This winter. That’s all, just this winter. At least in the U.S., this winter!

This winter forced me to cancel my Coming Home spelling seminar locally; the weather did a few folks in, and a bad winter cold did in another. In the end, not enough people could come, and the weather really was kind of miserable. So I’ve rescheduled that for Saturday, May 10th, and will post a revised registration flyer soon. Take that, Winter! Spring will have sprung by then, and we’ll be well on our way to summer.

In other seminar news, the Early Bird deadline to register for two upcoming LEX seminars is rapidly approaching. February 28th marks the spot, though I am a softie and typically end up extending it just a bit. Since folks need to make travel plans, it’s helpful to get a headcount early on. Here are those registration flyers.

Won’t you join us?

140329 Etymology Bis with Doug Harper 1_Page_1



140329 Etymology Bis with Doug Harper 1_Page_2

140426 Word Detectives 1

140426 Word Detectives 2

In the five years since my serious spelling work began, I’ve traveled to France and Canada, and all over the U.S., to peddle my understanding. Scholars have attended my workshops from around the U.S. (the West Coast, the South, the Northeast, the Midwest) and from three other continents (Australia, Asia, and Europe). My LEX Grapheme Decks are in use in classrooms and clinics all over the world, including Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. My TED-Ed videos have been seen and enjoyed by speakers of many languages in many corners of the Earth.

Big deal.

It is said that a prophet is not without honor except in her own hometown, but it’s time to put that perspective to the test. While I’ve offered trainings and workshops close to home in the past, this month marks my very first one in the town I live in (see flyer at the end of this post). It’s offered on short notice, and space is limited, but it’s time for spelling to come home.

Come home.

Come. Home.

Why do those two works look so much alike, but we pronounce them so differently? The International Phonetic Alphabet gives us this way to represent the different pronunciations:

/kʌm/ and /hoʊm/

The initial and final phonemes — the /k/, /h/, and /m/ — are unsurprising; it’s the vowels that differ, of course. The pronunciation of <home> is largely unsurprising as well; we’re typically taught that a final, non-syllabic <e> marks the preceding vowel as ‘long.’ So what’s up with <come> then? It turns out that this is a question I get from time to time; after all, <come> is one of those words that’s regularly branded as ‘irregular’ or ‘non-phonetic.’ Of course, no writing system concerns itself with phonetics; it’s phonemes, not phones, that are represented in spelling.

The <c> and the <m> in <come> are not problematic for spellers; it’s the <o> and that final, non-syllabic <e>, which clearly is not marking a long vowel. Now, there’s nothing wrong with <o> spelling /ʌ/ — it does so in the words son, mother, love, tough, won, and a whole host of other words. The letter <o> is the orthographic choice when a <u> can’t be used; this occurs to avoid proscribed letter sequences like <uu> or <uv> or <wu>, as in love or won or tough. It also happens to differentiate homophones, as in son/sun. An <o> is often selected when the vowel is next to a letter like <n> or <m>, which has a lot of up-and-down strokes (called ‘minims’) that might be confused with an adjacent <u> — this same concern with all the minims in script is why <i> has a dot (called a ‘tittle’).

Okay, so the <o> makes sense. Not only can it spell /ʌ/, but using the <o> instead of a <u> also differentiates <come> from the Latin preposition we use to describe things with a dual nature or function (a model-cum-actorthe den-cum-extra-bedroom).

But what about the <e>?

Well, remember, we never learn much from looking at a single word in isolation — let’s consider our four questions: What does it mean? How is it built? What are its relatives? and finally, What aspects of its pronunciation must we consider? Come is verb, both the present-tense and the past participle (she has come . . .). It’s a free base element — nothing to peel off. As far as relatives go, there aren’t many, but the one we do have is very telling: came, the preterite (past-tense) form. That <e> in <come> marks a connection to the other member of the verbal paradigm, <came>, which couldn’t be written without its <e>, given its long vowel. The words <come> and <came> look like relatives, whereas <com> and <came> may not. It also makes sense that the <e> in <come> lexicalizes it — marks its wordiness — as opposed to the <com-> prefix we find in words like compare or combine. As far as the pronunciation goes, since the final <e> has multiple jobs, not least of which is lexicalizing the words its found on (someday I’ll write more about this), the pronunciation of come as /kʌm/ is fully and meaningfully represented in its spelling, <come>.

Some have asked the same thing about, well, <some>. I’ll leave that word’s mysteries for you to discover — after all, I’ve got a workshop to prepare for! Won’t you come?

