The Stickiness of Peace


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Books can be a wonderful catalyst for word inquiry and through the inquiry, the text is understood even more deeply.

Christmas Eve in the trenches of France,
the guns were quiet.
The dead lay still in No Man’s Land –
Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank . . .
The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.

So opens Carol Anne Duffy’s  poem The Christmas Truce, illustrated by Dave Roberts. Duffy’s text was used in our recent teacher workshop and with my grade 7 students. Read the poem here.

As we read this text, we wondered what it takes to create and maintain peace.  What does the word <peace> mean? How is it built? What are the relatives? What is the origin?

Many students immediately recognised that <peace> and <piece> were homophones and as such had very different meanings as they came from different roots.


Working understandings of the word peace.

Students commented that peace leads to harmony, commented on the fine line between peace and war and noted once that line is crossed the difficulties in restoring the balance. Another said peace involves compromise, others that acceptance and understanding are key ingredients along with equality, unity and friendship. Some stated that peace meant agreement and could not occur without order. Others argued that peace must occur first for order to eventuate. As well as external peace, one student observed that peace was the sense of calm and quiet within. This discussion, prior to examining any references, allows for a nuanced understanding of the various senses and helps us when exploring the etymology to see meaning changes.

Which words are related morphologically to peace, which etymologically? Are there any that are not related?

Find  the words that are morphologically related and etymologically related.

Watch below as students share their hypotheses regarding the relationships of the words above. The discussion before leaping to resources helps students look carefully at the words, hypothesize base elements, discuss connections of meaning.

Here’s what we discovered after much discussion and dictionary-delving.

Peace is a free base element. It was quickly apparent that all the words in the centre square shared this base:  <peace+ful+ly>  <un+peace+ful+ly> and the compound word <peace+keep+er>.

Peace entered English in the 12th century from Anglo-French, first attested in The Peterborough Chronicle, the earliest text used to show Middle English rather than Old English. It meant ‘Freedom from civil unrest or disorder; public order and security’.We wondered how his concept was expressed before this and discovered the Old English words frið frithgriþ: grith, were used as well as O.E. sibb, meaning peace, amity and accord (H.T.E.): ‘ It’s meaning has expanded over time:

  • In 1225:  ‘Freedom from quarrels or dissension between individuals or ‘between an individual and God; a state of friendliness; amity, concord.’
  • In 1230: ‘Freedom from external disturbance, interference, or perturbation, esp. as a condition of an individual.’
  • In 1250 : ‘Absence of noise, movement, or activity; stillness, quiet.’
  • In 1300 : a. Freedom from, absence of, or cessation of war or hostilities; the condition or state of a nation or community in which it is not at war with another; peacetime.

In early Middle English <peace> was written pies and in ME pais. The final <s> was an unvoiced final consonant, later represented by <ce> .(OED). Note the role of the final non syllabic <e> ( See Real Spelling ) without which the <c> would not represent the phone /s/. (See Real Spelling 1F). We noted the digraph <ea> and briefly considered its versatility: /i:/, /eɪ/,  /ɛ/.

Peace as we discovered has in its Latin roots the notion of ‘sticking and fastening’ in order to achieve stability coming from Latin pacem~pax. We wondered whether this root, containing <a> influenced the use of the <ea> digraph in the orthographic representation of /i:/.

The O.E.D. notes that Latin pac – pāx meant ‘peace, order, security, amity, concord, tranquillity, calm, stillness, pact or settlement, peace personified, goddess of peace Pax, also the kiss of peace (3rd cent.), the enforcement of public order (6th cent.), protection guaranteed by the monarch to certain people (9th cent.). The OED states the Latin stem pāc–  has a ‘parallel form of pāg- , stem of pāgina also pag- , stem of Latin pangere: to fix fasten’.

In our dictionary delving we discovered the Latin nouns pacem- pax: peace; Latin palus – a stake or wooden post, and verbs pangere – pactus to stick,settle, drive in, insert;  pacere to agree, to make fast, to make firm, pacare- pactus: to please to satisfy, paciscere-pactus: to agree, bargain, negotiate; and pacificare- pacificatus to pacify, appease, grant peace, make peace. All can be traced back to the Proto Indo European root *pag- /* pak- which meant to fasten. From these Latin etymons and ancient roots  we have the English words pact, pale, pacify,pay, appease, page and pagan. Highlights for us were the stories behind:

Pact: from Latin pactum, pactus, the past participle of paciscere to arrange by negotiation, agree from Latin pangere – pactus to fix, fasten and from the Proto Indo European root *pag- /*pak- “fix, join together, unite, make firm.

Pale: not , as many thought, white and therefore linked to the symbol for peace or surrender! Pale is a homophone pale-pail. It is also a homonym, therefore two different roots and entirely different meanings. The pale connected with peace entered English from ‘Anglo-Norman and Middle French pal (French pal ) stake’. (O.E.D.) Initially in the 13th century, when it entered English from Anglo-French, it meant ‘stake, pole, stake for vines’ (Online Etymology Dictionary).This in turn derives from Latin palus a stake, ‘a wooden post used by Roman soldiers to represent an opponent during fighting practice’ which in turn is ‘from an extended form of the base of Latin pacere to agree, to make firm, to fasten'(O.E.D.). In 1384 pale also meant a boundary such as: ‘ a wooden fence made of stakes driven into the ground,’ then to ‘a limit, a boundary; a restriction; a defence, a safeguard.Often in to break (also leap) the pale which meant ‘to go beyond accepted bounds; to transgress’ as in the expression ‘beyond the pale’. We also discovered ‘Pale of Settlement [after Russian čerta osedlosti: ‘boundary of settlement’]. This was ‘a set of specified provinces and districts within which Jews in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland were required to reside between 1791 and 1917.’ (O.E.D.)

When constructing the matrix below, we also discovered the obsolete word ‘palis’ meaning ‘a fence of pales; a wooden palisade or paling’. We felt justified then in adding <-is> as a suffix in our matrix. We also made the surprising discovery of palette and pallet. Could there also be a bound base <pal> which would explain the doubling of <l> in pallet? Prepare to be further astonished by pole and travail!

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Pay entered English in the 12th century via Anglo-French paier, paer which in turn derives fromLatin pacare to pacify (Durkin). Etymologically ‘pay’ suggests to quieten someone down, to appease by ‘giving money that is owed.’ Today the quietening down is not the primary sense, instead the idea of money dominates the meaning.

Pagan: Did you know that pagan too is connected to sticking and pales? Ayto tells us that Latin pagus meant ‘something stuck in the ground as a landmark’. Latin paganus, referred to a country area, village or rustic in the sense of a civilian. A civilian then was one who was not mīlēs, a soldier in the sense of soldier of God. Another suggestion proffered by the O.E.D. is that Latin pāgānus is ‘of the country, rustic’ reflected the fact that the older forms of worship remained in the rural villages while Christianity was accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire. The familiar sense of ‘pagan’ as ‘heathen’ occurred from ‘an interpretation of paganus as denoting a person who was outside a particular group or community, hence ‘not of the city’ or ‘rural’. Read about the Old English synonym hæðen: heathen here.

Key Understandings:

  • Words are related if they share a base element and therefore a root- same family related morphologically and etymologically
  • A root can also produce more than one base element –  so words can be related etymologically but not morphologically.

And we return to the Christmas truce or truces, not as yet peace, rather moments of an informal cease-fire.

We see British riflemen Andrew and Grigg (center) during the Christmas Truce with Saxons of the 104th and 106th Regiments of the Imperial German Army.

While not official, over 100,000 British and German troops were involved in some sort of ceasefire on the Western Front. The first truce on Christmas Eve began in the Ypres region, when German troops placed candles and Christmas trees on their trenches and sang Christmas carols .

In 1915 truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914, due to orders from both sides prohibiting fraternization. After the battles of the Somme and Verdun, and poison gas, the idea of truces disappeared.

“There I found an extraordinary state of affairs – this am. A German shouted out that they wanted a day’s truce & would one come out if he did; so very cautiously one of our men lifted himself above the parapet & saw a German doing the same.” See Guardian: General Walter Congreve VC letter to his wife about the 1914 Christmas Day truce in the trenches.

Read the informative Christmas Truce on Mike Dash’s blog:A Blast from the Past and to better understand the word truce, watch as we did Gina Cook’s brilliant uncovering of the root and its etymological relatives in The True Story of ‘True’.






Oh, Oh, Oh It’s a Lovely War


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Look at the words below. What period of time do these words suggest?

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We tend to think only of objects as artifacts – Anglo Saxon helmets, swords, coins, parchments, paintings, photographs, but so it is with words. More ephemeral, gaining a solidity only when written, individual words, like their solid three dimensional counterparts offer a window into the world to reveal the past, a people and place.

“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 ….Words live in the mind…variously and strangely.” ~Virginia Woolf.

All words have stories of their past, of their journey to the English of the present day. None of the words above or below are linked etymologically or morphologically. However, they are linked by time. Would you adjust your time estimation if these words below are included with those above?

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The challenge of two 45 minute periods to share with teachers the hidden delights of words! The words above were how my friend and colleague Sharon Peters and I began our recent workshop with teachers. We know that morphology, etymology, phonology is not a subject ‘done’ in a single sitting: it’s a lifetime of thinking, reading, learning, discussing, reading,learning, gathering dictionaries, trusted sources, reading, learning, muttering words and hypothesising!!! We knew we wanted participants to:

  • Investigate the morphology and etymology of words.
  • Explore ways to link word inquiry to reading and writing across the curriculum.

We know that word inquiry in the classroom should not be viewed as separate, an island where words lap lifeless on the shores of learning. Words are integral to understanding so any inquiry should be embedded in the context of one’s subject area. Of course, always, the ultimate aim through any inquiry is a relishing, a tasting and exuberance in words, their relatives, their past stories and travels.

This introductory section, the hors d’oeuvre ‘served as a relish to whet the appetite’ for the other workshop delights, took only 5-10 minutes, but it will be the entirety of this post. And so we leap back in time to the years of 1914- 18, to the Great War, The First World War, World War One, ‘the war to end all wars’ a phrase inspired by the article “The War that Will End War” by H.G.Wells , published in The Daily News on August 14, 1914. (Read more here).

The First World War

‘I said that we called it now The War, but that this could not last. The Napoleonic War was The Great War. To call it The German War was too much flattery for the Boche. I suggested The World War as a shade better title, and finally we mutually agreed to call it The First World War in order to prevent the millennium folk from forgetting that the history of the world was the history of war. (1918 C. à C. Repington Diary 10 Sept. in First World War (1920) II. xxxvii. 391) Record of meeting between Charles à Court Repington, British war correspondent with U.S. military historian Major Johnstone.

Michael Proffitt, Chief Editor of the O.E.D., notes the use of first for this war was used in 1918, and therefore in anticipation of future wars. It was not as we might expect a naming in retrospect:

‘The phrase acknowledged not only the unprecedented scale of the conflict (the First World War), but also predicted its enduring historical significance. It suggested that – far from being the war to end all wars – this might be the first of a new kind of global conflict. The name was conceived as a warning from history.’ Read more here: Chief Editor’s Notes, June, 2014.

Below a small taste of the words of this period:

Silence has been around as you would expect for a long time, since 1200 from Latin silere in fact as a noun, but as an adjective silent does not appear until 300 years later, in 1500 and then a little later as a verb in 1560s.  It kept much of its earlier denotations but another sense was added in 1919.  ‘A short period of communal silence and stillness, observed as a public mark of respect for a person or group of people who died; specifically the two minutes’ silence held in many Commonwealth countries at 11 a.m. on Armistice Day or (since 1946) Remembrance Sunday. Cf. moment of silence n. at moment n. 1f.’(O.E.D.)

