Respect for the ‘Harmless Drudge’



Dr. Johnson . Detail detail from a portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.

 Today April 15 cannot pass by without noting that this is the day that Johnson’s dictionary was published.

‘On April 15, 1755 the first great dictionary of English was published. Samuel Johnson’s giant Dictionary of the English Language was an audacious attempt to tame his unruly native tongue. In more than 42,000  carefully constructed entries, Johnson had mapped the contours of the language, combining huge erudition with a steely wit and remarkable clarity of thought’ (Hitchings, 2005, 1)

This was not the first English dictionary( see the British Library Dictionaries and Meanings). However, Johnson was the first to use the literary canonical heavyweights to support his definitions, a tradition that continued with the OED. This was a huge undertaking, almost unimaginable to me today so wedded to computers and the internet. To help with the copying, Johnson did employ, depending on his finances, up to six ‘amanuenses’- ‘a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts. ORIGIN early 17th cent.: Latin, from (servus) a manu ‘(slave) at hand(writing), secretary’ + -ensis ‘belonging to.’‘ (Mac Dictionary)

Johnson’s dictionary shows ‘an intricate portrait of language and social trends. The Dictionary testified to the growth of scientific thought, the influx of foreign influence and the moral and philosophical attitudes of the day. It is the historical record of an age.’ ( Read)

As Hitchings noted many of Johnson’s definitions ‘remind us that he was a poet..’succinct, accurate and elegant’

Particular favorite definitions of mine include the list below and this is where we began in class to day.. with these list of words and their denotations. The students listened to the denotations, felt  the language ‘sounded different from today’s language’ but that it was ‘understandable but not quite of the same rhythm’  as one student claimed.

Imp is ‘an imp is a puny devil’

‘Giglet’ is ‘a lascivious girl’

‘Conscience is ‘the knowledge or faculty by which we judge of the goodness or wickedness of ourselves ‘

Tawdry is meanly showy; splendid without cost:fine without grace; showy without elegance’.

‘Bedpresser’ is a heavy lazy fellow’.

‘Witworm’ is ‘one that feeds on wit’.

‘Mushroom’ n.s.’ An upstart: a wretch risen from a dunghill’.

‘Nidget’ n.s. A coward:a dastard’

‘Higgeldy-piggeldy’ : A cant word corrupted from higgle, which denotes any confused mass, as higglers carry a huddle of provisions together’.

Dull’: Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.

Jobbernowl: Loggerhead; blockhead.

Below ‘beetleheaded’,  perhaps not so common now as a disparaging term. Bring it back I say!

BEETLEHE’ADED: from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, library Yale University

One version of a story concerning Johnson’s avoidance of ‘naughty’ words has  Johnson responding to the woman who expressed her pleasure that his dictionary had avoided these,  ’ No Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find however that you have been looking for them.’ (Hitchings,p.130)

Other impressive facts I shared with the students:

There are 42,773 entries in Johnson’s dictionary which was compiled despite personal tragedy, financial anxiety and depression.

When Johnson completed the dictionary it weighed about 20 pounds.

Initially 2,000 copies were printed for a reading public estimated by Edmund Burke to be less than 100,000 (Hitchings, 196)

This dictionary was expensive to produce so the price, when it was published, was set at 4 pound 10 shillings.

Johnson used more than 500 authors to support his quotes.

Johnson came to see that English language cannot be fixed. Johnson writes: ‘When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another…we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.’

Go to the British Library for a great overview and for Dictionaries in general

Guide to Samuel Johnson, Jack Lynch

Go here to: A Johnson word a day project from Yale University and read about their copy of Johnson’s Dictionary ‘the Syned Gimbel copy’

We watched this short clip to get a flavour of the brilliance and complexity of Johnson’s achievement:

Better still is to watch the fascinating 59 minute BBC documentary:

And here are the students sharing the denotations after discovering a little about the amazing feat of the ‘harmless drudge’, the remarkable Dr. Johnson:

Here are the students sharing some of Johnson’s denotations:

Then take this quiz here: Guardian :Quiz Samuel Johnson

How many definitions does the active verb “To Take” have?

To TAKE (verb active) has 113 definitions.

According to Johnson’s definition, a “Lexicographer” is what?

A LEXICOGRAPHER is a “harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

Continue in this vein and enjoy a small quiz here at Johnson Dictionary online

Read more here about Johnson:

Johnson’s Dictionary Online

Hitchings, Dr. Jonson’s Dictionary: The book that changed the world (2005) Observer Review

‘Lost in the Forest’ of Words


Frederick McCubbin: The Lost Child, 1886

Lost in the forest…

Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig
and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips:
maybe it was the voice of the rain crying,
a cracked bell, or a torn heart.

Something from far off it seemed
deep and secret to me, hidden by the earth,
a shout muffled by huge autumns,
by the moist half-open darkness of the leaves.

