Black Sheep, Embarrassing Cousins.


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Spalatin, aka Georg Burckhardt, friend of Martin Luther, secretary to Frederick III, was asked in 1510 to compile the Chronicle of Saxony and Thuringa. This was not finished but throughout  this work are 1000 images from the Lucas Cranach workshop, including this family tree. See more at the wonderful  BibliOdyssey and  the It’s About Time blogs. Presumably  one of the wives died in the family above with a daughter born to one wife and two sons to the other. The sons appear to deny any relationship with their half sister by turning their backs on her. It’s hard to tell who is the eldest.

When a family assembles, the immediate and the distant relatives, the cousins and second cousins once removed, there are bound to be some members we stare at  in wonder, incredulous at our shared DNA. Surely not, we hope, too eccentric, too wild, too unlike us! So too with words.

During the research, over a month ago, where students pursued one word through the mists of time, there were similar gasps of surprise. Through the centuries run complex bloodlines – often confusing but presenting us with some remarkable relatives. Tracing the ‘bloodline ‘back to its deep roots (PIE) inevitably one word relative astonishes.

It was up to the students to track down the stories, to ‘root’ out the relatives of each word. This was done in small bursts in the humanities classroom, not nearly as much as I would have liked, but mainly out of school as part of the homework. Before school, during lunch, in emails to me, or after school , students would share their discoveries, hypotheses and plans for the next stage. At the beginning of the year students would often ask, “Is that right?” Now discussions begin with, “This is my thinking so far and here’s why.”

Excited to share their investigations with their peers from another class, students  developed a series of slides to guide them. They made connections between their word and the texts we had read this year. We paired the class up with small groups and they presented and dealt with questions through three rounds.The sharing was lively and animated as they helped their peers to understand the terms root, base element – free bound, or some patterns in the orthography of the word – why a  <y> becomes an <i> when suffixes are added, why a letter doubles.  After the presentations, students made screen-recordings, flatter than the original live sharing,  but  capturing their research for their electronic portfolios. Below is an example of the research and the surprising relatives exposed as one student dug to the roots when investigating two words.

Hop and hope? Related?

Olivia was amazed to reveal a possible connection between hop and hope. Both have Old English roots . Hope, as a verb, is used 200 years before its nominal use. Attested from 800 with a sense of ‘looking mentally with expectation’, it shifted slightly to take on the sense of ‘to desire with expectation, to look forward to.’ And how does that connect to hop? It’s somewhat of a leap, but Klein suggests the idea of ‘jumping to safety ‘ connected to the notion of ‘a place of refuge’ and from there it’s just a ‘hop’ to  ‘hope’.  And as Ms Steven’s class of intrepid fifth grade orthographers noted, the final non syllabic <e> not only lengthens the medial vowel <o> from /ɒ/ to /əʊ/, but also prevents doubling of the <p> when a vowel suffix is added.

‘When you wish upon a star’

Olivia went further to find that a  surprising relative of <wish > is none other than Venus. Wish of Old English wyscan: to cherish, desire , evolved from Proto Germanic*wunsk which in turn grew out from PIE root*wen-(1) to strive after, wish, desire and this led to Venus. Venus appeared in Late Old English and was from Latin, the Roman name for the goddess of love and sexual desire from the same PIE root that produced wish.

Venerable and venerate are obvious relatives of Venus, sharing the bound base element <vene>  from Latin venus ~ veneris but there are other surprising relatives – venom entering English in the 13th century from Latin venēnum a drug, medical potion but also a charm, a seduction with an underlying sense of a love potion. Then venison and venery from Latin venari ~ venatus the infinitive and past participle of to hunt, to pursue.  From the mid 15th century venery had acquired an additional sense where the hunt had become metaphoric and implied pursuit of a different kind – that of sexual pleasure. In assembling the matrix and rummaging through the OED, we discovered the compound word: venefice :’the practice of employing poison or magical potions; the exercise of sorcery by such means’, attested in 1380. This led to a small cluster of words such as venefical, venefic.  All ultimately from the same PIE root , *wen-(1) that spawned wish!

Is <-ison> a suffix as in <vene+ison> ? The OED suggests it is a ‘suffix of ns., repr. Old French -aison, -eison, -eson, -ison:—Latin -ātiōn-em (at a later date adopted in the learned formation, which is thus a doublet of -ison), -etiōnem, -itiōnem. Examples include comparison, fermison, garrison, jettison, orison, venison, warnison.’

However, we thought <venison> should be analyzed as <vene+ise+on> and recorded it as such on the matrix below where it will remain until we util we find evidence suggesting otherwise. When the OED states <-ison> is ‘thus a doublet of <-ation>’ we were doubtful . While <-ate > regularly precedes the suffix <-ion> ,<-ation> is not a single morpheme, rather it is built from the morphemes <ate+ion>. We have hypothesized this to be the case for the so called suffix <-ison> and instead suggest <-ise+ion>.





While you marvel at the words formed around the base element <vene>, there is still more to astound. From the same PIE root  *wen-(1), come the Germanic relatives: winsome , win and ween . Ween attested from 888, with the senses of expectation and hope, opinion, belief and probability, now has faded from regular use, except in the compound  overween and overweening.  But perhaps the most surprising of all is ‘the runic name for the Old English runic letter  ᚹ (= w) and of the manuscript form of this (Ƿ ƿ) in Old and early Middle English'(OED), so called because ‘of it being the first letter of that word which literally means delight or pleasure.’ (Online Etymology Dictionary).

This ancient root *wen-(1)  has given us the Latinate bound base <vene> and the free base elements from the Germanic branch of the family: the homophones <win> and <wynn> , <ween> and <wean>, and of course where we began with <wish>. We noted the echoes of charm, desire and a sense of striving and pursuit resonating through all these family members.

Listen to Olivia’s presentation below.



And with the discussion of venison it seems logical to consider the hunt and  an image from Gaston Phoebus’s book of the hunt. Diseases of dogs and their conditions. (Bel France, Paris, XV th century. Paris, BnF Department of Manuscripts, French folio 40v 616.)


Venery , the hunt or chase, was attested in 1330. The images above are from the Livre de Chasse by Gaston Phoebus. Gaston III, Count of Foix (1331–1391), was known as Phoebus (Latin, from Greek Phoibos: “bright, shining, radiant) and so called either due to his good looks or golden locks ( see 64 of these wonderful illustrations here).

Phoebus, the handsome venerer wrote a hunting  advice manual between  (1387–89) and dedicated it to fellow hunting enthusiast Phillip the Bold , Duke of Normandy, father to the wonderfully named John the Fearless. His hunting manual was made up of four books: On Gentle and Wild Beasts, On the Nature and Care of Dogs, On Instructions for Hunting with Dogs, and On Hunting with Traps, Snares, and Crossbow.  Phoebus obviously took hunting seriously -he owned sixteen hundred sporting dogs and two hundred horses.  However, the excitement in the end may have been too much for him as in 1391 Phoebus had pursued his final bear. He collapsed and died while washing his hands after a bear hunt.

‘Word study at the beginning of the year was quite boring for me; torturous even. But now that I look back at it, I don’t regret anything. I learned about a multitude of things related to words. I learned about how to use my sources to help me find the root of a word, to find its origin, to break it up into morphemes, and to get deeper understanding of the word. Now I could tell you the denotation of exclusion for example, I could tell you all about hope, and how it connects to wish, and how wish connects to Venus… It’s a never ending cycle of possibilities, and you learn so much from the experience of looking deeper into a word and its history. We haven’t only looked into the morphemes of words; but we’ve also thought about how words and their meanings connected to the topics we were studying. This year, I went into depth with the word “Hope”, and this experience has taught me to look at words differently.’ (from Olivia’s year long reflections on her portfolio)

Scroll to the bottom of the page on the V&A site here to experience the sounds of a medieval hunting song  known as a caccia ( Italian for chase) Hounds At Court and Dogs in the Forest.To further pursue terms of venery read here and marvel at the poetic terms often referred to as company terms or collective nouns,such as a murmuration of starlings, an unkindness of ravens, a murder of crows, a singular of boars, a tiding of magpies. If entranced by these and you wish to pursue these further, then read an earlier post  here.













Larking in the Mud of Time


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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.

Basking in the Brilliance of the Game


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James Naismith and wife Maude practise shots with a peach basket in 1928. Read more here

Sometimes an investigation is of the moment, quickly grabbed and opportunistic.  You can milk the moment for all its worth to reinforce the idea that words are the basis of everything – yes, even basketball.

Last week and over the weekend the Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools, of which we are a member, held tournaments in the region, and ISKL, our school, hosted basketball. A lot of games, a lot of keen students eager to support our girls’ and boys’ teams, a lot of cheering. Before we left the classroom for the courtside bleachers to cheer on our teams, I ruthlessly exploited the students’ desire to watch by asking them to first hypothesize about the word <basketball>. And as with all words, there is a story to be told!

We all knew the meaning of ‘basketball’- both the ball and a game that many of my students play. I asked students to hypothesize a date that this word may have entered English and consider the language of the etymon. We are beginning work on knowledge of the various periods in the development of the English language and key events such as the invasions, revolutions, writings that shaped English. Most students glance only briefly at the date of a word’s attestation and the language from where the word entered English. Even then they don’t regard it as an artifact thinking about what this might show about the culture that has adopted this word at this time and place. They are often far too swift in their reading of an etymological entry and miss a lot of the story in their effort to clutch at the first thing that appears as a root. Slowly they are becoming aware of the main periods in the development of the English: before Old English, Old English, Middle English and the Early Modern, Late Modern and the Present Day English periods. We have timelines of this around the room. The OED divides this timeline, into even more sections with interesting overviews:  English in time

As you would expect with limited knowledge, there were a variety of wild guesses as to the time when basketball was attested. Yet the majority felt that <basketball> as a game was modern – few were convinced the game existed in the Old English period, while the majority thought this word a coinage of the Late Modern Period. Marshall, a keen basketball player himself and reader of many sports magazines and texts, was fairly certain that the word had been generated by an American in the 1890’s.

Before leaping into the dictionary we analyzed the word itself- commenting that the word is a noun, a compound word and therefore two base elements from two different roots.  There were several hypotheses. All students were convinced that <ball> was a free base element. From this point, we discussed  whether <basket> could be analyzed into two morphemes <bask+et>. Listen to the student below discussing <basketball>.



The suffix <-et>

We discussed the possibility of <-et> as a suffix. In order to form a hypothesis, of course you need evidence. We quickly assembled words such as casket, ballet, tourniquet, fillet, blanket, market, racquet. Some students speculated that words such as fillet, ballet, tourniquet  were French  – they ‘sounded French’ and as another student said, “In those words the <t> isn’t pronounced.” We talked about market, casket, racquet also being French but maybe as another speculated, “ Maybe they’d (the words) hung around in English longer and so the <-et> is said.”

 <-et>  as a suffix forms diminutives from nouns and ‘represents Old French -et masculine, -ete (modern French -ette) the feminine’. In English the suffix occurs chiefly in ‘French words adopted into Middle English, as: bullet, crotchet, fillet, gullet, hatchet, mallet, pocket, pullet, sonnet, tablet, turret. ‘ The OED notes that ‘most of these are now used without any consciousness of their original diminutive sense. To us, basket had no obvious sense of smallness.

