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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!