Is It Accurate? How Do You Know?

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  ~Harry S. Truman

This post is long overdue. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking and writing about spelling — quite the contrary, of course. The main reason I haven’t posted is because I spent the past six months researching, preparing, and teaching a university course on English orthography. Now that the course is over, I am freed up to share some of my undergraduates’ inspiring discoveries and commentaries about spelling. Through the course of the semester, my students and I repeatedly encountered statements and claims about spelling — from experts and from the broader culture alike — that are demonstrably contrary to fact. We kept bringing ourselves back to two guiding principles when considering these statements and when speaking of orthography ourselves: (1) Is it accurate? and (2) How do you know? My students took readily to my repeated suggestion that they interrogate experts and resources rather than just consulting them. As they became aware of the myths, ideologies, and errors “out there” about English spelling, they quickly became sticklers for pursuing and providing orthographic evidence.

This post narrates the tale of what my students and I learned as we investigated claims made by well-known spelling educator, Dr. Shane Templeton. In a wonderful guest entry on Susan Ebbers’s blog, Vocabulogic, Templeton argues that words are “more than the sum of their parts,” referring to the moments when students encounter words whose morphology does not make their connotations explicit. The words terrible and terrific, for example, share the base <terr>, but have almost opposite connotations. The word leviathan, for another example, is a base all by itself and has no morphological structure to help us understand its meaning. While morphology is the seminal organizing principle of English orthography, sometimes the sense and meaning of a word is not readily available from its morphology, and we need to look elsewhere.

Templeton suggests that when morphological illumination is limited, students need to engage with the word’s history, its etymology. That movement from morphological to etymological investigation is one my students got a lot of practice with, as we worked with the Real Spelling concept model for English orthography (right). Concept model of English OrthographyI had originally referred my class to Templeton’s post during our unit on etymology because he emphasized etymological study within it. But reading — and questioning it — provided us with a much deeper and more meaningful learning experience than I had anticipated.

My students had been trained over the course of the semester not to trust any single source implicitly — not even me. I encouraged them to question what I taught, and to question multiple sources rather than just consulting one and taking it at its word. True to their training, my students did not just read and absorb Templeton’s post; rather, they interrogated it. They questioned his assertions, asking themselves first if they were accurate, and asking second how they could know whether it was accurate. While they appreciated the blog post, they found a few etymological (and morphological) bones to pick; we’ll target just one of them here.

In order to pick said bones, it’s best to start with a consideration of Templeton’s introductory perspectives on etymology. He writes, “[Students’] dawning realization that words not appearing to mean the sum of their parts provides students a portal to the next level of word consciousness – a more systematic exploration of where words come from – their etymologies. ” My students and I concurred that when morphology doesn’t explain a meaning (or a spelling), etymology is the next place to look for an understanding. This is, however, an observation about the facts of the writing system rather than a pedagogical imperative about scope or sequence: we don’t need to wait until learners have mastered morphology, or wait until third or fourth grade, as Templeton suggests, or wait until students have learned some given set of morphemes, to begin to teach how words work. In fact, a growing research body shows that skilled morphological instruction benefits younger and at-risk students the most!

Templeton refers to etymology as “systematic,” and indeed, it is. A system, according to my Mactionary, is “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method,” and systematic is defined as “done or acting according to a fixed plan or system; methodical.” Without question, etymological study involves principles and methodical procedures that involve investigating, consulting historical sources, and developing an understanding of the history not only of words, but of language. The internet abounds with folk etymologies — erroneous if intriguing explanations for words that have no basis in historical fact, that are not attested in any documented uses or derivations of a word. Real etymological study may involve hypothesizing, but it does not involve unmitigated, unverified guesswork. Etymological investigations must, as Templeton indicates in his choice of the word systematic, be “done according to a fixed plan or system; methodical.”

Templeton’s post goes on to extol the fascination of word histories and the interrelations between words and to suggest ways in which teachers and students can consult sources to learn more about word histories. He encourages educators to teach and model etymological study early and often:

“[A]s we know from research in the development of morphological knowledge, we can lay the groundwork for this type of sensitivity to words in the elementary grades. We should, of course, begin systematically teaching about word formation processes that include Greek and Latin word roots in third and fourth grade, and we can also begin to tell our etymological narratives at those levels. And when we don’t know, we model what to do – pulling one of our favorite word history resources off of the shelf or going to one of our favorite websites. Of course, even when we do know, we often encourage the students to go check it out.” (emphasis mine)

We resonated with what Templeton wrote here about etymological investigation: it is methodical; it deepens and broadens our understanding of words, their spellings, and their meanings; it is systematic; and it involves checking resources and looking for evidence.

Templeton continues, offering a few provocative word histories from Greek and Latin and even Proto-Indo-European, calling upon mythology and antiquity and the human heart, and urging the consultation of reliable etymological sources. Among his examples is the word science, which “literally means ‘to know’,” he writes. “[R]elated words are discipline and conscience, ‘knowing with’ oneself.” One of the reasons I had shared Templeton’s post with my students is because we had just been studying the base element <sci>, which comes from the Latin scire and denotes ‘to know,’ in a lexical word matrix. (I have written about this base before, and you can read about it and see its matrix here.) They remarked, as I had, that we had not included the word discipline in our matrix or encountered it in our study of <sci>. We decided to investigate the connection. Is the claim that discipline and science are related accurate? And if so, how do we know?

We started to approach our investigation through structured word inquiry, as I learned from my colleague Pete Bowers. We ask four questions to guide us through our investigation:

1. What does the word mean?

2. How is it built?

3. What are its relatives?

4. How is it pronounced?

Beginning with the meaning, we agreed that there is a possible connection in sense and meaning between science and discipline: both connote fields of study, principles, methods, and systematic procedures, and gathering knowledge. We then consulted a dictionary and discussed the various connotations of discipline. Here’s what my Mactionary offers:

discipline |’disəplin|

1. the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience : a lack of proper parental and school discipline.

• the controlled behavior resulting from such training : he was able to maintain discipline among his men.
• activity or experience that provides mental or physical training : the tariqa offered spiritual discipline | Kung fu is a discipline open to old and young.
• a system of rules of conduct : he doesn’t have to submit to normal disciplines.