Dud : The predecessor of dud was duds which has been attested since the 13th century as dudde meaning mantle, cloak. Beyond this point, it’s origin is uncertain. As a word indicating uselessness, it has been ‘out and about’ since 1895 to indicate someone in ragged clothing, developing then to take on a the sense of fake, counterfeit and from this sense, a small step to its use in the First World War to refer to shells that failed to detonate.

Camouflage has French origins first occurring in English as a noun in 1885, according to the O.E.D. However, The First World War, saw its uses as a verb. It’s not surprising that many words of this period came from Britain’s major ally and the place where the battles raged. This word is derived from camoufleur meaning disguise and perhaps from Italian cauffare disguise, trick. Read more here from The Online Etymology Dictionary about puffs of smoke and blowing these in the face to trick.

Aussie is a reduction from Australian and attested from 1910 according to the OED. Note the <-ie> diminutive suffix perhaps in this word indicating affection rather than smallness! This type of formation is hypocoristic– a process where a word is truncated, often with a suffix <-ie> or <-o>. It’s often seen in pet names: Barbie, Robbo, Annie. However, it’s a notable feature in Australian English with the hypocoristic elevated beyond pet names .

Take a dekko , slang for take a look, at this. According to Jane Simpson, place names in particular are subject to hypocorism: Tasmania- Tassie, Freemantle as you may have noticed in the previous post- Freo, Woolongabba, the Gabba, Woolloomooloo ~ The Loo, Brisbane ~ Brissie . Yet it’s not just place names as Roland Sussex indicates : ‘To this we can add common nouns like clippie “tram conductor”,muddie “mud crab”, schoolies (the school leavers’ annual week of celebration), reffo “refugee”, cab-sav “cabernet sauvignon” (wine), rhodo “rhodo-dendron”, fisho “fish merchant” or K “kilometre”.’ (Australian hypocoristics: putting the <-ie>  into Aussie: Vol. 12.2) Sussex has collected has over 4,000 headwords for his database on this subject.

And let’s take a brief sidestep to consider the word dekko, not, as I had presumed hypocoristic, nor is it an Australian term. Dekko is another example of a word coming to the fore during the First World War and even more surprisingly arriving from Hindustani देखना dekhnā / دیکھنا dekhnā, “to see, to look”! According to the O.E.D., Hindi dekho, is the imperative of dekhnā to look. This is a word absorbed into the talk of British troops in India ‘and gradually disseminated through the British army. On 20 March 1915 the Birmingham Daily Mail wrote that “The wars of the past have invariably coloured the language of returned soldiers, and this worldwide war will be no exception to the rule.”

Cushy and Blighty too are from Hindustani roots . Cushy is attested from 1895 derived from khush pleasant. The OED suggests the word ultimately may be Persian in origin:Urdu ḵušī and its etymon (ii) Persian ḵušī pleasure, convenience < ḵuš, w good, pleasant (of uncertain origin) + , suffix forming abstract nouns. In military slang it refers to undemanding tasks.

The OED notes that in 1915 it referred to a wound: ‘serious enough to necessitate one’s withdrawal from active duty, but not life-threatening or likely to have permanent consequences, such as disability…Apparently only with reference to the First World War (1914–18).’

1915 Ld. Moran Diary Sept. in Anatomy of Courage (1945) When you are in the trenches a cushy wound..seems the most desirable thing in the world. (O.E.D.)
Julian Walker in the Guardian wrote that blighty evolved from the Urdu word bilayati meaning “foreign” which was applied to British troops in India. This shifted to mean mean British, and then shifted to stand for Britain. One of the great hopes for a British soldier was “a blighty one”, a wound that was disabling, but not disastrous, which would send the wounded man home for good (Trench Talk,Guardian). As such the word blighty is not two morphemes *<blight+y>. The free base element <blight>   ‘entered literature’, states the O.E.D., ‘apparently from the speech of farmers or gardeners, in the 17th cent.’ For a term used often with plants, it is somewhat ironic that its roots are uncertain.  Perhaps it is from ‘Old Norse *bleht-r, the antecedent of Icelandic blettr stain, spot, blot;’

Blighty, the O.E.D. states was ‘originally used by soldiers on service overseas, esp. during the First World War (1914–18) and Second World War (1939–45), and subsequently more generally in informal, and often somewhat humorous, contexts’.

Daily Mail 1 Nov. 4/4 So-and-so stopped some shrapnel and is back at the base in hospital,..he wasn’t lucky enough to get a blighty.

Conchie is another example of a hypocoristic formation. This is used in a derogatory sense in reference to a conscientious objector and is attested from 1917. It’s interesting to consider where the original term is clipped. The prefix <con-> is retained  and the <sci> base element partially suggested with the <ch> digraph reflecting the pronunciation /ʃ/. However, the slang word <conchie> is a base element. The <-ent> and <-ous> suffixes have been removed as well as the other word < objector> that forms part of the compound in conscientious objector.

‘Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill.” Letter to his mother, May 1917.(Wilfred Owen). He may well have been writing about what it tok to be a conscientious objector during the First World war. Listen to BBC World War One at Home: Conscientious Objectors

1917: Conscientious Objectors protest at Dartmoor.

White feather:  The white feather in the tail of a game bird was at one time indicative of inferior breeding and from here develops the symbolism of a white feather as cowardice. This has been used ‘in figurative phrases, as to mount (also show) the white feather : to surrender in a cowardly way. During World War One, women in Folkstone followed the suggestion of Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald, town councillor, in presenting unenlisted men with white feathers to shame them for not fighting. This form of shaming and naming became so intense the government was forced to issue silver badges to men who’d already served or were working in jobs vital for the home war effort. Read The Men Who Would Not Fight (Guardian).

Both elements in this term <white> and <feather> are free bases. White is from Old English hwit “bright, radiant; clear, fair. Note the metathesis- in this case the transposition of the letters <hw>. Read more of its Proto Indo European origins and its Sanskrit, Slavonic and Lithuanian cognates at the Online Etymology Dictionary.  Feather is derived from Old English feðer which has Proto Indo European origins:*pet-, also *pete- “to rush; to fly”. But who would have thought  pen, petition, impetus and repeat could be feathery? This is no mere flight of fancy! Read more here .

Duckboard is comprised of two free base elements <duck> from Old English roots duce, and the presumed Old English *ducan “to duck, dive”  and bord <board> to form the compound which is attested from 1917. This compound led to other phrases: ‘Duckboard glide, a common term for after-dark movements along the trenches, when secrecy and quietness was essential … Duckboard harrier, a despatch ‘runner’ or messenger, whose duty took him along the duckboards in the trenches.’

The Imperial war Museuem states: Duckboards ‘(or ‘trench gratings’) were first used at Ploegsteert Wood, Ypres in December 1914. They were used throughout the First World War… in theory to help protect men’s feet from accumulated water; walking along them (especially at night and in the wet) was something of an art.’

Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track near Hooge, in the Ypres Sector via The Independent: a History of World War One in 100 Moments.

Scrounge and its noun, one who does the scrounging, scrounger <scounge+er> is dialectal. The O.E.D. states it is from scringe: to pry about or perhaps as the Online Etymology suggests it is an alternative from scrouge scrooge. Scrooge means to “push, jostle”  and is attested from 1755. It is also Cockney slang for “a crowd” probably suggestive of screw, squeeze. Could this be linked with Dickens’s infamous miser  Scrooge?

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!'(Dickens, A Christmas Carol) Read Harper’s entry from Online Etymology Dictionary here)

The word scrounge became popularised when used as military slang by servicemen in the war of 1914–18 and during this period ‘referred to a soldier with plenty of resource in getting what he wants.'(O.E.D.)

Wipers: is  an example of renaming, an Anglicised pronunciation of Ypres, in the province of West Flanders in Belgium. This was a strategically important town for the British and Commonwealth forces with heavy loss of life occurring here.‘Ypres was the site of three significant battles (1914, 1915, and 1917). The second battle marked the first use of poisonous gas as a weapon on the Western Front; the third was fought in appalling conditions and resulted in particularly heavy casualties, becoming a byword for the suffering of soldiers during the war.’ (O.E.D.)

‘On the Road to Ypres’ by Christopher Nevinson

The tooter the sweeter: this is a playful alteration of the phrase the sooner the better and a play on French ‘toute de suite’.

THE NEW LANGUAGE. Tommy (to inquisitive French children). “NAH, THEN, ALLEY TOOT SWEET, AN’ THE TOOTER THE SWEETER!” from Punch Vol.153, Dec 5 1917

Shellshock: is a compound and first attested in 1915 as a noun, then two years later as a verb. Both elements of the compound are free bases. Shell is from Old English roots sciell, scill,  and Anglian scell “seashell, eggshell,” and is also related to Old English scealu “shell, husk,” ultimately from Proto-Germanic *skaljo “piece cut off; shell; scale (Online Etymology Dictionary) Shock on the other hand appears to have entered English via French choc, noun of action from choquer. This free base element has homographs as in the phrases shock of hair and shock of corn. As homographs they have different roots.

The term “shell shock,” is first used by Capt. Charles Myers in the British medical journal The Lancet in February 1915. He wrote about “the remarkably close similarity” of symptoms in three soldiers who had each been exposed to exploding shells. Initially it was felt the damage of shellshock was ‘commotional’. When it was discovered that many exhibiting the symptoms had not always been near the explosions, the cause was thought to be one of “neurasthenia,” or weakness of the nerves. Today the O.E.D. states this would be classified as a form of post traumatic stress disorder. Read more from The Smithsonian magazine: The Shock of War.

What did we learn in this brief overview?

  • Words are of a time and place, not locked in a constant meaning but narrowing or broadening to reflect new understanding or in response to new situations. Words are a record of social history.
  • Words can be playfully abbreviated to indicate humour in the bleakest of situations.’ “One has to hang on to one’s humour like grim death, wrote a young officer in 1915, ” otherwise you are bound to crack’. Often it’s a defense against what Edmund Blunden described ‘socket-eyed despair’ ‘ (Voices of Silence: The Alternative Book of First World War Poetry, Noakes)
  • Words, slang, can also bind people together to signal membership of a group, of belonging as well as ostracising and excluding, such as conchie.

Oh It’s a Lovely War- written in 1917 by J. P. Long and Maurice Scott and part of music hall star, male impersonator Ella Shield’s repertoire. The music hall jollity reflects the bleak humour and through satire and irony criticizes the conditions and shows the disillusionment with the war.



The last words go to Siegfried Sassoon:

‘…On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.” Siegfried L. Sassoon, July 1917. Read Sassoon’s letter here in full at Shaun Usher’s wonderful Letters of Note: Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.

For more on the Words of World War One follow these links:

OED Release Notes:The Language of World war One

100 Words that Define World War One



Finding Her Bearings in a Sea of English


Wind rose from the Catalan Atlas,1375, from the Majorcan cartographic school, thought to be drawn by Cresques Abraham.

Every morning before school, a sunny smile on her face – a remarkable feat for an adolescent at 7.20 am.- and the morning greeting of “I have a word for you!”

This post focuses on a student new to my class, new to Malaysia and relatively new to the English language. I am impressed by Anqi’s desire to become more comfortable with morphology and the various resources to help her make sense of the structure of English words.

Unsure of so many of the linguistic terms that she had heard bandied around her in class: morpheme, base element, free base element, bound base element, affixes, prefix, suffix, Anqi felt if she chose a word each day she would increase her understanding of word structure. Morphology is her wind-rose; it guides her to meaning, to making sense of words. It helps her to expand her vocabulary through discovering the relatives of a particular word- words that share a either a common base or a related base that is derived from the same root. Here are snippets of our ten- twenty minute conversations over the course of several weeks.

