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“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Elie Wiesel

Maurycy Minkowski (Polish, 1881-1930) After the Pogrom, c. 1910. Read about this painting and artist here at the Jewish Museum

We began our collaborative project  (see project at the end of this post) by examining the meaning of various words that will be encountered in our lengthy history unit on The Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party and the Holocaust. These words, rather than just unit specific, are words that underlie major themes throughout our entire year. We started with a matching activity where students matched a word to its denotation and root. The purpose of this was to read the denotations carefully and begin the process of discussing a word to thoroughly understand its meaning as well as to notice how the root informed the structure of the base element.

 This activity led to a class focus on persecution. Here’s what we have found out. We are able to analyze this into four morphemes < per+ sec+ute+ion> all bound elements; one prefix, one base and two suffixes.

The morphemes of <persecution>

We see the prefix <per-> in the words perfect, perhaps, perchance. We hesitated as to whether to consider<-ute> as a suffix or as part of the base and therefore <secute>. We recognized <-ute> as a suffix finding it in the words: tribute,<trib(e)+ute> and volute (‘spiral ornament on an Ionic capital’) <vol(e)+ute>. What other words shared <sec> as a base element? We discovered <prosecute> and <second> as our evidence. In claiming second as proof of the <sec> base, Amir wondered whether there was evidence for <-ond> as a suffix. We are still considering this! So far not much luck in finding other words where <-ond> appears as a suffix. The matrix below captures our thinking so far:

The bound base  from Latin sequi: to follow

The bound base <sec> from Latin sequi: to follow. We know that execute, execution belongs here as well. The morphemic boundaries in Latin were not as rigid as in English today hence the disappearance of the initial ‘s’, influenced by the /ks/ of ‘x’ in the prefix <ex->. Sadly we could not resolve how to indicate this on the matrix, so see our thinking in the matrix below.

The variant form of the bound base ‘sec’ occurring only after the prefix ‘ex-‘.

Etymological connections: Other bases from the root

We found sequence and sequel share the Latin root sequi as does the verb pursue and the noun pursuit.  I was interested that these words did not enter English together. Pursue is the elder by a century, attested from the 13th century and pursuit attested from the late 14th century. So far we have bound bases <sec> with its variant form <ec>, <sequ> <sue>and the free base element <suit> as related bases in modern English spring forth from Latin sequi. At the heart of all these bases and the words resulting from these, is the idea of following.

The base <sequ>

The bound base  from L. sequi to follow

The bound base from L. sequi to follow

The prefix <per-> and the free base elements <suit>  and <sue>

The free base suit from Latin sequi: to follow

We could see how ‘pursuit’ was linked to the notion of following but were initially puzzled by ‘suit’. What is the link between a suit of clothes and following? Entering English from Anglo Norman in the 13th century, the word ‘suit’ originally referred to a band of followers, a retinue, a company. From here it passed on to a set of things in general (Ayto) until the 15th century where it referred to the set of clothes or armour or livery or uniform.(Online Etymology Dictionary)

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The prefix <pur->:

The prefix <pur-> was a new consideration for us. OED states this occurs in words entering into English from French where it has the sense of ‘forward’, ‘completely’ or ‘advance’:

‘This is the form in which the prefix <pro- > came into Middle English in many cases, and it is still retained in numerous words, such as purchase n.,purfle n., purlieu n., purloin v., purport v., purpose v., purpresture n., pursue v., purvey v., and their derivatives. In others it has since been altered to the Latin form (as frequently also in French), as in promenade n., etc.’

Focusing on Persecution

Our main focus as a class has been in uncovering the meaning and connotations of persecution. It’s not just a matter of spouting a dictionary denotation , although reading the denotation is a indeed a starting point. This has led to rich discussions about persecution. I wanted students to internalize this using their own words, to contemplate when, and why persecution occurs, to consider the nuances of meaning between harassment, humiliation, suffering and victimization. Students noted that persecution was a noun (<-ion> suffix a dead-give-away here), negative in connotation , far stronger than teasing, taunting and harassment. We noted that acts of persecution are intentional, deliberate. We read Wiesel’s words (beginning of post) to consider how silence and indifference perpetuate persecution. Many students wondered if the causes of ‘persecution’ spring from fears of difference. We considered how the root sequi to follow was metaphorical …there is a sense of stalking or following, of relentlessness and cruelty. We found examples of ‘persecution’ in the texts we’d read this year.

