A Year in Words



A year not in words but in agriculture from a calendar from a manuscript of Pietro Crescenzi, written c. 1306.

The final assignment for the study of the novel Crispin and the Cross of Lead by Avi, our text while we studying the Middle Ages, is focused on character change but of course at it’s heart is word study.

The text is set in England in 1377. It centres around a young boy, Crispin, who initially is only known as Asta’s son. He is falsely accused of a crime and declared a ‘wolf’s head’,  a punishment that allows anyone to kill him on sight. Crispin changes through the course of the novel and through the friendship of Bear, a juggler and ex-priest, who has been strongly influenced by the real life character John Ball a priest who advocated social equality.

 ‘Ah, ye good people, the matter goes not well to pass in England, nor shall not do so till everything be common, and that we be all united together and that the lords be no greater masters than we. What have we deserved or why should we be thus kept in serfdom?’ John Ball , Priest and leader of The Peasant’s Revolt (Froissart’s Chronicles)

Crispin finally discovers his identity and has, through his friendship with Bear, learned to question and think for himself. This novel serves our themes and recurring ideas of the year well: identity, belonging, oppression, standing up, courage, outsiders, exclusion , inclusion.

Often throughout the year we have paused at the end of a chapter or section in the book and chosen the one line that best sums up a character or theme; often we select  a single word that epitomizes the theme, mood or character. Students share ideas with their group then select a word individually. This is then shared in a ‘wave’ around the class by students standing up and saying the word. It often sounds like poetry. This can give both me and the students a snapshot of the perceptions of the text and of course can be extended in a variety of ways. Here below are the words everyone felt that best captured the essence of the character of Crispin at the beginning of the novel:



And here is what they felt reflected him at the end:


Our last assignment based on the text considers character change. Students create an identity chart for Crispin as he appears in the beginning section of the novel then then towards the end. This involves discussing character change, motivation, turning points, foils. We encourage students to settle on five words from the group generated lists from above that best describe Crispin initially then the five most applicable to Crispin as he is at the end. Students are asked to support these choices with a line of text as well as providing a justification for each word choice. Of course in the determining of the most applicable word as a character trait, the students’ understanding of the word is deepened by considering the root, the morphemes and related words.

Below Ryan talks about the word he feels applies to Crsipin at the beginning:


We felt<nox +i+ous> seemed likely as the bound base in the word ‘noxious’. To prove that <nox> is a base we needed to confirm that the affixes could be peeled off and replaced by another. We know the connecting vowel <i> and <-ous> as in ‘famous’, ‘courageous’  but  we could not find anything, at the moment of recording, in PDE with the base <nox> and different suffixes. .. so we reluctantly conclude the base is <noxious>….at least that’s where we left it until late last night when I dipped into the OE to discover ‘noxa’ and ‘noxal’.

Noxa: Latin noxa harm, injury < the base of nocēre to hurt, injure (see nocent n. and adj.).
1971   Nature 2 July 18/2   Aspirin does not lessen pain in skin, elicited by noxious substances, but it does lessen pain in other sites, when elicited by similar noxae.

2001   Canad. Jrnl. Gastroenterol. 15 187   While a single liver tissue injury can be followed by an almost complete restitution ad integrum, the persistence of the original damaging noxa results in tissue damage.

Noxal (adj)

Etymology:  < classical Latin noxālis (only in the jurists, usually in noxālis actiō , noxālis causa ) < noxa harm, injury (see noxa n.) + -ālis -al suffix1.

Of or relating to damage or injury done by a person or animal belonging to or in the power of another.  noxal action n.  [after classical Latin noxālis actiō] the process whereby a claim is instituted against a party for such damage or injury.  noxal surrender n. the compensatory surrender to the plaintiff of the person, animal, etc., by which the injury was done.

These words would seem to indicate that there is a bound base <nox> from the Latin root nocere to harm.

Listen below to Luciana and Sydney discuss their choice of words that they feel best applies to the character of Crispin at the beginning of the novel and then at the end. Others had done this over a week and  these students who had been absent quickly wrapped up their understandings orally. They had had only twenty minutes or so to determine the morphemes and locate the roots. Of course word study is not a speed test but it was interesting for me to note how these students handled this.



While their analysis of ‘insecure’ is faulty,  it does show however the recognition of <–ure> as a suffix. There was sadly only one more day to talk about this ( and even for these keen word nerds it perhaps is not what they will be discussing on the last chaotic day of school!) If only there was more time ( my perpetual cry) we would be able to explore this word further.

 ‘Insecure ‘ as an adjective entered English in the 1640’s , about 140 years after ‘secure’. Secure with a sense of ‘without care’ , from Latin ‘cura’: care.  ‘Secure’ as “without care” appears to be from two words ‘se cura’. So ‘insecure’ can be analyzed as <in+se+cure> with cure, sinecure, pedicure, manicure, procure as words related to the base element.

Earlier in the week, as part of the final reflections about our journey through grade 7, I gave students back the word study survey I conducted at the beginning of the year where I had asked them a variety of questions including what they understood about various terms such as morpheme, affixes, morphology, etymology. Below are their reactions about this early survey and a conversation about the difference between talk and writing:



Yes we had a list of words but that list was the essence of the year’s work. It was not there not to reinforce a spelling convention but to deepen understandings of the material students would read. What is encountered in these words is true for many words and what is crucial is for the students to be able to use these words, to think more deeply and this is only done with an investigation into the words to see the subtle nuances, the changes over time, to see the families and the relatives and know how the word has been battered around, changed, broadened or restricted over the years.

Word study has bound us as a group. We have shared discoveries, students have discovered things I had not known and from the words we shared ideas, thoughts about life, beliefs about what we as humans need and want, how we treat each other, why we hurt one another, and why we stand-by. We finished the middle-ages unit discussing power and control, rebellion, betrayal and the slow march towards greater equality. Over the last few days we have watched the documentary Bully to cement understandings about power on a personal level to discuss difference, acceptance and integrity…( all words on our list). We have talked about how to reach deep inside to be true. Spelling and word study is more than letters in the correct order, more than a quick glance in the dictionary to parrot the meaning. This has been a year deeply enmeshed in words and we have only had a mere glimpse at the power it can bring to our thinking. What I know after this year is that we have connected as a group and we have explored all this by, because of, with, in and through words.

