Archive for the ‘Bound Bases’ Category

I began studying inflections in English about five or six years ago, and I’m hooked.

I mean, I had studied inflection before, and I knew the difference between inflection and derivation. But I really started looking deeply at inflection, and how it intersects with orthography, during my PhD program. It’s something I address quite a bit in my LEXinars as well.

To support the growing understanding of inflection among my scholarship community, I’m pleased to announce the development of a new LEX InSight product: InSights into Inflections.

This deck includes 10 white cards printed on both the front and back in black ink, with easy-to-read text and deep investigations of how inflections work in English. The deck features the eight inflectional categories of English, foreign inflection in English, inflection in general, and a supplement card.

The cards are currently in production, and are about 75% completed. They will retail for $10, but may be pre-ordered at a 15% discount through March 26th. Pre-ordered cards will be ship on March 30th, and the discounted decks will also be available in person at Etymology V! in greater Chicago.

Anyone who ever wondered what a participle actually is will want to catch this grammar bug too.

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Several days ago, a friend’s Facebook comment got me to thinking about the word pink. I like pink. And pink things. Probably to a pinkfault. I still daydream about a pink-rhinestone-covered stapler a former colleague had. I have pink pillow shams, lots of pink clothes, pinkish boots, a pink flashlight, and a pink lampshade. I can’t resist snapping photos of pink sunrises and sunsets from my hilltop home. I need a new pink purse because I’ve worn out the last one. I even made the instruction cards in my first InSight Words deck pink.

So the word was stuck in my head for a few days, which means it had to be investigated if I had any hope of accomplishing anything else. It turns out there are no fewer than seven different base elements spelled <pink> in English:

  1. The color pink  is named for the flower.
  2. The flower (Dianthus) may be named for its ‘pinked’ edges (perforated or punctured) — think pinking shears. Or it may be named for pink eyes — not conjunctivitis, mind you, but an early Modern English phrase on loan from the Dutch pinck oogen, ‘small eyes,’ — referring to the flowers’ appearance reminiscent of small, half-closed eyes. The pink in these pink eyes doesn’t historically refer to the color, but to size.dianthus
  3. The first hypothesis for the flower’s name, it’s ‘pinked’ edges, is its own etymological wild goose chase. Found today mostly in reference to sewing or design, this <pink> may be related to Germanic words like peck, pick, and/or pike, or to Latinate words like puncture, poignant, pungent, punch, and pugnacious.
  4. The second hypothesis for the flower’s name, pink [‘small’] eyes, works well as a translation of the French synonym oeillet, a ‘little eye.’ The Dutch word pink has a historical denotation of ‘small,’ and is used to refer to the pinkie (or pinky) finger, whence the English name for the littlest manual digit.
  5. The ‘small’ sense also shows up in the name of a pink, a fast, nimble little watercraft common in the  Atlantic ocean during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spanish pinque and Italian pinco also reflect this Dutch derivation.
  6. Some folks say an engine knocks and pings; others, mostly Brits, say it pinks.
  7. There’s also a dated term pink that refers to a kind of lake (lacquer) pigment, but it’s yellowish and of uncertain origin. Go figure.

The pronunciation of pink is worth paying attention to: #6 is onomatopoeic, and #3 belongs to either one or another family of words that also kind of sound like what they mean: pike, pick, and peck, or puncture, punch, and repugnant (literally, something that ‘punches back.’) The word pink has a nice ring to it. It’s sharp and tingly and saying it makes you smile a little.

Pink has a straightforward orthographic phonology, too: it has four graphemes <p i n k> and four phonemes /p ɪ n k/. The phonetic realization of those four phonemes, however, sends a lot of folks into quite a tizzy. The /n/ is realized as a velar [ŋ] because of its coarticulation with the velar /k/ — the same thing happens in words like distinct or banquet, but few phonics programs address [ŋ] beyond monosyllables. The /ɪ/ is nasalized, and often raised by the velar coarticulation too, so it ends up feeling more like an [ĩ] — a long, nasal eeeee. That’s the part that makes you smile.

Traditional phonocentric approaches teach this and other velar nasal patterns as whole rimes (ink, ank, onk, unk) and giving them made-up names like “welded sounds” or “nasal blends,” rather than taking an accurate look-see at the orthographic phonology. Instead of studying the phonology of <n> — which can be realized as [ŋ] before a velar consonant — these approaches add to the cognitive load for each child by piling eight new patterns (including ing, ang, ong, ung) into the mix, and often not clearly identifying them as rimes and not as graphemes or as that phonics horror of horrors, “blends.” This is largely because phonics is so stuck in its misapprehension of the phoneme that it can’t deal with the difference between the /n/ phoneme and the [ŋ] allophone. [I’m happy to consider an argument that there is a /ŋ/ phoneme, but it has to present an accurate understanding of the difference between a phoneme and an allophone.] Another phonics problem I’ve observed time and again is the failure to differentiate between an <ing> rime and an <ing> suffix. This distinction is a non-negotiable understanding in orthographic study: the same sequence of letters doesn’t always bear the same identity or the same function. It depends on which word they’re surfacing in.

My spelling teacher (who happens to be French) always says that there are no coincidences. As I was working on this pink-inspired piece, I spoke with a colleague who told me about a 3rd grader she works with who has a very hard time with the inks anks onks and unks of her Wilson Reading System instruction. The child reads words with these rimes just fine in connected text, but not in isolation. I bet you a dollar that she’s trying to “sound them out” and is trying to string [p ɪ n k] together, for example, but can’t make sense of it without a meaningful framework. My question — my colleague’s question too, which is why she contacted me — is What in the heck is the goal of “reading” words in isolation if she can read them fine in text?

I can’t answer that in any way that I can argue has the child’s best interest, her engagement with language, or her lifelong development as a literate soul, at heart. The bloom is off the phonocentric rose.

The phonology only has structure in a meaningful framework, which word lists really never provide. The ways in which <pink> makes meaning are interwoven with each other and with our history.  According to Oxford, the use of pinkie for ‘little finger’ was reinforced by the color sense (#1), but of course, that only works well for pasty Celts and Anglo-Saxons, not across the English-speaking world. The association between the flower, color, and flesh is also reflected in the word rose (think rosy cheeks), but especially in the name of one kind of dianthus, the carnation. In late Middle and early Modern English, the Latinate words carnation and incarnation were used to mean ‘the color of flesh,’ anything from ‘blush-color’ to ‘blood-color.’

Again, this whole pink-flesh connection only really works, at least on the surface, if you’re a white person. Oxford points out that not all carnations are pink, so of course not all dianthus are pink. Likewise, not all flesh is pink. I’d say Duh, English, but the French did it first.

I’ve also learned from my spelling teacher that the study of the writing system necessarily and organically brings about the possible study of so much more. What does it mean, in a world where we argue about whose lives matter, that the historical association of pinkness with human skin is captured in our written language? How would today’s third-grader respond to the information that my childhood Crayola box had a pinkish crayon labeled “Flesh,” but hers does not? What might a study of words like white and black reveal to us? I’m not interested in this because I had some social studies agenda in mind when I started studying pink; rather, these questions are where the study of pink led me. Just in time for Martin Luther King Day and everything.

I wrote that. Then I saw this:
skin ffs

There are no coincidences. That’s not some kind of mystical statement; it’s an observation. There are no coincidences; there are the connections that we conceive of, the stories that we tell, and the meaning we make.

Tickles me pink.

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

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

break~breach               seek~search (also sought),

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

pocket~pouch               invoke~vouch

crook~crotch                dike~ditch

book~beech                  pick~pike~pitch

teach~token                 wreak~wrack~wretch

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

snack~snatch            cake~cook~kitchen           bake~batch

Food for thought, right?

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






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

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


moon~month (which I wrote about here)



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

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

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

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


worship~ worth






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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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At the outset, the purpose of this post was going to be to inform folks about the Pennsylvania seminars. But I ended up deep in language (surprise!).

Here’s what happened: I started thinking that I really should reorganize this website (I need my own website, I know, I know), and I should have a page just for announcements, and a different page for language investigations. That got me to thinking about the word organize, and I was off and running. So my excuse for not having an organized website (yet) is that this post is both: an announcement and an investigation.

Putting together two weekend seminars out of state is no mean feat. It takes a lot of organization. The Friday spelling seminar is $75, payable to Stratford Friends School, and the Saturday-Sunday etymology seminar is $225 ($250 with lunches), payable to LEX. Folks who sign up for both get $25 off the weekend seminar. So, you know, it’s complicated bookkeeping, which is so not one of my great loves. I can do it, and I do it fine, but I don’t love it. On top of that, there’s hotel information for those traveling in ($124/night includes shuttle service, so no rental car needed). Please contact me for more information or registration flyers. I’m sorry it’s cumbersome — one of the things I plan to have better organized in the future, along with the website.