Wakening from the dreaming forest there, the hazel-sprig
sang under my tongue, its drifting fragrance
climbed up through my conscious mind

as if suddenly the roots I had left behind
cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood—
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.

Pablo Neruda

Neruda’s poem encapsulates our search for the roots, or struggles to hear the etymological ‘whispers’.

Friday the room was buzzing as students worked together to create trees from the roots they have discovered. We are literally creating a forest of words. As in the forests of fairy tale, there are challenges to be met , as well as roots to trip the unwary and paths that lead to surprising linguistic destinations. We thought we knew these words..they have all been encountered through the year, but revisiting what we thought we knew, shows us how much more there is to be discovered  and how much more we know now than when we first encountered our wordy companions at the beginning of the year. To take learning complacently, to assume we’ve ‘done this’ is to remove the light so that learning becomes stunted and pallid. With words it is always interesting to revisit them, new paths appear, other words emerge with more stories to tell, and those we thought of as familiar, we see as new.

We began here on Thursday. I had always been wary of PIE roots- too distant for students I worried, too vague perhaps. Not so- it is my limitations that I have imposed on students. As soon as I had shared a diagram of PIE roots in the form of a tree, this knowledge like a seed has grown and flourished in the class, literally into the concept of the forest and in the fearlessness with which students reach down to the PIE roots.



The forest has grown out from our efforts to understand how roots and bases are connected, how the roots provide the echoes of the past in a single word and in a group of words, how one root can sometimes lead to many base elements in present day English. We are beginning to see how the whispers of the past permeate the present. You will see enthusiastic exploration of the forest from students and witness many an awkward stumble over the roots from me!







I had reason to follow up a reference to Richard Chevenix Trench , a 19th century philologist and discovered his book is printed in full online ( O the joy of internet!) and so passed several hours on Friday evening! So it’s with this rather lengthy quotation from On The Study of Words (1859, p.1) that I want to end this post. Dear old Richard Trench eloquently expresses the value of why we should venture into the forest of words.

In his series of lectures, this being from the first, he stated that treasures of wisdom and knowledge do not just arise from books….

‘…often also in words contemplated singly, there are boundless stores of moral and historic truth, and no less of passion and imagination, laid up–that from these, lessons of infinite worth may be derived, if only our attention is roused to their existence. I shall urge on you how well it will repay you to study the words which you are in the habit of using or of meeting, be they such as relate to highest spiritual things, or our common words of the shop and the market, and of all the familiar intercourse of daily life. It will indeed repay you far better than you can easily believe. I am sure, at least, that for many a young man his first discovery of the fact that words are living powers, are the vesture, yea, even the body, which thoughts weave for themselves, has been like the dropping of scales from his eyes, like the acquiring of another sense, or the introduction into a new world; he is never able to cease wondering at the moral marvels that surround him on every side, and ever reveal themselves more and more to his gaze.’

Image above: :The Lost Child by Frederick McCubbin, Australian Impressionist painter.  McCubbin’s work of a hostile, alien environment, the bush, reflects a common motif of the period  for Australian writers and artists. In this painting he was directly inspired by the news from The Melbourne paper The Argus of  missing girl Clara Crosbie lost in the Australian bush for three weeks near Lillydale, in 1885.( National Gallery of Victoria). ‘Listen’ to the Australian bush as you view Frederick McCubbin’s Lost Child an ingenious linking of sound and art created by sound artist Jay-Dea Lopez.

Read about Neruda here and the rumours of his murder here.

‘Knowledge without Integrity is Dangerous and Dreadful’


Oliver Jeffer’s whimsical tale: The Incredible Book Eating Boy. Note his consumption of and voracious appetite for words!

Our deeds still travel with us from afar/And what we have been makes us what we are.” George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Until this year I had not read Middlemarch but now, somewhat like The Incredible Book Eating Boy pictured above, I am devouring it and at the moment see Elliot inspiration and wit and truth in every sentence I read. Elliot’s sentence above seems apt when considering integrity.

For the past few days we have been wrestling with integrity.

Watch as Huy discovers more bases… he is so ahead of me at this point! The room starts buzzing and we go further… by the end of the day and at the end of my second humanities class we had discovered potentially 10 base elements springing from this root into Present Day English!

See the final way Nina and Oluwadara chose to share their discoveries with the class. This represents many students’ findings and has been helpful in showing the difference between root and base element, showing how one root can lead to a proliferation (proleaferation!) of base elements in PDE. This is by no means complete but represents our discoveries so far.


Over the course of the year we have explored integrity through fiction and history and we today  applaud the students of Wilcox High in Georgia who show what it is to have integrity and take action in their plans to have an integrated prom. (Thanks to Pete Bowers for the link to this news item which inspired our Global Issues class and deepened our understanding of integrity. ) After reading this article and watching CNN, we read about other battles to have integrated proms, as in Charleston.  We see that integration did not cease to be an issue in the sixties! It is so interesting and ultimately inspiring to show issues such as this to my students in an international school. There was dead silence as we watched the CNN report and read about this.. then students, speaking passionately, were both perplexed and outraged. These are students who, when they stretch out their arms and look at skin colour, represent every possible shade on the spectrum! ‘What is race and skin colour? Is it not political?’  one student asked.

