Mad Scientist

Scholars who take the Old English for Orthographers LEXinar take a critical look at what’s said about the historical origins of words. Many categorically false, totally ascientific claims have been made in print by language educators widely considered to be “experts.” It’s been going on for decades.

In the 1980s, Bob Calfee’s “Layers of the English Language” triangle listed a dozen words as having an “Anglo-Saxon” origin. Two of them are definitively not Ango-Saxon: cry is Latinate, and jump isn’t attested until the Modern English period. A third, grave, is a homograph. One of the pair (dig a grave) does have an Old English origin; the other (a grave illness) is Latinate. Certainly there were less ambiguous options available.

More recently (2004), Louisa Moats has claimed that tube is Anglo-Saxon (it’s French), that television is Latin (actually, the <tele> is Greek), that biodiversity is Greek (not quite — the diversity piece of the compound is Latin). Moats also indulges in a fantasy of Anglo-Saxon origins for amuse, engender, enable, and endure, all of which are of French origin in real life. Other words that Moats falsely associates with Anglo-Saxon across her work include crash, age, lilac, recess, cable, bugle, title, dabble, problem, commit, and adept, most of which were adopted from French. She also attributes gravity to Greek. Poor old French! It doesn’t even get a layer in the triangle.

Moats is unfortunately in good company. In a 2009 article in American Educator written with her reading science colleagues (Joshi, Treiman, and Carreker), more than half of the examples of Anglo-Saxon words and patterns they give are flat-out wrong, not including ambiguous examples like Calfee’s grave or the homographic found (past tense of find, to establish, and to pour molten metal — two of which are French). They mistake a Greek origin for ache (it’s actually Old English) and Anglo-Saxon origins for the following words: carpenter, farmer, grocer, butcher, passable, agreeable, punishable, catch, pouch, rich, age, saved, and plentiful, but they’re mostly adopted from French.

Le sigh.

All in all, this article alone boasts more than 40 etymological lies in 12 pages, and that’s just one piece of writing from these prolific authors. This is not an occasional error or a minor problem. It’s epidemic. It’s malpractice, and I’m not mean or nasty for calling it out. I’m right.

Now, I don’t know everything, and I don’t expect others to know everything. I make mistakes in my work, and when others point them out, I am grateful for the opportunity to deepen my own understanding. I’m not unreasonable. I don’t, for example, fault Moats and company for being unable to explain the spelling of words like us, thus, yes, if, his, much, which, such, or, all of which she refers to as “exceptions” to the final patterns <ss>, <ff>, and <tch>. These words aren’t really exceptions — there’s no such thing; rather, they’re function words, which take the smallest possible spelling (see in/inn, of/off, or/err). I don’t expect educators to have a good command of this yet, as it’s not necessarily terribly common knowledge, and not something a plain old dictionary will flag.

However, etymology — a word’s origin — is not a matter of guesswork or opinion. Any proper dictionary can tell us where words come from. We can look them up in the Online Etymology Dictionary on our phones for free, for crying out loud. People with Ph.D.s and secure jobs should be able to ask an intern or proofreader to look up all the examples in a dictionary if they don’t care to reap the incredibly rich, captivating understanding that word study brings for themselves. Either way, it is a professional and ethical imperative that these authors begin to ensure that the teachers and scholars reading the words they write will not continue to be systemically misinformed.

In addition to the rampant etymological underhandedness in print, teacher trainers and workshop speakers perpetuate the same careless claims in classrooms and conference rooms. I’ve heard countless examples myself, and colleagues who know better report them to me.

It kind of makes me mad. Like, mad angry and mad crazy.

Mistakes don’t make me mad. But willful, continual misinformation makes me mad. Irresponsible scholarship makes me mad. False claims of expertise make me mad. And, as faithful LEX readers will recall, experts meeting corrected information with denial and deflection make me really, really mad.

Well. Today I received the following email from a colleague:

“I was attending an Indiana IDA meeting yesterday in Indianapolis. In an adjacent room, [famous teacher trainer guy] was conducting his 1-day morphology training. I stuck my head in for about 10 minutes to hear him talking about how morphology builds vocabulary—OK so far.

BUT this was his example:

crazy is Anglo-Saxon

insane is Latin

lunatic is Greek

I just had to walk out.”

Now, this man is a well-known, well-traveled, well-respected trainer whose work I have found troubling before. He has a habit of telling teachers not to teach the schwa because it’s “too complicated.” Of course, this advice is problematic because the schwa is the most common phone in an English utterance, but what really fries me is the all-too-familiar “don’t worry your pretty little heads” tone of a man telling a roomful of female educators what’s too hard for them to understand. Yuck.

Now, as far as crazy/insane/lunatic go, of course, I find the choice of subject matter to be a little ironic, ’cause I do indeed think it’s a little crazy to make unsubstantiated claims about word origins while stressing how important word origins are to word study. As you might expect, our morphology “expert” only got one of his examples right: insane does actually have a Latin root. But crazy is built on a French loanword, and lunatic is derived from luna, the Latin word for moon.

Instead, if you really want to have a look at cross-linguistic synonyms pertaining to insanity, I’d submit the following:

Old English: moony

Latin: lunatic

Greek: selenomanic

See? That makes a lot more sense.


Old English: mad

Latin: insane

Greek: psychotic

I’d love to be able to include crazy, but its origin is a hard tail to pin on that tired, old layers-of-language donkey. It’s originally Germanic, but was adopted from French. And the French in question is Norman French, not Parisian French. This is true of so, so many words educators erroneously attribute to Anglo-Saxon: they’re short, common, everyday words, but they were Norman French contributions, not Anglo-Saxon. Some of them are Latinate; others are Germanic. After all, it was a really Germanic French that English was adopting words from in the late Middle ages.