Thinking about the word organize, I started to wonder whether <org> or <organ> is the base element, and whether it’s related to <erg>, a free base element that denotes ‘work’. I was thinking of the word cyborg, a 20th-century neologism coined from “the first elements of cybernetic and organism” (The Online Etymology Dictionary — the only unadulterated OED). Sure enough, I see that <organ> and <erg> are indeed etymologically related — both courtesy of Greek via Latin. I have some evidence that <org> is a base element, but that’s a story for another time.  Suffice it to say that I’m satisfied for the time being with the following understanding:

<organ> is a stem meaning “instrument” — literally, denotationally, “that with which one works” (Etymonline, and elsewhere). Now if only I could get my website and my LEX life more finely tuned!

This word family — organize, organization, organic, organism, organ — is etymologically related to the base <erg> (‘work’) and its family of energy, allergen, ergonomic, ergative (look it up! I promise you will learn something). Also related etymologically: urge, surgeon, and — you guessed it — work!

Now, this investigation took me some (shocking!) places I didn’t expect to go, and it also took me back to some places I’ve been before, thus deepening my understanding of those previous journeys (one with surgeon was particularly rich) and whetting my appetite for others. One of the things I have to work out along the path of my investigation is how I know when I’ve got a morpheme and what’s simply, as one well-known morphologist likes to call it, “etymological residue.”

How can we tell? No resource will tell us reliably what the orthographic base element of a word is; this is something we have to discern by an organic process. So what does that process look like, and how do we know when we’ve ventured away from morphology, and entered into etymological markings and connections rather than morphological analysis? Well, as it so happens, this is a central question of my current work. I have a sense of how this works, but my present academic research and writing are targeting  these questions explicitly. This is the work I will be sharing, in its latest form, at these weekend conferences in Pennsylvania.

Recently, I was conversing with a dear friend and adviser about the purposes of my work, my audience, my goals. It’s great when people who are invested in me and my work question me, because it makes me organize my thoughts and put energy into capturing them in text. What I realized is that, while I might be allergic to bookkeeping and organizational details, I have a sense of urgency about my real work, my language work. Here’s the best I could articulate to my friend, “I just do it, like an artist or a writer, because I can’t not do it. Because there are stories to be told, even though not everyone wants to hear them.”

There are more stories about these words and so many others. I am so looking forward to sharing them here and in the March seminars (don’t forget — there’s one in the Chicago area March 9-10 too!). If you’d like to hear more, come and join us, or think about working with LEX to set up your own local workshop.

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Earlier this month, I gave two weekend seminars called Seeing the Sense in Spelling. Each one was a thorough joy, though they were very different.

The first was a one-day seminar in a small market, where most of the 16 attendees were new to the scientific study of orthography.  Four of them made an eight-hour round trip in order to be there; toward the end of the day, they said that they were looking forward to the drive back, so they could continue the dialogue. I could actually see the participants seeing and internalizing how spelling makes sense. I could tell by when they bent over their papers to jot something down, by the things they chose to record, that spelling was indeed making sense to them.

The second was a two-day seminar, longer in the planning, and in a much larger market. The 92 attendees were a mix of seasoned word detectives and the newly curious, along with a stray mathematician, a psycholinguist, and a Freemason with some knowledge of sailing who made some interesting observations about the spelling and pronunciation of words like leeward and coxswain. Folks traveled far for this one too — to Cincinnati from all over the state of Ohio, from Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and even one lone, dedicated orthographer from San Francisco, California.

For spelling.

I know this isn’t a math blog, so let me spell it out for everyone. That’s 108 people who showed up to roll up their sleeves and learn more about how words work.  Actually, 109. Because I was there too. And, boy, did I learn more.

Two lessons in particular stood out to me, both courtesy of that dear, diminutive scholar who flew in from San Fran. The first was conceptual. As questions arose about scopes and sequences, how to teach and how not to teach, how to build a solid orthographic understanding into classrooms or clinics,  where to begin, what tools to use, and how to integrate new information into traditional methodologies, I demurred. I kind of hate answering those kinds of questions; I’d rather talk about words than about lesson plans. My Bay Area buddy came to the rescue, offering this perspective:

When we have a curriculum or a scope and sequence, we have the false impression that, as teachers, we have complete information, that we know and can teach all of the things about our subject. But that’s an illusion, and one that’s contrary to real scholarship. It’s a common perspective in literacy education; one well-known reading scientist frequently laments that teachers don’t know enough about language, and that the materials they use are rife with linguistic error. Of course, I’m down with that. But here’s where she loses me: “Such [linguistic] details,” she writes, “do matter because we can help students make sense of the relationship between spoken and written language only if the information they receive is complete and accurate” (emphasis added). Again, accurate I’m down with, but complete is problematic.