A bath, to bask, and to bathe : baking hot

While <bask> is indeed a free base element those students analyzing basket as <bask+et> quickly realized that <bask> denoted ‘bathing in, luxuriating in something.’ They used familiar examples from here in Malaysia of lizards, snakes and even tourists on beaches basking in the sunshine.  Bask , we later discovered, is of Old Norse roots baðask,  bathask, attested from 1393, acquired initially in the sense of ‘wallowing in blood’ . ‘To bathe, especially in warm water or liquid, and so transferred the sense of to ‘be suffused with, or swim in, blood:’ ‘The child lay bathend in her blood. And for the blood was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.’( 1393 John Gower, Confessio Amantis, OED ). The sense of lying in pleasant warmth occurred three centuries later, in the 17th century and the OED cites Shakespeare in As You Like (1616) as the first to use <bask> in the sense of : ‘To expose to a flood of warmth, to suffuse with genial warmth’: Shakespeare As you like It ii. vii. 15   ‘A foole, Who laid him downe, and bask’d him in the Sun.’


Illustration of the motley fool basking in the sun by Hugh Thompson for Shakespeare’s As You Like It, from the Hodder and Stoughton edition, 1913


The Old Norse etymon, is reflexive of the verb batha, to bathe and not etymologically and therefore not morphologically connected with baskets! So bask , bathe and bath are related, all separate free base elements and emerging in English from Proto Germanic roots in different time periods : bath in the Old English period bæð, and ultimately from the PIE root *bhe- “to warm”. The earliest attestation according to the OED is from 864 . Bathe, the verb, is attested slightly later but still in the Old English period around 1000 from Old English baðian and pronounced differently due to i- mutation. (Read Douglas Harper’s brief and lucid explanation of i-mutation here with examples of other OE words where this occurred).  Lying beneath all, bask, bath, bathe, is the connotation of heat. However, dear readers, there’s more … When fossicking amongst the PIE root *bhe-,*bho-, we unearthed another related word : <bake>. We gasped at the now obvious heat connection!


As we realized there was no possible meaning link between bask, and basket, we concluded that the first base element in the compound <basketball> was a free base element. The origins of basket, we discovered, still confound etymologists. We saw that it has been attested from 1300 so entering English via French in the Middle English period. Chaucer used the word in the Pardoner’s prologue, 117: I wil do no labour with myn hondes, Ne make basketis and lyve therby.’ But the rest beyond this time is pure speculation – perhaps Latin bascauda– a table vessel or kettle or perhaps even from a Celtic etymon indicating a wicker basket.


Smith College  women’s basketball team, obviously 1902!



Many students predicted <ball> was from the Old English period. In the class there are Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish speakers and all noted the similarity of their  mother tongues’ word for ball. They recognized that these languages, like Old English, are Germanic which helped them hypothesize about the Old English origins. However, ball is a homophone- as one student noted and as such is of two different roots. The ball where you dance is a descendent from Latin ballare which in turn evolved from Greek ballizein ‘dance’. This root has also led to other family members such as ballad, ballet, ballerina.

The round, spherical ball which dribbles, bounces and rebounds throughout the game of basketball entered English in the Middle English period perhaps from Old Norse bollr,  or from an unattested Old English etymon *beall. These evolved from the hypothesized Proto Germanic root *balluz.  Many of the male students were entertained to discover that this Germanic etymon also led to bollocks or ballocks, a word derived from OE bealluc  for testicles, and quite acceptable in every day speech until the end of the seventeenth century when it was regarded as ‘coarse slang ‘ and not recorded by Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755, nor seen in the OED until 1972.

Despite the entry into the hallowed pages of the OED, the scent of coarse language still hovered around the word in 1977 when John Mortimer and Geoffrey Robinson were called on to defend a ‘particularly studious young university graduate who sung under the sobriquet of Johnny Rotten’ (The Justice Game, Geoffrey Robinson). There was much righteous outrage over the title of the Sex Pistols’ Album: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.

John Mortimer called in a Professor of English from Leicester University as an expert witness to explain the etymology of ballocks, bollocks informing the judge and jurors of the word’s Old English heritage, its reference to the tubers of orchids and citing Eric Partridge’s research of the colloquial or slang senses which include an apparent 17th to 19th century reference to the clergy: ‘In 1684 the Officer Commanding the Straights always referred to his chaplain as Ballocks’. In the late 19-20th century bollocks /ballocks took on the sense of nonsense and later a muddle or confusion in army references from 1915.  Etymology won the day and the charges were dismissed.

‘What sort of country are we living in if a politician comes to Nottingham and speaks here to a group of people in the city centre and during his speech a heckler replies ‘bollocks’, are we to expect this person to be incarcerated, or do we live in a country where we are proud of our Anglo Saxon language? Do we wish our language to be virile and strong or watered down and weak?'(John Mortimer)

This was a great opportunity to point out the different registers of English with the more formal, medical connotations of Latin derived testicle and the more everyday, colloquial use of bollocks. The Germanic stem *bal-, *bul- was also the source for the receptacle ‘bowl.’


The receptacle bowl too can be traced back to the PIE root *bhel-(2)’To blow, swell, with derivatives referring to various round objects.’ (AHD). This ancient root is shared with Old English bolla  which denotes ‘bud, round pod, globular vessel’ hence Old English heafodbolla ‘brainpan, skull’ from the Germanic root *būl- ‘to swell, be swollen’. The OED states that the ‘normal modern spelling’ of <bowl> would be ‘<boll> which came down to 17th century in the sense of a ‘round vessel’. However ,<boll> now remains in use denoting a ‘round seed-vessel’. I immediately think of those pesky weevils attacking cotton bolls – the boll weevil.

The OED further informs the word-curious that ‘early Middle English pronunciation of  <oll> as /ɔːl/ (compare roll , poll , toll , etc.), has ‘left its effects in the modern spelling <bowl> in the sense of ‘vessel’’ (OED). While this conveniently separates this form from other senses, such as <boll>, it collides with the homonym bowl as in ‘playing bowls’.

John Ayto shows that the other <bowl> was originally ‘simply a synonym for ball’. This bowl, the action of rolling a ball in the Middle English period (1420) is from French boule ball, from Latin bulla ‘bubble’, hence, ‘round thing, ball. ’ The Latin bulla is also behind boil, the papal bull (the round seal on papal edicts), bullion, bullet and bulletin.



From the Bodlian library MS 264,fol.21v, University of Oxford. The illustrations from this manuscript are by a Flemish artist,Jehan de Grise  in 1344. The marginilia are filled with playful images including the bowling trio above. Read more here.

James Naismith , a Canadian and qualified doctor, physical education instructor and minister, athletically adept in: lacrosse, rugby, gymnastics, swimming, fencing, track and field, responded to the challenge of rowdy, energetic students going stir-crazy during the blizzard filled winter months of 1891 by creating the game of basketball. In the clip here from We the People you can hear the 77 year old Naismith discuss his first game of basketball – a tackling, kicking, punching game resulting in several black eyes, a concussion and a dislocated shoulder! In the controversial 1936 Olympics in Berlin, basketball was played with 23 nations participating and James Naismith handed out the medals- all to American teams. No such scrummages and tackling in the games we watched last weekend despite the fierce competition!

Thinking about words can happen on the spur of the moment. Word research can be motivated by a book, news, a conversation, poetry, song. The lessons can extend over days, weeks or like this exploration, a quick and bracing plunge into the morphological and etymological oceans. Basketball has has helped students to solidify morphological and etymological understandings, we’ve followed the elements through time using a variety of resources, followed false leads, but been the richer for this and walked to the court appreciative of Naismith, balls and baskets.


“A Loaf of Bread,” the Walrus said …


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Tenniel’s image of the duplicitous oyster and bread eating duo.


“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,

“Is what we chiefly need:

Pepper and vinegar besides

Are very good indeed–

Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,

We can begin to feed.”

 Throughout my childhood I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, particularly many of the rhymes such as The Walrus and the Carpenter. Now, still in the thrall of sandwiches, I appreciate it even more. I love the sandwich lurk performed by the wily Walrus and Carpenter on the gullible oysters: a  beguiling ‘come for a walk’ ruse on the sand coupled with misplaced oyster trust.

However, it is the bread in which the unfortunate oysters are swaddled, that now captivates me.

What makes up bread? It’s not just barley, wheat or rye!

< bread> pronounced /brɛd / is both a noun and verb, although the expansion to verbal usage takes 679 years. Morphologically <bread> is a simple word, a free base element. The base is made up of:

  • 5 letters
  •  4 graphemes
  •  4 phonemes as seen when it is transcribed in I.P.A.: /brɛd/.
  • There is one medial vowel digraph <ea>  representing the shortened vowel phone /ɛ/. Along with dead, and lead (n.1), the vowel shortened in Middle English the period between 1150-1500 (Online Etymology Dictionary).

So why not just *<bred>? For a start it would clash with the past tense of <breed>. The  <ea> digraph in <bread> signals a different meaning from <bred> and connects the word with its Old English etymon bréad. I am fascinated by the <ea> digraph; it’s been something of an obsession as I mull over questions and continue to gather evidence with my students. However, rather than the vastness of the <ea> digraph quest, it’s a narrower focus on <bread> in this post.

To understand the frequently misunderstood terms letters, grapheme, phoneme   watch: Real Spelling’s Orthographic Phonology.

The etymology of bread

Bread attested in 950, is of Old English origins, bréad, plural bréadru. The denotation then was “bit, crumb, morsel; bread”.  Bread originally denoted a piece of food. As bread is the most common and available of food staples, its senses gradually changed from ‘piece of bread’ to ‘broken bread’ to ‘bread’.The Old English bréad is derived from Germanic *brautham with cognates in German brot and  Swedish brod. The initial  denotation of bread as ‘ piece, bit, fragment, was similar to Latin frustum’ (OED).

However, beyond the hypothesized Germanic root, the story is unclear.
Some etymologists favour tracing  bread to a P.I.E. root *bhreu with the claim of a link between <bread> and< brew>. However, the O.E.D. states emphatically that there is no evidence for this. In Old English the word bréad is rare. So what was the usual word in Old English that referred to bread? None other than <loaf> – the close relationship indicated by the phrase a ‘loaf of bread’.

A medieval baker with his apprentice. The Bodleian Library, Oxford.


OE hláf:loaf was the more common term for <bread> – and like bread, attested from the 9th century. Some etymologists suggest a connection with Old English hlífian ‘to rise high, tower’, in reference to the ‘rising’ of leavened bread. The OE etymon can be traced to Proto-Germanic *khlaibuz , although beyond this the story is cloudy. However, before 1200 <bread> displaced <hláf> as the name of the substance, leaving  <loaf>  the sense of the whole unsliced bread.

 ‘To loaf around‘ is not idling while snacking on bread. The homophone <loaf>, a verb and the antonym of work, is formed from the back formation of loafer as in ‘idler’ . Loafer has also denoted  a type of shoe since 1937, presumably for idle pursuits. This loaf, of uncertain etymology, is of a different root to the bready loaf and is attested from 1837.

 Lords, ladies and bread 

The connection of nobility with bread is surprising.The Old English word for <lord> was hláford. This is from an earlier compound hláfweard where the second element is OE weard: guard which becomes unstressed and reduced to hlaford. No doubt dear reader, you have spotted in both Old English etymons, the element hlaf which gave ‘rise’ to <loaf>.  The word <lord> denotes the head of a household in his relation to the servants and dependents who ‘eat his bread’ ,a sense comparable with OE hláf-ǽta : ‘bread-eater’, a servant (OED).

