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

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

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

Thoughts about <revolution> :

Thinking about individuality:

Finding the way with <lost>


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

Here’s what we’ve learned:

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

Here’s what we need to work on :

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

This students sums up our learning so far:


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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