We watched a segement  of the documentary Prom Night in Mississipi.  It was in 1997 Morgan Freeman, Mississippi  local, offered to cover the costs of the Charleston High School prom but only if it was integrated. He was turned down. Ten years later in 2008 he made his offer again. This time his offer was accepted.

Watch an excerpt from the documentary where Morgan Freeman explains to students why he wants to support integrated prom:

We also watched and listened to Jonathan Lykes perform his poem inspired by his Facing History, Facing Ourselves course in ninth grade. (This is the course that has inspired our Grade 7 humanities team and is central to our year long work around identity, justice, belonging and integrity).

Jonathan is proof of the power of words. Connecting literature, historical readings, news stories, poetry, film and art helps students  rework and explore their understandings of words and concepts. It is through words that prejudice, expectations, indifference, injustice, can be exposed. Words and word knowledge can empower and transform the individual and society. I want my students to have a voracious appetite like Jeffer’s incredible book eating boy. I want my students to devour words and use words to transform themselves and others as Jonathan Lykes above does.  It is through the study of words that I hope my students will inspire others to join them and stand up and live a life of integrity.

“Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”
― Samuel JohnsonThe History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

Read and find out more:

Read about the documentary Prom Night in Mississipi in The Independent.

Read more about Jonathan Lykes here.

Read about Oliver Jeffer’s brilliant picture books in this Guardian Newspaper article and see more of The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Read about the influence of Maurice Sendak on Jeffers and a review of This Moose Belongs to Me. So much of Jeffers work revolves around identity,conformity, belonging and yes integrity!

When You’re Chewing on Life’s Gristle…



Edvard Munch’s painting Ashes (1894)

Daily we continue building onto the ‘foldables’ ( see previous post) in preparation for the dreaded word- study test!! Every morning students are arriving before school to discuss words! Some ‘teach’ others, some words we just discuss altogether. We are spending 10-15 minutes at the beginning of the period reviewing all our words investigated in the course of the year. At the moment we are reviewing the first 10. This is an excellent opportunity for me to check individual understanding:

  • Can students match root to the word?
  • Can they give the denotation of the root?
  • Can students accurately divide the words into morphemes?
  • Can students state whether the base element is free or bound?
  • Can students give a few examples of other words sharing the same base element..of other base elements springing from the same root?
  • Can they link the word to characters in the novels read or our units this year?

The review process is also an excellent opportunity for students to ask questions. Just because we have covered this before, does not mean we have explored all opportunities or considered the word from different angles. I am sometimes surprised by my assumptions about what students know:



Today we discussed the fact that just because we can see ‘pass’ as the base element in compassion’ it is not a free base element because the letters superficially look like the free base pass. In compassion the base element is bound while in pass, it can stand alone without affixes and so is free. Both base elements come from different roots.

Below see students reviewing the following words: desperation, courage . Hear Sarah ‘talk like a professor’ about ‘desperation’:



Watch Nina and Oluwadara discuss with the rest of the class what they understand about the morphology and etymology of ‘courage’:



The young lady in Munch’s painting looks as equally fraught as some students in my class at the thought of the ‘word test’. There were strips of paper, scissors, markers, glue-sticks and sticky-tape everywhere as we constructed foldables. I am  assailed by a barrage of questions and the usual hectic, heady swirl of learning and hormones in Grade 7 and even though my hair is a little shorter than Munch’s desperate damsel above, the resemblance to me at this moment was striking. Until I remembered… ‘when you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble give a whistle, And this will help things turn out for the best..’

For those of us feeling that the end of the year is coming roaring at us in a rush with what seems like so much curriculum in too little time to cover, then… join in   sing along with a youthful Eric Idle and ‘Brian’. The words are below so that ‘when ‘feeling in the dumps … ‘( Note to self: Teach this to the students so we can all burst into song as in a musical when feeling desperate!) Watch this excerpt from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979):



Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best…

And…always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the light side of life…

If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing.

And…always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the light side of life…

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow.

So always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath

Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ’em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

And always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the right side of life…
(Come on guys, cheer up!)
Always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the bright side of life…
(Worse things happen at sea, you know.)
Always look on the bright side of life…
(I mean – what have you got to lose?)
(You know, you come from nothing – you’re going back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!)
Always look on the right side of life…

( Thankyou Eric Idle…so true)

Read more about Edvard Munch in a Smithsonian article: Beyond the Scream (title of an a MOMA exhibition) and listen to a fascinating BBC discussion on Munch and his life: Munch and the Scream.

‘The Cruel Hard World’ : Testing their mettle!


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The wily observer of all things connected with school- Nigel Molesworth pictured here with young Fotherington-Thomas skipping around in a moment of joie de vivre greeting the clouds and the sky.