2. a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education : sociology is a fairly new discipline.

verb [ trans. ]
train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience : many parents have been afraid to discipline their children.

• (often be disciplined) punish or rebuke (someone) formally for an offense : a member of the staff was to be disciplined by management.
• (discipline oneself to do something) train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way : every month discipline yourself to go through the file.

Okay, so we decided that discipline has a few semantic possibilities: rigorous training or conduct; corrective punishment; and an area of knowledge; the last definition being the most closely connected denotationally to ‘knowing,’ the one most like science.

But we don’t stop there. We can’t just trust semantic similarities; we need to have structural and historical evidence of a relationship to call them “related” as Templeton does. Our next question, How is it built?, invites us to take a look at the morphological structure of the word. Following Templeton’s statement, we hypothesized that if the base of discipline is <sci>, the word sum would provisionally be

<di> + <sci> + <pline> (?)

Does this work? My students recognized that <di> is indeed a prefix, and we considered the words diverge (‘to turn apart’) and digest (‘to carry away’). In these words, the <di> prefix is a variant of <dis>, meaning ‘apart, away’ — it is Latinate, as opposed to the homonymic Greek element <di> meaning ‘two’, as in dioxide.

<di> + <sci> . . . so far, our provisional word sum is working.

Then we got to <pline>. Using the word searcher, we found no evidence of a <pline> element. One student reminded us that the <ine> might be a suffix, as in <imagine>, and questioned <pl> as a possible morpheme. While the students quickly rejected <pl> as a possible morpheme, the recognition of <ine> as a suffix prompted several other students to posit <disciple> as the stem of discipline. We consequently revised our word sum as follows:

<disciple> + <ine>

So what, then, was the structure of disciple? And is it, in fact, related to <sci>? We continued to posit some word sums to see if <sci> could be the base:

<di> + <sci> + <ple> (?)

We really weren’t sure whether this posited structure was accurate — the only way we could know would be to gather etymological evidence for each of the proposed parts. We knew from our previous investigation that in order for Templeton’s assertion to be accurate, the <sci> would have to derive from the same root as <science> and <conscience>. So we decided to move to our next question — “What are its relatives?” — and to check the etymology, as Templeton suggested, to gather more evidence for (or against) a connection between <discipline> and <science>.

Now, when we search for relatives, we search for both morphological relatives — that smaller circle of words that share a single base element — and etymological relatives — the larger circle of words that are traceable to a shared root. I like to think of morphological relatives as a word’s siblings, whereas etymological relatives are its cousins. Like human cousins, etymological cousins can be close cousins or more distant, depending on how far back one must go to find the shared ancestor (French? Latin? Proto-Indo-European?).

Anyhow, to search for relatives, we first consulted Etymonline — which we used frequently in class — to see the history of discipline. We knew from previous investigations that the etymology of science is the Latin scire, ‘to know’, and so we looked for a connection to scire in the etymology of discipline.

We didn’t find any.

Etymonline confirmed for us that <disciple> is indeed the stem of <discipline>, but gave an etymology for both that showed no sign of scire. While the words are indeed Latinate, Etymonline suggested a prefix <dis>, meaning ‘away’, and a base derived from the Latin root capere, ‘to take, take hold of.’  Given this etymology — which has nothing to do with scire ‘to know’ — our base would have to be <ciple>, and our provisional word sum was revised to

<dis> + <ciple> + <ine> (?)

With a little guidance, my students set about to look for other evidence of a <ciple> base from the Latin root capere. Using Etymonline and, they came up with principle (‘first thing taken,’ from Latin primus + capere); manciple (‘taken in hand,’ from Latin manus + capere),and participle (‘taking part,’ from Latin partis + capere). With the structure <dis> + <ciple> + <ine>, we could understand discipline as denoting what we ‘take away’ from our learning.

We were satisfied with this analysis and we had answered the question we had set out to answer: discipline and science were not, contrary to Templeton’s claim, related. Period. As in previous LEX posts, I expected that this discovery of an error in a spelling expert’s claims would make for a good write-up. So a few days later, I brought out my course notes to capture this investigation, proud of my students for delving deeper, more skillfully, and more accurately into the language than a vaunted, published professional. As I sat down to draft a possible future LEX post (this one!) from my class notes, I revisited my Mactionary to pluck the definitions of discipline (above), and I was surprised by this etymological information:

ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense [mortification by scourging oneself] ): via Old French from Latin disciplina ‘instruction, knowledge,’ from discipulus (see disciple ).

So I went, of course, to see disciple, and this is what I found:

ORIGIN Old English , from Latin discipulus ‘learner,’ from discere ‘learn’ ; reinforced by Old French deciple.

My Mactionary’s etymological explanation not only makes no connection to science or Latin scire, but it also makes no connection to Latin capere, thus calling our posited base of <ciple> into question! What we had, I discovered, was conflicting etymologies for discipline. My husband, an erstwhile classicist with an undergraduate degree in Latin, reminded me that he had already questioned the capere connection, because, he recalled, the Latin word disco meant ‘I learn’.


I took this discovery back to my class. We were back to <disciple> + <ine> as our provisional word sum. Besides interrogating Templeton’s original post, it was now time to question both Etymonline’s and the Mactionary’s etymologies for discipline and disciple. Both resources draw upon the Oxford English Dictionary, which was our next stop on the etymology train. Here’s what we found there:

Etymology:  < French discipline (Old French also dece- , dese- , desce- , 11th cent. in Hatzfeld & Darmesteter), < Latin disciplīna instruction of disciples, tuition, for discipulīna , < discipulus pupil, disciple n.

Etymologically, discipline , as pertaining to the disciple or scholar, is antithetical to doctrine , the property of the doctor or teacher; hence, in the history of the words, doctrine is more concerned with abstract theory, and discipline with practice or exercise.