Below The Year in Words ( or at least some of them) created by several students who would come in before school to play around on the whiteboard with words. Thankyou in particular to Nina and Oluwadara. And that’s it from the Word Nerds of 2012/2013 of a year in words.


Words in the Mind: Variously and Strangely


‘Molesworth Sooliloquy’ drawn by Ronald Searle: Molesworth in a ruminating moment, considers the absurdity and fleeting aspect of school life’

Why test? (And I do not refer to the boiling of frog’s intestines which to my mind, although perhaps not shared by the students, is more cruel than this review of a year’s investigations of words! See post The Cruel Hard World)  It certainly led to a flurry of excitement, panic and heightened interest and purpose. Students knew there was to be a reckoning of sorts, they have come to expect this from Middle School classes but I too hope that they are able to see a purpose to ‘so much toil so much effort.’

I am ambivalent about this test- the grading on the one hand drives some students, pushes them to focus and study and ask questions. I worry that this kills off intrinsic motivation. I worry about grading or giving a score for something that shows us ( me and the student) what the student knows and where confusion still remains. This information is for both of us. Certainly it helps me see where I need to clarify misconceptions, misunderstandings, provide more experiences, work individually or work with the entire group. To sum this up in a letter or number is often absurd. And yet…

I have to admit that by saying ‘final test’ many students have leapt, have risen to the challenge and some even bizarrely enjoyed it. I confessed to students my doubts about grades and testing- this was in response to one student’s question and comment, “What will you do after the test?” He explained with wry perceptive humour  that I appeared to be “milking this situation (the test) for all that it’s worth’! How true! I am open in my bribing and cajoling and holding the ‘test bar’ high above them and am certainly guilty of exploiting the student preoccupation with tests and grades. I console myself thinking of it as the presentation of a challenge. However, I do believe that this information that they take to the test is valuable and worth knowing ten, twenty, fifty years from now. It is the process of preparing for this test, of internalizing, taking deeper within and to heart many words, base elements and roots so they can apply this to other encounters with words, other musings about these concepts.

So what does the test indicate that the students have learned? 

  • They can match a root to a word. They recognize elements present in the root that have persevered into PDE.
  • They understand that words are built from morphemes, the elements of meaning,
  • They can recognize many prefixes and suffixes and the vast majority state they can analyze a word into morphemes- perhaps some are over confident here!
  • They understand that words have a history and story.
  • They understand that words are connected in meaning by a common base element
  • They understand that a base element is related to other base elements through a common root.
  • That many students feel proud of their ability to analyze words.
  • They, many (not all) feel they have valuable knowledge.
  • They can see a link between reading and writing and speaking and thinking and this newly found ability to reflect on words and to consider the relatives, close and distant.
  • That many have enjoyed the challenge.
  • That they can all see growth and feel their understanding of the nature of words has deepened.
  • They know that if they bother, they can find the back stories, the history and connotations, the changes over time in their resources.
  • They can make connections between the word and our units, can connect to literature we have read this year, historical and present day.

Below are some responses on the test after the usual questions of related bases, matching of roots to words and determining free and bound bases, to the question:

What have you learned about words? Why is word study important? 

“Word study is very important because not only do we learn new and interesting things, we also understand words better. I have learned so much from the beginning of the year to now. I have learned to determine roots better. I also find determining morphemes easier. I can never look at words in the same way again, all I see words now as bases, morphemes and I wonder about the roots. Whenever people say words like “compassion” I suddenly think: Latin pati “to suffer”. ( Manya)

‘I have learned a multitude of things in word study over the course of a year. At first I barely knew anything about word study or roots. Now I can tell you the roots, morphemes, related words and bases for all the words on our list. I can tell you off the top of my head the denotation for courage. I can say for sure that I have learned a lot this year. I think word study is important because it can help us understand our language. It can help us spell a word that we forget and can help us when we do the SAT test. Also when we don’t know the meaning of a word, we can divide it into morphemes and identify the base. If we can recognize its root, we can then know what the word means since a root often isn’t that different from a present word’s definition. Word study is very valuable to us in many different ways, and can help us in our own daily life.’ ( Alexis.)

‘Learning about words is like torture because its really hard. But I think learning about words it helps me more on my understanding of some of its related words. I think learning about words are important because we need to know how some words can be strong words.’ ( Januar)

‘I have learned a lot about words especially how to find a root, similar bases, divide words into morphemes and more. I have learned a lot since the beginning and now I am better. They ( words) can be very powerful and they contain lots of different meaning. Word study is very important because when we understandabout words we can use them in a way that’s effective. Example in the word dissent . Its meaning is offering and opposite opinion.We can understand it as to feel and think differently. Words can be more powerful and effective if you learn about them. (Huy)

About words, I have learned that each word has a story behind it. All words are somehow rooted back to a specific origin and meaning. Words have unimaginable amounts of power; the power to make people joyful, depressed  angry , and any other emotion felt by man. Words can make a difference between someone’s life and their death. Words entertain, are a source of information and a way to communicate. Word study is one of the most important things to study in my opinion( after you get past the boring and tortuous parts of it) because it teaches the true value and original meaning. It shows the word’s base form from a very long time ago. After I got used to word study, it has become one of my most favorite parts of class because of how interesting ( I can’t believe I am saying this, but) fun it is. Word study is crucial for a child’s education in my opinion.  (Hale)

I have a tendency to jump to an assumption and stick with that no matter what. When I came in to 7th grade I had a way of looking at things and I would always stand my ground. This way of defending my initial idea is now starting to change. It started with when we looked at Odysseus and his journey, even more so as we looked at the Holocaust and the Third Riech, even more surprisingly  when we looked at words and word study.  One would think that words have the same set of rules but as we looked into the English language, I realized that these words are always changing and strangely enough some of our word debates have been some of the most lively in our class. This is because the words are not just black and white but often have particular connotations and over time they can change.(Liam)

‘ I have learned that word study is important because we are able to have a deeper feeling for a word: it’s like knowing the name of someone but then actually getting to know him or her, because with a word when you start searching for its roots, you get a connection with it.” ( Shamir)

 Listen to what the students themselves felt about the test, word study and what they feel they have learned:






What have I learned ?