Yes there will a test. End of year. All the words! Gasps around the room – the usual panic. I hope my students once they get over the word ‘test’ will realize they know more than they think they know. This assessment is a way of wrapping up, consolidating what has been learned. I want my students to leave Grade 7 able to:

Recognize morphemes for the words we have studied and indicate this in the form of a word sum.

  • Insert or remove a final, non-syllabic ‘e’ in word sums (analytic word sums where a complete word is analyzed into it’s elements or resolved from it’s elements into a complete word and account for any changes)
  • Identify several words from a matrix as well as create a matrix to represent the related words.
  • Recognize base elements and understand the difference between free and bound bases in the words that have been our focus all year.
  • Identify related words- words sharing the same base and therefore the same root.
  • Identify affixes- be able to recognize many.
  • Know something of the role of suffixes. That is, know suffixes can indicate person, number, tense and give the grammatical clues of how a word will be slotted into the sentence-indicate whether it can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb as well as be aware that through affixation many new words or ‘lexical items’ can be formed.
  • Locate and search through resources to identify roots.
  • Be aware that one root can sometimes lead to many bases in Present Day English.
  • Be aware that a word’s meaning can change over time.
  • Use and understand the term ‘root’ and ‘stem’- how to locate roots and  be able to give the denotation  of the particular roots we have studied. To know roots and be able to recognize the bases that spring from these when encountering an unknown word is a gift- ie. to be able to peel back the morphemes to locate the base then recognize related words and hopefully be able to say  when looking at ‘reclusive’ for example, ‘Yes from L. claudere to shut to close!!’
  • Recognize the spread of synonyms and appreciate some subtle nuances of meaning as we did with ‘stranger’

Mention the word quiz, test, exam and the response is audible.  ‘Quiz’ , my students, interpret as less intense than ‘test’. ‘Test’ draws always a loud sucked in gasp and ‘exam’… well, in Middle School we never mention this- apparently this is too intense a word for an adolescent until you reach High School and even then exams can be talked about as ‘finals’ . Interesting concept applying ‘finals’ to an assessment -when does learning stop? Is that ‘ it’  for the particular body of knowledge when the last ‘quiz’/’test’/’exam’/’assessment’ of the year is completed? Do these concepts not get thought about or discussed or just plain wondered about ever again?  This had me wondering about the difference in meanings of the words ‘quizzes’, ‘tests’ and ‘exams’.

When ‘quizzing’ I had no idea that etymologically one is asking about the essence of self. When ‘testing’ in the 14th century I would have been assaying precious metals … a test was the vessel used to deem the worth of the metals and note the connection to weaving! ‘ 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’.

Sadly saying ‘test’ makes my students take all this seriously!  So a ‘test’ or ‘ exam’,  not I hope mindless regurgitation. It’s the process before the test in class that really counts. See below brief clips of our study guides. It’s an interesting review process… two words a day, then the kinesthetic process of making the guides helps I hope to consolidate morphemes particularly for those who are shakier in their ability to do this. I hope it is also consolidating affixes. When I have done this before, it has become quite a social and bonding event for several weeks.  Students test one another on the ‘foldables’ and gain enormous pleasure in ‘getting it right’. I always have a flood of kids coming in before school (!!) with their foldables wanting me to test them . They scrawl all over the white board reviewing and quizzing one another. It’s a great way too for me to listen to them, observe their understandings and where necessary give more explanation.

We prepare with morphemic analysis, ensuring we are all in agreement. We apply the skills and information students have gathered all year. As always with word study and this too is true for any ‘assessment/test’- my aim is to make connections to literature, history, art, movies, current events. Words do not exist in a vacuum waiting for us to dish them up to students to analyze. I want students to develop a love of and joyousness in reading, writing and uttering words.

The final word for musing and philosophical rumination on the examination process is left to the one and only Nigel Molesworth. Student subversive, irreverent yet philosophizing and silver-tongued Nigel is an unparalleled observer of the quirks and foibles of school life. Below he recounts an exam question given at his school, the ineffable St Custard’s in a chapter entitled The Cruel Hard World:

 ‘5 rats eat 6 seed cakes in 43 mins, 9secs. They pause for twenty minutes. Then they eat 29 rock cakes in 15 secs. (dead). They pause for one minute,13secs. Then they eat a cheese in 33 minutes.

How long do the rats take to eat the seed cakes, the rock cakes and the cheese?”

 Wot a question, eh, to ask a boy! But that’s the sort of thing you get faced with in exams and if you don’t pass exams in this brave age you DON’T GET ON.chiz. …But wot occasionally depress me in my few leisure moments, my dear, is that you have to go on taking exams all through your life chiz chiz chiz chiz.’ (from Whizz for Atomms from the Molesworth teratology by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle)

‘The Molesworth tetralogy is one of those works of sublime genius which no reader will ever forget; more than that, it gives one a prism through which to view the world.’(Philip Hensher) Or watch the Youtube clip below to get a flavor of these books and the educational trials of young Nigel and the school and his masters.

