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Dragon from The Ripley Scrolls from the 1570 version housed by Yale University.

I often meet with individuals or small groups of students, neophyte word nerds, who have further questions or wonderings about words, orthography or even handwriting (everything begins with script, but that’s a story for another post!). Nikki had a question about the spelling of ‘connection’ and from there we found ourselves splashing in various liquidy sidepaths that led us back to mythology.


As so often happens when focusing on one word, we touched on so much: briefly the phonology of the letter <c>, Nikki, in passing, explained why <-ion> is the suffix rather than <*-tion>,  an all too fleeting examination of assimilated prefixes com- and its allomorphs: con-, co-, col-,cor-, and con- . The latter will be explored in more depth later with the class. Nikki also discovered a new prefix <inter->. We discovered too that this bound base from Latin nectere to tie or bind. When establishing related words to this base, we discovered nectar which we couldn’t link in terms of meaning to connect as there was no literal or figurative sense of tying or binding.


Below the matrix this inquiry brought forth:

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The <nex> matrix above proved interesting as British English accepts ‘annexe’ so for a while our dilemma was whether the base should be <nex>  or <nexe> as vowel suffixes can be attached, in which case the final non- syllabic <e> is removed. Yet the role of the final <e> in a base is several:

  • it can be one of the ways to represent a long vowel phoneme; however, not in this case.
  • it can prevent a base appearing as a plural as in ‘curse – curs ‘ or ‘please -pleas’: but again not so in this case as there is no chance of plural confusion (the final grapheme being <x> not<s>.
  • it can also prevent the need to double a single final consonant preceded by a single vowel letter.

It appears that the British form of annexe breaks the convention that  the grapheme <x> never doubles, already two phones are represented /ks/ in the grapheme, consider: <box+ed>. Despite the fact that annexe is nominal, leaving ‘annex’ to represent the verb, we decided that  ‘annexe’ from French with its base of <nexe> seemed unnecessary. The OED notes that the tendency is to drop the final ‘e’ and ‘treat the verb as English.’

The next time we met after school we decided to revisit nectar and ambrosia. I recorded this conversation between two students:


Nectar- more than the juice of apricots and peaches!

‘Nectar’ is from Latin nectar and according to  Latdict nectar means :’anything sweet or pleasant to drink’ or ‘the drink of the gods’.  Nikki, a walking encyclopaedia of Greek mythical information, knew that this drink prevented death. Latin ‘nectar’ is itself formed from a Greek compound:Greek nektar, name of the drink of the gods, which is said to be a compound of Gk.nek- “death  and the element ‘tar’ meaning “overcoming,” from PIE *tere- “to cross over, pass through, overcome.” So interesting, read further on Online Etymology Dictionary!

This is what we found about elixir:

Online Etymolgy Dictionary tells us that the word ‘elixir’ is attested in English ‘from mid-13c., from Medieval Latin elixir “philosopher’s stone,” believed by alchemists to transmute baser metals into gold and/or to cure diseases and prolong life.’ This evolved from from Arabic al-iksir, probably from a late Greek word  xerion “powder for drying wounds,” which came from the Greek etymon xeros “dry” (see xerasia). ‘General sense of “strong tonic” is 1590s; used for quack medicines from at least 1630s’ .

Philosopher’s Stone:

The term ‘Philosophy’ also was used in reference to alchemy in Middle Ages. Therefore the ‘Philosophers’ stone’ (late 14c., is a translation of Medieval Latin lapis philosophorum, early 12c.), This was reputed to be a ‘solid substance that medieval alchemists thought would  transmute baser metals into gold or silver’; This ‘also identified with the elixir and thus given the attribute of prolonging life indefinitely and curing wounds and disease. (French pierre philosophale, German der Stein der Weisen).’ (Online Etymology Dictionary, read both elixir and philosopher)


Listen to Nikki’s explanation of ichor:


But of course my swift dismal of “That’s all we can find out about ichor” was far from the full story! I later went to the OED to discover that ichor Greek ἰχώρ, was the ethereal fluid supposed to flow like blood in the veins of gods:

The OED cites T. Hobbes tr. Homer Iliad (1677)    From the wound out sprang the blood divine; Not such as men have in their veins, but ichor.

Yet this was not the only sense, it became more general in that it referred to ‘Blood; a fluid, real or imaginary, likened to the blood of animals’.(OED)

OED cites J. Bryant New Syst. I. 343 who mentions:  ‘The dog stained his mouth with the ichor of the fish.’