140215 RMC Seeing the Sense Flyer (PDF)

140215 RMC Seeing the Sense Flyer 140215 RMC Seeing the Sense Flyer 2

Last year, more than 50 people gathered in Greater Philadelphia to explore how language evolves and the history of English—the stories of words. Those stories—where words come from, when they entered English, and how they’ve
changed—are compelling, and help us to deepen our understanding of how words work.

At long last, here’s the registration flyer and information for Etymology Two, also known as WordStock Two. Join me as I team up again with Douglas Harper of The Online Etymology Dictionary for a weekend of deep word study and delightful word stories.

140329 Etymology Bis with Doug Harper 1_Page_1

140329 Etymology Bis with Doug Harper 1_Page_2

San Diego!

San Diego, beautiful city by the sea, is opening its arms for a Word Detectives weekend workshop with Pete Bowers and me. The registration flyer is below — please join us if you can!

Now, then, let’s look at San Diego, shall we? The city was named for St. Didacus of Alcalá, though the Spaniard never saw its shores. Didacus is Latin, of course, and Diego is the Spanish. The English version is James, as in Saint James, known in French as Saint Jacques, and in Portuguese as São Diogo. Other Latinate variants include Iago (as in Othello), Jaime, Giacomo, and Jacó. Germanic variants include Jacob or Jakob, Kobe, Koppel, and Yankel — the last two are Yiddish nicknames. Yankel! I like the idea of having a workshop in Saint Yankel.

The storied pilgrimage trail through western Europe is called El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spanish, Le Chemin de Saint Jacques in French, and the Way of St. James in English. The scallop shell that marks the path carries a rich symbolism. Of course, seafood eaters know that coquilles Saint-Jacques are scallops cooked with mushrooms, cream, cheese, and I think bread crumbs, but I’m the wrong person to ask.

Perhaps the most interesting etymological tidbit I found about Diego is that the ethnic slur dego also derives from Diego! All of these names derive, however circuitously, form the Hebrew Ya’aqobh, from ‘aquebh, ‘heel.’ The name itself denotes ‘one that takes by the heel’ — if you’ve ever read about Jacob in the book of Genesis, you’ll know why.

So, take this opportunity by the heel, and join Pete Bowers and me for two days of inquiry into, discovery of, and evidence about language in San Diego, which simply calls itself America’s Finest City.


Reflections on a New Year

(Scroll Down for LEX study opportunities this year, and a special offer)

The older I get, the more arbitrary and fabricated the New Year seems. Life rolls on, no seam at the end of the calendar year. The sucker punches and celebrations that end one year are still here in the next, still raw, still scary, still moving, still exhilarating.

Still here.


This year I am compelled to look more closely at the words Happy New Year, to see what I can learn. These three words seem like they’d be old as the hills, but only new and year are attested in Old English. Happy doesn’t make its appearance until Middle English; even hap, its archaic predecessor, wasn’t attested before the 13th century. Of course, all the calendrical shenanigans that give us a New Year’s Day weren’t totally sorted out until the 18th century, so looking into Happy New Year is an unavoidably anachronistic pursuit.

Still and all, let’s have a look. We already have a good sense of what each of these words means in isolation, as well as their collective phrasal meaning. In terms of their structure, <new> and <year> are both free base elements, and <happy> is the base <hap> plus the suffix <-y>. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Etymologically speaking, happy is pretty boring. I can locate no English relatives other than those that share the same base element, <hap>, as represented in this matrix:


The denotation ‘chance’ explains a lot, at least to me, about what’s really going on in the wishes for a Happy New Year. Perhaps this year will be better than the last; that, however, can be haphazard. Each year brings its own set of mishaps and happenings alike, often with no respect for what’s on our calendar.

Now, the word new has, of course, a few morphological relatives, like news, newly, newspaper, renew, and anew. Its closest etymological relatives, as we might expect, are those built on the Latinate bound base <nove>, as in novel, novelty, renovate, innovate, and novice. Far more distant relatives include now and noon, both of which make deeper sense of new, don’t they? Really, now is always new, isn’t it?

And finally, year is a bit of a treasure trove. It’s related to yore (as I wrote about here), which derived from the genitive (possessive) plural of Old English gear, meaning ‘year’. That genitive history is the reason we really only use this word in the collocation of yore — that of does the job in the present day that the genitive inflection did a thousand years ago. Of course, we don’t speak of years of yore, but of days of yore, reminding us that time passes daily; it is comprised of pieces, some large, some small, all passing. After all, only now is new.

Other, more distant relatives of year tell a wider story. The word derives from an ancient Indo-European compound root that denotes ‘year, summer, or season;’ it’s the ‘season’ part that is compelling to me. From this same compound root we get both hour and horoscope — again, both marking time other than a year: seasons, short and long. If we pan back further and look at the first piece of the compound, we find the relatives January, perish, exit, ion, and many others, all deriving from an ancient root pertaining to ‘going.’ Only now is new, but the year keeps going.