The original Old English form for <lady> was hlǣfdige. Again you see evidence of <loaf> in the first element of the Old English etymon, a compound like hlafweard, that emphasizes the importance of bread.The second element of this compound is unattested OE *dīge: kneader. This is etymologically related to dough as is dairy,  once the place where the female kneader of bread, the  ‘dǽge’  worked. ( Read more)

Today, lord and lady cannot be analysed morphologically. They are are simple words, free base elements, but lurking beneath the denotations of lord and lady is the suggestion of power and control; those who dispense bread, the staff of life, have indeed power over the lives of others.

Dough is a free base element, a noun, but later is used verbally. Its orthographic structure signals that it is neither the animal <doe> nor the musical note <doh> and as English orthography always does, the meaning is signalled in its orthographic structure. The word is simple- no affixes, not so the story!

Dough is a free base element composed of five letters, and two phonemes, with the letter string <ugh>. The <ugh> is not there to confuse. It is not an example of irregularity, nor a tricky word, nor an oddball! These are merely the labels we attach when we struggle to understand or become obsessed with categorizing into small boxes only to find orthographic entities cannot be so easily confined. Rather <ugh> in the final position of the base element <dough> is an etymological marker, often a clue as to Old English roots. Yes <ugh> can be a trigraph and in a final position it often signals /f/, but not always. Sometimes as in <dough>, <though> and <plough> its role is etymological, a connection to a time and place in the past. It’s important to remember pronunciation shifts over time and accents vary. In the north of England <dough> was pronounced: /dʌf/.

Duff, 1840, the variant form of <dough>, now denotes a dough or paste,  or ‘a flour pudding boiled in a bag; a dumpling’ such as a ‘plum duff’. Ayto describes the ‘plum duff’ as a ‘fortifying pudding’ essentially the same as in its beginnings before going upmarket as the Christmas pudding. The plum, which little Jack Horner pulled out from a pie, is not a ‘plum’ but a raisin. Read sociologist Henry Mahew’s 1861 description of the plum duff sellers on London streets here.

The plum pudding, the up-market plum duff :“Twice ten are twenty, We shall all have plenty, Each a slice, how very nice!” From ‘Oh Dear, Oh Look at the snow’ by Jack Frost from a Victorian Christmas Advent Calandar

Too much plum duff or the rich Christmas pud can cause the unwary lurid nightmares.

Alarming illustration by Alfred Crowquill, for the  poem  ‘What I saw after eating the Christmas Pudding” . Be warned!! from Cambridge University Special Collections

Dough, like bread is attested from the 9th century and can be traced to PIE root *dheigh- denoting mould, form, knead. The Old English element *dig- , as noted earlier, formed the second element in lady . The proto Germanic *daigaz denoting ‘something kneaded’ led eventually to <dough>.  Dough carries connotations of working by hand, of kneading, shaping and moulding into loaves.

Latin fingere~ fictum

It was not only in Old English and the Germanic languages that this PIE root with its  kneading and shaping connotations spread its tendrils. Latin fingere ~ fictum, the second and fourth principal parts of the Latin verb that are relevant to English orthography, denoted ‘shape, form, devise, feign,mould’.  Once the suffixes are removed from the Latin stems, the twin base elements emerge: <fing> and <fict>.  The Online Etymology dictionary observes that ‘the related Latin words included the literal notion “worked by hand,” as well as the figurative senses of “invented in the mind; artificial, not natural”.

The derivatives in current English: feign, effigy, fiction, indicate the English bases of <fige> ,<fict>, and <feign> echoing faintly of things shaped. From the past participle fictus is ficture, a noun denoting feigning, obsolete, but the need for this may re-emerge. While <fing> does not appear to be as productive as its twin base element <fict> there is the wonderful adjective fingent denoting ‘given to fashion or moulding’, formed on the present participle of Latin fingere. I rummaged further in the OED to unearth fict , in 1609 a free base element, used nominally, adjectivally and verbally denoting a musical term in which ‘the accidentals were supplied, instead of being left to the singer’s discretion’.

Two girls on their way home from the bakery in Cuijk Holland, Netherlands

The value of bread:

Both bread and dough have a slang use as money.They are two of 2,500 terms for money that are recorded in the HTOED ( another fascinating line of research for students with access to the OED) Dough and bread still carry the connotations of a life necessity or livelihood. Dough is the earlier in expanding to this colloquial sense, attested in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, then spreading to Canada, Australia and Britain soon after. Bread on the other hand was slower to rise to this moneyed sense,not until 1939 despite it being connected with making a living since 1719 ( see sense 5 OED). This underlying sense of money and livelihood is carried through in the compound words breadearner (1602), and breadwinner (1821). In Australia this idea was changed to the expression ‘to earn a crust’ in 1916:

‘A bloke can’t be partic’lar ‘oo must battle fer a crust’ (C.J. Dennis~ The Sentimental Bloke)

Crust: Upper crusty or upper crust in reference to social superiority was expressed from 1836 onwards. Crust is of Latin origin, crusta, attested in English since 1330 and denoted: ‘the outer part of bread rendered hard and dry in baking’. The Latin root shifted to crouste in Old French which formed the basis of modern French croûte and croûton, the latter of which migrated into English the early 19th century (1806). Latin crusta also led to words such as crustacean as well as crystal and custard – originally a pie enclosed in a crust (Ayto). Add the <y> suffix to the free base element <crust> and you have the adjective crusty which can denote people who are : ‘Short of temper; harshly curt in manner or speech: the opposite of suave or affable‘ (OED). This figurative use is attested since 1570 joining a long list of synonyms for the irritable.

Both ‘crust of bread’, ‘loaf of bread’ are rhyming slang for head sometimes abbreviated in the imperative “Use your loaf!”

Kneading bread:

Knead a free base element, denotes: ‘to mix and work up into a homogeneous plastic mass, by successively drawing out, folding over, and pressing or squeezing together;  to work up (moistened flour or clay) into dough or a paste; to make (bread, pottery) by this process’ (OED). Today it is pronounced /niːd/. The graphemes signal the difference of meaning from its homophone <need>. Knead is made up of the consonant digraph <kn> and the vowel digraph <ea> this time representing the phoneme /i:/. 

Old English cnedan is “to knead,” from Proto-Germanic *knedan. Originally it was a strong verb – past tense cnæd, past participle cneden. It’s not just the word itself that has a history, so too the graphemes. In this case <kn> once <cn> was fully voiced.  Old English <cn> was frequent – at least 82 entries- but by Middle English the <cn> was ‘lost or turned to <kn>’ (Online Etymology Dictionary). By 1750 the pronunciation was reduced to the /n/. The orthography of <knead> with its <kn> digraph indicates that the function of a grapheme signals more than mere pronunciation.


Baker kneading and baxter baking bread (detail)from psalter by an unknown illuminator, Belgium, mid-1200s.

Of bakers, baxters and batches:

Bake is Old English origin, the verb bacan derived from proto Germanic *bac which can be traced back to PIE *bhog- from *bhe- to warm.This emerged in Greek as ϕώγειν:phogein to roast, parch, toast. Bath too may have derived from this PIE root, originally suggesting heating rather than immersing in water, likewise the word bask.

Batch from unattested Old English *bæcce ” is something baked,” from bacan “bake”.  Batch is to bake as watch is to wake and match (n.2) “one of a pair” is to make, as speech is to speak (OED).  In 1440 batch referred to the process of baking and extended around 1713 to include “any quantity produced at one operation.”

Baxter from Old English bæcestre, was the feminine form of bæcere, from bacan to bake. Although used of women as late as 16th century in Old English, it too could refer to men and in Middle English referred to both sexes. Today it survives as a surname smelling faintly of freshly baked bread.

Bread types:

Zito’s Bakery, Bernice Abbott, 1937:  Zito’s Italian bakery in Greenwich Village, was one of many storefronts Abbott photographed capturing a changing New York in the late 1930s. (Berenice Abbott/The Jewish Museum)

As I peer in through Zito’s window, I wonder about the etymological origins of ciabatta,  focaccia,  brioche, and baguette. Say them aloud and they become a small poem.

Although baguette is attested from 1727, it wasn’t until 1958 that it denoted:”a long, thin loaf of French bread”. It entered the English lexicon from French, via Italian and the root Latin baculum a stick. English borrowed the diminuitive bacillus in 1877.

Consider carpet slippers, worn down-at-heel and you have the inspiration behind  ciabatta from an Italian word meaning old slippers, attested in English from 1997.

The Norman etymon broyer to knead is at the heart of a delicious brioche. Broyer became French brier and in the 15th century led to brioche. It migrated into English, around 1824. While its pronunciation suggests French, the Norman etymon broyer: to grind, pound derives from West Germanic *brekan to break and reminds us that the Normans were men of the north- Norse men.

The hearth is the focal point of focaccia. Attested since 1881, it’s been “borrowed” from the Italian etymon focaccia of the late 14th century.This was from post-classical Latin focacia feminine form of focacius ‘bread baked in the hearth’, from classical Latin focus: hearth. (OED).

Yeast is a vital ingredient of leavened bread and a free base element made up of four phonemes, four graphemes with the <ea> digraph in the medial position representing /i:/. Yeast of Old English origins gist, derived ultimately from a PIE root *yes- “to boil, foam, froth”. The ancient PIE root produced Welsh ias: boiling and Greek: ζεῖν zein to boil, ferment. This Greek root has led to a word far away from the bakery and the kitchen – eczema. Attested since 1753, from the Greek etymon ἔκζεμα: ekzema, the itchy, inflamed skin condition still carries connotations of boiling.

Boulangerie: photographer the great Willy Ronis

This wordy ramble, ‘a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk’ of bread, bakers and baking returns to The Walrus and the Carpenter, companions on their oyster eating binge.  Etymologically, a companion, 1325, denotes a friendship formed around bread. A companion denoted one’s ‘messmate with whom one habitually eats meals’: <com +pane+ion>. The bound base element <pane> has derived from Latin panis bread and the word itself via Old French. This Latin root leads to pannier– initially a bread basket but extended to any large basket for provisions, and also pantry originally ‘a room or set of rooms in a large household in which bread and other provisions are kept’ (OED). The panter or its variant form pantler was the officer in a household who supplied the bread and had charge of the pantry, the bread-bearer, even bread-controller  regulated the distribution of bread in the royal household and had supreme authority over all the bakers of the kingdom; bread-choppers (1600) and bread-chippers (1616) pared the crusts – occupations long since faded.

Insisting on the primacy of phonology when teaching and you sever a word from its roots, denying its past and the cultures that shaped it. Bread, a humble word, so easily swallowed, taken for granted, yet as with all words, when considering the orthography, there are stories to be told, and a time and place that connects to the present, ” … in tracing words to their origin, we are tracing simultaneously civilization and culture to their real roots.(Dr. Ernest Klein)




My Portmanteau is Packed; I’m Ready to Go


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When you have initialed portmanteaux and assorted suitcases, it would seem that concerns of travelling light are irrelevant. Above, Marlene Dietrich and her monogrammed luggage. Was this packed for a staycation? Perhaps she was travelling to a motel?

When I first began writing this post, I had not seen blue skies for over a month here in Kuala Lumpur. Tall buildings were swathed in a greyish ‘haze’. I sat on our verandah and watched the grey smog slither over the trees on the hill nearby and inch closer. The sun when it rose, protested in an unnatural blood-red. The normally blue water in our pool  turned a virulent green. School was cancelled as the API readings crept up. More people wore masks. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore choked in polluted air brought on by the clearing and burning of grasses in palm-oil plantations on peaty ground. It’s a slow smoulder that seems impossible to stop and wreathes all in its nebulous clutches.