Once again, the etymology of discipline refers us to disciple, but this one also pointed out the antithesis of discipline (the learner’s responsibility) and doctrine (the teacher’s responsibility), the latter denoting ‘to show, to teach, to cause to know.‘ It also gave us historical variant spellings with <dece>, <dese>, and <desce>, further calling into question a <dis> prefix. The OED’s entry for disciple offers this:

In Old English discipul , < Latin discipul-us learner, pupil, < discĕre to learn. In early Middle English di- , deciple , < Old French deciple , semi-popular < Latin discipul-us . Both in Old French and Middle English, deciple was gradually conformed to the Latin spelling as disciple.

Once again, the presence of a <dis> prefix is less clear, and the Latin etymology makes no mention of capere ‘to take hold’, but instead refers to the verb discĕre, ‘to learn.’

At this point, we’ve got a bit of an etymological boxing match going on. In this corner (A), we have a posited morphology of <dis> + <ciple> + <ine>, with an etymology tracing back to the Latin root capere, ‘to take hold.’ And in THIS corner (B), we have a posited morphology of  an unanalyzable <disciple> + <ine>, from the Latin root discĕre, ‘to learn.’ Hypothesis A would give answer “What are its relatives?” with participle, principle, and manciple morphologically, and a whole host of etymological cousins traceable to capere: capture, receipt, concept, capiche, forceps, cop, capable, occupy, and many more. Hypothesis B‘s morphological relatives would include only disciple, discipline, discipleship, disciplinary, disciplinarian, and their derivations; etmologically, it could claim decent, doctor, dextrous, and synecdoche among its relatives. Etymonline stands alone in its support of Hypothesis A, while Hypothesis B has the Mactionary, the OED, and my husband behind it, a pretty powerful triumverate. There is no evidence, however, for any Hypothesis C, Templeton’s asserted connection to science.

(My husband, by the way, was finding etymological error in the writings of experts long before my scholarship targeted it — he prompted me to send a corrective email to Louisa Moats about a decade ago when she wrote that <ventilator> and <adventure> shared a Latin root. They do not, and Moats was grateful for the correction.)

Because Etymonline stood alone in its support of <dis> + <ciple>, I decided to take a closer look at just where the website got its information. I trust it as a source, but no source is above questioning. Doug Harper, Etymonline’s author, lists 18 principal sources and a bevy of additional sources. Among the principal sources are several — including the OED, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, and A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Languagethat list discere, ‘to learn,’ as the root of <disciple>, not capere. Several of Harper’s additional sources, including John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and T.G. Tucker’s Etymological Dictionary of Latin, also list the discodiscerediscipulus connection (Hypothesis B), and no connection whatsoever to capere (Hypothesis A). While I can’t be sure where Harper got this etymology for discipline, it is clear that there are competing hypotheses about its provenance.

Much as I like the idea of discipline as ‘a taking away’ (dis + capere), there’s simply a dearth of evidence to support that contention. What I might like is irrelevant: etymology isn’t a popularity contest. Rather, it’s a systematic, scientific, evidence-based discipline. While sources as venerable as Templeton and Etymonline both fall prey to folk etymologies, that doesn’t make them any more factual. If Templeton had been methodical, if he had checked even a single source before publishing his post, he would’ve learned that his proposed connection between discipline and science lacked systematic evidence.

Ayto’s Word Origins suggests a relationship between Latin discĕre, ‘to learn,’ and docēre, ‘to teach,’ listing doctor and document among the latter’s modern-day descendants. Indeed, this remarkable etymological connection between learning and teaching is confirmed by their shared Proto-Indo-European root, *dek-, meaning ‘to take, accept, to receive, greet, be suitable.’ Additional descendants of PIE *dek- include dextrous, decent, dignity, dainty, docile, decorate, indignation, and paradox, and the semantically closer dogma, orthodoxy, docent, and doctrine. But wait — didn’t the OED tell us that discipline and doctrine were “antithetical”? Yep:

Etymologically, discipline , as pertaining to the disciple or scholar, is antithetical to doctrine , the property of the doctor or teacher; hence, in the history of the words, doctrine is more concerned with abstract theory, and discipline with practice or exercise.

Maybe “antithetical” is too strong a word, too rhetorically narrow. Complementary, perhaps. Discipline and doctrine are complementary, parallel. They don’t work against each other, teaching and learning, but together.

Neither teaching nor learning — neither doctrine nor discipline — is at its best when it relies upon uninvestigated, presumed knowing. Rather, they work best when they are based upon investigation, upon the search for and weighing of evidence, the questioning and reasoning that goes into research. In his blog post, Templeton assumes that he knows the etymology of discipline, and proposes that it’s related to Latin scire, ‘to know.’ How ironic. What Templeton doesn’t do is to investigate, to seek evidence of the word’s actual etymology, which points to learning, and more broadly, to teaching, to receiving real knowledge as a result of tracking down evidence together, rather than assuming it. While Templeton refers to etymology as “systematic,” he doesn’t himself take a systematic approach — a methodical, planned undertaking — in exploring etymology. He fails to take his own advice:

And when we don’t know, we model what to do – pulling one of our favorite word history resources off of the shelf or going to one of our favorite websites. Of course, even when we do know, we often encourage the students to go check it out.

And, I would add, even when we think we know, we verify it anyhow through the interrogation of more than one source, before we put it in print.

If there is one thing I hope my orthography students will carry forward from our semester together — even more important than understanding that English spelling makes sense — it is that discipline at its heart is about learning, not about knowing. Knowing is overrated. Finding evidence, seeking, searching, is where the value is. The most interesting words — learn, investigate, question, interrogate — are all about seeking, asking, tracking, not about having answers fed to us, not about knowing outright. Regardless of the original question or what precipitated it, we always learned more, my students and I, when we undertake a disciplined investigation together than when we rely on the pronouncement of a single expert or a single resource.

And if there is one thing I hope Shane Templeton and others might carry forward from this blog post, it’s that any science’s ability to know is only as good as its willingness to learn.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2011


  1. Thank you for pointing out the absence in Etymonline of the “disciplina” etymology proposed in OED and Watkins. It ought not to have been overlooked on Etymonline, and as the gatekeeper of that site I’ll add that in as soon as I can. Also, I’m delighted to discover that Etymonline has been of some utility in your teaching.