We began with the word Anqi chose, translation.

There have been other mornings and lunchtimes with translation. This meant an occasional diversion, well inevitable rather than occasional, to other words and bases such as the bound base element <port>. Anqi had discovered transport and used it as evidence to support her hypothesis of <trans-> as a prefix. We’ve explored another word of her choice <dictionary> and debated long and hard over the suffixes: was it <dict+ion+ar+y> or <dict+ion+ary> and while it’s tempting to reveal all, we’ll leave you waiting breathless with excitement for the next post!

Below Anqi’s record of her thinking as she discovered that there was more that needed to be translated from the Etymology Online Dictionary entry. We initially thought the root here was Latin latus:meaning carry or bear but we hadn’t read the entry carefully! I’ll let the video clips and the notes explain the full story!

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We also wondered whether <tran-> was a variant form of <trans->. We discovered this when ‘eagle eyes’ Anqi spotted the word <tranquil> and <transcript>. This resulted in a small investigation into the root that had led to the bound base element <quil> in tranquility. We hypothesized that before <qu> and perhaps also before a base with an initial <s>, the variant form <tran-> occurs. We need to gather more evidence to support this observation or discover evidence to the contrary.

Who's related?

Which of these words are related? Which words share the same base element? Which words have a different base element but share the same root? Which words are not related?

Would you, astute reader, be able to sort these words into those that share a morphological and etymological relationship and those that share only an etymological relationship? Our neophyte word nerd was able to do so and in the process discovered new prefixes, suffixes and even more related words. This way of sorting the words is based on a diagram Pete Bowers uses to clarify morphological and etymological relationships. Those words sharing the same base and therefore the same root are placed in the inner rectangle and those with an etymological relationship where the bases are different from those in the inner rectangle, are placed in the outer rectangle and those with absolutely no relationship cast beneath. (Pete uses an inner rectangle and outer circle to indicate the different but related bases … I can only say my paper was square.)

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By investigating one word we have uncovered so many relatives. Consider what has been understood through this focus :

  • all words have a base element carrying the main meaning.
  • bases can be bound and free.
  • bases have a history, a root from a another time and place.
  • the root influences the orthography.
  • vowel suffixes can cause a change to a base or another suffix.
  • morphology involves discovering words that share the same base element.
  • some base elements may be homographs and despite a superficial resemblance are not related and therefore unconnected in meaning.
  • words from the same root share an underlying meaning.

Wind-roses were used before the compass rose and showed the seafarer the eight major winds, eight half winds and sixteen quarter winds that could buffet the unwary.The Catalan atlas of 1375 has the earliest example of an ornate rose (above). North in this atlas is located at the bottom. The atlas is the work of the cartographer Cresques Abraham and is a combination of a world map and a portolan chart- a nautical chart detailing the coast. (More on the history of wind roses here and the Catalan atlas here and here.)

Of course after staring long and hard at this and other wind roses, I am now caught in whirl of winds, muttering their names, wondering about their etymology. The Zonda – a dry dust carrying wind blowing on the eastern face of the Andes in Argentina; the forceful and appropriately named Wreckhouse wind of Labrador and Newfoundland capable of blowing railway cars off the track, the Tramontane blowing from beyond the Alps -strong dry and cold; the cold northerly Mistral wind blowing on France’s Mediterranean coast whose name is influenced by Provencal and ultimately Latin magister: master; the Sirocco– hot wind from the Middle East ultimately derived from an Arabic root sharq east from sharqa to rise. I love the 1911 denotation from the OED:‘An oppressively hot and blighting wind, blowing from the north coast of Africa over the Mediterranean and affecting parts of Southern Europe (where it is also moist and depressing).‘ Then there’s the Simoon, ‘a hot, dry, suffocating sand-wind which sweeps across the African and Asiatic deserts at intervals during the spring and summer’ (O.E.D.) from an Arabic root  سموم‎ samūm, derived from from root سم s-m-m, “to poison”!

And let us not forget the brash, direct names of Australian winds:the Freemantle Doctor (and with the Australian tendency to clip words and add either an <-ie> suffix or an <-o>,  this is reduced to : the Freo Doctor or just the Doctor) a name in use from the 1870s for the cooling, summer afternoon sea breeze. On the east coast especially of New South Wales, the thuggish, forceful ‘Southerly Buster’, a summer wind, wreaks havoc by blowing gales after baking hot temperatures. Its wind brings rapid falls in temperature, heavy rain, sometimes hail, and dramatic cloud rolls. (See recent photos of a Sydney southerly buster here.)

Anqi is not blown off course. Morphology and etymology are her landmarks for making sense and meaning, for finding her bearings in the sea of English. Below her final diagram that translates her understanding of the word translation and its relatives today, this Friday lunchtime. You’ll notice her new understanding of tolerate.

Anqi's diagram showing both morphological and etymological relationships.

Anqi’s diagram showing both morphological and etymological relationships.

Of Symposiums and Delirium: following footprints


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As you look at the variety of shoes , consider the foot prints. And to make sense of this clue read on!! Printed in Barcelona (Spain) by Centro Editorial Artístico de Miguel Seguí, circa 1900.

Early in the week grade 7 students were lucky to participate in a science symposium where ecologists with a variety of ecological specializations met with small groups of students to discuss environmental concerns in Malaysia. As students prepared for this gathering, discussion in humanities inevitably centred on the word symposium.

We do not carry out lengthy word investigations every day (sadly) not even every week, but every day we examine a word. Sometimes we devote half a period (45 minutes) to this, sometimes we spend five minutes, sometimes ten to fifteen minutes, sometimes students work independently and follow up what has been a tentative hypothesis in class. The result of these brief but regular forays into morphology and etymology is that the knowledge and analytic skills involved in identifying morphemes are constantly practised, so much so that it is just as often a student who will now ask, ‘How would we analyze this word?’ or ‘What is the base in this word?’- all music to my ears. Now, part way through our second trimester, I notice that students  have become more patient. They are prepared to justify their thinking and recognize that to begin research with a hypothesis and a question is so much more helpful than resorting instantly to the Online Etymology Dictionary expecting to find the answer leaping out at them. They won’t.

This is an important point for both students and teachers. The brilliance of the Online Etymology Dictionary entry is the story it tells of a word’s development. It tells us when the word entered the English language, it’s journey to English, and the language of its origin. It helps to uncover related words- words sharing the same base element or other base elements that have come from the same root. However, you have to make those morpheme connections and prove these yourself. It will not serve up the morphemes all neatly analyzed. The role of the etymological dictionary is, as the name implies, etymological.

This reference will help you to unearth a root with careful digging. And digging it is, as is appropriate with roots! One root may have radicles ( to continue the botanical metaphor) that can lead through long twisting strands back to a root in the Proto Indo European language, a hypothesised language, of approximately 5, 500 years ago. These ancient roots can be found when you follow the links through an entry. It will not provide the morphological elements- for this you need to use the evidence of the root and think what has been removed from the etymon. For example if the Latin root is in the infinitive form, it is the elements <-are> <-ire>, <-ere> that indicate this. These are the elements that are not present in an English base element . You also need to see what graphemic changes have been made to the English base as the word adapts to the new language or languages in its journey into English. So looking for the root is etymological and searching for related words and identifying morphemes is morphological. The etymology informs the morphology.

I love the linguistic metaphor of ‘root’ suggesting the interconnections of other words. This image almost shows this – a main root and from this a host of others that branch out and take life in other languages, in other words in the same language. I also love these illustrations and the work of J.E.Weaver of the University of Minnesota, famed expert of the plants of the prairies and in particular the roots of prairie plants: ‘that portion of Prairie which is seldom seen–‘the extensive and intricate “Prairie underground,” with roots occasionally extending over 20 feet deep’. I enjoyed reading how he wore a suit and sported a green eye shade when examining the roots , how his wife addressed him as Dr Weaver, how he employed students to dig 1,500 trenches for a one year study, and especially love his three dimensional photographs of roots. I applaud his obsessional focus, specialization, his detail and knowledge. Information gleaned from GardenHistoryGirl, go there to see and learn more.

You’ll note the process of slowly forming a hypothesis supported by evidence as the students below discuss their thinking and justify the morphemes in symposium. Rather than the base capturing the majority of our attention and time as it usually does, this day it was the suffix that stole the show and caused puzzlement. Where were the morpheme boundaries in this word? What makes sense in Present Day English?

A day later, one student capably summarized the class thinking and research so far.

The discussion over the suffix in symposium proved intriguing. Some students identified the base element as <posium>. Some argued for <-ium> with others in favour of <i+um>. It was the evidence they brought to this discussion that was pleasing. At this point we are arguing for <sym+pose+i+um> as we feel the words planetarium, delirium and tedium provide compelling reasons as to the existence of a connecting vowel letter <i> and the suffix <-um>. With the discovery of the word <planetary> we were able to analyze planetarium as <planet+ary+um> with the final <y> of the suffix<-ary> changed to an <i> with the addition of the Latin vowel suffix <-um>. (Go to Real Spelling tool kits to discover more about this critical orthographic convention:see Kit 1 A and Kit 3F). As the recordings above indicate, we hypothesized that delirium was comprised of the morphemes<de+lire+i+um>. We knew that the <-um> could be replaced by <-ous>.

Here’s what we discovered about the etymology of symposium.

Red figure image of a Greek symposium.

Symposium entered English in 1580 from Latin as symposium remaining unchanged in its morphemic structure since its entry. However, its roots trail beyond Latin.

We had sensed the Latin influence with <-um> seen in words such as dictum, optimum, decorum, maximum, minimum,rostrum. Yet there was also the internal <y> in the prefix <sym-> which we knew from words of Greek origin such as sympathy, symbol, symbiosis. The Greek συμπόσιον : symposion which had come from συμπότης : sympotes: fellow-drinker, the root of which was  πότης :potes drinker. This Greek base had ultimately derived from the Proto Indo European root *po(i)-  to drink which is also the source for the Latin infinitive potare: to drink.  Latin potare has provided English with words such as poison and potion and potable! 

Today symposium has altered somewhat in meaning. In Ancient Greece the anticipation at such an occasion was the after dinner entertainment of dancing, music, games and intellectual discussion conducted by aristocratic male Greeks accompanied by alcohol mixed by the symposiarch.Today, as in ancient Greece, we still anticipate a convivial atmosphere and hope for the intellectual exchange of ideas.


This word inquiry however, unearthed another etymological discovery in the word delirium. As you heard in the video clips above, we had used this word as part of the evidence to prove <-um> as a suffix. We checked that everyone understood the meaning- some thought that delirium occurred with high fevers, your mind wandered so that you were  delirious. We hypothesized that the morphemes were <de+lire+i+ous>. We could list words in evidence to prove the prefix <de-> such as describe, defeat, delight. We could provide evidence for the suffix <-ous> such as famous, delicious, malicious. The connecting vowel letter <i> was familiar from words such as malicious , delicious and insidious. However, we were stumped as to other possible words sharing this proposed base. Perhaps a base with only a very small family.

Two students discovered in the OED that there was once a word ‘delire’ now faded from regular use. This was verbal and meant to go astray, to go wrong and had entered English in 1400.  It joined the rank of other words available to metaphorically describe this moral confusion and rambling from paths of righteousness such as  misfare(OE), miswend (OE) misnim (1225),  crook (1325),wry (1369), forloin (1400) even the phrase ‘to tread the shoe awry’ (1542). All these words are used verbally and have a sense of stepping away from, being bent or veering off a path. And this is what we discovered also in the root leading to delire and delirious.