  • That students are capable of great persistence, of curiosity and of working with determination and rigour when it is expected of them.

I know that this year long focus on words has encouraged deep thinking around important ideas: What is courage? How do our values shapes our identity? Can we be courageous without fear? Why do people oppress others? What is it to be belong?  What is it to be an upstander?  When does difference make a difference? What is power: who has it? How are power and control interrelated? What is justice? What is the right thing to do?

Today I chanced upon Virginia Woolf’s The Death of Moth and Other Essays and stumbled into and was entranced by her essay entitled, Craftsmanship. Below are samples that I hope will entice you to read the full essay.

 “At the first reading the useful meaning, the surface meaning, is conveyed; but soon, as we sit looking at the words, they shuffle, they change;…

Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages …

It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order.  But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together. “ Virginia Woolf

And this is precisely what I wish for my students, after this heightened franticness in assimilating the words that have been the fabric of our journey this year, I want them to find that by the end of the year that:

 “Words do not live in dictionaries: they live in the mind … variously and strangely”

I close my rambling ‘sooliloquy’ echoing the philosophizing  Molesworth’s statement: ‘Ah me.. so much toil, so much effort.’. but so much  gained.

And Another Branch Bites the Dust


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Fred Williams: ‘Tree Loppers’: Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1927 – Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1982.

Yes chainsaws were heard ripping through the ‘Forest of Words’ as one branch ‘bites the dust’. The class spent five minutes today deciding whether <-it> was a suffix or in fact part of the base element of <spirit>. They made the video to share with my other humanities class, the discovery that they had not ‘pruned’ far enough in their initial analysis of this word. They came to realize that ‘spirit’ was in fact a stem, not another base and a metaphorical branch on their ‘spirare’ tree. Each table group used Word Searcher to gather data in order to determine whether <-it> was a suffix.

I initiated today’s discussion sharing my uncertainity about ‘spirit’. Was <spirit>  another base element from Latin spirare? Could <-it> be a suffix? How could we be sure? Word searcher and data! ‘Vomit’, ‘audit’ and ‘plaudit’ would be all that it took to lop a branch from the ‘spirare’ tree!

One group looked up <vomit> – and that was an interesting discovery! This word came from Latin vomere: ‘to spew forth, discharge’ (students loved this description!) and they were able to find an example of another word , the marvelous compound ‘ignivomous’. In this word, analyzed as <ign+i+vom(e)+ous>,  we saw not only another base element, <ign> from Latin root  ignis “fire”but realized that <-it> can be substituted by <-ous> when the other bound base base element ‘ign’ was added. This compound word coined in 1600 and built from two bound base elements, means vomiting fire. The OED uses an example from 1603: ‘What a Monstrous Coyle would Six or Seaven Ignivomous priests keepe in hell. (S. Harsnet Declar. Popish Impostures 70) .One student wondered whether dragons could be described as ignivomous, while others thought this described the actions of volcanoes.

Watch Luciana present the class findings confirming <-it> as a suffix and the inevitable result for the branch.

So what have the students learned from this?

  • That knowledge can be refined based on new evidence.
  • That there is no quick definitive ” answer’ more a “for the moment and based on current evidence, this is a reasonable hypothesis”.
  • That you continue to question, to reflect.
  • That time and a little distance often allows a new perspective  in which to see ‘the wood from the trees.’

What have I learned from this?

  • Never to fear making a mistake. Students are willing to adjust their thinking based on reasonable evidence.
  • That students now are competent and swift in using resources such as word searcher and Etymology Online.
  • That this type of investigation now only takes 5-10 minutes. Word study can be embedded in a lesson every day- sometimes  longer periods are necessary, sometimes only a few minutes, but the skills and regularity build competence in research and familiarity and knowledge of morphemes.
  • That these skills of gathering evidence, analyzing, reflecting on the data are the same process of investigation seen in Grade 1 (see Skot Caldwell’s latest post), Grade 5 ( See Dan Allen and Mary-Beth Stevens classrooms) and Grade 7.These are the processes that promote a disposition for inquiry and develop persistence.

I recently read this statement about the philosophical nature of science by Dorion Sagan via Brain Pickings. It seems to embrace the ‘spirit’ of word inquiry:

‘Science’s spirit is philosophical. It is the spirit of questioning, of curiosity, of critical inquiry combined with fact-checking. It is the spirit of being able to admit you’re wrong, of appealing to data, not authority, which does not like to admit it is wrong.’

Watch below an overview of the inspirational art of Fred Williams, particularly well known for his  paintings of Australian landscapes. He captures the dead straight horizon line, the starkness and the light that is quintessentially Australian. Perhaps it’s as the school year end approaches, but Fred William’s trees evoke a nostalgic longing for my “roots” in this lanscape.

And surely Dear Readers, you knew by the title this was coming of course (and who wants to live forever?) Yes, another fabulous Freddie with “Another One Bites the Dust”:

The Art of Breathing


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‘Swimming’ an action where the breath and what you do with it is critical. This image and instruction from the Art of Swimming‘ by Thevenenot is published in Paris as ‘L’Art de Nager’ in 1696, a French translation of the English (but written in Latin in 1587) book by Sir Everard Digby:  ‘This (the image above) is easily performed in the manner following. You must keep your Breast advancing forward, your Neck upright on the water, both your Hands fast behind your Head, or on your Back, while in the mean time your Legs and Thighs push you forward by the same motions you make when you Swim (as at other times) on your Belly. This way of Swimming may be useful, in case any accident, as the Cramp, &c. should happen to your Arms, or if you were forced on occasion to Swim with your Hands tyed behind you, on in case you were a Prisoner, and your Life or Liberty depended on it.’ Go to BibliOdyssey for more images, instruction and information about this vital activity!

Manya suggested in a flash of inspiration that every group should take a photo of their word tree as well as record their explanation in order to help everyone prepare for the final assessment. Every student has found the ‘trees’ helpful in terms of understanding the relationship between the roots and the related base elements in PDE. Again these recordings show me where students are in their understanding:

  • How embedded is the linguistic terminology?
  • Do students understand the difference between synchronic and diachronic etymology – possibly not these terms but can they locate the root in their research and link this to present day English?
  • Can they see the connections from the root to the base element in the word under investigation?
  • Can they identify other related bases?