More than 117,000 fires detected by ASA satellites this year, have been burning to clear land for farming or palm oil plantations. The burning has removed thousands of hectares of forest and polluted the air. Students can glance out the window and come close to accurately estimating the API reading – a sad skill.

“It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries” (Read more here George Monbiot, Guardian).

It was enough to dream of Marlene Dietrich’s portmanteaux and head off for smogless skies. Was haze a euphemistic term for smog?  It isn’t quite so shocking as smog smog reeks of pollution while haze is, well, vague. Both are free base elements although smog is the classic example of a portmanteau or blend.

Haze: Ironically the etymology of haze is just that – hazy! Haze is a free base element, first attested in 1706, but possibly a back-formation from hazy. This means that the adjective hazy is the older word, 1620s, with haze formed after this, almost  a century later according to the OED. It can now be analyzed into two morphemes: <haze+y>. There is the suggestion that haze and hazy are connected with Old English hasu , haswe ‘grey’, or even the German ‘hase’: hare. The latter may be due to the medieval superstition involved  around ill fortune and hares. Beware of bringing a dead hare onto a fishing boat and never ever utter this word while onboard ! (Online Etymology Dictionary).

However, this etymology like haze itself, is vague and indefinite.The denotation refers to ‘an obscuration of the atmosphere near the surface of the earth, caused by an infinite number of minute particles of vapour in the air’. In the 18th century haze referred to a ‘thick fog or hoar-frost’; but now usually to a’ thin misty appearance, which makes distant objects indistinct, and often arises from heat’. It later broadened to the figurative sense: ‘a condition of intellectual vagueness and indistinctness; the obscurity of a distant time.’ It can be used verbally as seen in this 1691 example from J. Ray N. Country Words  ‘It hazes, it misles, or rains small rain.’

Haze, the verb, (verb1, OED) is a homonym with the denotation of  ‘force (new or potential recruit to the military or a university fraternity) to perform strenuous, humiliating or dangerous tasks.’ This word derived from Old French haser: to irritate that led to an early sense of fright, scare or scold, then to a nautical sense of punishment through harsh work, and finally evolving to cruel horseplay. So a  different root from the misty haze. The two forms, superficially identical, are most definitely not related.

Smog attested from 1905 is a newer coinage and in reference to the suffocating situation of smoke and fog in London perhaps coined by Dr H.A.Des Voeux when he presented his paper on behalf of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society. It is a blend of two free base elements <smoke> and <fog>. Of course smog cannot be analyzed  into morphemes. Morphologically it is a simple word (no affixes), where two morphological fragments and the meanings from their parent words have been compacted into one new lexeme. Smog is therefore a free base element. Affixes can be attached to this new base to create a small group of relatives.

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Smaze, less prevalent than smog, was coined in 1953. It is a blend from smoke and haze.

1969 saw the emergence of the word vog first in Hawaii, from volcanic and fog. It refers to the smog containing volcanic dust and gasses.

Fog like haze is most likely a back formation from ‘foggy’. Both foggy and fog are attested at the same time, perhaps of Scandinavian origin in the 14th century where it meant ‘long grass’. The connection between grass and fog is suggested by places overgrown with long grass, then to grassy wetlands hence to boggy, marshy areas and so to the vaporous air rising from these places.

I was surprised to discover the fleshiness of the adjective foggy in 1562  – flabby, spongy in consistency, but also applying to people: ‘Unwholesomely bloated, swollen with flabby and unhealthy corpulence, puffy’. The OED cites a wonderfully alliterative reference from 1529: “All foggy fat she were‘  by the poet J. Skelton in his  Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng. (Tunning from Old English tunne meaning the cask for storing ale or wine and Elynour, the coarse, foggy, public-house owner and brewer). The senses of fleshy, corpulent foggy have faded from usage.

The OED indicates that foggy in its various senses is ‘somewhat doubtful,’ but shows  a ‘plausible’ development of meaning from ‘resembling, consisting of, or covered with ‘fog’ or coarse grass’; covered with moss to boggy,marshy to ‘of the flesh and people – corpulent, bloated, puffy to that of food that puffs one up, to the floating thick particles in ale, to the air, mist and cloud- thick and murky. The figurative sense of ‘obscure, dull, bemuddled, confused’ is from 1603 (OED). However, the Online Etymology Dictionary says this connection is ‘tempting but not proven.’ Perhaps, as Ayto suggests, Danish fog as ‘spray, shower or snowdrift’ may be the more accurate etymology. 

Further intrigue when I discovered the link between fogey/fogy and foggy. The OED suggests a possible ‘substantive use’ of the adjective foggy as in fat, bloated, or in the sense of moss-grown. Originally referring to an invalid or garrison soldier in 1785, it quickly pejorated further by 1790 to mean ‘a man advanced in life; esp. one with antiquated notions, an old-fashioned fellow, one ‘behind the times’ ‘(OED)

Blends: Smog and smaze are both blends. However, this is not because of their initial consonant cluster <sm>. The term blend has a precise linguistic meaning and two adjacent consonants do not make a blend, despite what we see to the contrary in many curriculum documents. ‘Consonants in blends: A blend contains two or three graphemes because the consonant sounds are separate and identifiable. A blend is not “one sound.”‘ ( Common Core, Appendix A,p.20). This document hasn’t the ‘foggiest’ of the linguistic term ‘blends’ and shrouds all in its miasma of pseudo-linguistic knowledge. Consonants cluster and vowels glide, never do they blend!

A blend is “a case in which two elements which do not normally co-occur come together within a single linguistic unit.” ( Crystal,D. Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics)

Blends are truncated and reassembled morphological fragments.They are blended without consideration of morphological boundaries. They carry the denotations of the original words with them and along with these ‘blended’ fragments become a new single lexical item. Lewis Carol referred to this type of word formation as a portmanteau –  ‘there are two meanings packed up into one word.’ Go to Real Spelling’s phanfare: The Portmanteau Word or Blend to understand the blend and its structure : juxtaposition, overlapping and nesting.

Ayto notes that ‘the [1920s] saw the coming of age of the blend … Some still familiar ones had emerged before 1900 (brunch, for instance, a blend of breakfast and lunch), but it was the 1920s that really started taking a liking to them.” I wondered about  early blends, once perhaps a surprise with the shock of the new, but now their blendings so disguised and the word itself commonplace. Below some blends that caught my fancy during my research:

The obsolete drubly of 1340 may be a blend that juxtaposes the <dr> fragment from Old English dróf , dróflic (Middle English *drov(e)ly meaning turbid, disturbed with the <ubly> fragment from Middle English trobly, troubly adj. from French, trouble to create a meaning of turbid, troubled. A useful word to resuscitate.

Jounce from 1440 mid 15th century is a blend of jump and bounce: ‘To move violently up and down, to fall heavily against something; to bump, bounce, jolt; to go along with a heavy jolting pace’.

Crash: Ayto writes of crash ‘appearing out of nowhere in Middle English’ around 1400, entering the word hoard with a crash, alone, an ‘orphan’ with no relatives in other Germanic languages. While its form suggests it is onomatopoeic, another suggestion is that it is a blend of craze and dash, an overlapping of fragments <cra> with <ash>.

Twiddle is attested from 1547, but ‘rare in use until the 19th century.’ It may be a blend of twirl or twist indicating trifling action, as in fiddle , piddle. (OED).

Twirl: The origins of twirl are vague, attested in 1590s perhaps as The Online Etymology dictionary suggests, ‘connected with Old English þwirl “a stirrer, handle of a churn,” and Old Norse þvara “pot-sticker, stirrer.” Another etymological hypothesis is that it is a blend of twist and whirl so an overlap of fragments <twi> from twist with <irl> from twirl.

An aside: Both twirl and twiddle carry connotations of ‘twoness’ as indicated by the consonant cluster <tw>. Collect a list of words where the <tw> cluster occurs to test the connection of ‘two’: twilight, twin, twill, twine, between, tweezers, twig … there’s more! The <tw> cluster in two is not a ‘silent’ letter – letters don’t chatter, nor is it there by coincidence, its function is to mark an etymological connection and signal a difference in meaning from its homophones – to and too.

More blends: I particularly liked niddicock, attested from 1587 to  mean ‘a fool, an idiot’. The origin is uncertain but the OED suggests it is a blend of ‘nidiot n. and nodcock n.’

ninneversity is a humorous blend of ninny and university from 1592: ‘[I] will make a shippe that shall hold all your colleges, and so carrie away the the Bankeside in Southwarke.(R. Greene Frier Bacon, OED).

Slosh of 1814 may be a blend of slop and slush. The <slo> of slop juxtaposed with the <sh> of slush.

Blunge: from 1830 juxtaposes the morphological fragments from blend and plunge and means to mix (clay, powdered flint, etc.) up with water.

Snivelization from 1849, a nonce-word, is also a favorite, it’s denotation: ‘Civilization considered derisively as a cause of anxiety or plaintiveness’. ‘Ye wouldn’t have been to sea here, leadin’ this dog’s life, if you hadn’t been snivelized… Snivelization has been the ruin on ye’.(H. Melville Redburn xxi. 131,OED)

Beerage of 1891 a blend of beer and peerage.

The etymology of prissy 1844 is uncertain; perhaps it’s a blend of prim and sissy (OED). It is an example of overlapping the fragments <pri >from prim with <issy> from sissy.

The useful, but now rarely uttered mudge is from 1848, a blend of mud and sludge, so the <mu> fragment overlaps the <udge> fragment.

Australia’s squattocracy from squatter and aristocracy appears in the 1840s, and is a denigrating term connecting sqautters with aristocracy.

I loved nerk a noun from 1955. The OED states it is of uncertain origins although cites the hilarious Goon show scripts as examples:You don’t think I’d threaten you with an unloaded banana? Now come on, tell me—where is Fred Nurke? (S. Milligan, 1954.) Listen, tiny nerk (S. Milligan Goon Show Scripts, 1955Nerk, the OED suggests, is a blend of the nouns nerd and berk or jerk. It denotes a foolish, objectionable, or insignificant person.

From the Telegraph just recently: “rush hour” and “frustration” leaves you with rushtration, ‘for which there is no easy cure.’

Loiterature n. Articles, posts, books, or other material that a person reads while waiting.

2014 saw infobesity , infobese from the words information and obseity up for an honorable mention on Wordspy as Word of the Year. First seen in 2003.

Procaffination ‘meaning the action of delaying or postponing something until one has had one or more cups of coffee; drinking coffee slowly as a delaying tactic’ was voted the most likely to succeed word from procrastination and caffeine. Earliest usage was 2010.

Bagonize from bag and agonize, means to wait in agony at the airport luggage carousel for your luggage to appear, perhaps even to bagonize over a portmanteau.

And so to return to smog, fog and haze.

Concerns about the air quality in London are centuries old. In researching these words, I have been delighted to learn about the diarist John Evelyn who in 1661 wrote to Parliament and the King : And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismall Cloud of SEACOALE?” he wrote, “so universally mixed with the otherwise wholesome and excellent Aer, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour…” (Fumifugium: or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated).

John Evelyn 1620 – 1706, contemporary of Pepys, diarist, ‘scholar, connoisseur, bibliophile and horticulturalist, as well as a writer and thinker of sometimes startlingly current relevance, on everything from forestry, architecture and the formation of a universal library to fashion and air pollution.'(British Library)

Evelyn’s proposal was farsighted, suggesting all polluting industries – such as brewing, fabric dying, soap and salt manufacturing, and lime-burning should relocate outside the City of London. He proposed an improvement to air quality by plantations of sweet smelling flowers and vegetation in areas adjacent to the city.  He also warned that ‘continued growth of glassworks and iron industries would have dramatic consequences for British timber resources. He vehemently advocated an extensive reforestation program and the systematic foundation of forests and parks in England.’

