Miss Informed

The following lies, which I have corrected below, are from a single table (4.2) on a single page (84) in a single book (Speech to Print, 2nd edition, 2010) by Louisa Cook Moats:

  1. ‘Sky’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Middle English word borrowed from the Old Norse word for cloud. The real Anglo-Saxons used heofones, ‘heavens,’ for sky.
  2. ‘Pants’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Modern English abbreviation of pantaloons, which was also a Modern English word borrowed from French, which got it from an Italian proper name.
  3. ‘Coat’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It is a Middle English word borrowed from French.
  4. ‘Want’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It is an early Middle English word borrowed from Old Norse. The Anglo-Saxons used the verb willan, which grammaticized into the modal auxiliary verbs will and would.
  5. ‘Touch’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Middle English word borrowed from French.

That’s 5 wrong out of 34 examples of “Anglo-Saxon” words. That is a middling B. In my college prep high school, it would’ve been a C. Not exactly impressive odds from a so-called expert.

  1. ‘Cuisine’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word.
  2. ‘Triage’ is not Norman or Old French. It is also a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word, and its current sense dates to the 1930s.
  3. ‘Rouge’ was borrowed twice from French – once from Middle French in late Middle English (meaning ‘red’), and a second borrowing, in the 18th century, with the current cosmetic sense.
  4. ‘Baguette’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a Modern English borrowing from Modern French, which in turn got it from Italian. The two present-day senses of a long loaf of bread and a rectangular-cut gem? Both 20th century. 
  5. ‘Crouton’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a 19th century borrowing, from the French word for crust.

Louisa must’ve been hungry while she was imagining her list: cuisine, baguette, crouton… Reminds me of that stupid non-word test that includes pettuce, hausage, kiscuit, and polonel — because apparently it was written over a KFC value meal.

But wait! There’s more! Louisa is like the Ginzu knife commercial of bad etymology.

  1. ‘Coupon’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a 19th century borrowing of a Modern French word.
  2. ‘Nouvelle’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a a Modern English borrowing of the Modern French feminine word for ‘new’ – it’s essentially the same word as novel, which was the borrowing of the Old French word. Nowadays it’s used mostly in collocations like nouvelle cuisine or nouveau riche.
  3. ‘Boutique’ is not Norman or Old French. The Normans were Vikings, Louisa. They did not have boutiques. This word is a 20thcentury borrowing of a Modern French word, which the French got from Provençal. This word is actually an old Languedoc bastardization of apothecary, which is Greek.
  4. ‘Ballet’ is not Norman or Old French. William the Conqueror didn’t like toe shoes or tulle, so, you know, no ballet. Ballet the word, like ballet the dance, is from the Modern era. It’s an Italian Renaissance thing. Modern English borrowed it from Modern French, which in turn borrowed it from Italian. The word is derived via Latin from a Greek root.
  5. ‘Croquet’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a 19th century word for a 19th century pastime. But at least this word does have a Viking root, the Old Norse krokr, also the source of crook and crooked, which are good words to describe Louisa Moats’s etymological exaggerations.
  6. ‘Coquette’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word for ‘flirtatious or wanton woman.’ So, you know, let’s make sure that all the kids know how to read and spell this word.
  7. ‘Mirage’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word. It means when you see things that aren’t there, like Louisa does wth etymology.
  8. ‘Debut’ is not Norman or Old French. It made its debut in the 18th century, which is Modern English, from Modern French.
  9. ‘Depot’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s an 18th century loan from Modern French. The Vikings did not have trains or buses.

This tallies up to 14 out of 19 examples of “Norman (Old) French” that are just plain wrong. That’s a big fat F on this section. Louisa doesn’t know the difference between Norman French, Old French, and Modern French loanwords in English, which is also evident elsewhere in her writing. But remember, this is one single table.

Now, if Louisa Moats were a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, such promiscuous linguistic ignorance would not be a big deal. But Louisa Moats is none of those things. She is, in addition to being a leading critic of my personality, supposed to be a language expert. The Moatsian table I’m citing is not entitled “Mistakes Most People Make” – rather, it’s entitled “Features of English orthography by language of origin.” So she is actually providing baldly wrong examples of the very thing that the table claims to be elucidating.

Louisa calls me “arrogant” and “misinformed;” she says that the things I write are “nasty and undeserved.” And she barks these opinions of me behind my back, on her friends’ personal Facebook pages, where she and her fellow literacy dinosaurs can massage each other’s weathered mean-girl egos. If you are reading this and, like Emerson Dickman, feeling indignation and defensiveness on behalf of your “heroes,” maybe ask yourself why you don’t feel so damn hot in the face when you read Louisa’s linguistic lies.

Not done. On to the “Latin” section.

  1. ‘Pacify’ was not borrowed directly from Latin; like all words that end with an <fy> base, this one evolved through French.
  2. ‘Extremity’ also was not borrowed directly from Latin; like all words with a <-ty> suffix, this one came from French, where it had a <-té>, on its way from Latin, where it had a <-tas/-tatem>.
  3. ‘Locomotion’ was not borrowed directly from Latin either; it was built in Modern English from Latin parts. Like the Vikings, the Romans had no trains.
  4. ‘Paternal’ was borrowed in late Middle English from Old French.
  5. ‘Maternity,’ like extremity above, gives away its French roots with its suffix.
  6. ‘Hostility’ also has that French-form <-ty>.
  7. ‘Amorous’ was borrowed from Old French, which is to be expected, given its French-form <-ous> suffix. Words borrowed directly from Latin retain the <-ose> form of that suffix, like verbose and morose.
  8. Louisa claims that Latinate words are “organized around a *root” [sic – she means a base element], “many with prefixes or suffixes.” This is a repackaging of the very common false understanding that Latin doesn’t compound, but she provides two Latin compounds in her list (base elements in all caps):

a. < PACE + i + FY >

b. < LOCO + MOTE + ion >

Louisa misidentifies 7 of her 21 “Latin” examples. Guess you could say we’re all misinformed, as long as we continue to read Louisa’s work.

  1. While all of the Greek examples Louisa gives are indeed built from Greek parts, some of them are modern words and were not around in Greek. Louisa also makes the false claim that Greek-origin words are “constructed from combining forms” that “compound.” Nope, no combining forms. Just base elements that can compound or affix. Moreover, 3 of the 9 words that Louisa gives as examples of Greek only have a single base element:

a. < HYPN + ose + is >

b. < a + GN + ost + ic >

c. < cata + TONE + ic >

That’s a third of the items wrong again. That’s not quite an F, but it’s a pretty embarrassing D. Especially from someone who is supposed to be an expert. Especially especially for someone who built her career on screeding about teachers’ woeful lack of linguistically accurate knowledge.

All in all, this single table on a single page in a single book offers 83 examples, of which 31 are wrong. That’s 63% accurate — a D or an F, depending on the scale.

Would you get on a plane that had a 37% chance of crashing?  Of course not, but that’s Louisa does every time she expects dyslexic kids and their teachers to believe what she writes.

You know what’s even shadier?

Louisa lists “Source: Henry (2003)” at the bottom of her shoddy table. She blames this foolish fakery on her beloved colleague Marcia Henry. And while Marcia Henry’s 2003 edition of Unlocking Literacy does have some etymological errors in it, none of them are anywhere near as egregious as Louisa’s lazy guesswork in Speech to Print. While the etymological framework Marcia presents in her work is deeply flawed, Louisa’s indolent examples are entirely her own. Not a single one of Louisa’s bad examples came from Marcia’s book. I know because I looked, in addition to looking up all 83 examples in an actual etymological dictionary.

It’s nasty and ungracious work, but someone has to do it.


  1. Lori Josephson says:

    Can someone comment on the usage of ‘altogether’ vs. ‘all together’? TYVM

    • Yes, someone can: your dictionary.