The tree recordings will also show me simple procedures such as whether students spell out the base element rather than pronounce it. This may seem ‘picky’ but it is a key point in that a base element is not necessarily a word and as such should not be pronounced. Pronunciation can change as we see with sign, signal, assignment despite all having the same free base element <sign> and  Latin root signum to mark, to stamp. It is key for the students to remember that it is meaning and structure first and foremost. So as students complete their recording (their study guide based on their research) we will post. Here is the tree that began with word ‘inspiration’.

The work of the spirare group was interesting. They began by looking at inspiration and from there found many related words. They could all see the underlying connection to breath and breathing.  As the students gathered related words, we were puzzled by how to represent expire. Clearly it came from L. spirare but could not see why the ‘s’ disappeared.

I was lucky enough to read a post from Dan Allen where student Lucas was facing this problem of a disappearing ‘s’ with the word exist (and who said teachers need to know everything first?) Read Learning Never to Doubt Lucas. I shared our puzzlement over expire and the absent ‘s’ and in three way skype moment with Old Grouch in France , me in Malaysia and Dan and Lucas in Switzerland, we came to the conclusion that ‘ex-‘ followed by a base with an initial ‘s’ would lose that ‘s’ . Therefore, the base element <spire> has an allomorph <pire> appearing only when preceded by the ‘ex-’ prefix. This too is the case in the word exist from the Latin root ‘sistere’ to stand when preceeded by ‘ex-’ , the allomorph <ist> is used. In both cases the /s/ is present or retained by the grapheme <x> in the two phones (sounds) one letter , one phoneme /ks/ represented here by the letter <x>  [ɪkˈspaɪ(ə)r] . Exciting to reach this conclusion together. Very interesting then to  watch the students’ recent recording where I noticed how they had written the Proto Indo European root with a bracket around the ‘s ‘.. *(s)peis. 

We have seen examples of both ‘inspiration’ and ‘conspiracy’ in all units: the plotting of Rhea and sons to hide Zeus; Penelope’s conspiracy to outwit the suitors – a conspiracy of weft and warp to hold onto Ithaca in Odysseus’s absence; the theories of blood libel through the centuries- the shocking conspiring to represent Jews as the root of evil from the 12th century onwards whereby Jews were vilified as ritualistic child killers – a  hatred born out of false stereotypes and myth as the title of Goldstein’s book A Convenient Hatred, indicates.( Click here to view The Power of a Lie) Conspiracies too were seen during the Weimar republic where  supposedly the Jews colluded with Soviet Communists in attempting world domination and even more shocking, the conspiracy of silence that led to bystander behavior and the death of countless Jews. This week in humanities we see the knight conspiracy against Becket. Was King Henry the second behind this plot to murder in the cathedral? At the same time we see inspiration in all areas of the curriculum.

Stan Carey comments on the plethora of phrases revolving around breathing: ‘Take my breath away’, ‘don’t breathe a word’, ‘breath of fresh air’, ‘breathe down someone’s neck’. Read more here:Inspiring Etymology. 

And to move on to linking the idea of ‘breathing’ and ‘conspiracy’ to hyper-vigilance or stalking behavior, listen to none other than Police, where both breathing and conspiring and quite possibly a lot of perspiring occurs:

Every breath you take

Every move you make

Every bond you break

Every step you take I’ll be watching you (Police, 1985).

If you have now, like I did, become obsessed with finding out how many songs there are involving breath or breathing, then check these links out or read here: Guardian: Readers Recommend Breathing Songs

 Corrs: Breathless

 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds : Breathless

Hollie’s Version: The Air That I Breathe

And what about sighing? Surely this involves ‘breath’ and an’expiration’, so of course the inspirational version of Shakespeare’s Much ado About Nothing , directed by Kenneth Branagh and ‘Sigh no more ladies , sigh no more , Men are deceivers ever…’

And Dear Readers, Sigh no more… inspiration is fading!

Stems, Base Elements and other Puzzles


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Puzzles are the basis of this 17th century ‘trick’ poem here illustrated by Ramsingh Urveti: I saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, published by Chennai’s Tara books. Go to the inspiring BibliOdyssey for more information.

At this stage of the year I really feel we are in this ‘wordy’ research together. Who is leading whom? This feels like joint scholarship. Last night I had several messages from students about base elements that I had left off a common group compiled chart that we are using to help prepare for the inevitable word study test! The base elements I had forgotten were the tenth element students had discovered from the Latin root tangere from when they had researched ‘integrity’ and the ninth, tenth and eleventh related bases stemming from Latin capere: to catch, to hold that students had found when investigating ‘acceptance’!! (More on this in the next posts!)

I love the fact that students are spotting my errors, correcting my work and going beyond my hasty research. It was one of these groups that ‘chatted’ with me online last night about L. valere ‘to be strong’. A few days earlier one student questioned a group’s representation on their ‘tree’ that ‘value’ was a free base element. “Couldn’t ‘ue’ be a suffix? ” To word searcher!! We rapidly eliminated true, blue, imbue and many others.  I then left it with students to think about for a few days. Fast forward to last night’s message from a student… ‘How about fatigable and fatigability? Wouldn’t that prove <-ue> could be a suffix?”

Watch the video clips below as these students share their thinking. Again they have burst into the room to discuss this before school ‘officially begins’!



I thought I knew that words containing the digraph ‘ue’ came via France. Not so with ‘true’ and ‘rue’ both from Old English. Blue seemed to replace Old English blaw, attested in English from 1300 as bleu, blwe from Old French. (Read a really interesting account of the word blue here in Online Etymology Dictionary). However, ‘venue’ and ‘fatigue’ did enter via France. The Latin root of venue is L.venire ‘to come.’ ‘Venue ‘ is attested from the early 14th century, initially meaning an aggressive arrival: ” a coming for the purpose of attack’ and how this has neutralized and extended to refer to a place or location!Words such as convene- convent and convention; intervene and intervention indicate a twin base element. 