Sketches of garden tools by John Evelyn illustrating more than 70 tools and pieces of equipment in Elysium Britannicum,’ including wheelbarows and water barrows, rakes of ‘severall sizes and finesses’, and a veritable array of spades, trowels, hoes, shears and pruning to to say noting of other garden essentials such as flower plots, cases and measuring equipment'(Parks & Gardens, UK).

In 1849 Melville wrote: ‘Upon sallying out this morning encountered the old fashioned pea soup London fog’.This smoke filled fog by 1890 was referred to as a pea-souper:  ‘a dense, often yellowish fog or smog, usually associated with polluted urban areas’, an analogy based on the colour and thickness of dried pea soup.

In the nineteenth century smoke abatement movements appeared. The Kyrle Society, of the 1880s, a philanthropic organization providing books, art and open spaces to the working class poor, set up its own smoke abatement committee. ‘The Kyrle Society held a Smoke Abatement Exhibition in South Kensington in 1881, attended by over 116,000 people.’

Minute book from the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, 1898. Wellcome Library reference: SA.EPU.A.1.1 Note the name Dr H A Des Voeux, secretary of the society.

However by 1898 the London air quality was so polluted that the artist Sir William Blake Richmond wrote to The Times comparing the effect of the pollution to  a total eclipse of the sun. Sir William became the Society’s president with London surgeon, Dr Harold Des Voeux, as treasurer( Kirsteen Connor,Wellcome Library).

Coincidentally as I finish this post on December 8, 2015, 63 years earlier in 1952, The Great Smog of London was suffocating Londoners. So dense the fog, that by December 7 there was ‘no sunlight and visibility was reduced to five yards in many places.’ Transportation ceased as the smog caused accidents, including ‘a collision between two trains near London Bridge’. The press claimed cattle at Smithfield had been asphyxiated. Many people died between December 4 and December 8 with deaths in London estimated at a cautious 4,000, perhaps as high as 8,000.


A London bus travelling through smog filled streets, December 6, 1952

On December 9, the smog cleared. ‘In the aftermath of this incident, the British government passed more stringent regulations on air pollution and encouraged people to stop using coal to heat their homes’.(This Day in History, Met Office).

The haze or smog shrouding Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia has passed also, but what will it take to prevent its recurrence? John Evelyn saw the light through London’s smog over three hundred and fifty four years ago. Yet his recommendations and warnings are relevant beyond London.

I wish I was writing from a time when the words haze, smaze and smog were marked by a cross in the OED indicating that they were obsolete. I wish there was no need for these words except as evidence of uncaring times when we and our politicians didn’t do enough to protest the desecration of air, forests, the species dependent on the forests, and the people shrouded by these polluted skies.

While blends have a wry humour, it’s a sad statement of the apathy our times that a new blend  pollutician from the words pollution and politician emerged in 1992 and is still applicable.

Children in central Kalimantan, Indonesia during ‘ the haze’ Photo:Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace via Guardian

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,TS Eliot written 1920

Caught in the Weft of Words


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Velasquez’s Las Hilandras, The Spinners, 1657. Only in 1948, Diego Angula claimed this painting represented Ovid’s Fable of Arachne. Helmeted Athena stands in the background while in the foreground, the contest itself between Athena, disguised as an old woman, and Arachne.

Marina Warner suggests that: one of women’s main tasks- textile making from wool to the finished cloth, is like the structure of fairy stories with its repetitions and elaborations, so that story telling is an act of spinning a yarn and weaving a tale.

Spinning and weaving is a continual thread we’ve noticed running through the Odyssey and the myths we’ve been reading. Edmunds observes that the Homeric poems ‘ portray weaving as heroic, magnificent, clever, valuable, the womanly counterpart to warfare.’  Penelope weaves by day and unweaves at night to keep the suitors at bay; Helen weaves of the Trojan war, Andromache ‘weaves flowery love charms, not knowing that Hector is dead’, Arete, as well as the goddesses Circe and Calypso, weave. In other myths we read of Ariadne’s ball of twine that allows Thesues to escape from the labyrinth; Athena weaves and beats the boastful Arachne with a shuttle then condemns her to weave for ever in her metamorphosed spidery state; the fates spin out the lives of men; Jason searches for the golden fleece and all the while a yarn is spun, a text is created, a rich lexical tapestry spread before the listeners and readers. This week we’re tangled in a web of words! These words and their ancient roots send threads out to other words, and in our telling of their stories we have woven them into the fabric of our year.

We’ve all chosen a word to pursue – to uncover the weft and warp.


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Weave  a free base element, a simple word meaning there are no other elements – no suffixes, no prefixes. A word comprised of 5 letters, 3 phones,  3 phonemes /wiːv/. The digraph <ea> represents the lengthened vowel phone/i:/. 

Phonological Investigations:  What position does the digraph <ea> occupy in the base element to represent the phoneme /i:/?  Initial, medial or final?

The digraph <ea> represents two other phonemes (see diagram). Collect words with <ea> in the base representing each phoneme below. Note the digraph position. What statements can you make based on the evidence? What qestions are raised? (Real Spelling Toolkit 3D- is essential reading here).

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<v> is never found in a final position in English; <v> plus the final non-syllabic (unpronounced) <e> is used. Send students to the texts you have in your classroom to collect evidence of this! Love, above, give, have, shove.(See Real Spelling Toolkit 1K)

The earliest attestation of weave is from the Old English period, around 900 (OED) as wefan, past tense wæf, plural wǽfon, where it carried the meaning of ‘to thread with interlacing yarn’. It had a figurative connotation of  devising, contriving, arranging (Online Etymology Dictionary). In the 14th and 15th centuries, the past participle wæf <wave> assimilated to the past participles of strong verbs whose bases had a final liquid (e.g. steal, stolen) with ‘ the o of the past participle extended to the past tense both singular and plural'(OED): <wave> became <wove>. However, the yarn does not stop here! Old English weofon derives from Proto Germanic *weban and stretches even further back to a Proto Indo European root: *webh- to weave, to move quickly.The same P.I.E. root occurs in web, weft, woof. It’s at this level that the threads of the tapestry are exposed. Pull one thread and we find more words that make up the tapestry of this family. Who would have thought that the stories of weave, wasp and weevil to be woven together?

Emil Zeck, artist of the brown vegetable weevil above, was selected in 1908 by the Government Printing Office as a Cadet Art Draftsman, and became their chief entomological (not etymological) illustrator.

Weevil:has threaded or scuttled its way from P.I.E. roots *webh-, via Proto Germanic *webilaz to emerge in the O.E. period as wifel and then evolve to the present day spelling of <weevil>. Note the similarity in the place of articulation between voiceless /f/ and voiced /v/ in the old and pesent day form of this word. Place your fingers on your larynx as we did to test this; the larynx will vibrate on the voiced /v/. Both consonant phones are ‘labio-dental fricatives ‘- the lip and teeth are involved in the articulation. Skeat suggests the weevilweave link is ‘from the filaments spun for the larva-case’ . However, in the 16th and 17th centuries some writers apparently confused the name of the weevil with that of the weasel, using wesell , weezel (OED). I can only imagine the consternation it may have caused when complaining of weezels or weasels in the flour!  Initially <weevil> referred to any beetle, but narrowed by the 15th century to refer to those in the ‘superfamily Curculionidae’.

Wasp: Proto Indo European *webh- may have led to another PIE root *wopsa– or *wospa  which evolved to  Proto-Germanic *wabis-.  Influenced by Latin vespa, the Old English word wæps, wæsp enters English. Latin vespa continues with its waspish droning in the form of a sleek and retro motor scooter, Vespa, where riders imagine themselves not wasps but an Audrey Hepburn or even a Gregory Peck.  Audrey Hepburn’s stylish dash through Rome on a vespa in her 1953 movie debut Roman Holiday, led to a sharp rise in sales- 100,000 just after the release of the film.

Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck on vespa from Wyler’s 1953 Roman Holiday.

Web: A simple word, a free base element. Spun from the same P.I.E. root, web when first attested as early as 725, referred to something woven. This word has evolved to take on new senses from 12th century cobwebs, to the membrane of folds of skin connecting the digits of an animal in 1575, to 1932 radio or tv networks to 1991 referring to the World Wide Web (OED).  Webster, Old English webbestre was female form of weaver <web+ster> as indicated by the suffix <-ster>. In Northeren Middle English the suffix applied to both sexes as men adopted trades such as weaving to indicate a ‘holder of a professional function’ (OED). Both webber and webster today survive mostly as surnames . Estelle’s web below reflects her understanding so far:


Cobweb: Spiders were once called attorcop (1000)- poison-heads. Old English attorcoppa, a compound, is formed from átor, attor, poison and the word coppa,  a derivative of cop: top, summit, round head, or even copp: cup, vessel. This was ‘in reference to the supposed venomous properties of spiders’. The Dutch word spinne-cop meant ‘spider,’ and the cobweb was cop-webbe.  The OED suggests cop was itself ‘spider’ and later misapplied to a cobweb or spider’s web in 1530.

The HOED reveals other words that were used to name the web of the spider:net (OE), web (1300) cobweb1323, lopweb1400, wevet 1499,even a caul in 1548 and a twail in 1608. The obsolete twail is apparently from French toile (d’araignée) spider’s web and Latin tēla web, cloth. (OED)

Spider: As Lea, a Swedish speaker, discovered a spider is a spinner. This was obvious to her as the word in Swedish is still spindel. She recognized <-er> as an English agent suffix ( someone or something that does something) but concluded in Present Day English <spider> is a free base element as we found no evidence of <-er> being substituted by another suffix. She found that Old English spíþra  derived from *spinþra, from spinnan: to spin and was surprised that despite Old English spiðra, it was less common then than loppe. We loved the discovery of another spider synonym, Old English gangewifre: “a weaver as he goes”. Old English lop,was attested in 888  and in 1000 lob was attested with spider (1340) gradually taking over. Both lop and lob faded from use until briefly resuscitated by Tolkein in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. (OED).

Russian illustrator, M. Belomlinskij shows Bilbo confronting spiders. Go to the wonderful artblog Fishink to read more about Mikhail Belomlinskij.

Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Won’t you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me!…

Lazy Lob and crazy Cob
are weaving webs to wind me.
I am far more sweet than other meat,
but still they cannot find me!
Here am I, naughty little fly;
you are fat and lazy.
You cannot trap me, though you try,
in your cobwebs crazy.(Tolkein, The Hobbit)

Follow the weaving and spinning threads in the student research below:

Listen to the story of fleece:

Be amazed by the span of spin:

Read the journey of  spinster <spin+ster> from one who spins to the pejorative designation of an unmarried female.

This student discusses spindles, the potential of an <-le> suffix and an intrusive <d>:

Follow the thread of stamina to standing and stamens:

Finally follow the clue, as this student has, to the heart of the labyrinth:

When we tell stories we can be accused of concocting a tissue of lies, of fabricating,  pulling the wool over one’s eyes, fleecing others, of spinning a yarn, stringing someone along. And this is where we began with Penelope’s fabrication- the waxing and waning of her weaving. Byatt regards this act as a ‘ tragic way of keeping the thread of time unwound, of keeping her marriage unchanged through the long years of the Odyssey’.The Online Etymology Dictionary also suggests how thread and weaving are woven into Penelope’s name:Greek πηνη: ‘pene ‘thread on the bobbin’, from penos ‘web’, cognate with Latin pannus:’cloth, garment’.

