Finding Our Way in the World


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

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

So why is orthographic inquiry important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did we go about this?

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean?

How is it constructed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We show relationships in webs:


Create matrices to indicate the morphological (synchronic) relationships:

form base

Matrix <form+ed>by students.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Following this she wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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



Refugees and Arrivals


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

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

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


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



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

Matching the denotation

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

Matching the root to the word


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


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

Student research on refugee

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

The bloody persecutions behind refugee:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Not fooled by superficial similarity

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Of the Rhinoceros, Nasal Speech, Carrots and Saveloys


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Greek relatives:

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

Of carat and carrots- homophones from the same root

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

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

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


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


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


The Latin relatives: ‘corn’, ‘cerebr’

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Of Saveloys and Rhinoceros

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

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

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


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

An Aside: Pattern books

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


 Dürer’s Rhinceros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read more about the  Rhinoceros below:

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

Rare Sumatran Rhino Found for the First Time in 40 years

Sumatran Rhinoceros

Save the Rhino

Live Science Facts about Rhinos

One Kind:Sumatran Rhinoceros and video

Of Books and Ink-Dabblers


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

From books to housing them:

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

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


Chained library of Hereford

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

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

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


From the Voynich manuscript 50r

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




Below a few other unusual scribble related words we enjoyed:

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

Scribble-scrabble: a reduplicated word of 1590.

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

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

What students have learned:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Curses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Other texts we love featuring books and libraries:

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

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

The Strange Library Haruki Murakami

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

Of Sirens, Spartans and Espadrilles


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

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

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

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


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

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


Making the coiled rope soles of the espadrille.

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


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

Students, through this etymological romp, learned to:

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

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

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

(Dylan Thomas, Notes on the Art of Poetry)

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

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 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.