‘Fatigue’ is attested first in 1660s as a noun via French fatiguer and a mere thirty years later in the 1690s as a verb. It’s root is Latin fatigare , this root itself perhaps a compound (see Online Etymology Dictionary). Students had spotted fatigable, fatigability last night in the Mac Dictionary, variant forms of fatiguable. An earlier word , now obsolete, fatigate was attested in 1471 (OED) and used by Shakespeare in Coriolanus in 1623:’His doubled spirit Requickened what in flesh was fatigate.’ (OED).  Surely, we all feel- even the skeptical Valentina, this provides evidence that we have found a suffix previously unknown to us. An interesting morning’s work – none of it conducted in the official school work time!

On the other hand towards the end of class today , by way of a review, for the aforementioned test, I asked the following questions. Yes, it’s speeding towards the end of the year, but the responses to these questions are lively, showing the engagement and enthusiasm towards  these puzzles. Students collaborate in small groups and are  excitedly and noisily competitive in ‘cracking the puzzle’:

These noisy, frantic ,enthusiastic videos below are in response to the question:

What do whales, sweat and conspirators have in common? (Check your thinking with the groups below!)




Try this: What do dictionaries, kings who give up power and someone like Hitler have in common?


And student confidence, speed and volubility rises!!!: What links cordiality, bravery and hearts ?


Normally quieter students are leaping to explain! How do a chilli, despicable behavior and an inspector connect?


I was amused by Gabriel’s connection:’And another thing, Red Hot Chilli Peppers were arrested by an inspector!”

How do nasturtiums and torches link?

So what? Why know this stuff?  Listen to Liam’s response that succinctly sums up reasons for word study:


Or consider when wondering about word study, Sarah’s response I came across earlier in the lesson when checking her portfolio for humanities that she is preparing to share with her parents:

Word Study: In the beginning of the year we looked at words and their roots.  We would take our time to focus on one word, to understand that word better.  By looking at these words, it expands our knowledge and gives us new ways to look at words.  The roots of words inspire us and consumes us to learn more.  The words that interested me I made videos for shown below.  Identity ExclusionDesperation.  Looking at words in more depth, by finding their morphemes and related bases, not only helps me understand the words better, but improved my spelling, and made suffixes and prefixes in words more noticeable.  Before 7th grade I had no knowledge about root and morphemes, I never did that before . Now I walk out of class with a high head, feeling like I know everything about words. A piece of work that really made me feel like I proved that is my <e> theroy, and my video.  I saw how powerful words can be, loud words are attention grabbing, smooth words are friendly sounding. One man loved words so much he wrote it in his resumé and inspired me to try; I like words.  That is true, now I like words and I hope I’ll learn more along the way, because as we go into more depth, I go into more depth about myself.’

And to enjoy the poem, see more of Urvetti’s illustrations and have the puzzle revealed then watch this:


Watch this to see the handmade process used by Tara Press:

Wreaking Havoc


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According to OED the phrase to ‘wreak havoc’ was first used by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. 1926 A. CHRISTIE Murder of Roger Ackroyd xx. 239 ‘Annie is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.’ Above presumably is Annie carefully not wreaking havoc!

Wreaking Havoc

To cause or effect (harm, damage, etc.), esp. in phr. to wreak havoc (O.E.D.)

Old English wrecan strong verb.

Yesterday we wreaked havoc – and before explaining further I just have to say how I love the way both words, wreak and havoc, the first from Old English origins and the latter entering English via Anglo Norman contact, nestle so cosily together in this familiar expression. In a sense this cohabitation of words as seen in this phrase, encapsulates our year’s study. This is the third of a series of exercises focusing on OE and Latinate roots. (See previous posts: 1066 And All ThatOpening Up Vocabulary and Avoiding Getting Stuck in the Same Pool of Words) I want students to understand the richness of English, to be aware of how words from different layers of time meld and intermingle in PDE (Present Day English).

We worked with converting text that used words primarily from Old English roots and altered these to words from Latinate roots. We apologize to the shade of Langston Hughes for the havoc wreaking on his beautiful poem :Hold Fast to Dreams.

Read Group one’s version.. the original verse followed by their alteration :

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Latinate version, verse 1

Embrace securely to ambitions

For if visions subside

Existence is a fractured-pinioned avian creature

That cannot soar.

Or another group’s version:

Secure tenaciously to hallucinations

For if hallucinations vanish

Sentient consciousness is a fractured pinioned levitating creature

That desists to levitate.

Here is the butchered second verse:

Embrace secure to vision

For if visions expire

Existence is a deserted prairie

Precipitated with an aerial substance of ivory coloration.

Watch below a rendition of the poem ( Latinate version)

In my second humanities class we looked for the words from OE and the words of Latin origin, but rather than another ‘havocking’ on Dreams, we brought to ‘wrack and ruin’  a line from Lord of the Rings, the movie, not directly Tolkein’s text. I have recently been besieged by a number of  Grade 7 and 8 boys who can quote endlessly from this!!

‘They come with fire, they come with axes… gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning. Destroyers and usurpers, curse them.’ 

Below Liam reads the original and explains the task:

Below are some confusions with words of Latinate origin. I had assumed students understood that if a word was attested in the Middle English period, it may be of Latin roots. I had assumed that students knew that French had Latin roots.However, now after this exercise, they are beginning to see that words with Latin roots have entered the English lexicon directly or via another country and are perhaps ‘knocked’ about a bit on the journey!

Clarification of when words are first attested in English and their roots is necessary. By discussing these dates below (source: Online Etymology Dictionary) as well as looking at the diagram we have on our wall showing PIE roots and the languages that branch off this, the chronology and language branches will become clearer.

Latin: classical Latin, the Italic language of ancient Rome until about 4c.

Late Latin: the literary Latin language as spoken and written c.300-c.700.

Middle English:the English language as written and spoken c.1100-c.1500.

Modern Latin, Latin language in use since c.1500, chiefly scientific.
n. Noun

Emma and Lauren’s version:

 “They arrive armed with flame, they arrive with hatchets…corroding, consuming, fracturing, lacerating, igniting. Destroyers and usurpers, inflict damnation upon them.” 

After students made the changes, they were asked to consider the overall effect of each and which text in their view was the most effective. Listen to their versions and their reflections.

This exercise, worked through in pairs or small groups, took only 15 minutes at most- of course it could be extended but I want students to be aware that words have a history:

‘a history of encounters- profound, lucrative, violent. Yet to those who know the language intimately it has a strange power of alchemy, the capacity to transform whatever it touches.’ (Hitchings)

I want students  to sense that the words from Old English, as Hitchings eloquently notes, carry:

 ‘ a deep emotional charge, direct, suggestive of something more primal, more resonant, more tangible… The Anglo Saxon part of the English vocabulary seem to earth us. Its matter of fact quality is at odds with more academic colour of French and Latin word-stock.’ (33)

The words surviving in PDE from OE roots are of the everyday as Matteo put it. These words are the underpinning of the ‘lexical superstructure’ (Burridge: Blooming English) from words entering through contact with the French:  ‘ask’ is Old English, question’ is French; interrogate is Latin; ‘rise’ is from Old English, ‘mount’ is French, ‘ascend’ is Latin; ‘stink’ and ‘stench’ are from Old English, ‘aroma’ and ‘fragrance’ are French; ‘house’ from Old  English,mansion’ French. (Burridge). Changes were occurring before the Norman Conquest but this inevitable change accelerated with perhaps as many as 10,000 words entering the lexicon via this contact and ousting many of the OE words. So goodbye to ‘inwit ‘ hello to ‘conscience’, goodbye to ‘leeches’ , hello to ‘doctors’, ‘surgeons’. as the students are beginning to discover, the flood of new words has led to a layering of stylistic registers in PDE.

The last words (many, as the students would now recognize, of Latinate origin!) are with Henry Hitchings:

Sensitivity to the routes by which words have entered our language is important to our understanding of who we are..’(ch. 1)

You may enjoy:

Telegraph photographic essay : The Secret Life of Words

Kirkus review: The Secret Life of Words

Complications Implicit in Exploitation: A bending and folding in words and art


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Brian Dettmer’s altered book. He ‘folds, bends, rolls, and stacks multiple books to create completely original sculptural forms.’ A ‘complication’ of pages and a literal ‘application’ of folding! As Dettmer exposes the layers of the book, so we expose the roots of the word as we dig through the layers of time! ‘I work with knives, tweezers and surgical tools to carve one page at a time, exposing each layer while cutting around ideas and images of interest. Nothing inside the books is relocated or implanted, only removed. Images and ideas are revealed to expose alternate histories and memories’ (Dettmer)

Early morning, before school, and only, as a student informed me, twenty four teachings days left!

Now, regularly small contingents of students drift into the classroom to review words. I have coffee; they seem to wake up with words! I remember a dear friend who used to begin our word study work-shops with an introduction reminiscent of AA meetings, “Hello my name is Dorothy and I used to teach phonics!” I too have taught spelling in a variety of ways.. ‘Look- Say- blooming Cover- Write -Check’, (no explanation as to why a word is structured in a particular way, no recognition of morphemes) individual lists, mnemonics…  all disconnected lists, surface activities and games that get nowhere near the meaning, history, structure and interrelatedness of words. No joy, exuberance or intellectual engagement.  In using those approaches at no time ever did students come running up to me during the day with a connection, a wondering or a discovery. At no time did students come into the classroom during their free time to discuss and analyze words.

This below is a fairly typical morning at this stage of the year. I love the way that  students straggle in from about 7.20 onwards and just enter into whatever wordy discussion is in flow. They all have the foundational skills to engage in this orthographic thinking and research.. all before 8.00 am!!

So welcome to the chaos of room 255 (must re -stick  posters that are sliding and curling floorwards and clear clutter!!) this Tuesday morning, April 31:

This begins quietly with one student wanting to review her understandings of the word exploitation and helping another to make sense of her research about the root and the many bases springing from this in PDE (Present Day English).

Part two shows further thinking and then planning for next steps as I accidentally had kept the recording going.

Below Alexis shares his observation he had made immediately after I turned off  the camera!

See more of Dettmer’s book sculptures here and on his site Brian Dettmer. I love the bending, folding, cutting of words and images to create new meaning.

Read The Guardian article here

Be amazed by the complexity ( a word to explore tomorrow with the ‘Early Morning Word Drifters’ – great name for a band!!)

A word hoard revealed -arranged , rearranged – O the infinite possibilities and permutaions of language! O the brilliance and surgeon-like precision of Dettmer.

Opening up Vocabulary and Avoiding Getting Stuck in the Same Pool of Words



Yes Minsiter Illustration by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe

Thank-you to Liam for the title of this post.Here are a few more versions of the Battle of Hastings written using only words of O.E. origin.

Clara: Version 1

Standing in the battle field. Weapons at the ready, the pressure of fighting for our country was so great. The battle was about to begin. I stood there not knowing whether I would survive this or be one of the hundreds taken down yet on the outside I had to be strong, I couldn’t let myself be engulfed by the fear I felt inside. The sounds of the soldiers, of the farmer of the horses filled the still air. Knives and axes were being sharpened- people readying for what lay ahead. With every step closed to the enemy the tension grew greater. However the time had come, we all had to face the opposition and pray we would not go down a failure.

Version 2 OE  

Standing in the war ground, weapons at the ready, the weight put on us to fight for our holy land is so great. The war is about to begin. I stand there not knowing whether I would live through this or be part of the hundreds taken down, yet on the outside I must be strong I will not let myself be swallowed by the fear I feel within. The racket of the fighters and of the horses fill the heavens. Knives and axes are being sharpened- people readying for what lay in the time to come. Every step nearer to those men is unbearable, my worry grows greater. However the time had come, we all had to hope we would not go down without winning. With the last words “Ut, ut, ut!” the war began.


Hale Version 1

Fearful and unsure, I look over the hill where I may perish. Although it is my duty to fight for my country, defending my life is not my most desired activity. As thoughts begin racing through my head, feelings overtake my body. Why do these Normans want to fight us? If they desire us dead, why shouldn’t we desire the same? The complete silence gave me a headache. The hateful thoughts of others crowded the air. Some wanted victory, others to fight for those they love, others were forced to participate, but what they don’t understand is if you go looking for death, you will surely find it. As a feeble fyrd, I have never encountered a battle, let alone participated in one, but I would never have expected myself to act so cowardly. My body shook with fear so violently to the point where I could barely stand my ground. Stand up for victory? For the death of those we hate? What are we fighting for? I desire to fight for my country and my people, but to risk my own life to kill others seems greedy and selfish.  