Delirium is from an agricultural metaphor of breaking away from the ploughed straightness of the furrow. It entered English from the Latin word dēlīrāre which in Latin had taken a metaphorical turn, denoted ‘deranged, crazy out of one’s wits’. (OED) Earlier in Latin the phrase de lira had referred to ploughing and to deviate from the furrow. Latin līra is furrow or ridge. Yet the story does not stop there- we have not come to the end of the track! Lira can be traced back to Proto Indo European *leis- track or furrow. We continued following this track through the Online Etymology Dictionary which, within the delirium entry, gave a link to learn. I hear your gasps of astonishment! And yes the track continues!

Learn is Old English but has derived from the same Proto Germanic root **liznêjan , *liznôjan which has a ‘base sense of to follow or find the track’ and too progeny of Indo European root of *leis-. And last the distance dear readers, the story gets even more exciting!!

We discovered that last too is part of this tale of furrows and tracks. Last is a homonym and the last of our focus on this winding trail is the noun last which survives today as in the shoe last denoting the wooden or metal model of a foot that cobblers used to make shoes. We also discovered another obsolete noun last of Old English origin, which once meant ‘a mark or trace left on the ground by the foot; a footprint, a track; a footstep; (also) the sole or lower part of the foot’.(OED)

Bespoke shoemaker, Schweiger of shoe makers James Taylor and Sons, surrounded by wooden lasts. Read the Guardian article here about his work

As a verb last also once meant to follow a leader, to serve or help and is of the same Proto Germanic and Indo European roots. You can see the echoes of tracks and footprints here. It also has a current sense of enduring- to last the distance. And of course that metaphorically suggests putting one foot in front of the other, following the track until the end!

What a track we’ve followed in pursuit of delirium. It has led us through furrows to tracks and footprints and the etymologically related words: last, learn and delirium. It’s the pleasure of thinking that word inquiry provides, not fast answers to confirm rightness or wrongness, a test, or instructions to use the word in a sentence to prove your understanding, but a luxuriating in the past, a drift to other words to unearth curiosities, the interconnections of words and the images conjured through surprising metaphors that help us to see the world, and text differently.

If the ploughing and furrow metaphor is intriguing for you as it was for me and my students (!!) read this article Straight Furrows from The Telegraph UK and see images of ploughing competitions where you are penalized if deviating from the straight and narrow. I wouldn’t last and that’s my last word!

Baby Talk


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A wonderful image of a working mother perhaps literally performing acrobatics and juggling work and motherhood! Picasso: Ink and watercolour on paper, 1905, Circus Artist and Child

When I was in labour with my first daughter, Imogen, my mother waiting anxiously to learn of her arrival, managed to knit for her a jacket complete with hood! As I waited anxiously a week ago for this same daughter to give birth thirty years later, I did not knit. Instead I mulled over baby words- not the words all too typically given in foolish lists to young learners, rather my focus was on words associated with babies and their morphologies and etymologies. Below the fruit of my labour!!


The word baby is comprised of two morphemes; the free base element <babe> and the diminutive suffix in this case <y>. Other examples of this diminutive suffix <-y>  is seen in puppy and bunny– a pet name for a rabbit or earlier a squirrel. The OED discusses the forms <-ie> and <-y> as common in forming pet names- for example Sally, Betty although <-ie> seems to be the more frequent after Scottish usage: grannie, mousie, dearie. The O.E.D. does state that the two words considered to have <-y> as a diminutive suffix to be:‘ baby (late 14th c.) and puppy (late 15th c.). Baby may perhaps be coupled daddy and mammy, although the evidence for these is not earlier than the 16th century; the pairs babe and baby, dad and daddy, mam and mammy, may have resulted from different phonetic reductions of original reduplicated forms.’

I was surprised to discover that baby is comparatively new to the English language, attested  only from 1440. Babe is older by forty seven years, attested, according to the OED, in 1393. The OED notes that the origin of babe is uncertain and possibly a reduplicated syllable /ba/ that is supposedly imitative of the first sounds produced by infants. This imitative first sound of infant vocalisation is thought also to underlie the word babble. The other etymological suggestion is that babe is perhaps an abbreviated form of baban – although the attestation of this is ‘scanty’  suggesting that this word baban was more colloquial, spoken rather than written. Baban, now archaic, is first attested from 1225 and the origin too is uncertain.

The word baby was broader in use applying to a child of any age, although now the main sense refers to the very young. Of course it is frequently heard as a term of endearment between couples and is ever present in popular songs. This use as a term of endearment was attested once in 1684 and then became more frequent only from 1862 as indicated in the OED citations.  Babe too has altered applying first to a child of any age. Occasionally today it applies to a very young child, although this is literary, the OED notes,  found in phrases such as ‘babe in arms’, ‘newborn babe’.  Since 1911 it has been used as a term of endearment, and then extended to any attractive woman since 1915. Later again, in 1973, it  extended further to refer to a sexually attractive man.


“First the infant mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms!”( As you Like It, Act II , sc.VII, Shakespeare)

The root of infant can be traced to Latin fari to speak which comes from an even older etymon P.I.E. *bha- to speak, to tell or say. From this ancient root came Latin fama present participle of fari to speak and so words such as fable– a story told, fame– spoken about, fate– that which is spoken or foretold.  Infant with its negative prefix <in-> entered English from the French word enfant in 1382 and therefore literally is one who is not speaking.

The morphemes however take my breath away- <in+f+ant>!!  Dear reader, I hear you gasp! A single letter morpheme? Latin <-ari>  indicates the infinitive form of the verb fari and  the Latinate <-ari> typically is shed in English.The suffix <-ant> can be either agent or instrumental and while from Latin stem -entem, -āntem, -ēntem, words such as infant when adopted directly from French in their French forms, the suffix for a while became <-aunt> then later changed to <-ant>. I found forms of infant in the Middle English period spelled as enfaunt, infaunt even in the 16th century as inphant. At one time infant referred to unborn babies- now it mainly refers to the very young. However, it is still associated with the youngest children in terms of schooling and can have negative connotations as infantile, applied to anyone whose  actions are considered immature.

Fauntekin and fauntelet

I discovered the delightful words fauntekin and fauntelet, as I explored the words applying to the very young or newborns in the O.E.D’s  Historical Thesaurus. I wondered whether the <-aunt> suffix was present in these words: fauntekin– a little child, an infant , attested in 1377 and fauntelet also a little child, 1393.  Both words have  diminutive suffixes  <-kin> and <let>- droplet, piglet, rivulet (and there lies the possibility of another post just around diminutive suffixes!) Faunt existed as a free base element, now faded from regular usage and is the aphetic form of Old French enfaunt, enfant.

The term ‘aphetic’ I discovered  was coined in 1880 by J.H.A. Murray founding editor of the O.E.D. and refers to the language change process where there is a gradual loss of a short unaccented vowel in the initial position as seen in the change from esquire to squire, amend to mend. The words formed in this manner are called aphetic forms.  The words faunt, fauntekin and fauntelet share the root Latin fari, the morphological structure of these archaic words is <f+aunt+e+kin> and <f+aunt+e+let> with <-aunt>as the suffix allomorph of <-ant> with the <e>  a connecting vowel letter. Ineffable!Fabulous indeed-  oh affable infants!

A matrix merely hinting at  some of the words related to this base from the Latin root fari, to speak.

A matrix merely hinting at some of the words related to this base from the Latin root fari, to speak.


Older than fauntekin, fauntelet, infant and babe is the compound word chrisom-child of 1275. This  originally referred to ‘ A child in its chrisom-cloth; a child in its first month; an innocent babe.’ You may, like me, wonder about the chrisom element- a free base?  In fact chrism was oil anointed at an infant’s baptism and chrisom  /ˈkrɪzəm/ a disyllabic pronunciation of this  according to the O.E.D .Chrism has been in English since 1000 A.D. and referred to the oil mixed with balm used in the sacraments in Catholic and later in Anglican services. As a religious word it was adopted directly from Latin into Old English and initially spelled as crisma. Later the <ch> digraph was added to reflect its Latinate root which was a transliteration of Greek χρίειν: khriein: to anoint. Cream too is related and there is of course more…

Digging around in the OED I could not initially find  any evidence of Greek roots in the family of <chrism> <chrisom> until I linked it with Christ.  The denotation of the title Christ is ‘the anointed’. Below the OED etymological entry:

‘Old English crist = Old Saxon and Old High German crist , krist (Old High German also christ ), < Latin Chrīstus , from Greek Χρῑστός Christ, noun use ofχρῑστός anointed ( < χρίειν to anoint), a translation of Hebrew māshīa χ, Messiah n., ‘anointed’, more fully m’shīa χ yahweh the Lord’s Anointed. This word and its derivatives and cognates (including chrism n. and its derivatives) were very rarely (and perhaps only accidentally) spelt with ch- in Middle English, but this has been the regular fashion since 1500; in French it began in the preceding century.’

Chrisom also referred to the ‘white robe, put on a child at baptism as a token of innocence: originally, perhaps merely a head-cloth, with which the chrism was covered up to prevent its being rubbed off. In the event of the child’s death within a month from baptism, it was used as a shroud: otherwise it, or its estimated value, was given as an offering at the mother’s purification’(O.E.D.)


Child is  one of the oldest of the words associated with babies. It is a single morpheme- a free base element comprised of four phonemes :/tʃʌɪld/ with the digraph <ch> as the initial grapheme. It is from the Old English root cild when it denoted unborn, fetus, newborn. This etymon goes even further back to Proto Germanic *kiltham. The O.E.D. tells us that Old English cild was probably  cognate with Gothic kilþei ‘womb’ and  inkilþō ‘pregnant woman’ . The suggestion is that these share the same Indo-European root as  Gothic kalbo calf and classical Latin glēba, glaeba “clod, lump of earth”. There is an hypothesized link to Sanskrit jaṭhara ‘belly’, ‘womb’, although the OED cautions the dictionary reader that this link is  ‘uncertain and disputed’. There are no living relatives to child in other Germanic languages, Ayto states, although there are suggestions of connections to rounded bald heads as seen in ‘Old Icelandic kollr rounded tip, bald head and Old Swedish kulder , kolder (Swedish kull ), Old Danish kuldær , koldær , plural (Danish kuld )’. However, rather surprisingly there are no other relatives  in the Germanic languages including the German word kind .

The plural form of child and its slow accretion of suffixes is fascinating. In Old English cild was unchanged in the plural form rather like sheep so cild~ cild until about 975 (Online Etymology Dictionary) when the plural form became cildru. The OED discusses the process of change to cild~cildru~cildra to evolve into the double plural form children with the additional suffix <-en>. This is comparable to the development of brethren, plural of brother.

Bairn attested as early as 830 is from the Old English infinitive form beran to bear’ and is according to the OED a common Germanic word in : Old English as bearn. Cognates include Old Frisian bern, Old Saxon, Old High German, Middle High German, Gothic, Old Norse, Danish, Swedish barn, (Middle Dutch baren) This came from Germanic *barno-(m),which ultimately came from the Proto-Indo-European root *bher– give birth and carry. This ancient root has ‘spawned’ many words in English from both Germanic and non Germanic roots- Latin ferre, Greek pherein to bear, to carry. Many words in English retain this sense of carrying from these roots: barrow, bier,  berth, burden and perhaps even brim (Ayto).

Birth, born, borne and bairn all convey the sense of ‘giving birth.’ Intriguingly bairn meaning a small child was lost in German and Dutch and in southern English ‘ where the modern representation of Old English bearn would have been ‘bern’… or ‘ barn’. In fact, berne survived in the south to 1300, barn still survives in northern English, and was used by Shakespeare’  Bairn , the OED states is of the Scottish form used occasionally in literature.

Wenchel of Old English origins attested  c890, is another early word for a child and has done double duty both as child of either sex; as well as a servant or slave; or a common woman’. Etymology Online notes that ‘Old English wencel is probably related to wancol which has a meaning of  “unsteady, fickle, weak,” from Proto-Germanic*wankila- . This sense of helplessness and weakness is seen its cognates – Old Norse vakr “child, weak person,” Old High German wanchal”fickle”. All these words derive from Proto Indo European *weng- “to bend, curve” .

Baby words indicating smallness

The focus on the attribute of smallness to words applied to the very young is seen in many of the words and is often emphasized by diminutive suffixes as mentioned earlier with fauntelet and fauntekin but also:
tenderling attested in 1587, childling 1648, bratling 1652 – from brat which from its attestation in c1500 was negative in connotation and denoted a beggar’s child ‘A child, so called in contempt,’ states Johnson. In 16th and 17th c. it is sometimes used without contempt, though nearly always implying insignificance; weanie 1786, babelet 1856. However , a dab attested in 1833, a dot from 1859 and liddly a derivative of little was attested in 1929, emphasize smallness.
Baby words indicating the actions of babies

The actions of the newborn also lend themselves to the names applied to babies: sucker 1384, now archaic referred to a child at the breast, milksop 1500 although more frequently applied to the timid, weak and indecisive from 1390s (Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale:’ , 3100: Allas..that euere I was shape To wedden a milksop or a coward ape.’  Nurseling was attested in 1605 and teatling in 1631, hoppet 1695. A trudgeon was a nonce word used in 1814 to allude to the slow walk of the young ‘one who trudges, a toddling child’. Nestler followed later in 1866 and toddler is attested in 1890 from toddle : To walk or run with short unsteady steps, as a child just beginning to walk, an aged or invalid person; also said of a similar walk or run of any animal. (O.E.D.) Snork attested in 1941 of Australian, New Zealand slang is imitative indicating the snorting sounds made by the young baby.

Plant and animal metaphors

I found one example of a plant metaphor for babies in the Latinate flosculet used in 1648 . Small creatures, however, create popular metaphors for the young such as mite from 1853. Kid has been used to refer to children, and especially  young children from the 1590s.The OED states this term was ‘originally low slang, but by the 19th c. frequent in familiar speech.’ Following much later and adding diminutive suffixes came kidlet, kiddy, and kidling all from 1899. Another creature metaphor perhaps more negative or maybe merely reflecting  wry observation was pap-hawk attested from 1475 now disappeared. Perhaps this word refers to a baby’s rapacious consuming of milk from the breast.

Yearnling  <yearn+ling> is another word I discovered for a baby. This is a nonce word ( another term coined by James Murray of words used only the once in a specific occasion or in a particular text) Note the Old English suffix <-ling> I thought to be diminutive.  However, not always so. Read Online Etymology Dictionary for  a more detailed explanation of how this suffix is a possible fusion of two elements from <le> and <-ing>. In Old English this suffix indicated a person or thing associated with or concerned with the base element. In the Middle English period this suffix continued to be used as it was in Old English yet often in a negative or contemptuous sense such as vainling, worldling, groundling, earthling. It was more common to be diminutive if of Norse origins. Yet as this word is for the nonce coined by Charles Lamb, it may not be negative but convey a meaning of a longed for baby.

And below baby Nathaniel, inspiration of this post born on Jan 31st. We say all the fireworks in the sky on this evening and every year from now on are in celebration of his birth! Welcome to the world Nathaniel!


Words Wandering the World


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Al-Idrisi’s world map,1154. Go here to read Time’s A History of the World in 10 Maps.

What do the following words have in common: orange, hazard, talisman? Can you spot a connection between the colour crimson, ghoul and a giraffe? Or perhaps spinach, sugar and an assassin? Need a mattress to recline on while pondering these connections or perhaps your inclination lies in a sofa?

Words have a past, and like us a family. Some words migrate travelling long distances. Others stay firmly rooted in their place of birth. Some have families filled with offspring, others are from small families and are self contained. All words have stories. Uncover the stories wrapped around the roots and in doing so consider the past. Words are artifacts of a culture as much as pots, paintings, documents and bones. Words are a window into another culture and time. This was how we began this week’s inquiry.

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We started with a list of words on the board. No mention of where they had come from. I just asked students which word they would like to explore. Students immediately began to hypothesize morphemes, before consulting the Online Etymology Dictionary. Many wrestled with suffixes eventually concluding that the majority of words up for consideration are free base elements today. They noticed that the majority of these words were nouns. Below are the hypothesises and stories of the journeys of a mere five of the forty words we investigated.


Eventually two students traced the journey of crimson back to the dried bodies of a small scale insect known as kermes:قرمز qirmiz found on  European oaks. This Arabic word in turn came from from Sanskrit krimi-ja meaning ‘produced by a worm or worm born’. Arabic qirmazi means red colour and became cremisinus in Medieval Latin then passed into Old Spanish as cremesin and from there it was a leap across the English channel in the 15th century to eventually settle into the orthographic structure we know today as crimsonCarmine arrived in English later, 1712, also from Arabic قرمز qirmiz via French carmin. Another word springing from this same Arabic root and entering England in 1480, is from Italian: cramoisy. This archaic word was mostly used in Scotland according to the OED.

A crimson diversion:

My students and I have recently begun to explore the OED historical thesaurus. I wondered what words were used to describe this colour before the 15th century.We discovered 39 words for this colour including crimson and carmoisy. The range is from the earliest blood-red an OE compound blodread to the most recent in the 1950’s: wine. Tuly, attested in English since 1398, was used to describe this colour but exclusively in reference to silk. The OED suggests this was perhaps in reference to fabrics imported from Toulouse. Another word murrey, first attested in English in 1400, from post classical Latin muretum , murretum meaning mulberry-coloured cloth, was used to describe this colour in heraldry and has since faded out of regular use.

Many of the synonyms for crimson, as the student above had hypothesized, use blood metaphors.  Bloody (attested in OE), saguine from 1382, sanguinolent 1480, saguineous 1520, blood-coloured, haemetine 1658, gory 1822, laky 1849 which ‘pertains to lake; of the colour of lake; spec. of the blood, when the red corpuscles are acted upon by some solvent.’ (OED). In 1616 Shakespeare used incarnadine  in Macbeth, its root from Latin caro, carnis : flesh. In the 1590’s incarnadine meant flesh coloured. However, with Macbeth’s chilling lines from Act II sc. ii:’This my Hand will rather, The multitudinous Seas incarnardine, Making the green one red,’ the association from here on is with blood and the colour of blood.

Other words for ‘crimson’ use jewels as the comparison: rubied, rubious 1616, and grenat referring to the colour of garnets, attested from 1851. The other metaphor used to describe this colour is ‘wine’ so vineaceous 1668, claret-coloured 1779, and the well known wine-dark,1855: ‘of the colour of deep-red wine; used esp. to render Greek οἴνοψ as an epithet of the sea; occas. (poet.) as n.'(OED). However, it is ‘crimson’ with its Arabic origins that is the most frequently used and familiar for this colour.



‘The richest commoner in England,’ William Beckford painted by George Romney in 1782.

As the student above indicated the word ghoul is Arabic in origin, غول ghūl, referring to an evil grave-robbing, corpse consuming spirit. This word entered English in 1786 via the translated novel Varthek by William Beckford. Beckford wrote this novel in French during a period of intense interest in orientalism. He claimed to have written this in a single sitting of three days and two nights. it is a tale of the supernatural filled with ghouls and tells of the powerful Caliph Vathek who seeks forbidden knowledge aided by his evil mother. Arabic غول ghūl, has also led to the name Algol, the demon star, the blinking star in the Perseus constellation located at the point of Medusa’s head. The Arabic etymon has even inspired Batman’s nemesis Ra’s Al-Ghul. For more diversion read about the extremely wealthy William Beckford , known as the ‘richest commoner in England’ renowned art collector and folly builder- Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower

Zenith, hazard and apricot

Zenith is attested in English from the 14th century from an Arabic root samt ar-ras meaning ‘path over the head’. Samt created a ‘path’ from its Arabic origins into Old Spanish as zenit and Old French as cenit and once in English becoming zenith. Apparently there was a misreading from the transliteration of the Arabic etymon where the ‘m’ became ‘ni’ (Online Etymology Dictionary)The sense of becoming the highest point emerged in the 16th century. The plural form of the Arabic root samut led to azimuth.

Hazard can be used both as a noun and verb. It arrived in English first as a noun in the 13th century for a game played with dice. It’s Arabic in origin, perchance! The O.E.D. states:’The origin of the French word is uncertain, but its source was probably Arabic. According to William of Tyre, the game took its name from a castle called Hasart or Asart in Palestine, during the siege of which it was invented: see Littré s.v. The true Arab name of this castle appears to have been ‘Ain Zarba (Prof. Margoliouth). Mahn proposes vulgar Arabic az-zahr or az-zār ‘die’ (Bocthor); but early evidence for this sense is wanting.

It entered English via Old French hasard, hasart, as the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests ‘possibly from Spanish ‘azar’ meaning an unfortunate throw of cards or dice,’. The claim for the Spanish azar is said to be Arabic al-zahr although the etymologist Klein doubts this suggesting Arabic ‘yasara’: ‘he played at dice’. Regardless, the word in its travels through French acquired the letter ‘d’ through confusion with the <-ard> suffix. Read more here. Again thanks to the O.E.D.Historical Thesaurus, we discovered that jeopardy, although not of Arabic origins, is a synonym for hazard and also a game of chance. Jeopardy,according the O.E.D., is also attested in English from the 13th century with a sense of ‘harm or risk’ developing in its denotation from 1374.  Read more here.

Apricot tells a tale of a long journey and Arabic contact. The fruit originally Chinese in origin was known in the Roman world as prunum Arminiacum or malum Arminiacum (Ayto). This term was replaced by malum praecocum meaning early ripening apple. Praecocus, Ayto notes,  is a variant of praecox leading eventually to English precocious etymologically meaning pre-cooked. The Latin word praecocum moved into a variety of languages making its way via Byzantine Greek berikokkonπρεκόκκια and βερικόκκια plural, and Arabic al biquq to Spanish albaricoque and Portuguese albricoque to Catalan abercoc and then into English in the 15th century as abrecock. The O.E.D. tells us that:  ‘The change in English < abr- to apr- was perhaps due to false etymology; Minsheu 1617 explained the name, quasi, ‘in aprīco coctus’ ripened in a sunny place: compare the spelling abricoct’. The Roman name prunum Arminiacum was applied to apricots based on the belief that fruit originated in Armenia, although now it is believed to have originated in China or even India as early as 3000BC.  It became known as a colour only from 1906.

Yes all these words had contact with Arabic. I had included abacus amongst the list of words to investagte, mistakenly assuming it to be Arabic. However, this word turned out to be from Hebrew as one student informed me and as such from the Semitic group of languages of which Arabic is a branch. Semitic languages are from the Afro-Asiatic language family. Watch below as students share the timeline of these words reflecting Arabic contact :




We discovered through these words the influence of Arabic as a significant contributor to the English lexicon. Many of these words reflect the scientific, astronomical, agricultural, economic, mathmatical, medical and architectural brilliance of the Golden Age of Islam. There were two periods of flourishing intellectual activity the first in Baghdad and the second in 12th and 13th century in Spain.  We discovered that Baghdad 1,200 years ago was the capital of the Islamic world and a flourihing intellectual centre. We discovered that the Caliphs Al-Rashid, Al-Ma’mun, Al Mu’tadhid, and Al-Muktafi took a passionate interest in collecting global scientific knowledge.  They gathered Muslim scholars to create the House of Wisdom, an intellectual academy that by the time of Caliph Al-Mu’uman had extended to include sections for each scientific branch so that the House was flowing with scholars. These scholars came from a variety of places, speaking a variety of languages Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit.Theyworked to translate the older writings into Arabic so they could build on and discuss the knowledge.