Still going.


What’s Going On with LEX this Year

For 2014, I have a few things on the books, and a few others that are brewing. So far, here are dates and locations I know about. If your school, organization, or community is interested in booking a seminar, please contact me on the LEX Educational Products page.

  • March 1: Rethinking Phonology, keynote address at the Indiana Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, Indianapolis
  • March 29-30: Etymology II with Douglas Harper of The Online Etymology Dictionary, Greater Philadelphia area
  • April 26-27: Word Detectives with Peter Bowers of WordWorks, Greater San Diego area
  • Summer 2014: TBD with Peter Bowers of WordWorks, Cincinnati
  • Summer 2014: TBD at the Children’s Dyslexia Center of Bangor, Maine

In addition, I expect to be trying my hand at some Spellinars later this spring, online seminars for small groups that meet weekly for an hour or two for five or six weeks. First up? Old English for Real Spellers. Also expected: Where Spelling and Syntax Intersect. Please contact me if your group or school has a specific request for such study.

Finally, if you’ve read this far,

anyone ordering LEX Grapheme Decks by 11:59pm Central Standard Time on January 15th will get free shipping within the U.S., and 40% off shipping abroad.

Happy New Year!

True Stories

My new TED-Ed video has posted.

Check it out here

or on TED-Ed for the full lesson (with supplemental materials): http://ed.ted.com/lessons/the-true-story-of-true-gina-cooke

I hope you enjoy it!

Recently, some correspondence with a couple of different teachers has focused my attention on interesting sets of etymological relatives. For a while now, my pal Peg and I have been collecting pairs of word relatives in which one form ends with /k/ and the other with /ʧ/:

make~match                 wake~watch (also related to wait)

break~breach               seek~search (also sought),

buck~butcher               cluck~clutch (as in a clutch of hens)

pocket~pouch               invoke~vouch

crook~crotch                dike~ditch

book~beech                  pick~pike~pitch

teach~token                 wreak~wrack~wretch

speak~speech             hike~hitch (making hitchhike a pleonasm, perhaps)

snack~snatch            cake~cook~kitchen           bake~batch

Food for thought, right?

Now, in my last post, I wrote about relatives like bear~boreyear~yore, and earth~ore, and that last one got me thinking about the nominal <-th> suffix that’s at the end of earth. That <-th> carries a sense of ‘action, condition, or process,’ which can be seen pretty obviously in the following words, because they have free base elements:






Other ‘actions, conditions, or processes’ have bound variants of their base elements, but still are pretty obviously connected:

bear~birth (Also its homophone, berth from a difference sense of bear.)


moon~month (which I wrote about here)



broad~breadth (This connection helps explain the wisdom of the <oa> spelling for /ɑ/ in <broad>.)

wide~width (Actually, this word, like ninth, drops its <e> before the <th> so it’s not misparsed as having an <-eth> suffix: *<wideth> looks like a 2-syllable word.)

true~truth and rue~ruth(less) (These are like <width>, and I also have other thoughts about the <e> in these bases, but that’s a story for another time — also, (be)troth is a close relative to truth.)

Still others have bound bases with cognates most folks aren’t aware of, and some of them are breathtaking. The ore~earth connection isn’t alone in yielding real gems. Consider these:


worship~ worth






be~booth (Mind-blowing, isn’t it? The job of a booth is to be somewhere.)

can~could~(un)couth (The word could was formerly spelled <coud>, in which we can still see a <cou> base; the <l> was inserted by analogy to <would> and <should>.)

A couple these nouns have more distant <th>-less relatives: faith~fidelity~defy and sooth~is.

And finally, there are several nouns with a final <th> that can no longer be analyzed as a suffix at all, and there aren’t even any present-day <th>-less relatives, but if we look at the history, it’s pretty clear that <-th> was historically a suffix at some point:

breath [Edit: after posting, I discovered that breeze is a relative, and more distantly, fervor and effervescent.]


smith  [Edit: after posting, I discovered that smite and smote are cognate to smith!]



What’s also interesting is that bath is a distant relative of both bake and batch: a batch is something baked, and both bath and bake carry denotative echoes of ‘warming.’ Huh. Whaddaya know? This <-th> thing is really pretty eye-opening. My interest in it really started a couple years ago, when a family member accidentally broke something kind of precious to me, and by way of apology, he said, “Oh, that was dear,” by which he meant ‘rare, hard to come by.’ I figured out from his comment the connection between dear and dearth — a lack, something in rare supply — and I’ve revisited it several times with new discoveries.

I guess you never know what a relative might teach you.


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