The third sense is a medical meaning ‘A watery acrid discharge issuing from certain wounds and sores.’ So that in 1897 a T. C. Allbutt and others wrote in Syst. Med. III. 158 : ‘Occasionally they [chalk stones] push through the cutaneous covering and form indolent ulcers..and discharge a purulent ichor.

Of course, at this point if you are like me, you will want to make a brief foray to purulent to discover the connection to pus and putrification  and unearth the Proto-Indo European root *pu- meaning rotting and stinking!

The fourth sense the OED indicates is geological: ‘A fluid or ‘emanation’ from a magma which is held to cause granitization of rock.’


Once we’d investigated the ethereal fluid of gods, it’s merely a ‘jump to the left’ to alchemy.  Who would have thought  connect would lead to alchemy?  We had discussed the phoneme /k/ and the various graphemes that represented this: <ch> being the digraph to represent the phoneme /k/, a sure sign that the word was of Greek origin. Yet ‘alchemy’ has the Arabic definite article ‘al’ so not a prefix but a base!

Watch our investigation here:



Hitchings writes of how ‘Alchemy was popular in the ancient world, and the language of alchemy can be seen in written works of the fourteenth century, reflecting the achievements in the field of figures like Roger Bacon and Nicholas Flamel… the distinction between science and magic was not always made sharply. Words that now belong to science once belonged alchemy.

So chemist came to English via French chimiste in 1560’s , this from Latin chimista from alchimista. Back to ‘alchemy’ again. ‘Alchemy’ is as we saw from Arabic adopted into Latin but before that from Greek khymatos meaning that which is poured, from Greek khein to pour. So alchemy had been in English longer than ‘chemist’ .’Chemistry’  followed chemist’ in1640s.

Roger and Linda Flavell discuss the alternate, but unlikely  theory, that alchemy may have been first practised in Egypt with the claim that the root is from the ancient Greek word for Egypt, Khemia. The Flavells note that the art: ‘attracted the Arabs who took it to Spain in the Middle Ages and from there ‘alchemy’ spread throughout Europe’.

Why  al- is retained in some words of Arabic origin and dropped in others is  somewhat obscure. Flavells assert that the growing etymological awareness of  al– representing the definite article could have influenced  the dropping from words such as magazine, mattress and cotton but this was ‘patchy’ as it stays firmly in place in words such ‘algebra’alcove, algorithm and alcohol. Apparently out of the several hundred words migrating into English from Arabic only a small percent retain the al-. Such a treasure trove of words to investigate from the Middle East!

Hitchings recognizes that Arabic learning was formidable and that this genius impressed English visitors to Spain in the Middle Ages who witnessed Muslim ingenuity in canal and irrigation construction, aqueduct building, orchard planting and garden design as well as logic, geometry,anatomy, music, and medicine. So many words representing the technological aspects of this learning as well as foods and just the sheer romance of the exotic.

Our investigation into alchemy and chemist left us with a several compounds: biochemical, chemotherapy and petrochemical. This involved revision of the concept of connecting vowel letters (see Real Spelling Album: Connecting Vowel Letters.) In the end we decided to treat the al- as a base as we wanted to acknowledge the chemist, chemical connections and our understanding that it was not of the same origins as the O.E prefix al-. Initially, we constructed a matrix around the base <chem>. Today, which was several days after this inquiry, we finally recognized that this base could not be correct. If we were to add vowel suffixes such as <-ist> or <-ic>, orthographic conventions would force the <m> to double hence our reinserting of the single , final non-syllabic <e>! (See Real Spelling:The Phonological Final Non-Syllabic <e>)

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The suffix<-ist>


The <-ist> suffix corresponds to French -iste , Latin -ista , Greek -ιστής. This forms agent nouns from verbs in -ίζειν (see -ize). This is cognate to the suffix -ισμός,-ism suffix.

OED states that in English <-ist> is used widely not just as the agent noun of verbs in -ize (besides -izer), as in plagiarize, plagiarist , and with nouns of action or function in -ism , as in altruism , altruist.  However, <-ist> is also ‘on the analogy of these’, applied to many words without a corresponding -ize suffix or -ism to indicate the followers of some leader or school, or principle, or the practisers of some art. There are subtle differences between the form in -ist and the native agent noun in -er , cf. conformer, conformist; copier , copyist ; cycler , cyclist ; philologer , philologist . The -ist suffix has connotations of a higher degree of professionalism.