‘Portals of Discovery’


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Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams, 1900 by Vilhelm Hammershoi.

Below are more examples of words that students have investigated independently using the ‘concept ladder’ framework to make notes about a word from our year long list (see earlier post Listomania to Listohpilia) to find examples from fiction, the past and the present that can help students, after analyzing the word into morphemes and locating the root, think more deeply about the word under investigation.

Fellow ‘word bloggers’ Skot Caldwell and Dan Allen and I recently discussed how easy it would be to create a distorted image of our classrooms. It is tempting to create an impression that all students in the class have grasped all aspects of morphological analysis and understand where and how to locate roots and related words. While this may convey a favorable impression of me as word goddess in the classroom with students taking in my words of wisdom dropping like pearls before their attentive, enthusiastic presence, the reality is often different. There is of course variation in levels of understanding as Dan has stated about his class. What I have come to appreciate is this fact of variation and error-making seen in this assignment where students talk independently about their analysis of words. This is a ‘portal’ into student understanding, a glimpse of where they may be struggling or where there may be misunderstandings.

Watch the students below: Emma, Jonathan and Vistar. Emma has a solid grasp at this stage of the year of morphemes, roots and related words. She is able to connect this word to find examples from literature and history and the present. Today we all examined this root with Emma leading us through and we felt that her analysis of the word conformity as <con+form+–it(e)+y> may be peeling back the morphemes a little too far.We used the information about –ite as a suffix from The Online Etymology dictionary here and about -ity here to guide us. Conformity, we know, is an abstract concept and thus we reasoned -ity seems to be the more appropriate suffix.

Jonathan is new to the class having been at school for only a trimester. I am impressed with how much he has understood from listening to, working with and watching his peers. I was highly amused listening to his valiant efforts in getting his tongue around the Old English root (yes, my laughter here is unreasonable as I mangle and stumble over all Latin and Old English roots!) However, today Jonathan felt he could fairly accurately spot from our pairs of words those that would be more likely to spring from OE roots. Jonathan said, based on our list of twenty words, that those from Old English seem ‘more direct, less formal and less fancy’. The Latinate ones ‘seem longer, feel different in the mouth and sound less hard’. Jonathan’s video reveals that he needs clarification when representing the morphemes in the analytic form. He needs to use word sums to show his analysis. I also need to draw his attention to spell out the letters when discussing the elements, as they are not pronounced until reassembled as a word.

Jonathan: ruthless

Vistar’s video shows confusion about connotation. What does he understand about this term? His reading of the root information was illuminating to follow as he doesn’t read and try to understand, rather he is a ‘leaper’! Vistar leaps onto any word made red in the entry following the clues to other words and swiftly snares the last item as the root because it is at the end of the entry! He doesn’t bother to try to make sense of the information.

Vistar: torture

See below as I discuss and work through this with him an attempt to clear away some misconceptions.

Torture:Part 1

Torture: Part 2 ( apologies for the two minute overlap of  the first part in this Video Part 2)

These video clips are windows into student thinking showing the direction I need to take, to make me consider what Vistar and Jonathan and Emma need to experience and investigate in order to clarify their thinking.  I do not agree totally with Stephen Deadelus’s statement that errors are ‘volitional’- I lean more to Real Spellings’s statement that “No one makes a mistake on purpose”. However, I shall clip Stephen’s statement: ‘A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.’ (James Joyce, Ulysses) to emblazon on my wall: “Errors are the portals to discovery’. Thank-you and apologies James Joyce.

‘Portal’ appeared in English in the late 14th century coming from Latin porta gate not as I had initially thought portare to carry. It is linked to the Old English ‘port’- and apparently there two ports- Old English harbor, haven and the Old French port: harbor or mountain pass yet both of these come from Latin portus. The roots suggest passages, gateways and doors. I had thought to use images of the great portals- the Ishtar Gate more than 12 metres high gaudily decorated with dragons and bulls or the Benin palace gates yet Danish painter Hammershøi’s’s paintings reflect portals of a different kind. His paintings show portals literally – doors, windows, passages leading to half glimpsed rooms, and are figurative portals into quiet, still interiors, tranquil in their grey, green and still blues, simple calmness and light. It is only when we go through the portals, taking the time to open the doors and explore the errors that we make discoveries and understandings.

Read more and see more about the understated Vilhelm Hammershøi here: and an analysis of Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams here in The Independent.

1066: Of Winds, War and Words


Bayeux Tapestry

Feeling somewhat like Dr. Who in his tardis, we began our final unit for the year by whirling  through the mists of time from Germany and the Holocaust to land in England and the Middle Ages. While this is a backward leap of some magnitude, we will still be considering leadership, power and control. We are about to begin with ‘The Battle for the Throne’ –  a tale of ‘king wannabes’  touching on motifs of family dynasties, heirless monarchs, sibling rivalry, betrayal and broken promises, astrological signs, bastards ( and there’s word worth looking at!), waiting and windless weather, and in the erstwhile a long march northwards, a dramatic wind change and a battle for the throne at Hastings. This is the year of 1066!

