an old-fashioned fellow, one ‘behind the times’ ‘(OED)

Blends: Smog and smaze are both blends. However, this is not because of their initial consonant cluster <sm>. The term blend has a precise linguistic meaning and two adjacent consonants do not make a blend, despite what we see to the contrary in many curriculum documents. ‘Consonants in blends: A blend contains two or three graphemes because the consonant sounds are separate and identifiable. A blend is not “one sound.”‘ ( Common Core, Appendix A,p.20). This document hasn’t the ‘foggiest’ of the linguistic term ‘blends’ and shrouds all in its miasma of pseudo-linguistic knowledge. Consonants cluster and vowels glide, never do they blend!

A blend is “a case in which two elements which do not normally co-occur come together within a single linguistic unit.” ( Crystal,D. Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics)

Blends are truncated and reassembled morphological fragments.They are blended without consideration of morphological boundaries. They carry the denotations of the original words with them and along with these ‘blended’ fragments become a new single lexical item. Lewis Carol referred to this type of word formation as a portmanteau –  ‘there are two meanings packed up into one word.’ Go to Real Spelling’s phanfare: The Portmanteau Word or Blend to understand the blend and its structure : juxtaposition, overlapping and nesting.

Ayto notes that ‘the [1920s] saw the coming of age of the blend … Some still familiar ones had emerged before 1900 (brunch, for instance, a blend of breakfast and lunch), but it was the 1920s that really started taking a liking to them.” I wondered about  early blends, once perhaps a surprise with the shock of the new, but now their blendings so disguised and the word itself commonplace. Below some blends that caught my fancy during my research:

The obsolete drubly of 1340 may be a blend that juxtaposes the <dr> fragment from Old English dróf , dróflic (Middle English *drov(e)ly meaning turbid, disturbed with the <ubly> fragment from Middle English trobly, troubly adj. from French, trouble to create a meaning of turbid, troubled. A useful word to resuscitate.

Jounce from 1440 mid 15th century is a blend of jump and bounce: ‘To move violently up and down, to fall heavily against something; to bump, bounce, jolt; to go along with a heavy jolting pace’.

Crash: Ayto writes of crash ‘appearing out of nowhere in Middle English’ around 1400, entering the word hoard with a crash, alone, an ‘orphan’ with no relatives in other Germanic languages. While its form suggests it is onomatopoeic, another suggestion is that it is a blend of craze and dash, an overlapping of fragments <cra> with <ash>.

Twiddle is attested from 1547, but ‘rare in use until the 19th century.’ It may be a blend of twirl or twist indicating trifling action, as in fiddle , piddle. (OED).

Twirl: The origins of twirl are vague, attested in 1590s perhaps as The Online Etymology dictionary suggests, ‘connected with Old English þwirl “a stirrer, handle of a churn,” and Old Norse þvara “pot-sticker, stirrer.” Another etymological hypothesis is that it is a blend of twist and whirl so an overlap of fragments <twi> from twist with <irl> from twirl.

An aside: Both twirl and twiddle carry connotations of ‘twoness’ as indicated by the consonant cluster <tw>. Collect a list of words where the <tw> cluster occurs to test the connection of ‘two’: twilight, twin, twill, twine, between, tweezers, twig … there’s more! The <tw> cluster in two is not a ‘silent’ letter – letters don’t chatter, nor is it there by coincidence, its function is to mark an etymological connection and signal a difference in meaning from its homophones – to and too.

More blends: I particularly liked niddicock, attested from 1587 to  mean ‘a fool, an idiot’. The origin is uncertain but the OED suggests it is a blend of ‘nidiot n. and nodcock n.’

ninneversity is a humorous blend of ninny and university from 1592: ‘[I] will make a shippe that shall hold all your colleges, and so carrie away the Niniuersitie..to the Bankeside in Southwarke.(R. Greene Frier Bacon, OED).

Slosh of 1814 may be a blend of slop and slush. The <slo> of slop juxtaposed with the <sh> of slush.

Blunge: from 1830 juxtaposes the morphological fragments from blend and plunge and means to mix (clay, powdered flint, etc.) up with water.

Snivelization from 1849, a nonce-word, is also a favorite, it’s denotation: ‘Civilization considered derisively as a cause of anxiety or plaintiveness’. ‘Ye wouldn’t have been to sea here, leadin’ this dog’s life, if you hadn’t been snivelized… Snivelization has been the ruin on ye’.(H. Melville Redburn xxi. 131,OED)

Beerage of 1891 a blend of beer and peerage.

The etymology of prissy 1844 is uncertain; perhaps it’s a blend of prim and sissy (OED). It is an example of overlapping the fragments <pri >from prim with <issy> from sissy.

The useful, but now rarely uttered mudge is from 1848, a blend of mud and sludge, so the <mu> fragment overlaps the <udge> fragment.

Australia’s squattocracy from squatter and aristocracy appears in the 1840s, and is a denigrating term connecting sqautters with aristocracy.