Listen to the discussions below as students share their understandings after small group and whole group discussion and written reflection.




These discussions were followed by reading an article on the history of Anti-Semitism where we discussed the heinous blood libel myth, pogroms, the Dreyfus affair, the fraudulent Protocols of Zion: all part of the prelude to our lengthy study of the Weimar Republic, the Rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. Students wrote about their understandings of this word and where they saw it as a theme in the texts they have read.

Read some snippets from student blogs on this topic:

‘Persecution. I think of it as a hostile action with the intention to do harm. There always has to be an oppressor and a victim. The oppressor presses or pushes down on the victim. It’s an act of blaming, separating, or discriminating by the oppressor to the victim. The Latin word sequi, to follow, is the root of persecution. This root connects to persecution because the oppressor follows, hunts, and hurts the victim. Persecution is an inhumane act from the oppressor towards the victim.’ (Hanna)

I was really surprised when I first read about this piece of information. I found this distinctly shocking, because one of the first things I learnt as a child was about how everyone is equal and should live in unity. My religion teaches that all religions should be united as one, because that is what will spark the unity of all mankind. Yet, here, I am reading about religions against each other; one spreading rumours and blaming the other to have more power over them, because the other is weak. Surprisingly, both these religions also preach about peace and harmony towards all. The most horrific rumour about the Jews, to me, was the claim that they killed Christian babies for their blood, to make special bread. When I read this, I was completely speechless. Questions flew through my mind, “How would someone even dare spread something like that in the name of religion? Could one really have that much hatred for another human being? Were people foolish enough to believe all those dreadful lies?” All these thoughts, images, and perceptions, still wander in my head. I really cannot accept the fact that a group of religious people can treat others with such detest, such bitterness. Neither can I understand why, and how the Christians developed a loathsome attitude towards the Jews. Of course, there is still much, much more for me to read and find out about anti-semitism, as we have just started learning about it. But these are just some concepts to think about as we go deeper into this topic.’ (Temira)

My teaching colleague and friend Sharon Peters and myself are inspired by The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories akin to the 6 word memoir, developed as an online collaborative production company hitREcord by actor writer Joseph Gordon Levitt and ‘Wirrow’.(Read more here at Brain Pickings) This interplay of text and image has become another way for students to internalize their understanding of persecution in a concentrated, metaphor-like form. In exploring some of the examples from The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, students have learned to weigh each word carefully, particularly verbs. We have discussed personification, the effect of the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ and ‘I’, the superfluity of adverbs and adjectives- if the verb is powerful is there any need for further elaboration? Students posted their ‘Tiny Tale’ on a shared doc. anonymously and then chose someone’s that appealed to them to illustrate and to voice.  These tiny tales reveal their understanding of the word and the way it can be shown visually. Below is the collaborative project between the two humanities classes. The students feel proud of this work and all claim to have a much stronger understanding of persecution.



Our focus through these integrated humanity – word inquiry lessons has been to:

  •  help students acquire and understand words- knowing the meaning of the root adds a deeper layer of understanding of the word itself.
  • see the connections between the root and the word both in morphological structure and in the way it has evolved in present day English
  • understand that a root can lead to several base elements in English with the root meaning echoing through these words
  •  develop skills in critical thinking, reading and writing
  • cite instances of the word (persecution) from literature and history
  • understand metaphor and personification

Stephan’s comment was typical of the class responses noted in their blogs after this word-humanities focus: These readings ‘show society does not tolerate a minority group who then become persecuted just because their ways are different. I wish there was a world where people treat each other as equal and treat each other fairly, a world where people wake up not knowing persecution.