I wanted the students to be aware that 1066 marked a turning point in the shaping of the English language and from this period – well, at least 1100 A.D. on- I’m sure the Anglo-Saxons did not wake up the following morning after their defeat in Hastings with a spontaneous spouting of words that ultimately derived from Latin. Nevertheless, this moment did mark the opening of the gates to a flood of Latinate words to be absorbed into the English lexicon. 

While we have in our word studies found words of Old English origin, I am not convinced students have a strong enough ‘feel’ for these words. So today as many small pieces of paper fluttered across the tables, students matched synonymous pairs of words. These words may share a loose similarity in meaning but are born into English from either Old English or Latinate roots. Today students located the corresponding pairs. Tomorrow they will research the origins to gain, as Douglas Harper had suggested recently in an inspirational etymology conference, a ‘mouth feel’ of the words of Old English.

We listened to the opening passage of Beowulf before beginning the task to experience the sounds. Several students had read the modern versions of Beowulf. Go to this article below to listen to the arresting opening of Beowulf:

Below are a few examples of the word pairs students are exploring:

Love-adore, appreciation of; seethe-boil; hate-despise; lunacy- month-sickness; head- chief; ask – beseech, demand, question; freedom- liberty; evil- nefarious, malevolence ( and way too many more- forever a problem of overload!)

In the between the chaos of fluttering pieces of paper, the two relatively simple tasks of sorting into synonyms then grouping based on the roots, students are engaged.

Watch this group sort and speculate as to Old English and Latinate origins:

And listen as this group discuss what they instinctively feel may be differences in the words from Old English and Latinate roots:

Behind every person there’s a story, not always apparent but a life force, a store of memories and moments that have shaped a personality. And so it is with words. All too frequently we talk- obviously using words but just uttering or blathering on without a moment’s recognition and appreciation of their subtle flavours, quirky personalities, their relatives, and without knowing their stories. For me most recently, the etymology weekend with Gina Cooke and Douglas Harper ( the ‘Word King’ of The Online Etymology Dictionary) has emphasized this. (For more on the impact of this weekend read Dan Allen’s blog Wordstock.)

Harper is a word collector extraordinaire, perhaps to be remembered and linked with the Johnsons, the Murrays, the Grimms and the Jones– philologists and/or dictionary makers quite remarkable.  I can only be amazed and grateful for Douglas Harper’s online word hoard. He has collected, researched and woven into his Online Etymology Dictionary 40, 000 words- a remarkable feat that does not bind, tie or preserve in formaldehyde and stab words with little pins as is the want and ways of entomologists. Rather he lovingly, respectfully collects and lays words before us as in a wordy photography album ( white, a blank tablet ) …. and in doing so he breathes and mutters their stories, their shady pasts once more.

It is this I want my students to understand. Words shape a person. You are the words you utter- they feed and nourish your soul and mind. This is what  I want for my students- not to dive in to dictionaries to track and tick, fill in and be graded on sterile exercises but to encounter and swim and luxuriate in the ocean of words around us,  to use them well and wisely, to marvel and play with words in order to think.

This is what we have been doing so far this trimester… collecting words, analyzing them carefully, learning to look for the elements, to find relatives both close and distant, those so close they share the same base and the cousins that have sprung from the same root.. I want my students to hear this whisper from the past, sometimes stamped strongly on the physiognomy of the word, sometimes a mere hint. All this adds richness when reading and interpreting an author’s words. I want my students to see words as the colours that give subtle hues to the tapestry of the text. And so on to taste and feel and glimpse the words of Old English, to have a sense of the change in the lexicon occurring with a battle in a small field in southern England. Tomorrow after investigation, we will ‘taste’ the words that stem from Old English, consider the effects of Latinate words- the difference in register, the effect on a reader.

For those as I am entranced by the visual recording of this battle in 1066 in amazing tapestried detail ( 55 dogs, 202 horses, 506 other birds and animals, 49 trees and 623 people!) watch this:

From Listophobia to Listaphilia!


Adolf Konrad, packing list, 1962–63. Adolf Ferdinand Konrad papers, 1962–2002. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

I have often bemoaned lists of any sort and as a proverbial list hater and listophobic haunted by doubts such as: Where have I put my list? What should I include? How can I not feel daunted and dominated by the list? As a result of list intimidation, I have suffered the chaotic consequences of list avoidance!

However, of all of the lists I have hated, perhaps it’s vocabulary lists most of all that rankle. I dislike the smug assurance that these lists will expand students’ vocabulary and boost reading scores. Mostly,  I see these sort of lists as an inadequate way to foster an understanding and love of a words and that these lists are not in any shape or form a ‘study’ of words. All too often these lists are given to students with the instruction ‘Write the definition and write a sentence using the word’. All too often, sentences using the new word are trite and shallow. Rarely is there any discussion of the morphology or the etymology. Rarely are students asked to make connections to a word’s ‘relatives’- those sharing the same root and base.