I loved nerk a noun from 1955. The OED states it is of uncertain origins although cites the hilarious Goon show scripts as examples:You don’t think I’d threaten you with an unloaded banana? Now come on, tell me—where is Fred Nurke? (S. Milligan, 1954.) Listen, tiny nerk (S. Milligan Goon Show Scripts, 1955Nerk, the OED suggests, is a blend of the nouns nerd and berk or jerk. It denotes a foolish, objectionable, or insignificant person.

From the Telegraph just recently: “rush hour” and “frustration” leaves you with rushtration, ‘for which there is no easy cure.’

Loiterature n. Articles, posts, books, or other material that a person reads while waiting.

2014 saw infobesity , infobese from the words information and obseity up for an honorable mention on Wordspy as Word of the Year. First seen in 2003.

Procaffination ‘meaning the action of delaying or postponing something until one has had one or more cups of coffee; drinking coffee slowly as a delaying tactic’ was voted the most likely to succeed word from procrastination and caffeine. Earliest usage was 2010.

Bagonize from bag and agonize, means to wait in agony at the airport luggage carousel for your luggage to appear, perhaps even to bagonize over a portmanteau.

And so to return to smog, fog and haze.

Concerns about the air quality in London are centuries old. In researching these words, I have been delighted to learn about the diarist John Evelyn who in 1661 wrote to Parliament and the King : And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismall Cloud of SEACOALE?” he wrote, “so universally mixed with the otherwise wholesome and excellent Aer, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour…” (Fumifugium: or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated).

John Evelyn 1620 – 1706, contemporary of Pepys, diarist, ‘scholar, connoisseur, bibliophile and horticulturalist, as well as a writer and thinker of sometimes startlingly current relevance, on everything from forestry, architecture and the formation of a universal library to fashion and air pollution.'(British Library)

Evelyn’s proposal was farsighted, suggesting all polluting industries – such as brewing, fabric dying, soap and salt manufacturing, and lime-burning should relocate outside the City of London. He proposed an improvement to air quality by plantations of sweet smelling flowers and vegetation in areas adjacent to the city.  He also warned that ‘continued growth of glassworks and iron industries would have dramatic consequences for British timber resources. He vehemently advocated an extensive reforestation program and the systematic foundation of forests and parks in England.’

Sketches of garden tools by John Evelyn illustrating more than 70 tools and pieces of equipment in Elysium Britannicum,’ including wheelbarows and water barrows, rakes of ‘severall sizes and finesses’, and a veritable array of spades, trowels, hoes, shears and pruning to to say noting of other garden essentials such as flower plots, cases and measuring equipment'(Parks & Gardens, UK).

In 1849 Melville wrote: ‘Upon sallying out this morning encountered the old fashioned pea soup London fog’.This smoke filled fog by 1890 was referred to as a pea-souper:  ‘a dense, often yellowish fog or smog, usually associated with polluted urban areas’, an analogy based on the colour and thickness of dried pea soup.

In the nineteenth century smoke abatement movements appeared. The Kyrle Society, of the 1880s, a philanthropic organization providing books, art and open spaces to the working class poor, set up its own smoke abatement committee. ‘The Kyrle Society held a Smoke Abatement Exhibition in South Kensington in 1881, attended by over 116,000 people.’

Minute book from the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, 1898. Wellcome Library reference: SA.EPU.A.1.1 Note the name Dr H A Des Voeux, secretary of the society.

However by 1898 the London air quality was so polluted that the artist Sir William Blake Richmond wrote to The Times comparing the effect of the pollution to  a total eclipse of the sun. Sir William became the Society’s president with London surgeon, Dr Harold Des Voeux, as treasurer( Kirsteen Connor,Wellcome Library).

Coincidentally as I finish this post on December 8, 2015, 63 years earlier in 1952, The Great Smog of London was suffocating Londoners. So dense the fog, that by December 7 there was ‘no sunlight and visibility was reduced to five yards in many places.’ Transportation ceased as the smog caused accidents, including ‘a collision between two trains near London Bridge’. The press claimed cattle at Smithfield had been asphyxiated. Many people died between December 4 and December 8 with deaths in London estimated at a cautious 4,000, perhaps as high as 8,000.


A London bus travelling through smog filled streets, December 6, 1952

On December 9, the smog cleared. ‘In the aftermath of this incident, the British government passed more stringent regulations on air pollution and encouraged people to stop using coal to heat their homes’.(This Day in History, Met Office).

The haze or smog shrouding Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia has passed also, but what will it take to prevent its recurrence? John Evelyn saw the light through London’s smog over three hundred and fifty four years ago. Yet his recommendations and warnings are relevant beyond London.

I wish I was writing from a time when the words haze, smaze and smog were marked by a cross in the OED indicating that they were obsolete. I wish there was no need for these words except as evidence of uncaring times when we and our politicians didn’t do enough to protest the desecration of air, forests, the species dependent on the forests, and the people shrouded by these polluted skies.

While blends have a wry humour, it’s a sad statement of the apathy our times that a new blend  pollutician from the words pollution and politician emerged in 1992 and is still applicable.

Children in central Kalimantan, Indonesia during ‘ the haze’ Photo:Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace via Guardian

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,TS Eliot written 1920