    Perhaps, since you have called me out by name, you will allow me to add some information, which might be interesting to your students, and to answer your charge that “I can be pretty certain that he did not check multiple sources for that one, if he checked any at all.”

    I’m not sure we’re using the same editions of some books. You say Klein’s “Comprehensive Dictionary” has “discere” as the root of disciple, but in my edition, he only has the “capere” derivation. Furthermore, you say Tucker agrees with “disco,” but my edition has him writing that the word is “hardly derivable from the verb disco,” and he also proposes “capio” as the root of the second element.

    The fullest explanation of the “capere” theory I found is in Barnhart’s book. He writes, “As ‘capulus’ handle, was formed from ‘capere’ take hold of, so ‘discipulus’ was formed from a lost compound ‘*discipere’ to grasp intellectually, analyze thoroughly (‘dis-‘ apart + ‘capere’ take; compare its frequentative form ‘disceptare’ debate …).”

    So in fact it’s not just some maggot of mine. I don’t use digital sources, so I can’t comment on Mactionary. I am sure your husband knows more than I do, but for obvious reasons he’s not an accessible source to me. As for the OED, it is a monumental achievement in English usage and history, but it is not necessarily so towering as a source on Latin etymology. You list Ayto as another ranked against the “capere” notion. You might have listed Charlton Lewis, too. Certainly they all know more than I do about it, but also all work or worked in the same publishing house, and if you’ve gathered their seried ranks have you proven that all these minds think alike, or that the publications of a careful concern tend to agree with one another?

    Also, is there a definition of “folk etymology” that is more than “not in the OED?”

    Thanks for your time, and best wishes,

    Doug Harper

    • Excellent, Doug! Thanks for your response! I will myself go back and double check the resources; some of the research for the post was done several months ago, and it’s entirely possible that I got my notes mixed up along the way. I no longer have a couple of those sources, which were checked out from the university library. But I will follow up and make necessary corrections.

      Know that Etymonline is enormously important in my own scholarship and that of my e-connected band of word detectives all over the world. My undergrads in particular loved it, and began to refer to it as “the rabbit hole” due to its ability to suck one’s time and attention chasing inquiries and interests down divergent and unexpected paths.

      Regarding folk etymology, my Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics cross-references folk etymology and popular etymology, defining the latter as “the process by which a form is reshaped to resemble another form, or sequence of forms, already in the language. Nineteenth-century Lexicographer Abram Smythe Palmer wrote a whole book called Folk-Etymology, deliciously subtitled A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy. He also draws a connection to the popular, employing the term “verbal pathology” to describe the corruptions that occur either due to “false ideas about [words’] derivation, or toe a mistaken analogy to other words to which they are supposed to be related.” Alas, discipline is not counted among its entries.

      David Crystal, in his Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, offers “a word or phrase…assumed to come from a particular etymon because of some association of form or meaning, and…altered to suit that assumption.”

      In my understanding (honed by a conversation earlier today with a fellow linguist), there are really two kinds of folk etymology: one is where an individual makes an erroneous assumption, as Samuel Johnson did in respelling the word ache because he mistakenly ascribed it to a Greek root, or when a friend of a friend emailed me to insist that the word amen derived not from Hebrew, but from Amun, the name of an Egyptian god. Demonstrably not so, just guesswork. The other kind of folk etymology, which is far more powerful, is a broader cultural phenomenon, when many people over time assume a connection. In the Middle Ages, in fact, the association of disciple with a discus, a desk, came about because many people assumes that a disciple was, in fact, a little desk-dweller. The capere proposition came likely through this second, more powerful kind of paronymic attraction between disciple in its earlier forms, and the in principle, participle, manciple, and/or their earlier forms.

      I don’t for a moment assume the OED to be infallible, and have found it (as I’m sure you have) to be really weak etymologically. It also lists tion as a suffix, which is a total dealbreaker for me.

      Thanks again for your time and commentary, and I will double-check my own sources and citations herein. Happy 2012 to you. I’ll be sponsoring a couple of words on Etymonline — probably discipline, and encourage LEX readers to consider supporting your work in the same way. Later on, I’ll take on the etymology of Gypsy and some likely Romani etymologies on behalf of my partly and proudly Roma husband and son.

      • Amanda Brown says:

        I particularly enjoy the reference of Etymonline as a “rabbit hole”; one I often happily traverse!

        • Hi Amanda!

          Glad you could check out the discussion. The response to his post has been very gratifying. Go check out -tion on Etymonline — you’ll see that the discussion has borne some good fruit too! I appreciate the immediacy of the Internet and its ability to link folks in several states and three countries in a dialogue like this. Keep up your own excellent work and keep me posted!

  2. This posting is a joyous journey into orthographic etymology and historical semantics, a demonstration of real scholarship in all the invigorating exactitude and inspiring cognitive stimulation that is human thought made visible as text.

    And you write with elegant clarity that is itself a celebration of the English language itself.

    It is a characteristic and pusillanimous habit of denizens of the schooling industry to discuss concepts and ideas by an associated name rather than by the concept itself and engagement with, and verification of, evidence that validates it. Such personalization of discussion supposed to be scholarly is anathema. It’s the ideas and understanding that are supreme, not the bearers of them.

    Indeed, a principal cause of the lamentably vapid state of what passes for spelling teaching in English language schooling is the supine deference accorded to the pronouncements Big Names (of both publications and people).

    With their armour of orthographic light your cohort of student collaborators will now go forth as bearers of hope in the tenebrific gloom of the schooling literacy industry.

  3. Gail Venable says:

    Thank you for this post, Gina. Your students are an inspiration.I’m looking forward to your next posts about their investigative adventures.

    And thanks, Douglas Harper, for the window into your research process. Your work is an indispensable part of my work with students.

    Gail Venable

  4. Pete Bowers says:

    Gina and Doug,

    Thank you so much for this rich discussion.

    Doug, l would like to add my voice to those expressing the value of I hope LEX readers don’t mind if I start my response to this discussion by sharing a favourite story that illustrates how effectively students make use of Etymonline. I suspect it surpasses what the authors of this resources expected to be the school room use of this tool.