At what point is a teacher’s information or knowledge complete? Most of us have experienced a teacher who thinks their knowledge is complete, and it ain’t pretty. When, in literacy education, do we know or have access to everything? All the answers? The whole kit and linguistic caboodle? Never, of course. In fact, the concepts of accurate and complete are at odds with each other when it comes to real scholarship: the only accurate understanding knows there’s always more to learn.

So there was that.

The other revelation, for me, was in the discovery of a new bound base element, one that has since been hitting me over the head in my daily encounters with words. It was one that had been glimmering at me for a long time, hoping to catch my attention, but I needed a shove in the right direction. Fortunately for me, and for everyone else in Cincinnati, my West Coast collaborator was right there to help me along.

As the group was investigating words, we decided to look at that perennial favorite (especially for kids), antidisestablishmentarianism. It’s so affixalicious. But it’s getting to the base element that’s really orthographically nourishing. I had worked, in the past, with <establish>, the form that many lay people would peg as the base of antidisestablishmentarianism, so I knew that the initial <e> could be peeled off — it’s a variant of <ex>, a Latinate prefix meaning ‘out’, which we also see in <erupt>, <egress>, <emit>, <elect>, and many others. I also knew that the <ish> was a verbal Latinate suffix, just like in <punish>, <embellish>, <languish>, <replenish>, and so on. That left me with <stable>, which I assumed was a free base element:

<anti> + <dis> + <e> + <stable> + <ish> + <ment> + <ary> + <an> + <ism>

That’s what I was thinking as I sent my groups into the study of antidisestabilshmentarianism. I hinted that they’d find a free base element, thinking of <stable>. Soon, the Golden Gate Girl was standing right behind me, and tapped me on the shoulder. “It doesn’t have a free base,” she told me. I frowned, still thinking of <stable>, but I listened. “The <able> is a suffix,” she said.

Oh. Dang. Of course it is. Right away I could see the Latin root in my head, stabilis, in which the <abilis> is the familiar origin of the present-day English <able> suffix.

“Didn’t you see those emails?” she asked. Apparently, a 5th grader in Dan Allen‘s class in Switzerland had discovered the bound base element <st>, and the news had gone round our orthographic community. I must’ve been mired in the middle of my semester, translating Old English or grading grammar exams or something, because it didn’t even make my instrument panel, let alone my radar screen.

So I grabbed the mic, and corrected my misstatement to the groups. “Actually, it’s not a free base,” I said. “And it’s going to blow your mind.” They worked for a few more minutes, and then we did it together. We looked at the etymology, and linked the <st> to the Latin root stare (pronounced disyllabically as /’starə/), which means ‘to stand.’ Something that is stable is ‘stand-able.’ Whoa. We offered as evidence the following word sums in which the <st> base is again traceable to that Latin root:

<in> + <st> + <ant> (that which does not stand)

<con> + <st> + <ant> (that which stands intensively)

<st> + <ate> (the present act of standing)

<contra> + <st> (to stand against)

<circum> + <st> + <ance> (that which stands around you)

Holy cow. They kept coming. Status and institution and substance. We verified their <st> base with word sums, and their common Latin root stare on Etymonline and in dictionaries. My understanding deepened. A number of people were astonished by the information. Not everyone was thrilled with this revelation, however. People got stuck in their prior thinking, unable to grasp how something that’s not syllabic can be a base element. I explained that it’s because base elements, like all written morphemes, have no pronunciation until they surface in an actual word. So, /st/ isn’t a base element; <st> is. Other people mistook the letters <st> for the base element <st>, thinking that I was suggesting that anytime <st> is in a word, it’s a base element. But that isn’t true for <st> any more than it is for <ed> or <ing> or <ill>: in planted, eating, and illness, these sets of letters are morphemes, but in sled, bring, and fill, they’re just spelling sounds, and they carry no meaning on their own. Likewise, just because burst and step and paste all have the letters <st> does not mean that they have the base element <st>.