Version 2 Using words of Old English

Fearful and unknowing, I look over the hill where I may fall. Although it is my work to fight for the land of my fathers, I wish the answer would not be the death of us, or of the foe. As thoughts crowd my head, feelings overtake my body. Why do these Normans feel need to fight us? If Normans are hungry for our sleep of the sword, why should we not feel hatred? The stillness makes my head ring with aches. The hateful thoughts of others crowded up to the heavens. Some hoped to win, others to fight for those they love, others take part against their feelings, but what they do not understand is if you go looking for death, you will find it. As a weakly fyrd, I have never come across an iron rain, or have taken part in one, but I would never have thought myself to become so fearful. My body shook with fear so greatly to the length of when I barely stood my ground. What is there to stand up for? What are we fighting for? I wish to fight for my homeland and my friends, but to threaten my life to murder others is greedy and selfish.

I am really pleased with this process of revising writing to words of OE roots . In many cases the OE version has more flashes of poetry. Where to next? Converting text to words of Latinate origin! Look at the impact below as I altered the first few sentences of Hale’s OE text! ( Obviously the function words were maintained.)

Fearful and unknowing, I look over the hill where I may fall. Although it is my work to fight for the land of my fathers, I wish the answer would not be the death of us, or of the foe. As thoughts crowd my head, feelings overtake my body. Why do these Normans feel need to fight us? If Normans are hungry for our sleep of the sword, why should we not feel hatred? The stillness makes my head ring with aches. The hateful thoughts of others crowded up to the heavens. Some hoped to win, others to fight for those they love, others take part against their feelings, but what they do not understand is if you go looking for death, you will find it. As a weakly fyrd, I have never come across an iron rain, or have taken part in one, but I would never have thought myself to become so fearful. My body shook with fear so greatly to the length of when I barely stood my ground. What is there to stand up for? What are we fighting for? I wish to fight for my homeland and my friends, but to threaten my life to murder others is greedy and selfish.

My  alteration to Hale’s version 2 using words of Latinate words:

With trepidation and ignorance, I regard the surroundings from the diminutive mountain where I may perish. Although it is my duty to defend the territory of my ancestors, I desire a response that would not result in the expiration of us or the enemy. As ponderings create turmoil in my cranium, my emotions inundate my anatomy. Why do these Normans desire  the engaging of combative actions with us? If Normans are ravenous for our extermination,  why should we not experience antipathy?.…. and so on!

This is enough to consider the effect and impact of Latinate words. So to whoever reads this blog and works with students,  I encourage you to try this exercise with students. It is a remarkably powerful way of addressing the the skills we endlessly hound our students to consider when writing. In doing this you will be emphasizing:

Purpose: All writing needs a purpose, a context. In this case students needed to understand the events of the battle and the historical events that preceded this. They needed to understand the form/genre, realize this was a narrative point of view snapshot . They had background on the battle for the throne between the three contenders of the time Harold Godwin , a member of the powerful Godwin clan, who had ‘ sold his brother Tostig up the river’ (Schama) in order to ensure northern support for the time when Edward died and Harold made his bid for the crown.

Revision: The whole point of the exercise!

Word choice: The exercise, more than anything I have done with students, focuses completely on word choice- every word has to be considered and  weighed up, discarded if of Latinate origin, replaced by words of OE roots. Is the meaning still clear  when using another OE synonym? If I can’t use this word , how can I rework my sentence/phrase so that the same mood is maintained ? Will this be even better? As Liam discovered, “It opened up my vocabulary. I kind of get stuck with the same pool of words!”

Collegiality: In terms of a collegial classroom environment- again this exercise emphasized this. Students kept running to the board telling each other not to use this word but try this, they added to the list of OE words that they had discovered that might be useful. Without prompting they all read their pieces to others seeking advice when stuck. As soon as Alexis who had been absent for two days returned there was a host of others there to help him locate the OE words  and share their ways of expressing an idea.

Exuberance with Language: This exercise engendered a playfulness, a relishing of language as they accepted the challenge. Lauren and Emma noted how they had fun with this, it made them ‘research words’ to come up with another way of expressing an idea.

Etymological Understandings:  This has consolidated students’  awareness of the etymological layers of the language. They see the Germanic underpinnings- they even discovered that many words of Latin were in use before 1066 . They realized from their research that Edward the Confessor was more Norman than English. (He left as a child refugee for Normandy only returning to be King at 36- of course the words of his court would have been Norman.) This tendency to absorb words into English is part of its structure and the crowning of William was not the initiation of language change but certainly from this period onwards many more Latinate words became part of the English word hoard.

Using References: Students now have had a lot of practice checking the roots of each word and are far more proficient in reading the Online Etymology Dictionary or using the Mac dictionary. They are beginning to see how meanings shift over time. They are beginning to see how language, by using only Latinate words can obfuscate, intimidate or create an aura of expertise.

These are valuable understandings if we want students to have control of language, to be able to shape it to their purpose, to change the register of how they speak or write. Do they want to impress, display an impression of intelligence or erudition or just want to be direct and clear? Is this writing that is reflective and meaningful ? No not necessarily. However the discussion  and reflection about this is very powerful.  “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means” (Joan Didion). This is not a substantial enough piece of writing to be doing this. This paragraph merely focuses in a meaningful way on elements that will I hope be internalized about writing in general and word choice.  By working through the stages of this exercise once, will students absorb this and weigh every word  in future writing? In my dreams only! However, we now have a shared experience to reference when I ask them to consider clarity and word choice. This exercise will be our touchstone: is this particular word the best here? Would it be better to aim for a more powerful possibly OE word or is there an additional sense added by your Latinate choice here? From this point on, I hope students will not just use ‘big’ words because they sound good!!

Of course the ‘obfuscation or Latinate words go wild effect’ has all been displayed with wit and humour in the unparalleled  Yes Minister, a British sitcom written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, satirizing the working relationship of cabinet and the civil service . The series concerns the struggles of a hapless cabinet minister Jim Hacker , played by Paul Eddington, to pass and enact legislation in conjunction with the Civil Service represented by the Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, played brilliantly by the  wonderful Nigel Hawthorne. This series seems as true today as ever.

And one more of particular relevance for those who study etymology:

And so to end with another example of Latinate verbosity and superfluity from Yes Minister ” concerning the language of the Civil Service:

Sometimes one is forced to consider the possibility that affairs are being conducted in a manner which, all things being considered and making all possible allowances is, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps not entirely straightforward.’

Translation: ‘You are lying’.”

Go here to read an article in The Telegraph by Antony Jay one of the writers of Yes Minister and here to Jonathan Lynn’s site  to see more images from the series and read more memorable lines.

1066 And All That


Bayeaux Tapestry

Yes in the Grade 7 classroom it is ‘1066 and all that’…I want to add- ‘and all that’ this implied for the English language! Over the past two days we have returned to words of Old English origin.

We watched Part 2 Conquest from Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. Our investigation into this aspect of the conquest of England is based around considerations of power and control. In succinct, vivid imagery, Schama invites viewers to picture themselves in this battle and this is what students were asked to imagine. For 10 minutes they wrote retelling the scene from the perspective of an Anglo Saxon huscarl, thane / thegn, or  fyrd, to develop a one paragraph piece of narrative writing around this battle. We wrote for 8-10 minutes and shared the writing.  Students were then asked to revise ensuring that every word used was of OE roots!! Panic!

One aspect I wanted students to experience was the language change that occurred after the Norman conquest. I wanted students to understand that the users of Old English were linguistically creative, new words being formed through compounding and derivation and that words of Old English are at the heart of our everyday speech. Students already have a slight feel for words of OE from earlier exercises( see post April 2: 1066 Of Winds War and Words). Listen to their struggles to find words of OE roots to replace Latinate words in their texts:


So why do this?

Apart from the direct link to our history unit, it is  an interesting exercise that forces a nimbleness of mind. Sudents have to think around the words and phrasing, switch ways of stating something, consider options and select the words that best express their intention. Some students claimed they had loved their original choice- somewhat doubtful as they had only written for 8 minutes. It’s hard to become so wedded to a particular phrasing in that time! More likely that they were not in love with the idea of pushing themselves to consider and reconsider every word! This exercise encouraged revision with a focus on word choice. The paragraphs were not so lengthy as to make this task daunting but complex enough for them to sift through roots and to develop a feel for the directness and sturdiness of Old English. I want students to experience the differences between using a word or a phrase expressed in words rooted in OE as opposed to Latinate words.

Before sharing their writing we read and then viewed a short video clip (thanks Old Grouch) of Anglo Saxon re- enactors led by our trusty guide Ælsige, who in the OE equivalent of a level 1 basal reader, welcomed us, the viewers, to his house, wife, brother; showed us the door, the floor, then the trees, sky and sun!  Amusing but students noted the different letters and were able to identify some words in the OE text before viewing and ultimately comprehending what was said.

Students tightened their writing.They gave suggestions when others became blocked and could not avoid a Latinate word. They discovered many function words are Old English but not ‘them, their and they’- some interesting dodges around this here! They discovered that just because a word has Old English roots does not necessarily mean that the current meaning was the same in the past. We saw this when Luciana used ‘blades’ to refer to swords.  In Old English it only referred to blades of grass and did not acquire the sense of being applied to swords until the 14th century! Pretty too needed to be changed in Oluwadara’s writing. In Old English prættig  meant ‘cunning’, ‘skillful,’’ artful’,’ wily’,’ astute ‘ later shifting to’ fine’ and ‘beautiful’ but in a diminished, more superficial way. However,by the late 1500s it had become ‘considerable’ and used as a qualifier of adjectives and adverbs since 156os!

Watch this group sum up their challenges:



This is a simple exercise but with so much potential for exploring clarity of speech, revision, development of a poetic tone through compounding, a splash of kennings ( not overdone!) and a lot of experience in hunting down the roots of words  and discovering meaning shifts- pejoration, narrowing or broadening.

Listen to Luciana reading her writing using words of OE roots. The moment before the battle:

Here is her version 1:

‘As I looked down the hill upon the enormous army of Normans, I almost shook with fear. I heard the sharpening of their blades, and it seemed as if their intent faces were narrowing in on me. I was already exhausted, from walking down across our noble country from the north, away from our victory at the battle of Stamford bridge. I was feeling a little confidence though, as I had already fought, and I had not lost my life, but that small amount was draining very quickly out of my body each time I glanced at the normans. I saw their horses, stamping with anxiety, and remembered, the horse at my farm and my mother. I remember her weeping as I walked off down the path, along with the men of my village, going off to war. I had comforted her, saying that everything would be fine, and that I would be back before she knew it. Now I wasn’t so sure.’

Listen to version two:

As I look down the hill on the mighty crowd of the Normans I almost shake with fear. I hear the sharpening of the Norman’s life-slayers, gleaming in the sun of the morn, and it looks as though those watchful eyes are narrowing in on me. I am worn from the walk along our great kingdom from the north, away from our win at the bloodbath of Stamford Bridge. I have fought before, and have not lost my life, so a small crumb of boldness is shining through, but that is draining quickly from body, each time I look at the Normans. I see the horses, restlessly holding back, and think of my horse at home, our house and my mother. I think of her weeping whilst I had walked off along the path, with the men of my small town, going towards the war, not knowing what was to come. I had told her that everything would be all right, and that I would be back before she knew it. Now I do not know I believe that.

I enjoyed Luciana’s use of ‘crumb’. Read when the ‘b’ appeared here at the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Last night , as I read Henry Htching’s (2008)  The Secret Life of Words, I stumbled upon this sentence which expresses the essence of what I hope students experience when investigating words: ‘Studying language enables an archeology of human experience: words contain the fossils of past dreams and traumas’ and again a paragraph on:’Words are witnesses. To quote George Steiner,”When using a word we wake into resonance … it’s entire previous history.'(10)

The title of this blog comes from the classic parody on history text books,the classic Sellar and Yeatman’s (1930) ‘1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’ . Read excerpts here.