    I was visiting Ann Whiting’s Grade 7 class during a workshop at her school in Kuala Lumpur. Ann and I challenged her students to investigate possible etymological and morphological relations of the words “please” and “plea”. A central goal for this exercise was for students to investigate how some words can be part of the same etymological family, but not of the same orthographic morphological family.

    (See this page on WordWorks for more on this topic:

    Ann’s students were already experienced in using their class dictionaries, Ayto’s Word Origins as well as digital references such your They knew to look for the Latin root of both words to determine if they were of the same etymological family. They found ‘placere’ cited from multiple resources as the Latin root of both words. They were also able to see that no word sum was able to link these words to the same orthographic base. Students tried *plea + se → please, but recognized that there was no evidence of an *-se suffix. They had evidence of words of the same etymological family, but not of the same orthographic morphological family.

    Now consider the particularly rich additional learning provided to this investigation. While I walked around the room to work with students one group showed me a fascinating list of words they claimed were related etymologically to ‘placere’ that included “placebo” “placid” and “complacence.” I asked how they came up with “placebo” and how it related to the idea of ‘please’.

    A student in that group showed me on is laptop that he found ‘placere’ as the root for “plea” and “please” in Etymonline. He then typed ‘placere’ in the search field to see what would happen. He found a rich list of etymologically related that I would never have found on my own. The word “placebo” was cited as a medicine given “more to please than to benefit the patient.” It had never occurred to me to type a root in your search engine. Students are used to exploring on computers. As a result I was introduced to this new means of finding sets of etymologically related words that I now use and share with learners all the time. Analyzing that list of words with word sums then allowed them to find morphologically and etymologically related words (e.g., please/ + ure → pleasure) but also many words like “placebo” and “placate” which clearly did not share an orthographic base.

    The fact that Etymonline offers excellent etymological references, a searchable database and free usage has made it a tool I not only regularly use myself, but one that I use to help teachers and students learn how to investigate the relations of structure, history and meaning of words.

    See this post from a Grade 5 class for another of many examples of students using Etymology On-Line in the course of their scientific investigation of words:

    I will also direct regular users of to note the “donate” button on their homepage! Lets’ support those free resources everyone.

    Back to your discussion…
    I am excited to be able highlight this discussion between Gina and her university students and Doug to highlight a crucial point about references that should be obvious, but which is rarely explicitly emphasized in schools. Although Etymology On-Line, Oxford, LEX, Real Spelling and other sources can be very useful, like all references, they are inherently fallible. Thus such references should be interrogated to support an investigation, but we should never submit our own thinking to them just because one source presents a piece of information. Your response to Gina’s post shows an openness to learn from and challenge well presented evidence just as students and teachers around the world working with Real Spelling and WordWorks are learning to do.

    I particularly liked this point in your response to the fact that Gina found multiple sources agreeing on a certain point, “[H]ave you proven that all these minds think alike, or that the publications of a careful concern tend to agree with one another?” This illustrates that we also need to be careful of accepting an citation just because more people said it. We still need to analyze evidence based on scientific principles. As Gina points out, it doesn’t matter how many authoritative sources cite *-tion as a suffix, until one of those sources presents a coherent word sum with a suffix of this spelling, it just ain’t so!

    I’ll add that it seems to me that Gina and her students have found good evidence challenging a linguistic assertion by Shane Templeton in his post on Vocabulogic. Such a discovery doesn’t change the fact that I have found his work to include some of the most insightful writing in the research world that I have found regarding problem-solving the meaning of words through referencing morphology and etymology. Gina has simply provided evidence that on this point the evidence contradicts his statement.

    What I read in Gina’s post is not an attempt to catch well known experts and resources making an error in order to discredit them — although I fear that some readers may wrongly assume such a motivation. Instead I see in this post an illustration that even our favourite sources of information are to be interrogated. The fact that you responded so constructively and pushed the opportunities for learning for everyone further just reinforces these important points more powerfully. Here we get a rare example of the sources we work with seeking to learn from us!

    So thank you to Gina and her students for doing such great ground work for the rest of us and for Doug of — not only for providing such a useful reference for all of us to interrogate and learn from — but also for being willing to enter such a rich discussion with us!


    Pete Bowers

    • Thanks for chiming in, Pete!

      You’re correct about the purpose of the post: to encourage rigor and vigilance not only in the assumptions we make in our scholarship, but also in the ongoing dialogue we have with our sources. My posts aren’t supposed to be “gotchas,” though they do perhaps read that way (and perhaps my often arrogant enthusiasm contributes to that impression).

      I love that Doug commented on here — his post and my email informing him about this entry crossed in cyberspace — to point out likely errors in my post. True to my ethic, I will revisit my notes and sources so that if I didn’t get something right, I can correct it like a scholar.

      I cannot stress enough how valuable I find Templeton’s work in the greater body of what’s written about spelling. It is precisely because I value his work — and the work of other researchers in orthography and literacy — that I do the work that I do: because I think that the teachers and kids who depend on language research deserve to have experts who check and double-check their work.

      In a coming post, I will call out some other etymological errors from experts — and these are much broader and more pervasive than what I write about here. I am calling upon the fields of literacy research and instruction to reach for a higher standard, to pay attention to an understanding of orthography that is new, I am convinced, in all the world and since the dawn of writing. Studying the work and resources of Real Spelling — the Copernicus of English Orthography — has taught me not only that spelling doesn’t revolve around sound, but also how to embark on investigations myself. I am better equipped as a word scientist than I was 5 years ago, and I am calling upon my field to join me in a more accurate and more rigorous understanding of orthography. So, so many people have already joined me in that call, even though it has required them, as it does me, to allow our previous understanding to become destabilized.

      There’s a song I made up for my science-minded son about being a scientist; my favorite line says, “A scientist might have to admit he was wrong if the right new evidence comes along.” That word “wrong” hits on a lovely flat note. 🙂 I want to impress upon him from an early age that we all get stuff wrong, but how we handle it is paramount. Errors happen, and that’s inevitable.

      Guessing, however, is not.

      Happy New Year!

  5. Dear Gina (and your incredible students!),

    I am simply delighted to find this discussion and depth of enquiry about etymological sources, and to know that much of it appears to have been generated by my Vocabulogic posting. Pete Bowers kindly emailed me this morning to make sure I was aware of this discussion, your excellent website, and the explorations it encourages and shares. (Thanks, Pete!)