I’m sure that some minds were as blown by an <st> base as mine was, some even more. But like any good teacher, I really want the people I’m teaching to get excited about what they’re learning, so mostly I noticed the people who were confused or frustrated. That’s how learning and teaching go, though: there’s some discomfort in it, if it’s authentic. And sometimes the student just isn’t ready to learn a lesson yet. Just as I did not notice or register or understand an <st> base when the emails about it had gone around but did later, some of the seminar participants who were stymied or overwhelmed will go on, and later they will see new evidence that will seal their orthographic deal, and they’ll understand too. Some won’t, of course. But some will.

A little later in the seminar, after moving on from <st>, I happened to mention the word solstice. I gasped. The parts fell into place in my head:

<sol> + <st> + <ice>

The sun, standing.

I had written here about the solstice, and had assumed then that the <stice> in the word was a base element, also found in <armistice>. But in that Cincinnati seminar, I recognized that since the <st> was the base, the <ice> was the familiar nominal French suffix (also seen in service, justice, and cowardice, to name a few).

How enlightening.

The solstice is something that humans have marked and named and celebrated for a long, long time. There are ancient monuments and rituals dedicated to the solstices, both summer and winter. The June solstice, the longest, lightest day of the Northern year, is always bittersweet for me. It’s sweet because I love summer, and I really love the extended light. I love the brilliant sunsets from my rural home, and I’m always a little breathless when I look for just how late I can go before I say to myself that it’s dark out. I begin thinking about it in February, when I first notice the lengthening of days, and I begin counting down the days in late May. The solstice is a kind of apex, a climax, and it is satisfying for me like a good, deep breath. It is a moment, the moment when the sun stands still. But that same character — the momentness of the solstice — is also bitter, a little sad because I know that the solstice is a kind of end: an end of days growing longer,  and the point from which we begin the long slide toward the dark early afternoons of winter. (I wonder if people who like winter feel this way on their solstice.)

Fortunately, the solstice will return again. Few things are more certain. Just as the sun will rise in the morning, the days will lengthen in the spring. Like the lengthy daylight, the enlightenment of learning is something we can trust to return, if we are not ready or able to welcome and celebrate it at one moment, there will surely be another. “Revisiting is the essence of scholarship,” my favorite scholar said to me recently. Surely, like the sun, intellectual illumination will make another round.

Here’s what I realized in my reflections since that wonderful seminar: at any given time, in our learning, we are only at a moment. A single moment. It may echo some moments, or augur others, but it is its own moment. When I learned about <st>, when I saw it, grasped it, felt its embodiment in my understanding, I felt that moment. It was as if time was at a standstill, just then, just to add in that piece, to make that change to my appreciation of how words make sense.

Since that epiphanic seminar, the <st> base has made itself known again and again in surprising ways, standing right in front of me. In studying it further, I’ve found evidence that <st> is both a Latin and a Greek base element, from the same Proto-Indo-European origin, like <gn>, which I wrote about here. Besides the Latin examples above, <st> surfaces in the Greek-patterned static, ecstasy, metastasis, and even the proper name Anastasia, whose structure is <ana> + <st> + <ase> + <ia>, denoting ‘to stand up.’ That <ana> prefix is the same as in anabaptist or anachronism. There are historical relatives too, like the Old English stem and stand and stay, where the <st> is etymological, but not analyzable as a base element.

Here are some of the other words with an <st> base that I have found as astonishing and illuminating as the solstice itself: <ob> + <st> + <acle>, in which the <ob> means ‘against’ and the <acle> has a frequentive denotation (think spectacle, miracle, or receptacle); <co> + <st> (the price at which a desired item stands); <re> + <st> (the remainder, that which stands back); and <st> + <age> (a standing thing, like a blockage is a blocking thing). Also etymologically related, but no longer analyzable into an affixed <st> base, are oust (to stand in opposition to); and post, like a fence post (something that stands forth).

Even though each new <st> discovery is bright and remarkable, each of them is a little less surprising, a little less mind-blowing, than that first climactic vision of <st> in Cincinnati. Seeing the light in Cincinnati was a kind of apex, something I had been building to without even realizing it. Like the long days of summer, these continuing sightings of <st> still make me catch my breath, but they eventually move away from the apex of the the first time I saw it, when everything seemed to stand still for a moment, when the light was almost too bright to bear.