We’ve added this suffix <-ist> to the chart we are keeping for derivational suffixes on the classroom wall. Here we note the word class, parts of speech, the final suffix indicates in whatever word is under examination. Below are our discoveries so far. We also have a more extensive google doc ,Suffixes 2013-14, a list of suffixes that students have complied over the years and uncovered through their word inquiries.This list is updated regularly and lives under the glass topped tables so students can become familiar with  suffixes and prefixes. This often provides a starting point for students when they first begin morphological analysis giving them confidence. However, with every assertion of a suffix, students need to confirm this by generating other words with the same suffix. Just because it’s on the chart doesn’t mean that’s it! For a while several years back we had believed <fy> to be a suffix. We had noted it’s regular appearance but not considered that it is a base element, one of the many that develop from Latin ‘facere’ to do or make! So the list represents our best thinking so far and it is an exciting moment when we add a suffix hitherto uncharted!

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Ripley Scrolls

And so finally to the dragon. The image above is from the Ripley Scrolls ( click here Scroll to see it in it’s entirety) named after 15th  British century alchemist, George Ripley. There are now 23 known scrolls, 18th century copies of a lost 15th century original, all referred to as the Ripley scrolls. The latest was found last year by a curator in the London Science Museum who preparing for a new exhibition Signs, Symbols Secrets: an illustrated guide to alchemy, discovered the scroll in their archives!. The scrolls  vary in size, but the recent find is over six metres long. The scrolls show hand painted images, which are “thought to symbolise the various stages of the creation of the philosopher’s stone — an alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals such as lead into gold or silver — the basis of Western alchemy”. The image of the dragon biting he crescent moons encodes chemistry information- the idea that silver could be dissolved by a powerful mineral acid represented by the dragon and the blood or elixir from this dissolving is what results. This elixir therefore is transformative, it has the power to heal. The London Science Museum states:

‘Alchemy refers to a set of practices found in ancient Greece, Egypt and China, and which became particularly influential in Christian, Islamic and Hindu traditions during the Middle Ages. The practitioners taught that earthly substances were controlled by supernatural powers, and attempted to create new metallic and natural compounds by mixing existing elements together. They often did so in order to try and create valuable substances such as gold or silver, but also attempted to develop medicines.’

Recently academics have re-evaluated  alchemy to examine its many contributions to science, medicine, and intellectual life from the Middle Ages onward. Rather than branding alchemists as ignorant frauds, there is recognition that ‘many medieval and early modern practitioners of alchemy were engaged in serious scientific exploration that has significantly shaped the development of various strands of natural science.'(George Ripley’s Alchemy)

Below some sections from the scroll:

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George Ripley the Canon of Bridlington in Yorkshire lived from about 1415 to 1495. He is renowned as an alchemist and author of alchemical works in rhyme, and his verses are used on the scrolls. Some of the scrolls were produced in the 16th century, in Lubeck, probably at the request of John Dee the Elizabethan polymath. Ripley travelled through Europe remaining for 20 years in Rome. When Ripley returned to England in 1477 rumour had it that he knew the secret of transmutation! ”Some believed that the sizeable donations given by Ripley to help the Knights of Malta in their war against the Turks came from his having produced gold out of base metals. This can only have enhanced his reputation and emerging fame.” (BibliOdyssey)

If this brief exposure to alchemy has whetted your appetite for more of its fascinating history, go to BBC In Our Times where Melvyn Bragg and guests,’ Peter Forshaw, Lecturer in Renaissance Philosophies at Birkbeck, University of London, Lauren Kassell, Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, Stephen Pumfrey, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science at the University of Lancaster, discuss the history of Alchemy.’ They  most famous alchemical text is the Emerald Tablet, written around 500BC and attributed to the mythical Egyptian figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Among its twelve lines are the essential words – “as above, so below”. They capture the essence of alchemy, that the heavens mirror the earth and that all things correspond to one another. Listen to this here: In Our Time: Science Alchemy ( broadcast first in 2005)

Also here for specific information on the scroll itself by Cambridge researcher Jenny Rampling on BBC Radio 4 Material World

What I find exhilarating is that all this art, mythological, biographical, etymological detail and medieval scientific information came from one word which led to another and another to reveal George Ripley himself. Hitchings writes in The Secret Life of Words:

‘Studying language enables an archeology of human experience:words contain the fossils of past dreams and traumas..an assortment of inherited values and cultural traditions, for our language contains traces of the histories of those who have spoken and written it before us’. 

And now for a far more irreverent look at alchemy watch this clip from series two ofElizabethan Blackadder:


Read more about Ripley and the scroll:

The Ripley Scroll

 Orthographic principles and conventions:

For information to develop knowledge of orthographic principles and and conventions go to Real Spelling to see:

The Single Final Non-Syllabic <e> and Suffixes

Consonant Doubling

The Suffix Constructor