    I wholeheartedly endorse and agree with the principle about the rigor we should bring to our work, and try to be as purposeful as I can in my own work. Much of what we do, ourselves and with and for our students, is indeed about the journey, and while I acknowledge the strong case advanced challenging my “discipline” example, I am thrilled with the excitement and insight my assertion may have generated. Of course, tossing out erroneous assertions under the guise of effective pedagogy can only go so far, and I hope I haven’t done too much of that over the years(!); please know, however – and thanks to you – that I will indeed go back to check my own source(s) for the “discipline” example, and my own train of logic as well. (I would like to do so, if truth be told, at this very instant, but – somewhat ironically – am writing to a deadline for a chapter addressing [what else?!] how to teach about words…)

    Just a quick note, however, about scope and sequence and depth of understanding about morphology – a topic on which I wish I had been able to elaborate more in my post for Susan Ebbers: I would concur that we don’t have to wait until third or fourth grade for planting seeds of inquiry and sharing interesting stories about words/etymologies/morphology, but I believe that more systematic instruction and the depth of exploration it entails – especially the further we get into derivational morphology – does depend in significant measure on students’ vocabularies and cognitive development. Really, we are looking at a difference in degree of investigation. But that is a conversation for another day, and the empirical grounding may in good faith be debated as well . . . Thanks again, so very much, for your insight, your work, and for the gentle epistemological nudge!

    With appreciation,


    • And thank you, Shane, for your contribution to this ongoing dialogue, and to Pete, for the invitation. Your broader work is something I pointed my students toward, and I frequently recommend Words Their Way to teachers I train as “the best packaged spelling program in publication.”

      Over the semester of my Orthography Course, my students astonished me so many times with their insights, and I am so eager to write more about their discoveries and insights about written language. Time and again, they also voiced their concern that some of what we were learning would be “too hard” for younger students. I emphasize that I am not making recommendations about what to teach to children and how and when, but that I am recommending that regardless of the how and when, the what should be accurate.

      As a linguist, my formal training in education has not centered around the hows or whens so much, though I am aware that it’s a significant concern in pedagogical circles. Certainly children are possessed of different abilities, and different interests, but just because a kid doesn’t like math or isn’t very good at it doesn’t mean that we teach them things that are false about it, and no one would suggest otherwise. My students articulated their own astonishment at how much their own vocabularies grew over the course of the semester, simply because they understood better how the writing system works. As one student — a future teacher — put it during class, “I was actually taking a test today and I
      came across a word that I did not know. I actually sat there and peeled off the prefix and
      suffix and came up with a possible definition for the word. I sat there and laughed to myself
      because I was actually applying what we did in class to a real life situation.”

      Her use of the word “actually” several times, I think, illustrates what a rare experience it is for her, and for other students, to learn something about spelling that is actually and immediately applicable.

      Pete’s work, and the work of the teachers he’s educated, and the work of those who have studied with Real Spelling, and the work of the tutors I train, and the children they teach, demonstrate time and time again that children are capable of more morphological work than we think. Even without going into great depth, we can (and do) teach very young children that every written word starts with a base, that words have histories, and that spelling makes sense.

      Thanks again for writing.

  6. Thanks for the kind words! The story from Pete Bowers is a great example of how the people who use etymonline find ways to make it work as they need it to work. I’m trying to keep up with them. Or, more accurately, awareness of what students are doing with it is a motivation to make it better.

    There are puzzles, though. What do I do when I can see, based on the matrix of site statistics, that people search for a misspelled form of a word (and therefore find nothing in etymonline, unless I’ve misspelled it, too, which sometimes happens) more often than the correct spelling?

    I’m working with a Web designer to try to bring the mechanics of the site up to 2012, and hopefully improve the searches. But it’s a slog. If you people could get together and agree on a way to graph PIE roots into the 26 letters, that would be enormously helpful. Let me know when you get that done!

    As a non-linguist, I see your profession only through the medium of these source books. It seems curious to me that history, as a discipline (there’s that word again), draws a bright line between what is recorded in writing and what is not, which cannot be history and must go down the hall and be anthropology. But linguistics, which is so concerned with writing, admits in good standing the study of what people probably said to each other when they spoke languages which never were written.

    In doing this work I’ve had to pay close attention to the source books — not just what they say, but what they don’t, and how they say it. And who agrees with whom, and why that might be. I can’t pick winners, but I have to know what the disagreement is, and who’s on what side (the exact thing the original post does thoroughly here). But I also appreciate now the little asides that Johnson put in his entries. An occasional quip or grouse seems at first simply a fair treat to the compiler for the drudgery of compiling. But it also reminds the user that, for all appearances of authority, this is the work of a human being who can know or understand only so much. Weekley (for at least two reasons) goes on occasional rants against the Krauts and “Kultur,” and even the OED has a “voice.” Some friends of etymonline are academics, and I can feel them itching to get in there and wring out the prose and make it conform, but that would deceive.

    I’m interested in the argument, which has popped up here a couple of times, that -tion is not a suffix. Probably it’s listed so in etymonline, because it’s so in some of the books used to build the site. Gina, pitch an argument to me (e-mail if you wish), and if we can get it right in not-too-technical terms, I’d like to add that in to the entry.

    • Pete Bowers says:

      Doug, first let me highlight a section from your response…

      “But I also appreciate now the little asides that Johnson put in his entries. An occasional quip or grouse seems at first simply a fair treat to the compiler for the drudgery of compiling. But it also reminds the user that, for all appearances of authority, this is the work of a human being who can know or understand only so much.”

      This is exactly the reason I’m so pleased that you have entered this discussion. We need to be reminded that references are created by human beings. We have been trained to “get answers” from references like the OED or any reference with the assumption that they must have done all the work for us. When a reference is humanized by a clever quip (Johnson is a perfect example) not only are we reminded that we are engaging in ideas with people, we get the pleasure that comes with a good line! I know this correspondence has humanized my sense of Etymonline and I will enjoy it’s use all the more now that we have been virtually introduced.

      The -tion suffix question is actually a particularly apt one to use in terms of seeing that non-experts can come to scientifically sound conclusioins that counter what is usually treated as one of the most authoritative sources, the OED. Here is the full entry from the computer version of the Oxford English Dictionary on my Mac (What Gina calls her Mactionary):

      forming nouns of action, condition, etc., such as completion, relation.
      ORIGIN from Latin participial stems ending in -t + -ion .

      Here is the definition it gives for “suffix”:

      noun |ˈsəfɪks|
      a morpheme added at the end of a word to form a derivative, e.g., -ation, -fy, -ing, -itis.

      Looking at the examples “completion” and “relation” we can construct simple word sums to test what morpheme is actually fixed at the end of these derivations. For each of Oxford’s examples, let’s compare the word sum that would result if I accept Oxford’s assertion of a -tion suffix with an alternative.

      comple + tion –> completion
      complete/ + ion –> completion

      rela + tion –> relation
      relate/ + ion –> relation

      In both cases these word sums make it clear that there is no morpheme *-tion “added to the end of a word” because the stem required for that suffix makes no sense.

      In contrast the alternative word sums identifying the fixing of a vowel suffix -ion which replaces the final single ‘silent e’ makes sense of the structure and meaning of each of these derivations and the stems from which they are built. (It is evident that “complete” and “completion” are related in structure and meaning as are “relate” and “relation.”)

      Until Oxford or any other resource presents a coherent word sum showing -tion acting like a morpheme at the end of a base element or stem (a base with at least one other morpheme) there is no evidence of a suffix spelled -tion. So far I have found no such evidence.

      And this is why I use this example to introduce students and teachers to the fact that we need to interrogate all references. Not because references are bad, or shouldn’t be used, but because they are created by humans who are falible. I particularly like this error in the OED because it is so easy to prove as an error even for novices to the structure of spelling. The fact that this and many other errors are in my “Mactionary” doesn’t keep me from regularly consulting it, but I try to remember not to just use it to accept its assertions as facts by virtue of the fact that Oxford said it!

      And by the way, once a clear error has been found in the Oxford, users might more easily see more subtle errors such as those in the examples above given for suffixes. Of the four examples given, I see only one that I agree is actually a single morpheme fixed at the end of a base or stem, and which is not itself a base element!



  7. Cool. I’ll put this response up here, so that others can benefit.

    Etymonline currently offers the following:

    suffix forming nouns of action; see -tion.


    suffix forming nouns from verbs, from L. -tionem, accusative of noun suffix -tio (gen. -tionis) forming nouns of condition and action (the -t- is a Latin pp. stem).

    I can’t speak to the “pp.” assertion, but the -t- is always part of the base or stem in English.

    Regarding -ation, this string of letters is actually part of two separate morphemes, either two suffixes (e + duce + ate + ion, in + stall + ate + ion) or a base and a suffix (nate + ion, dict + ion).

    How can I prove it?

    Well, if we have two hypotheses, -tion and -ion, we can test them with word sums:

    ? act + tion → *acttion
    ? con + struct + tion → *constructtion

    There is no principle or convention of English spelling that allows us to drop a -t- in these words or others like them. Let’s try it with a stem ending in a single silent -e-:

    ? donate + tion → *donatetion
    ? ignite + tion → *ignitetion

    There is no principle or convetion of English spelling that allows us to drop a single silent -e- before a consonant suffix.

    Let’s try and see what happens in these same word sums.

    ? act + ion → action ✓
    ? con + struct + ion → construction ✓

    These works. Now, let’s try it with a stem ending in a single silent -e-:

    ? donate + ion → donation ✓
    ? ignite + ion → ignition ✓

    We drop a single silent -e- when adding a vowel suffix, just as in ‘loving’ or ‘later’. So these work too.

    Moreover, there is ample other evidence of an -ion suffix that is not preceded by a -t-. There are those with s + ion, often thought to be a suffix *-sion, but again, the -s- is part of the base or stem in English:

    division (see divisor, divisible)
    compulsion (see compulsive)

    But there are also others:

    complexion → complex + ion
    coercion → coerce + ion
    accordion → accord + ion
    million → mille + ion (see millennium)
    union → une + ion (see triune)

    And many, many more.

    In a nutshell: while it is commonly assumed and widely printed that -tion is a suffix, it is not. Rather, it is a syllable formed when the suffix -ion (< L. -io) is fixed to a base or to another suffix ending in -t or -te.

  8. Hello Douglas!

    It’s already been said in this loop and elsewhere, but I say it again; you are one of the heroes of the real spelling community world wide. I know for a fact that in more International school classes than you would imagine, Etymonline is eagerly consulted more than several times a day by students, and that from kindergarten onwards.

    You suggest that linguistics is “so concerned with writing”. Actually, this is not really the case; it’s really mostly concerned with phonetics, syntax and deeper structures of language itself. Orthography has actually been the poor relation – mostly abandoned to the ravages of the monstrous regiments of pedagoguery.

    Specifically orthographic linguistics is only now beginning to be rescued from the piteous neglect and even disparagement of decades; if ever we won the Lottery I would instantly endow a Chair of Orthographic Linguistics whose first occupant could only be Gina.

    You are already one of my heroes (and that for several years now), but when I read your reference to Johnson and obvious admiration for him you climbed even higher in my esteem. You certainly know of, and warm to, Johnson’s definition of ‘Lexicographer’: “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge”.

    An acquaintance of the great man observed rather sneeringly that the Father of Lexicograpy had given the definition ‘knee of a horse’ to the term ‘pastern’ in the first edition of his Dictionary. When the lady asked Johnson why he had made such a mistake, without rancour he responded, “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.” He was truly great.

    On the question of the supposed suffix ‘-tion’, it is quite simply that there is no word with final ‘tion’ in which the ’t’ does not belong to an element preceding the suffix ‘-ion’ (a suffix that is also, of course, found immediately following other letters than ’t’). But that is something that is certainly best worked on ‘live’. So if you have a Skype name, do contact via the Real Spelling site, and it would be a pleasure and a privilege to investigate the matter directly with you.

    And, since you are an admirer of Johnson, I would also take great pleasure in showing you one of my most treasured possessions: a first edition of his two volume Dictionary of 1786.

    You have my warmest gratitude and admiration.

  9. Amanda Brown says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this rich discussion!

  10. kathy penn says:

    Gina, thank you so much for sharing this discussion! You are an inspiration to me.
    And, thank you Douglas Harper – Etymonline is one of my most valuable resources.

  11. Dan Allen says:

    Wow. Talk about ‘rabbit holes’! It took my simple mind most of one day to read all of this, and to check on the many sites/resources/words that were highlighted along the way. Like many of your students, Gina, I feel cheated. Why am I just learning about this stuff now? What irreparable harm have I done to the countless students I’ve told (elementary school teacher for 18 years) to “sound it out” or “-tion is a suffix” or “oh…don’t worry, that word is just one of those pesky misbehavers.” Real Spelling opened my eyes years ago, but it has only recently kicked me in the pants and transformed my classroom. How sad is it that linguists such as yourself, and one in particular who adamantly and openly despises schools, are able to offer this veteran teacher an overwhelming sense of relief, a sense of being rescued from far too many untruths. “Wow…this is real. Thanks for not lying to me and forcing some program down my throat. For the first time I genuinely believe in what I’m teaching (learning).” Isn’t that sad? And at the same time SUPER COOL?! For my students, spelling will no longer be dominated by ‘sounds’ and Friday tests and “look/cover/say/write”. Yes, spelling has been reduced to ridiculous visual memorization techniques such as that one in schools. But no longer! To quote the Carpenters, “We’ve Only Just Begun!”
    To Gina’s students, I’m jealous. If only I had started my teaching career with the kind of gift she’s provided all of you. Go get ’em!
    Continuing the love fest, Douglas, you’re a stud. My students consulted Etymonline several times today, as they do most days. And not because I say, “OK everyone, go to Etymonline now.” It’s one of their first and favorite resources to consult, followed closely by Neil Ramsden’s ‘Word Searcher.’
    Pete, you da man. The family is doing a big U.S tour this summer and we may plan a route that takes us by Kingston. I’d love to meet you in person.
    Thanks for the continued inspiration everyone!

    • This may be one of my favorite comments ever, Dan. Thanks for the encouragement, and I’m sure you bring many gifts to your classroom.

      You underscore the fact that it is sometimes painful (“irreparable harm”) to recognize the ways in which we’ve erred — it has been for me too. When I studied with Real Spelling, I sat in that attic study and wept openly. Orthographic fact is, well, emotional. It is for me, and it certainly was for a lot of my students.

      As the saying goes, when you know better, you do better. When we change our practice to investigate and study spelling rather than to memorize and test it, it’s not a terminus, but the inception of a journey, a new undertaking.

      And one that’s so, so richly rewarding.

      • Pete Bowers says:

        Gina writes in response to Dan’s inspiring comment, “I’m sure you bring many gifts to your classroom.”

        Let me encourage LEX readers to explore Dan’s amazing Grade 5 blog for evidence confirming Gina’s assumption at this link:

        I learn from him and his students everytime I visit. I encourage LEX readers to explore. I just read an amazing post (see this link: prompted by an observation of very common suffixes by a student that had never occurred to me. I just posted a comment on their latest discussion that poses a potential challenge to a spelling convention as described by Real Spelling. I’m sure Dan’s class would love to have any LEX readers join their discussion.

        I love exploring orthographic rabbit holes like this!

  12. john tucker says:

    I arrived here from my own “discipleship” in search of what it means to be a disciple … and there certainly do not appear to be any quick answers, do there? In English I am a rank novice against all of you scholars, so after reading all of this carefully (and with awe) I switched to my Amharic sources …
    I am going to use phonetic spellings here because the Ethiopic script font is beyond most of us, and I am going to use the small letter “q” to indicate their glottoral “k” consonant which simply does not exist in Indoeurpoean languages.
    Amharic is considered to be a semitic language including cognates with Arabic and, more interestingly, Aramaic and ancient Hebrew….it contains relatively few different roots but a highly developed, systematic prefix and suffix collection for relations. I am no scholar but am one of a realitvely few studying it as not-my-first-language.
    Their word for “disciple”, in their gospels, is “daqqa masmur” (a “mazmur” is a psalm or doxology or canticle)… pursuing “discipline” results in a fork, depending on whether you are referring to a course of study or lessons “timhirt” , student “timari”, school “timihirtbet”, teacher “astemari”, the verb to learn “temare”, or whether you are referring to punishment, to hit or strike “qatta” to crush or grind “waqatta”, anger or wrath “qutta”, to burn “aqattela” ….
    and I find myself very comfortable with that dichotomy, depending upon whether one is trying to add to knowledge or trying to eliminate behaviors, which are really two different activities but the English word “discipline” is used for both of them, isn’t it,,,, and thereby might be the source for some of your dilemma here ….

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for coming by the site. I appreciate your venture into Amharic linguistics with us here — as a Semitic language, Amharic works like Arabic or Hebrew in its consonantal radical structures. Very interesting! Also, probably very foreign to most LEX readers.

      While Amharic and English semantics don’t really bear historical / derivational relationships to each other, sometimes looking at how another language speaks or writes its ideas can illuminate our understanding of our own. You offer an elegant illustration of the bi-polarity of discipline. Indeed, the relationship between violence and education is a long and well-documented ones, from the Sumerian teachers who caned their students, to Ælfric’s references to stern physical discipline, to Lynn Worsham’s famous theory of pedagogical violence in “Going Postal.”

      Fortunately, the only crushing, grinding, anger, or wrath I expect LEX readers to encounter is the crushing of myths about English spelling and history, the grinding out of erroneous assumptions and prejudices about English orthography, and sometimes, as I myself have experienced, anger directed inward for having allowed myself to believe — and to teach! — demonstrably false things about how English reading and writing work. Even when we’re not subject to threat of physical violence, learning is sometimes emotionally painful, isn’t it?

      Good thing it’s only spelling, eh?

  13. Scott M says:

    Am I late to the party?

  14. Sheena Rohrbach says:

    Better than morning coffee… wow.

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