In our learning, we are always only at a moment in time. Whereas a curriculum or an answer sheet or a scope and sequence can give us the false impression of having arrived, in real scholarship there is no point of arrival, though there are many, many departures. In this way, orthographic study is not unlike the solar cycles. There are seasons, and moments when the sun seems to stand still, both in light and in shadow. There are long periods of illumination and intellectual heat, and long periods of darkness and chill too. The cycles of my orthographic learning are not as predictable or regular as the rotation and revolution of the earth, but the light at the center of them is just as strong as the sun, and just as stable.

© 2012 Gina Cooke and LEX

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“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 http://www.morewords.com, 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

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Cartoon of a schwa-shaped moon with the caption "After linguists first landed on the moon . . ."I’ve been a bit of a lunatic about the moon this winter.  Its bright fullness through my unadorned windows, especially “on the breast of the new-fallen snow,” contributed to a somewhat maddening sleeplessness on more nights than just the one before Christmas. Sometimes I met my insomnia with bouts of cleaning, sometimes with yoga, but often with language, my favorite companion when my household is asleep. I found the rituals of dusting and wiping, stretching and breathing, and reading, writing, and questioning language to be comforting and soothing in the wee hours. I figured that because the moon was keeping me up — and might do so a couple nights a month through the winter — I might as well learn more about it in the cozy hibernacle of my study.

While the winter of 2010-2011 has been a rough one for weather (thundersnow!) and geological events (tsunami!), it’s been good for astronomers and philologists alike. It began with an eclipse on the first day of the northern winter, December 21st, a rare, red-mooned spectacle that kept people up into the wee hours hoping to catch a glimpse. And now, as I finish writing this entry, on winter’s last day, March 19th, the moon is rising out my window, nearer to the earth than it’s been in eighteen years, and will appear larger and brighter in the night sky than usual.

Besides their exceptional visuals, both of these events have wonderful orthographic treasures waiting to be explored: a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice and the perigee moon on the eve of the vernal equinox are full of fancy words just waiting to be unpacked. The solstices mark the beginnings of winter and of summer, when the sun (<sol>) appears to stand still (<stice>, as in armistice).  The vernal (spring) and autumnal equinoxes are marked by equal (<equ>) hours of both day and night (<nox>). As the sun guides our seasons, the moon guides our months. So, equipped with our standard investigatory tools, this column is dedicated to our nighttime satellite, the moon, and the words we use to understand it, in hopes that it can shed a little light on the patterns that guide our lives and on those that guide our writing system.

The first of these hibernal events captures the Latinate forms for both the nocturnal and diurnal orbs in lunar and solstice respectively. The adjective derives from the Latin luna, ‘moon,’ also the name of the Roman moon goddess, Luna (Selene in Greek). A quick word search on morewords.com reveals the astronautical terms perilune and apolune, meaning ‘close to / far from the moon’ respectively.  These words suggest a base of <lune> rather than *<lun>, as do the words lunette (‘little moon’), demilune (‘half-moon’), and lunate, all connoting crescent shapes. But the moon isn’t all outer space and pretty shapes: it has also been long associated with madness. Moon-induced sleepwalking, or lunambulism, has been blamed for lunacy. While the Latin word lūnāticus originally meant ‘moon-dweller’, by the time it made it into English, via French, as lunatic, it already referred to periodic insanity, the waning moods and waxing madness blamed on the phases of the moon.

Of course, the Romans weren’t the only culture to associate the moon with insanity; the concept was likely a calque from ancient Greek, in which moonstruck manics were called selenobletos. According to etymonline, the New Testament Greek word for ‘epileptic,’ mistakenly thought to be a mental illness, was seleniazomai — remember the moon goddess Selene? Compare selenology, the scientific study of the moon, or selenography, lunar map-making, what geography is to the Earth. The OED lists a couple dozen selenic relatives, including my favorite, selenotrope, a plant that turns toward the moon.

In Modern English, the word moon retains several senses of madness: over the moon means crazily happy; to moon over someone is to pine obsessively, and to moon about means to loaf or mope depressively. Someone who is foolishly daydreamy may be called moony or moonstruck, and both moonshine and moonlighting have criminal origins. To ask for, reach for, or promise the moon is to expect the insanely impossible, and to think someone hung the moon is to give him mad credit. The English association of selenicism and insanity dates all the way back to the earthy Anglo-Saxons: etymonline informs us that the Old English word for ‘lunatic’ was the compound monseoc, ‘moonsick,’ and periodic ‘lunacy’ was mona­ð­seocnes, or ‘monthsickness.’

Here we see that the moon is not only associated with madness, but also with months. Moon and month are obviously related conceptually, but what about orthographically? They cannot be morphologically related, since they don’t share a base, but they are clearly etymologically related. While the Modern English words don’t share a base, the Old English words did: mon or mona meant ‘moon’, and it was suffixed to form monað, ‘month.’  The Old English suffix <-að> (also spelled <-aþ>) is just one of several word suffix spellings that merged into the Modern English <-th> suffix, which forms nouns from either verbs, as in growth, stealth, and health, or from adjectives, as in dearth (<dear> + <th>, ‘scarcity, dearness’) or warmth. But in addition to affixing to free base words that themselves have inherent grammatical categories (or parts of speech), the nominal <-th> suffix more frequently applies to bound bases that have free cognates, as in birth (see bear), depth (see deep), strength (see strong), and breadth (see broad).  The word month is just such a construction: the <-th> suffix affixes to the bound base <mon>, meaning ‘moon,’ which is also seen in the proper noun <Monday>, a compound just like its calendrical predecessor <Sunday>.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins tells us that the “Indo-European [base] *mēnes- meant both ‘moon’ and ‘month.'”  This reconstructed historical base gave us the Latin mensis, ‘month,’ whence the Modern English menses, meniscus (yet another crescent-shaped ‘little moon’), and semester (literally, ‘six months’). Associated with menses are its cousins menstruation, amenorrhea, menopause, and premenstrual syndrome. Goddess or gender studies might consider herein the nexus of a monthly cycle, the pull of the moon, madness, fertility, and ritual that runs deeply through the human experience. Long considered a kind of periodic, moon-induced insanity, mood swings and disorders associated with hormonal fluctuations were once treated by removing a woman’s reproductive organs: it’s no coincidence that hysterectomy and hysteria share a spelling, because they also share a meaning and an origin. One 1887 medical text explains that “It would have been as reasonable to extirpate the bed-sore of a sufferer from paretic dementia, and to cut off the hæmatomatous ear of a terminal dement, with the hope of curing his insanity thereby.”  Although the practice was condemned as early as the 19th century, it continued at least into the 1980s in North America in a shameful example of medical madness. Now that’s crazy.

So, while moon and month share a common ancestry, few people would automatically associate them without prompting; the connection isn’t obvious to everyone. Germanic languages, including English, Dutch, and German, all have different but related words for ‘moon’ and ‘month,’ but most Romance languages diverge completely: Latin mensis gives us Spanish mes, Portuguese mês, and French mois, all meaning ‘month,’ but their words for ‘moon,’ luna, lua, and lune respectively, derive ultimately from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) base *leuk-, meaning ‘to light, shine,’ an etymon which also gives us light, translucent, luminous, illustrate, elucidate, illuminate, and luster, but also Lucifer, ‘light-bearer,’ an epithet for both Venus and Satan, and leukemia, named for white blood cells.  All that glitters is not, apparently, gold.

Ultimately, many languages, though not all, differentiate lexically between ‘moon’ and ‘month;’ some have a word for moon from one historical base, meaning ‘light,’ and others from another historical base that is cognate to month. The PIE base *mēnes- is itself derived from *mē-, ‘to measure.’ Ayto tells us that “in ancient times the passage of time was measured by the revolutions of the moon.” This same ancient PIE base *me yields measure, mete, meter, immense, meal (a ‘measure’ of food eaten at regular intervals), dimension, and commensurate. The presence of these two divergent etymologies for words that mean ‘moon’ speaks to the dual role of that heavenly body: it both measures and illuminates our world and how we perceive it.

Of course, people still try to make false and silly claims about the moon (the lunar perigee does not, for the record, cause tsunamis), as well as about the words that denote it (<month> is not, for the record, the base element of bimonthly). Such unscientific blunders, like surgical cures for hysteria, are an embarrassment to anyone who pursues real scientific inquiry. Can you imagine, for example, the data that early humans must have collected to determine just how the moon marked and was marked by time, how meticulous someone’s records must have been? It inspires me to think of how humans, in striving to understand the heavens, have leaned on the scientific principles of seeking patterns, weighing evidence, and always opting for the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions and accounts for the most examples.

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

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