Yet, ironically perhaps, what follows is our work on a list of words! These words are ‘listed’ as concepts that are critical to the focus throughout the year. As such these words will be encountered many times and in a variety of situations. All these words have been part of a year long list visible from the first day of school. These words are on our tables and on the walls. We have the words written individually on A3 paper with sticky pad notes that grow and flutter through the year with all the connections students have found in books, texts, articles, current events, movies, art. We refer to them constantly, asking students to make connections with these words to the literature we are studying or link to an art piece and justify their thinking. We list all the people we meet throughout the year- fictional, historical and very much alive and then connect them to one of the words.  We reinforce concepts of prefixes and suffixes and base elements with these words and make lists of these playing various ‘games’ such as: “ I’m thinking of a word with a bound base element, a prefix and two suffixes’ or ‘ The root is from Latin and has a sense of twisting’. I hope by the end of the year students have a deep understanding of these words, the roots and back-stories, the connotations as well as the process of how to go about ‘reading’ and researching a word. I’ve learned that lists aren’t all bad- it’s what you do with them:  how you group them, what patterns and principles you explore, what questions you ask and what questions the students ask about them!

Below are both my humanities classes selection of words for investigation from the list:

It was a day of madness and mayhem as we attempted to wrap up our independent word study investigations. The idea that you can ‘wrap up’ anything swiftly and neatly in word study is somewhat deluded. There is always another aspect, another line of inquiry, another connection that can be pursued. We decided that everyone would share their insights into their chosen word and after completing a matrix to indicate the related words, find somewhere quiet to record their connections and their investigative process. The students agreed that Quicktime screen recording would be a fast way of sharing their thoughts thus far.

As  ‘experts’ on their word, students were expected to ensure information was accurate as possible. I adapted Janet Allen’s concept ladder to include more than a definition of the word- to add denotation and connotation, elements and root and through examples from literature, history and the present day, to consider the more abstract reflections as to the effects and causes of the particular ‘concept’ under investigation. Often these connections have led to thoughtful written responses but today we thought oral explanation aided by their ‘ladders’ was an important, often under utilized way of assessing understandings.

Listen to Nina discuss her word with me below:

Listen to Lauren and Sahana share their understandings:


It is interesting for me to see how far students go at this stage of the year without teacher prompting. Many students rushed the word sums in forming their matrix, all too eager to press ‘update’ on the mini-matrix-maker to experience the heady pleasure of an instant and satisfying result.  Yet while this is a thrill with all those word sums transformed into neat columns and rows, persistence, thoughtfulness and care to be as accurate as possible are important. Working through the word sums in order to construct the matrix was for some students less exciting than the hunt for the root. However, this is a crucial part of consolidating morphemic understanding. In the construction of the matrix, there were many questions of one another, their resources and me. The matrix construction process too helped clarify the concept of compound words with some students finding examples of other free bases that can be attached to their base. Many recognized that over, under and by were not prefixes but free base elements and that fy and fic were from Latin facere : to make or to do, and are frequent base elements in present day English often mistaken for suffixes.

How can one not become besotted by lists when looking at Adolf Konrad’s inspirational packing list above? As I sit here a little shivery in the Tokyo Narita airport ( on my way to an etymological Word-Fest that I bet involved lists in the organizing) I’m wondering why didn’t I pack better and plan with a beautiful list like Adolf’s above. I will listen to and watch my student’s talking through their understanding of a word and make a list- a list of where to go next, of what each student has learned so far, of what suffixes have been identified or confused… Lists are not all bad… I’m moving from listophobia to listaphilia!


Further Postulations about Pater: The long and winding road.



This image is a satire on Banks“The Botanic Macaroni”. A macaroni was a pejorative term used for a follower of exaggerated continental fashion in the 18th Century.

It has been a ‘long and winding road’, a bumping along in fits and starts as Huy and I try to determine the base elements in present day English arising from the Latin root pater, father.

Watch our less than graceful leaping between etymology and morphology, our bumbling diachronic and synchronic analysis! We follow leads and I often lead my companion astray into perhaps unnecessary but interesting diversions.

This particular journey on this long and winding road began with an investigation in to the word ‘perpetration’. This journey has required patience and persistence and I applaud my companion on this quest, Huy, who has not wavered but continues to ask questions and research which takes us even further into the wordy wilderness. All too often one question leads to another and then another and we realize we have strayed far from the path. Perhaps because he asks the questions and notices patterns, or has been challenged by my questions and puzzlement, Huy’s motivation and engagement in his research remains high.

Asking students to support their claims about morphemes with evidence is integral in this process. We have lists that as a class we have built for suffixes but as Huy indicates it is far from exhaustive. We have a prefix list (courtesy of Real Spelling) and this has been a critical support for students in developing initial confidence in morphemic analysis.