Now, as I said, I’m not unreasonable. I get that understanding the nuances of language history and word histories requires study. After all, that’s what I do. I am sympathetic to the fact that most people don’t have the depth of etymological knowledge that I have. I get it. But that’s just the thing: you don’t have to have extensive knowledge of etymology in order to get it right, at least most of the time. You just have to look in a dictionary. Someone else has already done the study for you. It takes less than a minute or two to look up and read the entries for crazy, insane, and lunatic online.

Moreover, I’m not talking about generally held folk etymologies that get a foothold in the cultural rock wall; I’m talking about people who are widely regarded as “reading scientists,” people others rely upon for linguistic expertise and accurate information about language. Etymology as a field of study involves using established practices of comparative linguistics, based on the broader principle of the scientific method. The etymological guesswork across “reading science,” where every other example of an Anglo-Saxon word isn’t Anglo-Saxon, is pseudoscience, neither scientific nor a method.

Look, writing books and articles and speaking at conferences are activities that require research and preparation. I’m not a lunatic for pointing out that conference speakers, certified trainers, and respected, peer-reviewed authors be held to a higher standard when it comes to the empirical claims they make about words. Factual rigor is not an insane expectation for scholarly speaking and writing.

I’m not crazy.

I am, however, pretty mad about etymology.


  1. Reblogged this on Ravinia Reading and commented:
    Excellent and all too true.

  2. Thank you for this! In the public school world, these workshop leaders, book authors and big name companies are put on pedestals. No one questions the information they put out there. I have tried. Even when I could offer evidence to a big name company recently, I was politely told that the information as they presented it, would not change. Don’t know what they thought of my evidence. They didn’t comment.

    I have learned so much from Pete Bowers at WordWorks, Michel Rameau at Real Spelling and you, Gina, at LEX. But the most important thing – at the core of it all – is the importance of having evidence to support what one understands. My students and I are no longer trusting of what some textbook or even standard dictionary tells us. If it doesn’t make sense or feel compatible with what we understand about words, we investigate. And whether or not we get to the bottom of our investigation, the depth we do get to is supported by evidence.

    • Thanks, MB. I appreciate your point that the evidence is paramount. It doesn’t matter what Pete or Michel or I have to say if we can’t back it up. Far more important than who says something is what gets said.

  3. Peter Bowers says:

    Thanks for this Gina. Scientific inquiry seeks the deepest structures that account for the greatest number of cases. Pointing out when a better description of the data of spelling that accounts for more words than what a given expert is stating is not being mean, it is standing up for science. Thanks for all you do for standing up for science regardless of what any given scientist may state.

  4. susdragon says:

    I learned the origin of lunatic way back in high school. Of course, it was in Latin class.

  5. I love this article. I sense the frustration and I think I understand it. In fact, I recall crying about it in Cluis. What I have noticed on this journey is that there are a lot of education professionals out there who have made a career saying one thing and when they learn something new (or in this case old, but new to them) they see that new information as a threat to what they have built professionally. I find that the most disturbing. We had that dilemma at DTI. In a matter of five minutes with you and Pete we discovered that we had so much to learn, even with a doctorate… Business-wise it is at our peril to divert from what we had said previously, but in light of the new information we had, how could we not divert and teach what we know to be true now, that is what lifelong learning is, right? Lastly, I find it very lazy and a little bizarre that he did not know that ‘lunatic’ is Latin. Everyone knows the Spanish word for moon is ‘luna’ and everyone knows that the moon can make you behave like a ‘lunatic’. Everyone also knows that Spanish is a very Latin-based language, don’t they? No? Really? Weird. Maybe I should stop thinking so much and go find a new rich husband to take care of me. Keep writing Gina, there is a lot work ahead…

  6. jennavicky says:

    Gina, I always love to read your posts but this one really resonated with me. We should be raising the bar, not sitting back and becoming complacent. You are absolutely correct that experts in the field should be responsible, completely prepared, and totally accurate. We in southeastern Oh are solidly behind you so raise the banner high!

  7. Hi Gina,

    I loved reading this post!

    Just winding down from the school season, and again, I write to ask if you have any lexinars scheduled that I may join. I am specifically interested in the syllable one, as it is the area I am most confused. I don’t know how to explain syllables, I feel I should, but I don’t.

    If there is one scheduled, I’m hoping the dates will work. If not do you expect there will be one in the summer and I will register on line and wait to hear from you. In terms, of times for me, most mornings before 11:00 am Atlantic time, or Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Are most lightly scheduled, as well as weekends.

    Thank you Gina,


    Sent from my iPad


    • With many people signing up for LEXinars, the only way I can ensure that an individual’s schedule will be taken into consideration is when that person registers in the LEX store online. I am constantly scheduling new LEXinars, and the online registration process is the only way I can keep track of everyone’s requests. Thank you.

  8. Linda says:

    We need a set of morpheme cards and lists of words that are accurate so we can teach. I teach students and teachers, and I spend way too much planning time looking these things up, making checklists, making cards, etc… I use MANY sources including Bowers, Henry, Ebbers, etc.

    • Good preparation — and the time to do it — is always a challenge for scholars. I encourage teachers not only to use many sources, but to interrogate them. No single resource will meet everyone’s needs, but a teacher who pursues a depth of understanding will be able to make good use of any materials.

  9. Jay says:

    Great commentary!

    I enjoyed learning the Classical – Medieval etymologies of certain English words!

    Does anyone know the etymology of “Earth”?
    How about “Britain”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *