What Works?

I’ve been studying Grimm’s Law with a couple of my kiddos lately. It takes more than one session to go in depth, but it’s a beautiful framework for learning more about PIE *roots, word families, spelling choices, and vocabulary. I will sometimes give them a little assignment, like looking up Classical relatives for native English words. Recently, we’ve been looking at the voiceless stops in native English words that are voiced in Classical relatives, like ten~decade and tooth~dentist, or acre~agriculture and carve~graph. Often, the <g> in the Classical words has undergone lenition, or ‘softened,’ over time, so we get pairs like cold~congeal or kind~genus~genuine. Sometimes, the /k/ was lost diachronically, but the <k> remains in the <kn> digraph, as in pairs like know~gnostic or knee~genuflect. A <kn> does an optimal job of marking a relationship to a <g> elsewhere; an <n> alone cannot do that.

The corresponding phonemes or graphemes needn’t be initial to the element, as evidenced by acre~agriculture. Sometimes they’re final, too. One such example is the native English word work and its bound Classical cognates, <erg>, <urge>, and <orge>. The <erg> element surfaces in energyergonomic, and allergy. The <all> in the compound <all+erg+y> denotes ‘other,’ just like it does in <all+o+phone> or <all+o+path+y>. An allergy is, morphologically speaking, the result of something ‘other’ ‘working’ against you.

The second in the list is not the free Latin base element <urge>, as in I urge you to reconsider or I’ve got an urgent need. Rather, it’s the bound Hellenic element in compounds such as dramaturge and metallurgy. A metallurgist works with metal, and a dramaturge is the Hellenic word for playwright. In fact, the <wright> element is another native cousin, as is <wrought>. Wrought iron has been worked, and an ironwright works with iron.

The same Greek root that gives us <urge> also compounds in George, but it kept the <o> instead of its <u> from the Greek <ου>; the name <ge+orge> means ‘farmer,’ literally, one who ‘works’ the ‘earth.’ That version also shows up in organorganism, organic, and orgy, but I’ll let you explore that last one on your own. The <organ> family takes on new life in Latin, whence organelle and organize.

A Greek <arg> derives historically from the privative prefix <a->, as in atypical, and the root of <erg>, so the <arg> denotes ‘not working.’ It surfaces in lethargic and in the name of the inert gas argon. Get it? Inert? Not working?

Speaking of not working, everywhere I go is short staffed. You too, I bet. From the post office to food service to medical facilities, there are long waits and long apologies. We are in a kind of upheaval, aren’t we? COVID has brought so many changes, not least to businesses and economies. Every time I hear about this, on the news or from a friend or at the doctor’s office, I am reminded that the Black Death not only ended feudalism and restructured the economy across Europe, but also transformed education and literacy in myriad ways that helped usher in the Modern English era.

Because I was online when online wasn’t cool — i.e., pre-COVID — my day-to-day business and worklife didn’t really change much with the pandemic like most other adults’ did. I did notice an uptick of K-12 teachers in my classes; many of them were home more and had professional development dollars not going to travel, so they signed up for extra classes. I’ve heard from them that the experience of taking multiple LEXinars at once or in close sequence was transformative, and have I’ve received a tidy collection of love notes from teachers who found that my classes were nourishment during an insanely trying school year. Lucky me.

I love my work and am so privileged to do it. The confluence of alphabetic research for Default Graphemes™ and for the 2022 History of the Alphabet calendar has blown my mind time and again this year. The new calendar is *amazing,* if I say so myself. I learned a great deal putting it together and I look forward to sharing what I learned with folks. Maybe a pop-up class on Shameless Spelling?
I love thinking up new ideas for courses. I think in 2022 I’ll revamp LEXinars and streamline what I’m offering. While I don’t love scheduling or invoicing, I’m absolutely gaga for teaching. Every December and every May, I watch my academic friends and colleagues scrambling to get grading calculated and submitted, and I am ever so grateful to be in the sweet spot of teaching what I like, to interested people whom I ever have to grade.

Recently, I started a new year-long class on This Language, A River: A History of English, a book by two of my beloved teachers. The whole front-end of the class is grammar, though, because you can’t talk about language change without being able to talk about language. Chapter 2 is a long chapter called Grammar Fundamentals. We covered much of that chapter the last time we met, and at the end of class, I asked for a show of hands for who had taken Grammar for Grown Ups already. Most of the class’s 25 participants raised their hands. They agreed that Chapter 2’s content was familiar and coherent, and not at all difficult, because they already had a solid understanding from G4GU. That class will improve your understanding of grammar no matter where it is when you start. Ask anyone who’s taken it. I’m offering both of these year-long classes again in 2022.

In addition to LEXinars, I will be teaming up with Douglas Harper from The Online Etymology Dictionary for our 10th annual Etymology! conference. This one will be the third one online. I desperately would love to meet in person again, but at the time of our initial planning (and still!), COVID is kneecapping travel plans and ability for too many of my clients. This year’s theme centers around food and food words, and we’ll have another online cooking demo on Friday or Saturday evening. Dates and EarlyBird registration will be announced   in December.

Besides teaching adult classes, I have always studied individually with kiddos as part of my LEX work, but in the last year or two I’ve also done more individual study with adults. Some adults have engaged me because they are themselves dyslexic and want to improve their own literacy skills. Others work with me for a 6-session internship, in which I teach them and one of their tutoring students together. After the initial 6-pack, we sometimes meet for a tune-up session or consultation, or when they encounter a stumper and want to call in reinforcement. I love seeing how much tutors grow in their understanding and in their confidence over those six hours. One tutor who interned with me with a kindergarten student last year reports that he is now reading up a storm, and she is a much more confident and better-equipped tutor than she was with his older brother and Orton-Gillingham.

Other adults have engaged my services as a kind of homeschooling coach. Dyslexic adults don’t always have dyslexic kids, and having an 8-year-old who reads faster and with more glee than his mom does can be a challenging recipe. Some homeschooling parents just hire tutors, which is fine. But I only work with kids whose parents study with me, so for some parents, it makes more sense to simply study with me on their own so they can ask individualized questions about words and lesson planning to help their own kids, rather than hiring me to work with their kids. Other homeschooling families study with me together, and they even load my grammar and spelling Jeopardy games on their big-screen TV and compete against each other for fun.

My work hasn’t changed much over the past two COVID years, other than moving Etymology! online and not traveling to any live conferences. But all around me, work is different for most people. There’s more of it, or less of it, and it’s now done somewhere it wasn’t done two years ago. Teachers and moms have had a hard couple of years, and heaven help you if you’re both. We all have found changes to our energy and our organization.

I don’t know that I’ll live long enough to see the eventual linguistic changes wrought by this pandemic, other than the early lexical contributions like social distancing or doomscrolling. But I do know that my work studying the history of English with mostly willing participants has really shaped the way I’ve been watching COVID, and the questions I have about its progression. I know that it helps me take a longer-range view, and to be hopeful and optimistic about the future that all of my students, adult and kiddo, and also my own flesh-and-blood son, are walking into. I refuse to look at my kiddos in various levels of heroic struggle with schools that weren’t built to handle dyslexia or COVID and offer them shrugs. Instead, I will offer them Grimm’s Law, and real grammar. I will offer them word families and the history of writing and of English. I’ll offer them clarity, rigor, and understanding — and curiosity and delight.

That ol’ whack-job genius Sigmund Freud said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

I’m not at all convinced that they’re all that different.


  1. Nancy Zuber says:

    Please send information and dates of 2022, 10th annual Etymology! conference.
    Thank you

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