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Perchance an early word researcher! My students, dressed less formally, using laptops rather than parchment and quill, search online sources for clues as to the story behind a word. Like this earnest medieval scholar, they too have become dazed and amazed by what they have uncovered in the hidden lives of words!

Students working in pairs are investigating words that reflect concepts of our current unit on religion. These words under investigation are not just ‘unit’ specific. Rather these words crop up and can be applied to characters and themes we encounter in the novels studied, the poetry we read and the historical documents we examine in the units throughout the entire the year.

Below Kathleen and Chloe discuss their research so far on ‘respect’. You will notice that they have not just restricted themselves to a single base element found in the word respect : <re+spect>, but  have attempted to find all bases that have come from the Latin root ‘specere’: to look.

Stefan and Shea investigate the roots and morphemes in <faith>. They share their early discoveries and hypothesis that the root Latin fidere led to more than one base- a free and bound base element in present day English.




The research has been conducted by the students in a pair or trio who keep track of their thinking in a shared document. It’s been interesting to address their questions only after they have been able to explain the meaning of the word in their own words and that is after reading several dictionary entries, after reading Online Etymology Dictionary and the Mac Dictionary to explain what they believe is the root and its meaning and provide evidence for their morphemic analysis. Students have come to me with interesting puzzles such as:

“We’re wondering why the letter <s> is not present in the word  <expect> when it it comes from the same Latin root as <respect>. Could this be another base element?”

Another group had a similar question when investigating <inspire> .” Where has the <s> gone in expire?”

“We know that no English word ends with a <v> and to use <ve> instead, but <salv>  is bound base from Latin salvare: to save, with an <l> before the <v> so there seems no need to reinsert a final non syllabic <e>. It is not the same root as the free base <salve> which comes from Old English. What do you think?”

“What is the difference between the prefixes <mon> and <mono>? When should each be used? In <monotheistic>, would it be <mon+o+the+ist+ic> or “mono+the…”? If using “mon+o…” is correct, why is this? Does this then make <mon> become another base and is <monotheism> then a compound word?”

This student and others forming the question above-India, Jemma, and Michael and Junseo and Nick, had found <mon> and <mono> on a prefix chart but were beginning to question this resource. Together they found <monarch> which suggested that the <o> was not always present and therefore not part of the <mon> element but a connecting vowel letter.  This small group discovered that ‘monos’ was a Greek root meaning one. The <-os>  they had noticed appeared to be a Greek suffix that did not carry through into English elements as seen in ‘the(os)’: god.

Later in a conversation with our mentor ‘Old Grouch’ the word <monism> was introduced. This means ‘the view that reality is one unitary organic whole with no independent parts’ ( Meriman -Webster). Michael, who formed the question above, was able to analyze the word into <mon(e)+ism> and state that this was evidence that <mon> was a base element as no word can exist in English with out one. <Monism> could not possibly be analyzed as being composed of a prefix and a base element. He and his group are off and searching for additional examples to support this blooming hypothesis. They are proud of being specific despite a printed chart labeling this element as a ‘prefix’, or written sources stating ‘word forming element’ or ‘combining form’.

This question above led to another “What makes a prefix, a prefix?”

‘When does a word become English? When is it not viewed as an immigrant?’

The exciting aspect of this research now is that many students want discussion rather than a quick answer. They want to be pointed in a direction for further investigation rather than a right – wrong answer hunt.There is much debate and asking each other questions while I listen to the hypothesises of others. There is revision of an hypothesis in the face of uncovering more evidence. Although the research has been on one word ,that one word has led to another and students have understood that what can be learned from one word applies to hundreds. There is a creeping realization that one source is often not enough to provide evidence.  Slowly many are  beginning to value the process, to become caught up in the quest rather than the swift ‘right’  answer!

Sharing the Story

And where is all this research heading? Students are ‘sharing the back stories’ behind the word, an idea sparked by a ‘wordy’ colleague, Robyn, who is currently uncovering word stories with a group of 7th grade students in Melbourne, Australia.

Below is the work of the group who investigated ‘siren’ . Much of that story I shared  in the previous post. Shania, Nikki and Tatiana created an RSA Animate style to present – a form of visual and spoken note-taking. This involved not only research into the word itself but the RSA Animate genre: limited colours, block lettering in the graphic novel style, a combination of both text and stylised images, planning out the stages of the retelling and working out ahead the most effective layout and design. How could this be achieved without expensive lighting and animation tools? Below is their planning, quickly sketched on the whiteboard:

Plan for the story behind 'siren'

Plan for the story behind ‘siren’ 


Watch the first of the student presentations:

What have we learned?

In spite of the miscue  of <* decieve> in the video animation, the students have understood how to find the root, interpret this and comment on how words can change or add in new senses over time. The miscue will be addressed by another group focusing on this base to ensure that the student /artist understands that the bound base element from Latin capere is <ceive>!

Students understand that every word, no matter how humble has a story to tell. Words have a past, have a family from their past and relatives in the present, they associate with others and can clamour and plead and cajole and whine.

Students are unravelling roots to uncover surprising ‘liaisons’: Who would have thought that caught in the roots of obey and obedience lurks Latin audire to listen? Or that infant and fate and nefarious keep company? ‘Who too would have thought that Liaison’  would itself cavort with religion in the Latin root ligare: to tie, to bind?  ‘Liason’ entered English via French in 1640’s and still retains the sense of an exotic new arrival. Who again would have thought that it’s entry into English was via the kitchen as cooking term? It was in the kitchen that ‘eggs were used to achieve the ‘liaison’ (thickening of sauces.'(Hitchings). Two hundred years later liason has extended beyond just any association to those of an intimate illicit association (1806) and to today where it can carry all these senses as well as a generalized sense of co-operation. Words  and what lies at the roots, continue to fascinate and add depth to our reading and writing.