First in Baghdad and later in Cordoba and Toledo, Arabic philosophy and science  conserved Greek knowledge and set in place the foundations for the Renaissance and the scientific revolution. Libraries in Baghdad and Cordoba are reputed to have contained over 400,000 books. Spanish Christians conquered Cordoba in 1236 and when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1256 (or 1258) the Islamic Empire fell. Trade routes became dangerous. ‘Urban life broke down.  Individual communities drew in upon themselves in feudal isolation. Science and philosophy survived for a while in scattered pockets, but the Golden Age of Islam was at an end’.(Mathews)  Islam had stressed the importance and respect for learning. Scholars of many faiths- for a time worked side by side and while claims of harmony may be exaggerated as religious minorities did not share the same rights as Muslims, Jewish and Christian scholars nevertheless made intellectual contributions with the support of Muslim rulers. It is timely to consider these flourishing intellectual communities when reflecting on the ignorance and fear of knowledge and education that lies behind acts of terrorism today.

Read about the remarkable House of Wisdom here, watch here. Look at a timeline here. Read about Islamic Spain here.

The final words of this post concerning words and their journeys into English, we return to the map above and its cartographer, Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Abdallah Ibn Idris al-Qurtubi al-Hasani or Al Idrisi. Famed as both a cartographer and botanist, he was born in Ceuta, Spain, in 1099 A.D. and educated in Cordoba.

Al Idrisi travelled widely through Africa, Asia and Europe gathering plants and geographic data. He gathered eye witness accounts from travellers, sailors, merchants. His commission by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily to create a current map of the world led to an 18 year stay in Sicily and the creation of remarkable geographic references including a silver globe  for King Roger II, and ‘The Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq al-āfāq (Arabic: نزهة المشتاق في اختراق الآفاق‎, lit. “the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands“), known as the Tabula Rogeriana (lit. “The Book of Roger” in Latin Al-Kitab al-Rujari (Roger’s Book).This is was a geographic encyclopaedia, containing information not only on Asia and Africa, but also Western countries. The book was written in both Arabic and Latin showing the world as a sphere and dividing it into seven climate zones with details about each. Of Britain he noted, it “is set in the Sea of Darkness. It is a considerable island, whose shape is that of the head of an ostrich, and where there are flourishing towns, high mountains, great rivers and plains. This country is most fertile; its inhabitants are brave, active and enterprising, but all is in the grip of perpetual winter.” Read more here Tabula Rogeriana.






Tests, Têtes, Heads and Skulls


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Drawing of a sectioned skull,1489, from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch book and right a page from his notebook, including his ‘to do’ list, c.1510 Photo: THE ROYAL COLLECTION. Read more here.

Recently we completed the first trimester, a time of  assessments and report card writing. I’ve written elsewhere about quizzes and tests and exams but these etymological discoveries bear repeating.  ‘Quizzing’  implies etymologically that one is asking about the essence of self. ‘Testing’ in the 14th century meant assaying precious metals in an earthenware pot.  A test was the vessel used to deem the worth of the metals. Latin testudo is tortoise and texere is to weave. All are related to the Latin root testa earthenware pot, or pot fragment, tile. Intriguing also is the discovery that French tête has also evolved from this root with the notion that the skull is the jug or pot of the head! Likewise the German word ‘kopf’ for head is etymologically linked with cup. Read more here at Online Etymology Dictionary.

Exam’, which only appeared in English around 1848, is a clip of much earlier ‘examination’ and initially referred to ‘judicial inquiry’ (14th century) and as test of knowledge from 1610. ‘Examine’ however, in the 13th century meant ‘interrogate, question and torture’ which students would claim to still be true! ‘Assess’ in the 15th century had a sense of fixing the amount of a tax or a fine and shifted somewhat from property in 1934 to ‘judging the value of a person or idea’. The verb evaluate on the other hand is a back formation, attested from 1831 from the older evaluation , 1755, from French valuer which came from Latin valere ‘to be strong, well, of value, be worth’. From this root also sprang valiant. Despite my ambivalence about tests  this orthographic assessing and assaying has instigated a valiant response as the students buzz in and out of the room working together to help each other develop their understandings, to pool their knowledge, develop and critique each others’ hypotheses.

Rather than a list of words plucked randomly from the lexicon, the words on which students will ‘test their mettle’ are words that continue to be critical for our studies year long. The concepts have occurred already in many of the myths and will do so as we examine world religions, religious conflicts and history of the Weimar republic and the dark period of the rise of nazism.

I want this test to measure their thinking and understanding rather than a regurgitation of facts. Of course I hope they remember forever the meaning of the roots, but the majority of this test requires morphological understanding and careful consideration and justification of hypotheses rather than a memorized fact. Can they then apply this to words they have not before encountered? Can they interpret the entry from Online Etymology? And so I continue to repeat to the class that this is less a test of right or wrong but far more a test of thinking and the evidence used to support a hypothesis.

Prior to this test we have slowed down the leap to resources. So many of my students have a tendency to believe that everything is googleable! I have observed how often and swiftly students want to dive into the Online Etymology Dictionary, a critical and invaluable resource but they are so swift and ignore so much in order to grab the first foreign root they stumble over, convinced this is the ‘answer’. So this time we delay the ‘dictionary dive’ and explore what we know, proposing possible morphemes, ‘testing’ this out. Herein is the real test – giving students the space to think. No laptops. No dictionaries. Just themselves and each other. What do you know about this word? What is your hypothesis for the morphemes? What corroborating evidence is there for each proposed element? Label your thinking and then decide what question you have before turning to the dictionaries.

Discussing a hypothesis with the class prior to having looked at any resources:

This process of slowing down the leap to resources has led to:

  • thoughtful questions,
  • deepened understandings about all aspects of morphology
  • clarified for many the relationship between base and root
  • revealed the idea that one root can produce more than one base element
  • revealed that base elements can be homographic :the free base element <pass> and the bound base element <pass>.

In this test I asked more open ended questions such as:

What is a suffix? Write at least three statements that are trues about suffixes. Support with examples.

What is a base element? How do base elements differ from roots? Write statements that are true about base elements.

The following are written comments from the test: Jasper stated: ‘Base elements can be bound or free, they have roots. Affixes can only become words if there is a base.’ In the anlysis of his word <courage> Jasper noted that <cour> was the base, that it was bound and from Latin cor heart. He gave examples to prove the suffix <-age> as garbage, forage and then counter examples stating <-age> is not a suffix in: image, cage and page.

Isablella stated that: ‘A suffix is not at the end of a word because they are attached either to a base or another suffix. Suffixes can change the tense of the word.’ She explained that a ‘base is the main meaning of the word. Bases differ from roots because the roots are the origin, the building blocks. The root can become many bases and then the bases can have a more specific meaning. Although the base carries the main meaning of a word, the base’s meaning can change slightly depending on what affixes are added. Bases can either be free or bound, free meaning that it can mean something by itself. Bound meaning that you need affixes for it to mean something.’

Ha An wrote: ‘Base elements hold the most meaning in a word. They’re like the first building block, then you add more blocks to it (prefixes and suffixes’). Base elements are indications of the word in the present day and roots are the meaning and origin of the base elements. There can be two base elements in words, for example <everybody>. Some base elements cannot stand alone even though it might look like they can For example <com+pass+ion>. <pass> here is bound. Without bases you do not have a word. More than one base element can come from the same root. For example from Latin specere – <spect> and <spec>.’

I also gave students a word they had not examined in class <lecture> asked them to prove all the morphemes, then develop a question or a statement of what they would look for in the Online Etymology Dictionary.Only when they had analyzed the word and were clear about what they would do with the information from Etymology Online, did I provide them with the printed entry for <lecture>, the noun and verb.

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So what do I look for in a student’s response that indicates understanding about the structure of words? Well, certainly more than a right or wrong answer. As I hope is evident from student responses, I look to see knowledge of the root and its meaning- yes learned, but important to identify relationships between related words. I look to see justification of a hypothesis with relevant supporting evidence. I look for understanding of morphemes, for  analysis of words into prefixes, base elements and suffixes and evidence of  related words. Above all I look for evidence of thinking as the students themselves are learning that spelling or what is termed ‘vocabulary knowledge’ is cognitive, not rote memorization. These samples certainly help to capture student understanding.

I am proud of their achievements. As my sister and I discovered in a recent discussion ( and yes word obsession does appear to be contagious) the word  achievements has quite a lot to do with heads! Intrigued- curiosity piqued? Then read on dear readers here from the Online Etymology Dictionary, the site where all heads like Alices’s become ‘filled with ideas’ although in the case of these 7th grade students their heads are filled with more than ideas as they are beginning to discover the sense and meaning of words.

And to return the beauty of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, in particular those of the skull as seen above. I am fascinated by his mirror handwriting and the discovery that the right hand page contained his packing list for a journey– all the listed items practical if taken up with the structure of the body. I love the reminder to pack spectacles, fork, charcoal, paper and a skull juxtaposed with nutmeg.

‘On the Utilities. Spectacles with case, firestick, fork, bistoury [a surgical knife], charcoal, boards, sheets of paper, chalk, white wax, forceps, pane of glass, fine-tooth bone saw, scalpel, inkhorn, penknife.

“Get hold of a skull. Nutmeg.

“Observe the holes in the substance of the brain, where there are more of less of them.

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker and jaw of a crocodile.

“Give measurement of the dead using his finger [as a unit].

“Get your books on anatomy bound. Boots, stockings, comb, towel, shirts, shoelaces, penknife, pens, a skin for the chest, gloves, wrapping paper, charcoal.

Watch below an overview of Leonardo’s anatomical work introduced by Martin Clayton for the 2012 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

or a 29 minute documentary on Leonardo’s anatomical drawings here. You might be interested in buying an app for the ipad published by the wonderful Touch Press. Check it out here.

Silent Conversations


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Odyseus and Polyphemous, Arnold Bocklin, 1896

Students are writing essays considering the various decisions Odysseus makes throughout his journey. They analyze these decisions in order to consider Odysseus’s character.

We now have a rich bank of words from our previous work that reflects heroic qualities : determination, resilience, persistence, resistance, courage, selflessness, compassion. We have argued about what makes a hero a hero. We have listed flaws we see in Odysseus, Theseus, Perseus: impulsivity, curiosity, pride, arrogance. As these were words understood by many of the students we began by wrestling with the nuances of meaning. In order to tease out the meaning, to go beyond the surface, I discouraged students leaping to the dictionary as their first port of call.

I have to remind myself that these are the words that are the crux of our year. Students do not have to have bleed, dissect and beat out the meaning of every word, extort every relative in the first few sessions. Of course to know this deepens their understanding and I know would make their thinking about Odysseus even stronger. However, these words apply in many instances to the texts and issues we examine throughout the year so we will have countless opportunities to revisit our thinking.

For now, our focus is to ‘listen’ to one another and explore what we understand about the meaning of each word so far, to consider the morphemes and the related words . This is the thinking so often necessary before leaping to the dictionary and getting caught up in the ‘right answer hunt’. So initially we focus on our collective understanding. By giving time to hypothesize and question each other, when we come to the resources our understanding may then be deeper. We may understand the roots with greater clarity, truly see what lies behind each word, what common meaning is threaded through each of the related words. Too often in the last few years I have noticed students’ frantic rush to ‘google’ the answer, blindly accepting this rather than giving themselves the time and space for conjecture.

Building a Silent Conversation

Nevertheless, we are driven by time to examine all words at the same time!! Wretched time!! How, to explore all words without shallow superficiality, without me ‘giving students the answer’? How to allow enough time for all voices to be heard, for all to respond? We use the strategy of silent conversations.

In building a silent conversation (see explanation here from Facing History, Facing Ourselves), students talk with their ‘pen’.This activity slows down student thinking and allows them to focus and comment on the collective thoughts of others. Rather than one or two dominating the discussion, all students, shyer, less vocal, have a voice. Watch these ‘conversations’ in the video clips below.

Matching Root to Word

To complicate the task, although I like to think of as adding another rich layer(!),  students were able to select from roots that I had written out and place these to the word they believed had orginated from this etymon. You’ll notice that I have not indicated the language of origin, Latin, Greek, Old English. Nor did I give the meaning of the root. This time I want students to notice how letters from the root surface in the base element. Matching root to word will help students in a  later session work through the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary. This helps them to go beyond the first layer in time, to dig deeper into the word’s past history. At the same time it helps students consider why there may be a vowel shift, to see that the Latin infinitive suffix <-ere>, <-ire>,<-are> is shed in its English adoption.

Modelling with ‘integrity’

I modelled the process with the word integrity – a quality we felt heroes possess but not necessarily present in mythical Greek heroes. We asked each other questions such as what is an act that shows integrity? What does it mean to act with integrity? We recognized that to do so could often be hard as one student recognized you do what’s right within but it may mean being at odds with your peers. Another student commented that you act with the truth within, you do what’s morally right. Another said the actions don’t chip away at your soul, or the inner you. Students picked ‘tangere’ from several possibilities as the most likely root to match to the present day English word integrity. They were several hypotheses as to the morphemes with everyone finally settling on <in+tegr+ity>.

Silent Conversations:




Finally students have consolidated their word inquiries and applied these understandings to develop their thoughts about Odysseus.

Excerpts from essays

Gunnar’s conclusion: ‘ The word hero is overused in society nowadays. If a man helps a woman across a road he is not a hero. Someone who rescues a cat out of a tree is not a hero. These are people that are doing things that SHOULD be ordinary. An act of courtesy is not heroism. A hero is someone that is motivated by empathy for others. A hero’s fuel is generosity. They do not succumb to oppressive rules or laws; they fix them. They try to make things right so that the other members of the society can live up to a full potential. They sacrifice their time, energy, and in some cases their life to end unjust ruling. Odysseus’s homecoming troubled me. That image, him standing over the people he just murdered, blood, everywhere, is a massacre. Dreadful and disgusting. Is Odysseus really driven by an empathy for others? He is more likely driven by his own success and his desire for recognition, for fame. Therefore, Odysseus cannot be considered a hero. However, Odysseus is a mirror to society. He is a reminder to the community to adopt his best traits, resilience and intelligence and avoid his bloodlust; arrogance and hubris.’

A paragraph on Odysseus’s intelligence from Julian’s essay: ‘Odysseus’s intelligence is the sole factor that he survived everything on his journey home, without it he most likely wouldn’t have survived any of the battles he faced. The root of intelligence is Latin ‘legere’ which means to read and to gather. Odysseus “reads” the situation he is in and “gathers” information to get out of the situation. If you act with intelligence, you are able to get out of many situations that others would not. You can beat anyone with intelligence no matter the size or strength and this is a skill Odysseus excels at: deceiving people and then backstabbing them when they let their guard down.  Throughout the book Odysseus showed his intelligence over and over again, that is what makes him unique. Every other hero was a demigod or incredibly strong, Odysseus was just a man with a lot of intelligence. This makes him stand out as an individual. He used intelligence to defeat one of the biggest and strongest enemies in all of Greek mythology: The Cyclops: “I racked my brain for a plan… There was a massive staff of green wood lying in the cave, and I whittled it down to a sharp point and hid it in the back of the cave…Here, have some wine, monster. I brought it as a gift, though that means nothing to you. I’ll wager it’s finer than anything you have here…” (The Odyssey)  Even though the cyclops is killing men, eating them, that’s where normal men would have faltered and given up or just charged and fight until death came. Instead Odysseus puts his mind to work, he reads the situation, gathers information and plots his way out, coming up with the most effective strategy to escape the situation. He sharpens the wood, gives the cyclops wine so that his senses are dulled thus giving him a chance to stab the cyclops’s eye. Odysseus has been smart beforehand as well: He knows that that the cyclops would call for help, so he said his name was Nobody so that it wouldn’t be suspicious. Odysseus figured he’d have to move the big rock blocking the cave, the cyclops sat in the gap of the cave and only let his sheep through so Odysseus read the situation again and gathered more information and came up with a strategy: He and his men should hold onto the bottom of the sheep thus allowing them to escape. Intelligent.’

Gigi’s paragraph on pride:Even Odysseus the hero has flaws, which prove him to be human and affect his life and the lives of the people he loves and cares about. He has too much pride in his accomplishments and he wants to be remembered for them. If he had not been so proud, he and his crew would not have suffered as they did. Still when his worn, salt crusted body returns home he understands that some things are more important than pride. Pride comes from the Old English root “prud” which means to be arrogant. Pride is to relish in your achievements, to want everyone to know that you have done something extraordinary. Odysseus wants people to recognize him as a great hero. When he taunts the cyclops, he shows that his desire for fame is so great that he would risk himself and his men for his own gain. In this instance, hubris blinds him from his common sense.When Odysseus says“Cyclops, if anyone asks who put out your eye, tell them it was Odysseus of Ithaca!” (p.109) he reveals his pride. His choice to tell Polyphemus his name is fatal for his crew and nearly fatal for him. Odysseus has many things he could be proud of, but when he lets pride control his decisions, pride becomes a dangerous weakness.’

Amanda’s paragraph courage: ‘The word comes from the Latin word cor, which means heart, to lead or fight with your heart. Courage is a peculiar trait. Courage, a rewarding trait and a death sentence. Needing to be fearful yet fearless at the same time. Too much courage could lead you to arrogance and maybe death. The lack of courage could also lead you to death. To be capable, to balance your courage is a gift. This is precisely what Odysseus displays in his journey. Men who are to be trapped in a cave is troublesome. Men to be trapped in a cave with a cyclops is deathly. Odysseus was one of those men who were trapped in a cave with a cyclops. When the cyclops goes out to tend his sheep, Odysseus observes his surroundings. He takes the staff from a corner and shapes it into a spear. When the cyclops returns, Odysseus offers Polyphemus wine until he passes out. Odysseus and his men take the spear and stabs Polyphemus in his eye. Odysseus takes that leap of faith, Polyphemus could have woken up at any moment and Odysseus was aware of that. Odysseus’s courage saves many, himself included.’

Ulysses deriding Polyphemous, 1829 Joseph Mallord Turner.

I love Turner’s watery, light filled painting. Look carefully and you will see Ulysses (Odysseus) crying out his name to Polyphemus, the cyclops- pride, hubris, gloating? This is the moment of bringing down Poseidon’s vengeance. The horses of the sun rise above the horizon. All are enveloped in the fiery light.

We groaned as Odysseus invoked this curse and have travelled with him through every obstacle this trimester. We have finally reached the shores of Ithaca alongside that ‘man of many troubles’, witnessed Odysseus’s homecoming, seen the welcoming by his loyal dog and been aghast at the slaughter of the suitors and handmaidens. On this odyssey many of these internationally diverse students have empathized with Odysseus’s nostalgia.

We understand that the word nostalgia is of modern coinage, the 18th century in fact,  drawing on Greek roots  νόστος:nostos:home and  ἄλγος:algos pain, grief after German heimweh itself a compound of  ‘home’ and ‘woe’. Ayto mentions Joseph Banks, botanist,  who in 1770 on Cook’s voyage noted this condition, then regarded as a mental illness:’The greatest part of them [sc. the ship’s company] were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia.’ Nostalgia has weakened over the years so that today it is regarded as sentimental, more of a wistful yearning.We use homesickness which entered English in1756 as a translation of Swiss heimweh for this intense longing for your country of birth. Homesick is a backformation of homesickness and was not attested in English until 1798 as an adjective. Read a detailed account of nostalgia in the Online Etymology Dictionary and discover how this condition was regarded as a serious medical issue by the North in the American Civil War.

We, for now, leave Odysseus and leave this post with the final lines from Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson another inspired by the The Odyssey:

‘Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’


Heroes are Not Ordinary!


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Thomas Rowlandson’s  1811 painting Two O’clock Ordinary. An ordinary is a public eating house where meals were served at a fixed time and set price – all in order!!! The house inspiring Rowladson’s painting is Hornsey Wood House which offered ‘Hot roast and boiled from two to five/ Dinners drest on the shortest notice’.

What is a hero? What are the qualities that make a hero, a hero? Lengthy debates. I challenged the classes over the fatuous statement echoing in the classroom, ‘We’re all heroes’. Really? Why the word ‘heroism’ if it’s that common, if we are all heroes? Today it seems as if the word is being drained of substance, is becoming bleached and bland, a flabby, empty word through overuse.

In order to go beyond the banal, we explored the words ordinary and extraordinary and then actions that go beyond the mundane. Eventually our thoughts shifted from the realm of anyone helping, inevitably the hapless elderly, across a road or standing to give the elderly (again) a seat on a train or a bus. Do acts of heroism only involve the elderly? In the scenarios painted by my classes, the elderly figured prominently as recipients of heroic action, as well as unfortunate cats apparently stuck in trees!

Below Jack Smith captures the actions of the everyday, the ordinary, at least ordinary in London 1953. Smith was one of a small group of British painters known as kitchen sink painters so called because they painted the ordinary, everything, including the kitchen sink.

Jack Smith’s 1954 painting of Mother Bathing Child provides a glimpse into an ordinary life in London .


Ordinary’ as an adjective is of Latin roots from ordo, ordinus arriving in English in the 15th century via France. Did you know that as a noun, its use was common up until the 19th century? Rowlandson’s image of the chaotic ordinary, the initial painting in this post, shows it to be synonymous with tavern. The only surviving use of ordinary as a noun today is in the expression ‘out of the ordinary’. We saw the related word order as a noun was older, attested in English from the 13th century .We discovered from the Online Etymology Dictionary that its root, Latin ordinem, accusative of ordo ‘order’ had a sense of ‘rank, a series or an arrangement’ which originally referred to the threads lined up in a loom! So from ordo we have ordain, order, subordinate, ordination,primordial.With the discovery of primordial and ordain ,we hypothesized that the morphemes: <ord+in(e)+ary>.

There was even more to discover. In 1200 the verb order meant ‘to give order to, to arrange’ and it was only in the 1540’s that it took on the sense to command, give orders to. The noun orderly 1781 meant someone who carries orders, broadening later to hospital attendant, so someone assigned to keep things in order. We discovered too the clipped form ordnance from ordinance referred to military equipment, artillery then to the branch of the army concerned with stores of materials. The ordnance survey of Britain was conducted in 1833 under the direction of the Master of Ordnance.

We wondered about primordial– a compound surely, therefore two base elements. So why no <e> in the final position of the first base <prime>?  <prim(e)+ord++i+al>? Perhaps we wondered because it was already primordialis in Latin, already a compound with no final <e> in its base.

Further surprises were the order of the day when we discovered the Latin past participle ornare from ordo had led to words such as ornate, ornament, adorn meaning to ornament, to fit out with. Suborn, anew word for both the students and me, meaning to bribe to bring about a wicked purpose, to lure someone to commit a crime. In constructing the word sum for ornament we wondered if <a> was a connecting vowel letter in the word: <orn+a+ment> and thought of predicament, testament, ligament and fundamental as support for the connecting vowel letter<a> hypothesis. Ornament as a noun is attested from the 13th century, but in the verbal sense not until 1720.

Some of our thinking captured here on the matrices built on Neil Ramsden’s Mini Matrix Maker:

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Helpfulness and assistance is certainly an element of heroism, but the deeds of heroes go beyond the everyday- they are extraordinary. In order to extend the thinking in the classes, my EAL teaching partner and I had students place the choices made by characters, real and fictional, on a spectrum from ordinary to extraordinary. There was no right or wrong placement but we had an expectation that students would offer convincing support for a claim. We hoped students would reconsider the concept of heroism as they placed the following on the spectrum:

  • Odysseus ‘s choice to proceed past the monstrous  Scylla.
  • Telemachus’s choice to go in search of his father.
  • The rescue of a cat from a tree.
  • The nine African American students known as The Little Rock Nine who chose to attend the previously all white Little Rock High school, Arkansas in 1957. Watch below.
  • The young man who attempted to stop the artillery tanks of China’s People’s Liberation Army in the aftermath of the violent gunning down of protesters in Tianamen Square on June 4, 1989.His fate remains unknown but he remains a symbol of peaceful resistance as he stands defiantly before tanks clutching a shopping bag. Watch the extraordinary footage below.

Considering the choices by all these characters, has certainly helped sharpen the discussion as to what constitutes heroism.


Watch a clip from the documentary Eyes on the Prize concerning the Little Rock Nine.

Watch more about the Tianamen Square tankman here and at about 6.50 watch the actions of the ‘tankman’:

Occasionally we witness the extraordinary as seen in the non-fiction excerpts above. Nicholas Clairmont at Big Think reflects on heroism:“Heroism matters because symbolism matters. Let’s stop the hyperbole so that we can truly honor a great and rare human trait when we do see it. Let’s strive to bring ourselves up to heroic levels, not to bring the definition of “hero” down to us.” Read the full article here at Big Think’s, The Proverbial Skeptic blog : You are Not a Hero and follow the links to some real heroes.

While I love the evolution and meaning shifts of words, I worry too about overuse which drains the life and history leaving only brittle word husks. Overuse inevitably walks hand in hand with sloppy sentimentality and flaccid thinking. The Dimwit’s Dictionary by Robert Hartwell Fiske, urges us to write with clarity, to ‘keep the language free from the pollution of empty jargon, idiotic euphemism, self-serving imprecision, comic redundancy, nonsense generally’,(from the foreword by Epstein). Definite, perhaps prescriptivist but provocative and entertaining. Read Fiske’s comments here on hero:

'Hero' from Robert Hatwell Fiske's, The Dimwit's Dictionary, a top twenty dimwitticism

‘Hero’ from Robert Hartwell Fiske’s, The Dimwit’s Dictionary, a top twenty dimwitticism



Monsters and Money in Temples! Sheer Lunacy!


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The Moon and Sleep, 1894, Simeon Solomon

Here is the question from Jeremy in Grade 2 at our school on the Melawati campus:

Is money related to ‘Moon’? If who is seeing this is not who I seek, send this post to Ms. Whiteley of one of the classes in the high school section in ISKL Ampang Campus in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia’s western island, Malaysia, Asia, Earth, the Solar System, The Milky Way, past black holes, The universe.

An intriguing request. Almost Jeremey  ..I am Ann Whiting and in Middle School on the Ampang campus and this is the research one of my students tackled to address your question and the question from the rest of the class as expressed by your teacher:

I have a question to ask one of your English classes. My students were recently studying the days of the week and the meaning behind each day. When we were talking about Monday and making the connection with the base word ‘mon ‘ with month and Monday to the moon, a student asked what about money? Are they connected?

We were thrilled by the  Grade 2’s  inquiry. We were thrilled they were asking us word  questions. However, school was out for two days due to parent teacher conferences. Nevertheless, one student volunteered to tackle this inquiry.

Here are three emails I received from my student over her break.

Month and Monday have a connection to the moon.Month has the proto- Germanic root menoth- (month). And Monday is literally “day of the moon”  which has the root mona (moon). They don’t quite have the same root here, but I think they are related to the moon.The Latin root ‘luna’ means moon, and that’s gets me thinking about Monday in other languages, like French, where monday is lundi, in Italian it’s lunedi  and in Spanish is it lunes. I am doing more research on the relation with money, but that’s what I have found right now. I’ll reply with information on that! :)’

Here is her next email!!

I don’t think that money has any connection, because both Monday and month, they “technically” have a connection. Like, I’m not sure about this, but many cultures (including mine) follow a lunar calendar.(I found some information about why Monday would be the “day of the moon”. It’s after mythical gods and goddesses–Monday coming from Diana or Artemis!)Money comes from the old French monoie, which means coinage or metal currency. I think the reason why the Grade 2 kids thought of it that way was because of the “mon”.

While Jahnavi discovered that  money came into English via  French, I urged her to dig deeper.

‘This sparked a further email: ‘I found out that money comes from Latin moneta or perhaps monere!! However, I’m not sure how that is related to ‘moon’ or ‘month’. I don’t think it is.’

 Watch her explain below:


Apologies for any confusion while pointing to the PIE root( Proto Indo Erupean root) and calling it Proto-Germanic!

Here’s our written reply to our 2nd grade inquirers:

Month and moon are related. Both come from really old roots. Languages have a history- just like you do. You have parents and they had parents and those grandparents had parents and …you get the idea I’m sure..those people are our roots. So it is for words.Words have roots – they come from different places and different times. Some words are old and their roots even older.

Monday came from two Old English roots one is mona : moon which has given us the present day English word <moon>. The other root is also Old English: dæg and this has given us day. So Monday is literally moon’s day. As it has two base elements <mon +day> we have a compound word. A compound word is a word with two or more base elements. In Monday we have a bound base element <mon> .Bound bases mean that that the word, in this case <mon> , can’t stand alone and make sense. It needs another element – in other words another affix or another base. Well Monday of course has <day> a free base element.

This Old English word mona, moon, goes way back, 5,500 years in fact to a root *menes– which meant both moon and month and that goes back to another really old root *me- which has led to the word measure!!!!!So think about measure and month and moon!!! All have a really old root in common. If we think about month it’s the measurement of the moon’s cycle. And if you are thinking moon and month… see what you can find out about lunar. There’s a big hint below. What is the base element here?

Also you might be interested to think about the word crescent which describes the appearance of the moon in part of its cycle. How are crescent and croissant related? Find out about the story behind those words?

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As for money: We think it’s a free base element with absolutely no connection to month and moon. We want to remind you that just because there is the same string of letters in a word does not mean that they share the same morpheme ( that is prefix, suffix or base element). To be related a word has to have the same root and the word money comes from a Latin root monere to warn, to advise!!!

What has warning and advising got to do with money you are wondering? Well, here’s what Jahnavi found out. Money is a fairly old word. It came into English in mid 13th century (a long time ago but moon and month are older!!) Money came via France and before that from a Latin word moneta (Latin is the language spoken by the Romans). The Latin root moneta meant place where money was made or a mint. This Latin word moneta was also the title or surname for the Roman goddess Juno so Moneta (note the capital letter). Etymologists (people who study the history of words) still argue about where the word moneta came from and many think from a Latin word monere to warn. This makes sense to us as the goddess could be warning people when they came to the temple for advice!

Now from Latin monere, lots of other words have come into English. The Latin suffix <-ere> drops off from the word and we have eventually money in English, a free base element. We do not think there is a suffix <ey> – we see it in words but so far can not prove it to be a suffix. Think about <key>, <they>.. no suffix there. Also from this Latin root monere we get words like admonish which means to tell someone off, in other words warn them against doing something. Monsters were once thought to be a sign of evil approaching, doom, of something bad about to happen so in other words, a warning. So no link between month, moon and money but a link instead between money and monsters!!! What a surprise!! There is a lot to talk about with monster but that’s a story for another time!

Read the work on moon conducted by Canadian teacher Skot Caldwell ‘s and his 4th grade class on the blog Who in the World Am I? You might find their work inspiring.

Further research: Endymion and Selene

And that was it I thought. Interesting but no moon and money connection. Our class continued to get lost in Greek myths, along with Odysseus lost at sea. Then as we read one of our texts D’ Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, I remembered  the myth of Endymion and Selene.

Endymion was a handsome shepherd and the mortal lover of the moon goddess Selene. Selene despaired at the thought of Endymion dying and begged Zeus to grant him eternal life. Zeus granted her wish and put Endymion into eternal sleep so that each night Selene could visit him. Some accounts say Selene and Endymion had fifty daughters!  The Greek poet Nonnus of Panopolis says that they were the parents of the beautiful and vain Narcissus. Selene, one of the Titans, is often depicted riding a chariot pulled by horses or bulls across the sky when her  brother Helios, the sun god has completed his journey. She wears a crescent moon on her head.

The Etymology of Selene

Selene’s Latin equivalent is Luna. The Greek name Selene is from the root σελήνη meaning moon which comes from Greek σέλας meaning ‘light’ or ‘brightness’. This goes even further back to the PIE root *swel- : to shine, to beam and could you dear reader, as you look at that root be making the leap to Old English swelter? And what happens when the weather is hot and humid? Well you become sweltery and the weather is sultry!! Read on at the Etymology Online Dictionary  and gasp with amazement at the connections!!

Continue to gasp as you read about the etymology of the name Endymion!


Even more surprising was the discovery that there is a moon~money link after all. Juno is the Roman equivalent of Hera. As mentioned earlier in this post, coins were minted at her temple. As I failed to recognize earlier, she is goddess of the new moon! Her name means “the young one”  from an Italic root similar to Latin iunior “younger,” iuvenis “young”‘. Juno’s name is linked with with juvare (iuvāre) “to aid, benefit”, which led to the Latin compound  iuvenescendo, “rejuvenate”. This then is a link to the concept of renewal of the waxing moon. Read about this here and on Online Etymology Dictionary: Juno.

So where from here with the grade 2’s?

  • While thinking of month , we’re wondering can you find any other words where <-th> is a suffix? Some of the grade 7’s have been thinking about this and gathering evidence. Here’s a clue for one word where the <-th> is a suffix:When you are cold you look for ……? How do you know the <-th> is a suffix?
  • The relationship of <o> and <u> could be interesting to follow on from this investigation . Month when pronounced is  IPA /mʌnθ/ and money as / mʌni/. If sound was the dominant force in the orthographic representation of a word then you might expect  ‘munth’ and ‘muney’. However, because the prime purpose of spelling or orthography is about representing meaning (text made visible) then as we can see month and money need to be written with the single grapheme <o> in order to reflect the meaning link between the moon and Monday and Latin monere warning for money.. As the root was Old English  OE monaþ, OE monað, or OE monoð,it is the grapheme <o> that surfaces in the present day spelling. The phoneme /ʌ/ can then be represented by both <o> and <u>. The choice of the grapheme will be reflected by the etymology. What about investigating the word love as part of an <o> /<u> inquiry? See Kit 1 K Learning from Love and Kit 4C ‘Letters <o> and <u>: Conventions that concern them’ from Real Spelling.
  • Investigate the story behind the verbs wax and wane? How is the word waist connected?

Finally treat yourself to Gina Cooke’s Lex post A Measured Response to Crazy Rumours here and become moonstruck by the connections and interconnections.

For more lunacy journey to 1959 and la bella Mina:



And how can anyone think of the moon without Van Morrison? Listen to Moondance with Van Morrison, Carlos Santana and others recorded in 1977:



It is appropriate to close with Pink Floyd’s Money, from their brilliant 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, that explored lunacy and the things that drive people to this state. Listen here. Read more about the album here and Rolling Stone’s article ‘Forty years of the Dark Side’