    • shani gill says:

      Thank you Gina. The world of education is so befuddled…and this is why. Teachers are inundated daily with “experts” telling us how to do our job…and yet, as you clearly illustrate, many of them appear not to be, well, “experts.” Many of us end up clutching at straws, jumping from one program to the next….. the world (especially of education) needs your voice. Again, thank you.

  2. Deborah Sensel-Davis says:

    Thank you for sharing this scientific evidence.

  3. Anna Francois says:

    I love your scholarship! Perhaps, one day “experts” will Tweet/Blog/… about the origin of “wanton woman” as derived from Chinese and potentially “the lascivious nature of a person whose business was to sell dumplings”. We are all entitled to make mistakes, or admit to a lack of knowledge, but there’s no excuse for lazy guesses in reference books for teachers. Thank you Gina!

  4. Hi Gina,

    Thanks to your example I have been fact checking etymologies wherever I read. You are so right that many of them are terribly wrong. I can commiserate with the authors a little, though. What is the principle or protocol for stating etymologies, especially in the shorthand (x word is from language Y)? Do you state the most proximate source or the ultimate source?

    For example, in a text I am reading it states that gracious comes from Latin gratia, meaning “kindness.” Fact checking takes me to etymonline.com which states:

    gracious (adj.)
    c. 1300, “filled with God’s grace,” from Old French gracios “courteous, pleasing, kind, friendly” (12c., Modern French gracieux), from Latin gratiosus “enjoying favor, agreeable, obliging; popular, acceptable,” from gratia “favor” (from suffixed form of PIE root *gwere- (2) “to favor”). Meaning “merciful, benevolent” is from late 14c. As an exclamation, elliptically for gracious God, attested from 1713.

    The most proximate source, Old French gracios, is described first.

    However, if I go to Google the image, with Latin being big and on the left, seems to indicate precedence should be given to the ultimate known source, Latin. It doesn’t even give an OF source word. If an author is in a hurry to get a source, Latin might be chosen because of its placement in the chart.

    I like wikitionary’s etymology because it adds ME as part of the chain as well as addressing what it displaced when it was borrowed:

    From Middle English gracious, borrowed from Old French gracieus, from Latin gratiosus, from gratia (“esteem, favor”). See grace. Displaced native Old English hold (“gracious”) .

    M-w.com has:

    Middle English, from Anglo-French gracieus, from Latin gratiosus enjoying favor, agreeable, from gratia

    Here Anglo-French is used instead of OF and a different word, gracieus, is used instead of gracios. Does Anglo-French represent something different than OF? I would guess OF is from the French spoken on the continent and Anglo-French is the French spoken in England. So really, the place from which gracious entered the English lexicon is Anglo-French gracieus?

    American Heritage dictionary says:

    Middle English, from Old French gracieus, from Latin grātiōsus, from grātia, good will

    Same word, gracieus, but different language.


    Origin: Of multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin. Etymons: French gracius; Latin grātiōsus.
    Etymology: < (i) Anglo-Norman gracius, gracyous, gratious, gratius, Anglo-Norman and Old French gracios, gracious, Anglo-Norman and Middle French gracieus, Old French, Middle French gracieux, Middle French gratieux (French gracieux ) (of a person or action) generous, kind (late 12th cent.; a1377 or earlier as a courteous epithet used in referring to royalty), pleasing, attractive, beautiful (late 12th cent.), (of a person or thing) characterized by or filled with divine grace (c1224), (of God or Christ) abounding in grace or mercy (beginning of the 14th cent.), in Anglo-Norman also successful, fortunate (1309 or earlier), and its etymon (ii) classical Latin grātiōsus enjoying favour or influence, charming, pleasing, agreeable, showing favour, friendly, kind, obliging, in post-classical Latin also happy, fortunate (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian), condescending (12th cent. in a British source), given by grace (from 12th cent. in British sources), (of a person) full of grace, in a state of grace (from 13th cent. in British sources), (of God) disposed to show or dispense grace (14th cent. in a British source), of or concerning papal dispensation or indulgence (from 14th cent. in British sources), concerning an (academic) dispensation (14th cent. in a British source) <  grātia grace n. + -ōsus -oussuffix.

    Here we have Anglo-Norman, not Anglo French. It also adds the concept of an etymon. Which should we reference? Etymon, root, base, or word?

    Ack! There’s the complication that the original quote uses gracious as an exclamation (Good gracious me!) not an adjective! The OED says this usage is first attested to in 1712, a full 400 years later!

    Which meaning from the many listed? First attested use in English (14th century) or first attested use with similar meaning and usage in PDE (1712)? Anglo-Norman (would adding French be redundant?), Anglo-French, OF or L? If using F, grasieus or grasios or grasius? If using L, gratiosus or gratia, or both?

    My choices (and questions): ModE (ModE or PDE?) adj. gracious meaning “elegant, courteous, generous” (should meaning be used and if so, which?) entered ME from (Is there a better word? borrowed, adapted, adopted?) Anglo-Norman (French?) gracius meaning “generous, kind” (should meaning be used and if so, which?) c. 13th century. Adding to fit the original quote: First used as an exclamation (Good gracious!) c. 1712.

    What are your thoughts? Is there a style manual for writing etymologies? How about sharing some common sense for those of us to get lost in the minutiae?


  5. Whoa, whoa, whoa, there.

    Let’s parse your comment.

    For starters, I am mise en garde by your assertion that you “can commiserate with the authors a little, though.” REALLY? You can COMMISERATE with people who make false statements without fact-checking, and make money hand over fist doing so? You can commiserate with that?

    Not me.

    So right off the bat, it strikes me that you have totally missed the point of my post; in fact, you have missed two points. The first point is that Louisa isn’t just confused or uncertain about her examples after looking them up; rather, she doesn’t bother to look the up at all. That’s WRONG. As in morally wrong, to be that lazy and deceptive in one’s published work. So when you say you commiserate with her, even a little, I am already thinking you’re a phonics apologist like so many who have made similar empty arguments to me.

    The second point you miss is that etymology is something that people understand through study, not through hypothetical protocols and shortcuts. When you demand a protocol for citing a word’s etymology, “especially in the shorthand (x word is from language Y),” you betray your ignorance on the subject. What good is one more a shortcut instead of an actual understanding? Etymology IS THE STORY, Melissa. It’s NOT what you are representing here, and it’s not what Louisa represents. It’s not about saying X word is from language Y. It’s about the story.

    I don’t get why you ask me for a “protocol” repeatedly instead of just looking at the examples I give in the post you are commenting on. You went on and on and on about gracious, but but completely missed the point I made in my post about words that end with <-ous>. Go read it again and answer your own question.

    You further betray your unsavory objective when you reiterate your interest in some kind of “standard protocol” — which is what my own teacher often refers to as the Anglo-Saxon need to box and categorize everything — and you say, “If an author is in a hurry to get a source…” Well look, Melissa, is an author is in a hurry then perhaps the author should not be writing on that subject until they have time to commit to understanding and accuracy.

    The whole PROBLEM is that Louisa is IN A HURRY. Don’t you see that? I don’t owe you or anyone else support for being in a hurry or wanting a shortcut. Also, I would submit that there is a qualitative difference between an author writing a novel or a Bible study lesson or a magazine article on dating referring to the etymology of “gracious” as Latin. However, if that claim is made in a chart like Louisa’s, in a book about language education, then that’s not really the best story to tell there.

    No one looks out for my time, my space, and my money but me. So when someone whose name I do not recognize encroaches on any of those with demands for a shorthand protocol for when you’re in a hurry, and free advice about the book you want to write on a topic whose minutiae you cannot manage, out of the total blue 5 years after our last contact? I bark.

    The answers to your questions are actually in the post if you read it carefully.

  6. Sheena Rohrbach says:

    Thank you for this post.

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