‘We think of our lives – and of stories – as spun threads, extended and knitted or interwoven with others into the fabric of communities, or history, or texts’ ( A.S. Byatt).

All students found something interesting in this word inquiry, gradually becoming more comfortable in dictionary delving. They understand that words evolve over time, travel, as do they as international students, and through the travelling are influenced by the places and languages encountered.

These investigations were messy. Students would come in to the class before school, after school, during lunchtime to share their discoveries. They were new to the dictionary and the enormity of the OED, many were new to the concept of etymology let alone the resources to discover this. Some became bogged down in cognates, some, including me, went off on small side-paths. However, every investigation was an opportunity to refine our understanding of morphology, etymology and phonology, for these go hand in hand and are threaded into the fabric of each word. Our tapestry of weaving words is far from complete- we have more tales to spin in our next post, more yarns to tell. Follow our threads!

The Gladness & Glamour of Red Glitter Shoes


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Phoebe’s favorite word is glissading. She loves the way it glides on the tongue. She  analyzed this word as <gliss+ade> confirming the existence of the suffix <-ade> with words such as lemonade, blockade, parade all before she turned to resources.

The Suffix <-ade>

We discovered that <-ade> is a suffix from French. It forms nouns and carries the suggestion of movement and action or groups performing an action and is derived ‘ from Latin -atus, past participle suffix of verbs of the 1st conjugation to become <-ade >in French’ (in Spanish -ado, Italian -ato) In English, we retain the Spanish form of desparado.

Detail of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate, 1487.

Of Pomegranates and Grenades – a small diversion

Perhaps the most interesting of words with the suffix <-ade> is grenade. Who would have thought the beautiful pomegranate could have been etymologically connected to a weapon of destruction? Certainly not Phoebe or me!

Ayto tells us that the first grenades were spherical and with the wick on top, the explosive device ‘bore more than a passing resemblance to pomegranates.’ Old French pome grenate or just grenate altered to grenade under the influence of granada. Pomegranate, the 14th century compound word, is etymologically ‘the many seeded apple’, <pome> being apple and <gren+ate> “having grains,” from Latin granata’, its ultimate ancestor being Latin malum granatum. As well as grenade you can see this fruity connection in garnet, and pomanders– the apple shaped balls filled with pot-pourri.

Glissading down a slippery slope

Glissade can be both a noun and a verb. As a noun: ‘a sliding ballet step’ or ‘mountaineering – an act of sliding down a snowy or icy slope in a standing or squatting position, often with the aid of an ice axe’. As a verb it is intransitive (glissaded,glissading) ‘to perform a glissade’.(Chambers Dictionary)

Phoebe discovered that the verb glissade first appeared in 1832 from French glisser “to slip, slide”.The base element in the word glissade is <gliss>. The base element is an abbreviation from glissando, the slide and flow from one note to another. Glissando was ‘borrowed’ in 1873 from Italian which was derived from French glissant. The Online Etymology Dictionary indicated the much older Proto-Germanic root *glidan “to glide” and from there we were directed on to glide which is ‘probably part of the large group of Germanic words in gl- involving notions of “smooth; shining; joyful”.

We listed  as many words we could quickly think of with the initial consonant cluster <gl>: glad, gitter, glisten, gleam, glimmer, gloaming, gleeful, glib, gloat, glitsch. After much dictionary delving, we discovered that these words share a common ancestor in the Proto Indo European root *ghel-(2) all with notions of slipperiness or shining!

The following words do not share a morphological base element but echoing through them there is a sparkle and glint, or a greenish golden glow!! Go to Websters Dictionary Appendix 1: Indo European Roots to discover more.

Glad:  From Old English glæd <glad>, <glad+ly> and <glad+ness>  shine brightly. The Old English etymon is from Proto-Germanic *glada- and derives from the PIE root of approximately 5, 500 years ago *ghel- (2). Both the OED and Online Etymology Dictionary note its current decline to a tepid state of pleasure and satisfaction, a weakening from its original sense of radiant brightness. And when considering radiant brightness and shining gladness, be dazzled by Blake’s painting below, originally called Glad Day.

William Blake’s: The Dance of Albion, 1795, also known as Albion Rose or Glad Day. Read more here. This picture was earlier known as Glad Day or Jocund Day, because Blake’s biographer Alexander Gilcrest assumed that it illustrated a passage from Act III, Scene v of Romeo and Juliet. Read more about Blake’s use of Albion here

Gilt, gild and gold too are all etymologically connected to Proto-Germanic *gulthjan itself derived from *gulthan gold from PIE root *ghel- (2) “to shine” . All derivatives refer to bright materials, yellow colors, bile, and gold. So gall from Old English galla, as in gall stones from bile secretions, too is derived from this PIE root! The echoes of yellowness permeate this quartet.

Gloaming <gloam+ing> attested since 1000 gloaming is from Old English glómung from  O.E.glóm twilight, probably from the Germanic root*glô- . Therefore, it relates to <glow>.  The etymological sense suggests the ‘glow’ of sunset or sunrise.

Glee: from Old English gliu, gliw, gleow is attested since 700 from Germanic *gliiujam. The OED tells us of the chiefly poetic use of glee in Old English and Middle English.  It denoted having fun and also referred to musical entertainment. After the 15th century, it declined in use, and in the 17th century had faded. Apparently Johnson regards it as a comic word , ‘not now used except in ludicrous writing, or with some mixture of irony and contempt.‘ This itself is ironic as on several occasions Boswell uses the term to describe Johnson’s reaction on seeing him! ‘Johnson welcomed my return with more than ordinary glee’  ( The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell Vol2.,1784).

The Dr. was in high glee at Auchinleck. He and I breakfasted one day with the Rev. Mr. George Reid, who is now above eighty, yet is quite entire in the faculties of his mind. You can figure the scenes which the Dr. & I would have at Auchinleck. We returned to Edinburgh together. As encouragement for us it must be remarked that he is now in better health and spirits than he ever was in his life, & is never afflicted with melancholy. (See the letter in entirety here.)

Inexplicably glee rises like a phoenix from the ashes to take on new life, towards the end of the 18th century.

Glib: The adjective glib is smooth and slippery. Note the connection to German glibberig:slimy. The word is connected to the obsolete glibber and the wonderful glibbery of 1601 with its meaning of ‘slippery; shifty, untrustworthy’ (O.E.D.) Revive this word! I can immediately think of current political situations where this term can be put to immediate work!

Gloat attested in 1570s carried a meaning of furtive looking perhaps from Old Norse glotta to ‘grin scornfully and show the teeth’. It took until 1868 to take on the sense of  onlooking with ‘malicious pleasure’ or ‘malignant avaricious pleasure’, ‘to dwell on with fierce unholy joy’, as noted in sense 3 of the OED. Trace the links with glower, and glow to P.I.E. *ghel-(2) to shine.

Glitter  ( and aren’t we all better off for a little bit of glitter?) is from Germanic *glit denoting shining, bright which developed from P.I.E. *ghel-(2) to shine. And of course glitterati attested since 1956, a jocular blend of literati and glitter to refer to the famous, rich and glamorous.

Glitch: The OED is hesitant about the origins of this word, stating it is slang and ‘etymology unknown’ whilst Online Etymology Dictionary calls this American English and suggests an attestation of 1959 from Yiddish glitsh “a slip,” from glitshn “to slip,” from German glitschen, it is related to German gleiten “to glide” and all the way back to PIE *ghel-. It began as technical jargon, then broadened into more common usage around 1962 influenced by the US space programme.

Glint from Scottish is rather rare in the 15th century – the OED states the attestation is ‘not secure’, but rather more common in the 19th century , while glinter, is rare but morphologically related to glint from PIE *ghel-(2) to shine.

Although of obscure origins and now no longer gleaming in the world of words, we rather liked the obsolete glaver of 1380 meaning ‘to flatter’. It is perhaps linked to the British north country adjective glave meaning ‘smooth’ and synonymous with glother, attested in 1400  meaning ‘to flatter and cajole’.

Glimpse, glimmer and gleam came from the same *Germanic root *glaim-,*glim-.

Glimmer as a noun from 1616 denotes:’ A feeble or wavering light; a tremulous play of reflected light, a sheen, shimmer‘ but  is older as a verb (1400) and from Old English. Glimmer <glim+er>  has a frequentitive <-er> suffix suggesting flickering and repetition. The free base glim with its ‘obscure history’ is now obsolete, as is glimble,1616 . However, not so glime, a noun, denoting a ‘side look or glance’. Its older verbal sense, 1483, of ‘squinting’ or ‘looking askance’ or ‘shyly glancing’ is still a living word – a glimmer in the thesaurus where also the wonderful 1699 adjective glimflashy with its denotation of anger, glowers!

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Glamour: According to the OED, glamour as a noun was originally Scots, ‘introduced into the literary language by Scott’. It is a ‘corrupt form of grammar’. Glamour whispers of ‘enchantment and spells’,  and is connected surprisingly to grammar.

And to end with glamour – appropriate after so much sparkle and glitter – behold the intrepid glissader with the glamorous name Mrs Aubrey Le Blond, author of True Tales of Mountain Adventure For Non Climbers Young and Old, published 1903.

Note the photo from Mrs Aubrey Le Blond’s book- a ‘seated glissade’.

A Warning:

Below, the famed ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz and despite the glamorous glitter and gleam, these shoes should NEVER be worn glissading down a mountain – no matter how much you want to get home!

Of Word Frolics and Word Collectors


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Image from British Library archives of the quotation slips for the O.E.D. ‘The dictionary would include lost and outmoded words as well as the newest fashionable or technical terms; it would trace the history (or etymology) of every word, showing the earliest known usage of each word, and would map how the word had shifted in meaning over time; … Fifty years later the first version of the dictionary – 178 miles of type – was published.'(British Library)

Farah, Felix and Olivia – all like words. As in other years, this year’s seventh graders read Robert Pirosh’s 1934 letter, a word-witty application for a position as a screen writer. We too revelled, wallowed in an avalanche of words – short and taut to long and sinuous. We rolled these words around in our mouths and laughed. Students asked questions about words, plunged into the OED and into the Historical Thesaurus. This was an exuberant, wordy romp and when the students wrote their versions modelled on Pirosh’s letter, the words bore an uncanny resemblance to their personality!

I like words. I like old, dusty, book-like words such as scroll, tome, volume and novella. I like bloody, violent, angry words such as puncture, impale, transpierce and skewer. I like heroic, brave, idol-like words such as victor, champion, lionheart and protagonist. I like monstrous, huge, scary words such as towering, beastly, savage and vicious. I like funny, Australian, slang words such as lollies, ambo, barbie and fair-dinkum. I like words and my favourite word is lollies.(Felix)

‘I like zipping, zapping, zesty words, such as buzz, bolt, whizz, and dart. I like sharp, pointy, spiky words such as pierce, thin, prickle, and pinning. I like hollow, silent, hidden words such as ulterior, muffled, esoteric,and  vaporous. I like thin, light, delicate words such as feathery, gossamer, wispy, and whisper. I like soft, stuffy, pillowy words such as oomph, ploof, fluff, and poof.’(Farah)

I like words. I like merciful, tender words such as pale, mellow, fleecy, delicate, & cashmere. I like peaceful, serene words such as symphony, quiescent, lullaby, & lithe. I like boisterous, harsh, bold words such as cacophonous, garish, bilious & curmudgeonly. I like rash, reckless, preposterous words such as bumfuzzle, argle-bargle, canoodle & bibliophobia.I like quiet, warm, tranquil words such as peppermint, cloud, feathery, and luminesce.I like obscure, kinky, baffling words such as discombobulate, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,nelipot, & bizarro. (Olivia)

So from the gathering of many words, to the narrowing down and exploration of a particular favorite. Students hypothesized about the morphemes in one word confirming hypotheses and gathered data for each written element. Some of their hypotheses could not be sustained, some students became waylaid by syllables. Syllables do not contain meaning, are not morphemes. Hypothesizing first promotes consideration and conjecture, slows down the rush to “search internet” as if there’s a right answer lurking out there just waiting to be googled. Supporting hypotheses with evidence and forming a question to pursue using resources, is a vital step in the process of verifying morphemes and uncovering a root. As students discovered in this process, all words tell a story. 

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 We could have lined up alphabetically, but far more interesting was to line up from the oldest word in the group to the most recent to enter English. Students are beginning to understand that words enter English in different times from different places. Examine the words, excavate the roots and you get a glimpse into another time. ‘Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.'( V. Woolf) However,some words fade from everyday usage, ‘out and about’ only occasionally, then rarely until they slip away altogether, their footprints, as we discovered, quietly recorded in the OED. 

From words to terms

Since day one of school students have been immersed in a sea of orthographic terms. How many students are drowning not waving? How many seem comfortable and show an understanding of the terminology? We passed out terms such as base, affix, root, free, bound, morpheme, elements, connecting vowel letter

Students were asked to work in pairs to:

  •  organize the terms indicating how they the relate to one another
  • annotate each term
  • provide examples of each term where possible.

What do students understand? What needs further clarification? This open-ended task brought to the surface many questions. These concepts will continue to be revised and deepened with every investigation into a word. See below:


Watch one group eloquently sum up their understanding so far:

Students fossick in the OED blithely unaware of the how this living document came to be, unaware of the scholarship, enthusiasm of volunteers and the dedicated work of the chief editor James Murray, Scottish school teacher. Initially an anticipated 10 year, four volume work but it took 70 years and 10 volumes to produce the first edition in 1928 with its impressive collection of 15,487 pages that define 414,825 words! (James Murray)

Murray’s 11 children helped to sort the three and half million quotation slips. This was how they earned pocket money! James Murray died in 1915 before the dictionary was completed. He reached the letter ‘t’ and then tragically terminated in Oxford on 26 July 1915 from heart failure … following a year of ill health which culminated in a bout of pleurisy, one of many such illnesses caused by working in his cold, damp scriptorium. Sheer determination had earlier that month driven this ill, old man of seventy-eight to complete a double section of the dictionary, covering entries in the range ‘Trink’ to ‘Turndown’, on schedule.’ (R.W.Burchfield) 

This year, in the centenary of his death, Oxfordwords blog are producing a series of articles that acknowledge his contribution.

Of course it was not Murray’s work alone that created the dictionary. Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorn:A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words  makes famous the contributions of Dr W.C. Minor, murderer and Broadmoor inmate who contributed between 5,000 and 8,000 quotations according to the 1888 preface,’  and who continued to send in ‘batches’ up to 1902  stopping then due  to ill health’. Of the 2,000 contributors helping, I wonder about ‘Thos. Austin’, who provided 165,000 quotations, Murray’s son Harold who contributed 27,00 slips, along with his wife Ada who provided between 2,000 and 5,000 slips. I’d like to know more about the Thompson sisters (Edith and Elizabeth) who were ‘notably productive’ (15,000 slips) continuing to ‘help with the Dictionary one way or another (e.g. by proof-reading, commenting on meanings etc.) up to their deaths in 1929’. (Examining the OED).

So this frolic in words has resulted in:

  •  greater precision when discussing a word’s structure
  • an awareness of etymology and how to use and question resources to find this – the formidable O.E.D, and the equally remarkable Online Etymology Dictionary.

We are learning how to find the stories behind words, their families, their journeys. Stay tuned for more.

I can’t help wondering about this photo of Murray taken on a North Wales beach during a family holiday. One wonders whether the philologist himself built the sand-monster as a respite from his dictionary work- a mad moment of frivolity after being dominated by order and categorisation! Perhaps a spot of madness was necessary to take on the editorship of this grand Victorian project combined with a willingness to work on words 80 or 90 hours a week.

And grade seven says thankyou Dr Murray, readers, all ensuing editors and lexicographers. We love words!











Passion, Scandal and the Humble Sandwich


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We are lucky to have a French owned bakery nearby and on a Sunday morning, the dilemma becomes whether to buy croissants, quiche  or bread.  It was when I was trying to decide between a loaf of provencal or sourdough that I was struck by the sign above the bread: sandwitch white, sandwitch wholemeal.


Mistakes are not deliberate, not done to annoy, rather they are a window into the understanding of the writer. Presumably none in the shop have spotted the miscue – else why leave it there? Perhaps on the other hand this miscue has been pointed out many times, but I wonder what has been said. What explanation has been offered? For here’s the good news that’s so often denied to students or exaggerated and distorted in emails about the whackiness of English spelling: English orthography is a highly coherent, highly regular system for native speakers.  This is not to say that this miscue could not have been made by a native speaker. Rather, the writer of the sign has perhaps recognized a pattern concerning the phoneme /tʃ/. However, there is more to this word than meets the eye –  or more accurately  more to this word than meets the ear! Read on dear reader, and we will hear of toponyms, eponyms, gambling, high passion, murder and even an elephant!

So where to begin with a student  or writer perhaps trained to only ever consider what is heard as the way to construct a word?

Begin with compounds

In the above representation of *sandwitch, there is an implication that it is a compound word. (In fact it is a compound, but not a compound of the sort suggested by *sandwitch).  If the bakery was selling witches made of sand (and why would they?) then this would be a valid construction- a compound formed from two nouns <sand+witch>.

Stan Carey notes a common pattern in English compounds: ‘… the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.’  Yet this construction <*sand+witch> makes very little sense in the context of a bakery. The sandwich that we consume is not a compounded from the free base element witch. One rather hopes not a grain of sand is in sight, nor put together by magic from witches!

Yet surprisingly sandwich is a compound <sand+wich>. In order to understand this we must consider the place and the person who had an impact on this word.

There is a place called Sandwich:

Toponyms refer to place names- from Greek roots τόπος: topos: place and Greek ὀνύματ- , ὄνυμα onymat-, onyma: name. Toponyms form a surprisingly large group of common words in English – from food: hamburger, cheddar, champagne to clothes: jeans, bikini, to the names of dogs Alsatian and spaniel. And that’s merely the tip of a highly productive word forming process.

Sandwich is located in Kent. Morphologically it is constructed from two base elements <sand +wich>. Both elements are free.

Wich/wyche and wick

The O.E.D. notes that wich is a differentiated variant of wick – an abode, or dwelling place.’The original meaning may have been the group of buildings connected with a salt-pit. The chief names of salt-making towns in which the word occurs are Droitwich (formerly Wich) in Worcestershire, Middlewich, Nantwich, and Northwich in Cheshire.’  This Old English word was an early borrowing of Latin vicus, meaning “place”, and by the 11th century was used in place names associated with salt production  including Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich and Leftwich (a small village south of Northwich), and Droitwich in Worcestershire. ‘Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich and Droitwich were noted in the Domesday Book, “an indication of the significance of the salt-working towns in the economy of the region, and indeed of the country”. Sandwich thus has a denotation of a trading centre on sand.

Sandwich was one of the cinque ports – ports established in 1155 by Royal Charter whereby ships would be ready for use as needed by the Crown. In return they were exempt from:

“tax and tallage, right of soc and sac, tol and team,blodwit (the right to punish shedders of blood) and fledwit (the right to punish those who were seized in an attempt to escape from justice), pillory and and tumbril, infangentheof and outfangentheof, mundbryce( the breaking into or violation of a man’s mund or property in order to errect banks or dikes as defence against the sea), waifs and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan.”

(Exemption from tax and tolls; self-government; permission to levy tolls, punish those who shed blood or flee justice, punish minor offences, detain and execute criminals both inside and outside the port’s jurisdiction, and punish breaches of the peace; and possession of lost goods that remain unclaimed after a year, goods thrown overboard, and floating wreckage.)(Wikipedia)

Sandwich is now 3 km (1.9 mi) from the sea and no longer a port.

Sandwich and elephants

Despite the rise and decline of cinque ports, raids from the Danes and French, plagues, the shifting sands and changing coastline, a curious moment in the history of the Port of Sandwich stands out.  It was here where a captive elephant landed in 1255.

The elephant, a gift from France’s King Louis IX, was to be delivered to the English monarch Henry III and to be installed in his menagerie at the Tower of London. As the elephant was given in France, it became the troublesome duty of English officials to transport the creature across the Channel. ‘ The rolls show that the sheriff of Kent claimed £6 17s. 5d. for the transportation of the elephant. More than £22 was spent by the sheriff of London on constructing the special accommodation for the elephant at the Tower and the bill for the upkeep of the animal and its keeper for the nine months from December 1255 to September 1256 came to £24 14s. 3½d.’ (Parker Library).

This elephant image by Mathew Paris is from the Chronica Maiora,St Albans, c.1250) and includes of the figure of Henry de Flor’, the animal’s ‘magister bestie’ (keeper). Paris included the elephant’s keeper to show the animal’s size. (Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

The journey through Kent was unremarkable, at least in so far as an elephant in medieval England can be, until a bull in a nearby field launched an attack on the large lumbering royal gift. Apparently the elephant tossed the attacking bull into the air killing it instantly!  ‘Matthew Paris’s bestiary, explains that while in residence at the Tower of London, the elephant dined on prime cuts of beef and expensive red wine.’ Sadly, the elephant died in 1257, merely two years after its installation at the Tower of London menagerie, a death brought on from drinking too much wine. The elephant was buried in the Tower Bailey. Later, on orders from the king, the bones were rather mysteriously exhumed and instructed to be given ‘to the sacristan of Westminster Abbey ‘for doing with them what the king had instructed him’. Read more here.

What’s in a Name?

Eponyms (‘ ἐπώνυμος (a.) given as a name, (b.) giving one’s name to a thing or person from Greek ἐπί : epi :upon + ὄνομα: onoma: name’). Eponyms often commemorate the inventor and so it is with the sandwich. Earl of Sandwich is the 17th century title for the peerage of England and associated with Sandwich in Kent. It was created in 1660 for Admiral Sir Edward Montagu.

It’s been popular etymologically to ascribe the creation of the edible sandwich to John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792). In response to his desire to remain seated at the gambling table without the inconvenient distraction of pausing to eat, the tale claims he ordered meat to be put between slices of bread. A simple requirement, done throughout the ages no doubt – consider the Hilel sandwich. However, it is the name Sandwich forever attached to this bready snack, due to French writer Pierre -Jean Grosley, who in his observations of English life ‘Londres’ (translated  to A Tour to London published in 1772) noted:

‘A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a piece of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London; it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.’ (History of the sandwich)

Edward Gibbon , historian and Member of Parliament, wrote in a diary entry in 1762, ‘I dined at the Cocoa Tree… That respectable body..affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty..of the first men in the kingdom,..supping at little tables..upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich’.(O.E.D.)

So who was this namesake of the sandwich?

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792) painted by Thomas Gainsborough, in 1780. One wonders if Gainsborough was offered a light refreshment of tea and sandwiches whilst painting the Earl.

Lord Montague married Dorothy Fane and with her had a son John, Viscount Hinchingbrooke (1743 – 1814), who later succeeded as the 5th Earl. However, rather than a state of happiness and continued devotion, Dorothy became ill and ultimately ‘mad’. It was at this time that the Earl of Sandwich began an affair with an opera singer Martha Ray. Ray and the Earl had at least five and perhaps as many as nine children.

However, bliss and filial happiness eluded the Earl. In April 1779, Martha Ray was murdered in the foyer of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden by a jealous suitor, James Hackman, Rector of Wiveton. Sandwich never recovered from his grief. The first reports offered a heart wrenching account where all ‘players’ appeared as victims:—’Sandwich, Ray and Hackman—were portrayed as victims. Sandwich was a reformed rake deprived of the woman he loved, Ray was murdered at the hands of a young man who would not take no for an answer, and Hackman was an upstanding young man driven to a mad act by the power of love’ (Brewer). Read The Fatal Triangle and more here.

Retiring in 1782 and regardless of the number of posts the 4th Earl of Sandwich held during his career, it was his incompetence and corruption that was the focus of his political opponents. Many suggested that his epitaph should read: “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.” (Wikipedia)

Sandwich is also remembered in place names. The Earl of Sandwich was a great supporter of Captain James Cook and in appreciation, Cook named the Sandwich Islands after him, as well as Montague Island off the south east coast of Australia, the South Sandwich Islands in the Southern Atlantic Ocean and Montague Island in the Gulf of Alaska. However, his name today on everybody’s lips is in the form of food. Sandwiches are portable, require no cutlery and can be transported easily, eaten anywhere.

Even Jane Austen consumed sandwiches! 1800 J. Austen Let. 25 Oct. (1995) 49 At Oakley Hall we did a great deal—eat some sandwiches all over mustard [etc.]. (O.E.D.)



There are so many ways to pursue this miscue*sandwitch in the classroom. Miscues are interesting and rarely just what one learner, the author of the miscue, needs to know. A few students in my class undoubtedly would have stumbled in the same manner as the sign painter of the bakery. However all students would benefit from the following inquiries.

The homophones <which> and <witch>. Why does one have a digraph and the other a trigraph? (Real Spelling Tool Box 2, Kit 2B)

<ch> <tch>: which grapheme and under what circumstances? (Real Spelling, Kit 2B)

<-s> or <-es> which plural suffix, when? (Real Spelling Tool Box 2, Kit 1 B)

Collect toponyms and tell the story of one.

Collect eponyms and tell the tale of one.

Collect compounds and tell the story of one explaining the graphemes, morphemes and etymology.(Real Spelling Tool Box 2, Kit 1H)

The inquiries above give a glimpse into the possibilities of spelling, the scientific pursuit of orthography. Spelling (word inquiry) is cognitive. It is more than lists of words to be mastered. Spelling is about the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology. There is no word better than another to study, for in examining one word, you discover principles and patterns that apply to thousands. As I experienced in this bready exploration triggered by a miscue, all words tell a story and in uncovering the tale you may find places you never knew existed, a time when an elephant lumbered through Kent to London, a hungry but gambling obsessed Earl, love, murder and food. For when we examine a word, we are also lucky to catch a glimpse of a time, place and the lives of people.

Go beyond labelling words as right or wrong- celebrate the opportunity of a miscue. Word inquiry deepens our understanding of what it is to be human. Ask questions about the structure of words, the choice of graphemes and dig to the roots.  Inevitably you’ll find a delicious tale, or else I’ll eat my words!





An Outpouring of Emotion


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David Des Granges The Saltonstall Family c.1636–7. According to notes from the Tate: ‘The painting is thought to show Sir Richard Saltonstall (1595-1650) of Chipping Warden, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, with his family. Read more notes from the Tate.

It seems apt after the last post concerning the word peace and related pacifist to highlight the enthusiasm of my grade 7 class for the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen’s writing highlights the horror and despair of war in the trenches.

Poetry by heart

Students learned by heart one of Owen’s poems, an art faded from fashion in the classroom these days. You’ll note, discerning reader, that I did not say memorize or rote learn. I really hoped students would be caught in the web of words, to feel and be aware of the emotion or atmosphere built by the poet. I wanted them to go beyond a ‘da-dum, da-dum’ monotonous reading, go beyond rote memorization, rather take their poem to heart.

We muttered the poems a lot. Students carried copies of the poem in their pockets. They said them in the shower, while waiting for the bus, on the bus and on one occasion on the hockey field! We watched documentaries, examined photos and listened to various actors’ interpretation of these poems. We talked about the poems with one another, collected images and lines we liked and reshaped them into our own ‘found poetry’. Somehow what the students had thought to be a torture – learn a poem by heart- actually became a pleasure. It did seep deeply into their being:

‘... I don’t have the greatest memory but visualizing and drawing a picture in my mind helped a lot. But then I realized that picturing the poem actually helped me dig deeper and allowed me to connect with the words internally. Taking the words and turning it to a story in my mind made me feel like I was there to witness the destruction. I ‘glided’ around my room while reciting the poem to my brother, waving my arms in the air as if I were giving a speech…. when I first got the hang of all the verses, I began reciting the poem monotonously and later began to develop the feelings. Slowly I began to work some pauses in the poem. I believe that listening to music and singing does help with knowing when to pause and how to build tension.‘(Amanda on learning Anthem for Doomed Youth)

I would move and recite it over and over. I also said it in the bus much to the annoyance of the person in front of me (her name was Ann). For some of the lines I see pictures such as the line, ‘Until this morning and this snow’, I picture the winter morning with a corpse on the ground. My favourite line is: ‘Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.’ I think it’s because it is different from the other lines because it is a bit hard to say. I thought that the whole poem represented hopelessness, from the friend who watched his friend die and being able not to do anything about it and hopelessness from preventing the slaughtering of men (like cattle) in the war.’ (Ha An on Futility)

‘I used multiple strategies to learn this poem, Futility. One of them was to recite it on the bus, and just to think about it when I’m doing random things. One of my theories is that it enters my temporal lobe to store it for long-memory – and not let it slip into the subconscious so it is not lost. I brought emotion to this poem by pausing, changing pace to indicate panic or calm, changing pitch and volume to indicate emphasis and mood. Learning this poem by heart helped me to understand what Wilfred Owen was trying to convey and certainly to understand the mood more. I have donated hundreds or thousands of neurons in my brain to Wilfred Owen’s poems, or rather meaning I have gained the ability to understand loss on a mass scale, and the effect it has on those back home.'(Josh)


Inevitably we examined the word futility, the title of one of Owen’s poems. Establishing the morphemes was at this stage of the year relatively straightforward with two hypothesises <fute+ile+ity> and <futile+ity>. We confirmed the suffix’-ile’ by the words: senile, virile, ductile, fragile. Both fragile and ductile helped us to see that this indeed was a suffix. We understood that the ‘-ile’ in fragile could be substituted by ‘-ment’ and that in ductile the -ile could be removed to produce a free base element ‘duct ‘. We knew that the final, non-syllabic ‘e’ in our hypothesized base ‘fute’ is removed by the vowel suffix ‘-ile’.

Futile, we discovered entered English in 1575 although it is not certain whether this was via Middle French or a directly from Latin futilis which meant ‘vain, worthless, useless’, a figurative sense of ‘pouring out easily, easily poured’. Futility took a little longer to be used in writing – attested in 1623, just six years before the painting above. Latin fūtilis according to the O.E.D. meant ”that easily pours out, leaky’. This Latin etymon came from the Latin infinitve fundĕre to pour out. And this is where the rather small ‘fute’ family becomes interesting.

For a while we were convinced that words such as refute, future, confute were relatives but no, merely a superficial resemblance of similar letters in the same order as our base, but definitely not related.This is apparent when you consider meaning. In the words above there is no underlying sense of outpouring, of worthlessness. Refute and confute have derived from a Latin root futare meaning to beat and future ‘from Latin futurus “going to be, yet to be,” as a noun, “the future,” ‘irregular suppletive future participle of esse “to be”‘.  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Meet the family

Below is the rather small ‘fute’ family. You’ll notice as we did that ‘-ile’ occurs in all the related words. Should we then analyze it as such?  Is it better to keep it as the stem knowing it has derived from the Latin suffix ‘ -ilis and -īlis, forming adjectives, sometimes also substantives, as in fossilis fossil, civīlis civil; agilis agile, juvenīlis juvenile.‘ (O.E.D.) Substantives? Swimming out of my depth here! ‘Of a word: denoting a substance; designating a person, place, or thing. Chiefly nouns.’  (Thankyou O.E.D.)

We recognized it would not be ‘wrong’ to analyze the word futile as ‘futile’ , a free base, as the others in the immediate family build on this stem. However, we are now prepared with the analysis of  ‘fute’ as a bound base element, for any new word to English that sheds the ‘-ile’ suffix! Perhaps an action will one day be regarded as futous.

I enjoyed the discovery of the obsolete or rare futilitous as used in 1765 by  Lawrence Sterne in the hilarious Life of Tristram Shandy VIII. xiii. 36   ‘Love of the most Agitating Bewitching..Futilitous..of all human passions.‘  While futilitous might have faded from the English lexicon, I see a small gap where perhaps futous may creep in!

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However, this is not the family in its entirety. Regard the profusion of relatives below.Note the pouring , casting, scattering sense inherent in all members of the family.

IMG_4630 The family ‘fute’ belongs to a wider family from Latin fundĕre-fusus: to pour, cast metals, scatter, rout. The Latin infinitive fundĕre and the fourth principal part fusus, alert us to the possibility of a twin base element as in confound~confusion. So ‘fute’, ‘found’,’fuse’ ‘fund’,’font’,’fond’ and ‘funnel’ are the bases derived from this root. All the words above, as the individuals within any family, carry their own stories.

Refusenik is perhaps the newest to the family from Russian otkaznik , a Jew who was refused permission to emigrate, particularly to Isreal (1970 or earlier), from otkazat′ to refuse (Old Russian ot″kazati ) (O.E.D.). The Russian has been ‘partially translated’ (Online Etymology Dictionary) so that the verb ‘otkazat′ is replaced by the English refuse. It has now broadened to any person who refuses to do something, especially as a form of protest.

Examining the individual is interesting, but when the whole family is assembled and viewed together in a group shot or portrait, you glean greater insight and can discern the family traits. The Saltonstall family above is interesting, two children, a baby likely to a second wife, all while acknowledging the first wife who is perhaps represented dead but approving in the bed. I am intrigued by the way the past is recognized and connects in the present in this portrait. This family portrait was painted around the same time as the word futility had first been attested in England, a mere twelve years later.  Would the young Saltonstall children or their parents have used the word futility? Would the first wife have thought futile this display of her presence, recumbent in bed, appearing to give her benign blessing to the continuance of family?

Below student’s poetry inspired by Wilfred Owen and their videos using images of World War One.

You hear them whispering,

Wailing in their dreams:

Drowning, choking,

In a green sea,

Caught up in their vile sleep.

Woken by their writhing,

Fumbling for their masks,

Before they realize they are not drowning

In the thick green light.

They are haunted by their dreams,

Until those dreams become reality.

And through the misty panes

They see their friends dying as cattle.

And in this moment,

When they realize that they will never find glory,

It is with a hanging face

that they limp to safety.

But now,

Through death’s monstrous anger

At escaping her once more,

They run into enemy fire

And overcome by fatigue

They say their final goodbyes. 


 ‘Poetry, crucially, is an acoustic form. It’s emotional noise. That is why it’s often able to move us before we completely understand it. Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads.’ (Andrew Motion, read his full text here )