Note my felonious dodging away from felon… I know I need more thinking than time in this session permits and I would be again drifting further off the path and purpose of our investigation. Nevertheless, I lead Huy astray again with other brief glimpses of words: –on: ‘beckon’, ‘button’, not really staying long enough to establish anything. Yet these discursions offer unexpected and tantalizing word-vistas encountered on the journey .

In the final video below, Huy postulates that –ern is a suffix in paternal. I had never considered this a suffix.  Of course I have seen it often, just not identified or recognized it,  nor the suffix -ot.  As Huy shows, neither was on our list! We felt like botanists returning with precious specimens from expeditions, an apt analogy, as horticultural terminology ‘flourishes’ in linguistics with roots and stems and hybrids as Australian linguist Kate Burridge indicates in her books  Blooming English, and Weeds in the Garden of Words

The image above is one the great plant explorers, Joseph Banks a member along with Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, of Cook’s expedition to record the transit of Venus and plant and animal life encountered on this voyage to the South Pacific. Yet even the great Banks, the ‘virtuso’ botanist as Robert Hughes calls him, could be led astray! In his desire to collect more specimens when the crew were restocking water and wood supplies in Tierra del Fuego, Banks, his fellow botanist Daniel Solander and their plant foraging party, fell prey to assumptions about the weather and blithely ventured off the beaten track. Read here about the dangers of straying and assumptions- of bogs, epileptic fits, exhaustion, blizzards, hypothermia, loyal greyhounds and death!

Of Perpetrators and Bystanders



Picasso’s Guernica, 1937.

Huy, a speaker of English for only two years, is currently investigating the word ‘perpetrator’, a word key to our current studies as we consider how prejudice and bias are created and speculate as to how  we can overcome them. We ask what allows some individuals to take a stand against prejudice while others choose to participate in it. We wonder why people stand by while civil liberties are removed and terrible acts are committed.

Below Huy considers the word perpetrator and shares his thinking. Huy was caught up in this investigation beginning the previous evening and throughout the day. Sadly, his last two videos of Friday have no sound! However, he sent me a message tonight, Sturday, saying, ‘I can do this!’  and recapped his thoughts in two new videos about how he regards this base element thus far. He sees ‘petr’ as one base from the Latin root ‘pater’ meaning father and speculates as to whether ‘patr’ is in fact another base. He wonders about ‘patriot’- unsure as to whether ‘-ot’   is in fact a suffix – he has seen zealot (and knows, although does not speak about this in this video, that ‘zeal’ is a free base element) as well as the word divot which he feels may support the’-ot’ as evidence for it being a suffix. He also wonders as to whether the base is ‘patri’ or <patr+i.>. We had discovered the compound word ‘patriarch’ on Friday and had talked about whether this word ‘patriarch’ indicated that ‘i’ was  a connecting vowel as connecting vowels act like suffixes and connect one base element to another or occur after a base and a connect to another suffix. Huy felt the term ‘combining element ‘ was confusing in reference to ‘patri’as the term does not indicate whether it is a base or a stem that occurs frequently in many words.

Huy eliminates in his video the word ‘patron’ unfortunately without the discussion he had about this earlier. He had noticed that this had come from the L. root pater and had wondered whether ‘-on’ was a suffix’ , then decided after seeing that the only suffix ‘-on’ referred to  sub-atomic particles, that ‘patron’ must be a free base element and while indivisible, still clearly related. He felt by the end of Friday that the  L. root ‘pater’ had led to these bases in present day English: ‘petr’, possibly ‘patr’ or ‘patri’ ( he leans more to patr’) and ‘patron’. He said as he was heading out the door,”Who would have thought that one word could have so much inside it!”

Below is our Friday discussion after Huy had thought about this for homework the night before- you will see my online comments suggesting he consider his suffixes!

What a valuable assessment piece! This shows the level of engagement he had with this investigation. Huy’s videos below also reveal, without any teacher prompting or questioning, the degree of his etymological and morphological understanding and thinking, as well as the ease he feels in manipulating the various tools to indicate his metacognitive awareness of the process involved in this research.




Here is his ‘working matrix’ for ‘patr’:

patr Huy 8.13.42 PM

The image above is of course Picasso’s Guernica painted in response to the bombing by German and Italian warplanes on the Basque village of Guernica.

As one the perpetrators of this atrocious slaying of innocent civilians in the unarmed Spanish village on April 26, 1937, Herman Goering testified at his trial, “The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience.”

Picasso shows war as a brutal and destructive and through his images inspired by the attack on Guernica and builds an unforgettable collage of suffering: ‘Speculations as to the exact meaning of the tortured images are as numerous and varied as its viewers, and perhaps this was exactly Picasso’s intention. A composition so compelling challenges our most basic notions of war as heroic, unmasking it as a brutal act of self-destruction.’ (PBS) 

Watch Lena Gieseke’s animation of Picasso’s painting: