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This fall I will be traveling and studying in France with some of my teachers and some of my students. I plan to document the trip in a private online space, and am offering a limited opportunity for other scholars to share this experience with us. This is not a live LEXinar, but rather a place to share word studies, investigations, stories, photos, video, and narrative.

I hope you’ll join us. This is a non-refundable purchase, so please read the description carefully and ask any questions before you sign up at this link.

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A couple days ago I just finished teaching my Syllables: Fact and Fiction LEXinar. And in a few days I will finish up another round of the Zero Allophone LEXinar. Scholars who have taken those classes understand more deeply each day why the syllabaloney of phonics has gone bad.

I recently engaged in some commentary on the blog of Dr. Tim Shanahan, a longtime proponent of phonics who appears to be unable to understand two key truths: (1) studying the language accurately is not just ‘doing morphology,’ and (2) pedagogical research is not the only research in the world.

One of Shanahan’s acolytes, Jo-Anne Gross, owner of a phonics company called Remediation Plus, demonstrated impressive tenacity in her misapprehensions, like that */c/ is the first phoneme in cat. Oh my. While repeatedly telling me that I’m wrong by citing actually wrong people like Reid Lyon and Louisa Moats, Jo-Anne also offers readers this stinky piece of linguistic charcuterie: “a short vowel in the word tennis and muffin requires the doubling-those are rules predicated on surrounding sounds-poodle-puddle-apple-rifle,they are not ‘sound’ driven.”

I’ve offered Jo-Anne and Harriet free Syllables LEXinars with me. So far the only sound I hear is crickets. Crickets chirping is, by the way, a sound, but it’s not a flipping phoneme. It’s not even phonological. So please stop referring to phonology as “sounds.”

So today I asked Jo-Anne and Tim (who has just stopped responding to me since I told him to stop sending me private emails assuming my age and experience and scolding me for being the scholar that I am) and Harriet, “So how does phonics explain such contrasts as tennis-menace, bobbin-robin, rabbit-habit, hammer-camel, finish-Finnish, polish-Polish, and the like?”

In this post, then, I will offer you what I wrote on the blog, and interspersed you will find the really beautiful, coherent understanding that real language study offers us.

I just studied finish-Finnish and polish-Polish with a 6th grader. I also studied why ‘love’ isn’t spelled with a ‘u’ with her 2nd grade sister. Same with do, to, and who. They’re both dyslexic. Tell me again about beginning readers?

Although they are proper adjectives, Finnish and Polish have totally coherent structures; we can see their free base elements in Fin, Finland, and Pole (but not in the blend Poland). Finish and polish both have base elements with single, final <e>s: <fine + ish>, <pole + ish> — we see that latter bound base also in polite. My fantastic 6th grader and I also investigated that <ish> suffix, which we also found in establish, embellish, and punish — it is a suffix formed from the <iss(e)> verbal stem suffix in French: etablissement, embellissezpunissons.

But perhaps she would’ve preferred to divide words into syllables on a list, eh?

As for to, do, who, and love, any real spelling scholar knows that when you can’t use a <u>, you use an <o>. And they know why you can’t use a <u> in those words. And so does my 2nd grader. Why? Because I showed her. And you know what? It totally mattered to her, even though Dr. Shanahan likes to speculate that facts don’t matter to 7-year-olds.

Tell me again about the “six syllable rules.” Do you mean like how you have children “count back 3” for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the ‘le’ is often a suffix — spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) — but not always. Sometimes it’s a vestigial suffix, something I’ve been known to call a ‘footprint’ with my students. The ‘le’ in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What’s really interesting about an ‘le’ suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that ‘l’ is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It’s adults that struggle with it.

Those are just true things. No one has to like them. But kids really do like them, especially the dyslexic ones who have had so many prevarications from phonics pushed at them.

How, in your syllable artifice (with which I am 100% intimate — I taught that stuff for years) would you explain the difference between puzzle and pizza, phonologically speaking?

The only way to explain the distinction is etymologically. Pizza is Italian, as is the mozzarella you put atop it. Patterns, people.

Because no one could claim in seriousness that kindergarteners don’t know anything about puzzles or pizzas. What is the phonology of the second syllable of castle, wrestle, jostle? Why is the ‘t’ there? Because, château (oh, let your kiddos live a little!), wrest, and joust. Look, a lot of 6-year-olds would dig studying castles and châteaux and jousts, since phonics is so concerned with building everything around what kids want. We fact-finders will also tell you why wrestle needs a <wr> — because it denotes ‘twist.’ But all phonics can do is teach ‘stle’ as though it was a thing (it’s not), and ignore the pattern of the ‘t’ in listen, often, soften, and even ‘prints.’

Why is there a ‘c’ in muscle? Muscular. Or a ‘b’ about ‘subtle’? That’s an <sub> prefix, of course. Man, whoever stuck a ‘b’ in that word deserves a prize. Heh. Silent letter humor is the best humor because it’s the smartest.

What of island and isle and aisle? The <s> is etymological in isle but folk etymological in the others. Isle is Latinate and related to insular and peninsulaisland is Germanic, totally unrelated, but its <s> marks its wide historical association with the others. Aisle denotes ‘wing’ and is related to aileron and axis. That <s> was also a scribal error that stuck, because people associated it with isle, which came by its <s> honestly.

But I’m sure no small children would enjoy a story about long-ago monks and their false-steps and flourishes. Because it would be a lot more important for kindergarteners to study, you know, that */c/ is a phoneme. For Chrissakes.

How about in prin/ci/ple — why isn’t that ‘i’ long if it’s in an ‘open syllable’? Because in real life, there are only two types of syllables; open and closed. Open syllables end in a vowel (but not a lax vowel in English), and closed syllables have a consonant coda. The letters in a syllable have little to do with what ‘type’ of syllable it is: though is open but but cough is closed, and neither is exceptional. The word principle has an actual structure, and it’s <prin + cip(e) + le>. Which is different from a <prin + cip(e) + al). Check out that <le> suffix again, yo. Prince was clipped from the root of principle and principal, and princess was built from prince

What about treble and pebble? Yikes. Well, treble is related to triple (think 3-part harmonies), which also lacks a doubled medial consonant. Because, once again, in real life, it has an actual structure: <tri + ple> — stick a pin in that <ple> base element, which denotes ‘fold.’

Why is there an ‘o’ in people? Or is that word off-limits for very young people too? Because it’s so popular?

Why do double and couple and trouble have an ‘ou’ but octuple has just a ‘u’? Because, doubt and duplicitous, copula and copulate and because that <co> is the footprint of a prefix — you know, the one that carries a force of ‘with or together’? And octuple (not *octupple) has a connector <u>, as does quadruple, in which the pronunciation of the <u> is different. Ooh, fancy.  Why isn’t oc/tu/ple pronounced ‘octooople’? Because no one would understand you if you said that. Why isn’t multiple spelled *multipple? Because it’s <mult + i + ple>, that’s why (compare <mult + it(e) + ude>). In real life, there are answers for these questions. In phonics, there are shrugs.

Why circle and sparkle but not *cirkle or *sparcle? Because, circus and sparkPhonics doesn’t answer that. Do beginning readers understand words like sparkle and circle in real life? Why is needle needle and not *neadle? Because an <ee> digraph is preferred in lexical forms that have associated connotations of ‘twoness’ or ‘more than oneness.’ The original sense for ‘needle’ was botanical, as in a pine needle, not a sewing needle. Pine needles and porc + u + pine needles always come in more than one. Why isn’t poodle *pudle or noodle *nudle? Because they’re modern loans or coinages (both from German), respelled in the present-day English default, like shampoo and google and boondoggle.

There are reasons for these captivating patterns and cues in the language. They are not exceptions or irregular. They are not oddballs or outlaws or demons, and no one has to just memorize them. Even if Reid Lyon or Tim Shanahan or Jo-Anne or Harriet says so. 

Anyone who would like to see the understanding that can explain these inquiries can find it on my website. The title of the post is “Fickle Syllable Boondoggle.” Funny how the syllabullies don’t hesitate to use the word “syllable” all the time with children who can’t “handle” big words.

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Four new classes will be starting this fall, after Labor Day.

Two are regular short-term LEXinars (linked to registration pages):

InSights into VERBS This course is an excellent companion to the new InSights into Auxiliaries deck coming out in the late summer, also available in the LEX Store.

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The Nature of the Grapheme Great as a stand-alone class, a a complement to The Nature of the Phoneme, and/or a companion to the LEX Grapheme Deck.

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The other two are longitudinal, year-long LEXinars (linked to deposit page):

Grammar for Grown-Ups: study the English sentence using sentence trees and other hands-on tools to make sense of both syntactic form and function. This ain’t your grandma’s grammar.

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And the last one, back by popular demand, isn’t actually new. It is, however, a new study each time it’s undertaken.  Multisensory Structured Language Education: A Course in Advanced Considerations is a rich, critical inquiry into the professional field variably known as MLSE, Orton-Gillingham, or dyslexia intervention. It offers literacy professionals the opportunity to deepen their theoretical understanding of the field and to hone their practice to more accurately reflect real English structure.

LEXinar Advanced OG
Deposits for year-long classes are 100% refundable with terms. Course scheduling will begin as soon as a minimum number of people have registered (4 for the short classes; 10 for the year-long classes. Short classes price points have been determined; the longitudinal classes will be priced based on the number of students, the exact number of hours, and other parameters not yet determined, but estimated to be $1250-1500. Payment plans are available.

If you register and are unable to schedule with us, you may request a refund or hold your spot for the next time we offer class. I am totally not interested in keeping your money and not delivering a worthwhile, accurate, and challenging course. It’s all about the scholarship, and I can’t wait.

Continuing education units are expected though ALTA; application process is underway. All LEXinars have been approved in the past.

Don’t miss out!




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I want to tell you about my helpers.

First, there are the two overqualified, graduate-degreed, creative, patient moms and entrepreneurs who have stepped up to help me better serve the LEX community. One is local, April, and helps me with materials and shipping. The other, Brenda, is a few states away and helps with LEXinars, communication, scheduling, and certificates. I so appreciate that their capable assistance not only helps in the present, but also helps grow this work for the future.

Second, there is a clever and slightly obsessed bilingual teacher who has taken faster to real word study than any adult I’ve seen yet. Scott Mills has been working at lightning speed to discover and understand word structure, cognates, lexical doublets, reconstructed historical roots, and their pathways over time. Since the original, invaluable Matrix Study Sheets are out of print, Scott has been helping to research and develop a new, 2nd edition complete with more etymological study and a special diachronic appendix.

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The LEX Matrix Study Sheets ~ 2nd Edition features more than 25 lexical word matrices in an expanded format, including their etymological relatives, and questions for further study. Targeting many of the common base elements of classical origin often misidentified in traditional phonics and “morphological” study, this softcover book includes both free and bound bases, unitary and twin bases, Latinate combining forms, and other associated bases. Useful for personal study, lesson planning, or direct instruction — including that special appendix.


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Third, since helpers are on my mind, I decided it’s high time for my InSights into Auxiliaries, also known as “helping verbs.” This fifth InSight deck is a study inspired by all the teachers, tutors, and homeschooling parents who wish they better understood just what an auxiliary verb is and what it does, with straightforward examples and descriptions. This deck features fifteen cards with English auxiliary verbs and verbal constructions. If you can’t tell a linking verb from a helping verb, this deck can help!

Both of these helpful new resources are now available in my LEX Store at an Early Bird discount for pre-order, and they will ship upon publication later this summer. I’ll also be announcing an Auxiliary Verb LEXinar later this year.

I love this stuff. I can’t help it.



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Search Me

Every so often I encounter a fresh wave of the Phombie Apocalypse, phonics apologists largely within and among the dyslexia industry, demanding “research” in one capacity or another because they are so convinced that somehow it’s OK to lie about language to children, parents, and teachers if you have some research that says it’s somehow a good idea.

Today, one particularly passive aggressive dyslexia industrialist asked, “So I know there’s lots of research supporting teaching morphology. But what about research for teaching etymology?” Now, she did not ask me, or anyone really who has been studying etymology and literacy for a long time. She asked a bunch of other phombies and quite a few quiet observers, in the same secret online space where she mentions me by name, insults me, and says that she can’t “stomach” giving me any money to help her learn.

Apparently she also can’t stomach doing her own Google search. So I thought I’d help this woman, this DisIngenuous Tutor-Educator, you know, research research.

What is research? What does it mean? To research means to “investigate systematically,” according to my Mactionary, to “discover facts by investigation.”   My friend’s mother, a toxicologist, researches avian morbidity. As a noun, research refers to such an investigation, to analysis, study, scrutiny, or examination: She will publish her research in a book this fall.

How is it built?  <research> → <re> + <search> , in which the <re> does not mean ‘back or again,’ but rather, carries an intensifying force. Morphologically, then, research denotes “intensive(ly) look.”  To look. To search emphatically. To search, to hunt, to explore. A search is a quest, a pursuit, a discovery. Research is that same thing, but intensive.

What are its relatives? I knew before I looked that search and research were cognate to Modern French chercher and rechercher, which mean basically the same thing. The native English words would have been secan (‘to seek’) and huntian (‘to hunt’) before the Normans exported Old French’s cerchier to their nordic cousins across the pond. I figured as much. What really surprised me were the origins of that Old French word: from Late Latin circare meaning ‘to wander around, to circle.’

Check out these relatives: 

See, research has nothing to do with standing still or resting on one’s laurels. It’s double- and triple-checking the ground it’s already covered; replicating results. Not wandering in circles, but intensively looking, looking around, hunting for facts. Any good research doesn’t just offer conclusions, but suggests new possible investigations, new questions. It is always moving.

What about the way research is pronounced? Now that we’ve researched its structure and relatives, we are prepared to consider how its pronunciation constructs meaning. It’s been spelled a lot of different ways since the Normans brought it over — with an <s> and a <c>, with an <ea> and an <e>, with a <ch> and a <tch> and an <sh> — you can intensively look at the history for yourself in any proper dictionary.

Huh. I wonder why dictionaries include etymology. Is that a research-based practice?

Anyhow, the word research is not actually pronounced the same way across the English-speaking world. In the U.S., most speakers stress the first syllable: [ˈɹisɚʧ]. But in Received Pronunciation in the U.K., the second syllable is traditionally stressed — [ɹəˈsɜːʧ].

Double huh. Imagine that. The same spelling works for different pronunciations because the word means the same thing. I think every time you disprove the Assumption of Phonological Primacy, a phombie coughs up its wings. Or something.

Anyhow, now that we’ve researched research, let’s return to the original question: “But what about research for teaching etymology?” In response, I have a few questions of my own:

(1) How do you propose to study morphology WITHOUT studying etymology? How could you tell the difference between feet and feat without etymology? How could you explain an <-able> versus an <-ible> without etymology? How would you be able to explain why laugh has a <ugh> and graph has a <ph>? Even Barton hacks teach kids — truthfully — that <ph> is reliably Greek. Do you do that because you read a double-blind study on its efficacy, or just because it’s true?

(2) If etymology were irrelevant to literacy, why would dictionaries include it?

(3) What kind of research are you referring to? Linguistic research has clearly established the etymological governance of English orthography; it’s non-controversial.

(4) If you’re a fan of pedagogical ‘research’, then I’d point you in the direction of Marcia Henry’s nearly 40-year canon of work on etymology and its significance — she wrote “Beyond Phonics: Integrated Decoding and Spelling Instruction Based on Word Origin and Structure” in the 1980s — as well as Calfee and Nist and  Venezky and Groff and many others before her.

(5) If you don’t like Marcia Henry’s ethos, then I’d ask if you’re familiar with Malt Joshi, Louisa Moats, Suzanne Carreker, or Rebecca Treiman? Can you stomach giving any of them your money? I bet you can. They are all phonics researchers who have written extensively about literacy instruction including etymology. You like phonics, right? They co-wrote a whole article for the American Educator in 2009 that made a big hoo-hah about how important it was to teach etymology, even though they got many of their etymological claims wrong. They think etymology is important — their research says so — just apparently not important enough to, you know, actually crack open a dictionary before claiming that ache is Greek (nope, it’s Germanic) or that is chair is Anglo-Saxon (uh-uh, Franco-Hellenic) in an article you’re publishing for millions of American teachers to read.

(6) Even Maryanne Wolf, who bears a lot of responsibility for pegging dyslexia as a phonological deficit because that’s what she studied, recognizes and writes about the importance of etymology in English literacy in Proust and the Squid.

(7) So does Mark Seidenberg, perhaps one of the most revered pro-phonics cognitive psychologists out there, when he writes about studying the origins of the written word in his phancy new book.

(8) If you’d like to get some broader pedagogical research, or any other kind, then might I suggest Google Scholar? It’s easy.

Here’s some stuff I found (in about 25 minutes of research) that actually considers literacy through a lens other than / broader than the dyslexia industry is usually willing to:

(a) Improving Adult Literacy and Instruction (NRC 2012), which says that “There is a surprising lack of rigorous research on effective approaches to adult literacy instruction,” but also specifically names “etymology” and “word origins” as one of the aspects of language that necessarily informs literacy, multiple times. “These strategies include teaching not only word meanings but also multiple meanings of words and varied word forms and origins.”

(b) Learning through Collaborative Writing (Hodges 2002) flags one aspect of language study “at the drafting stage which seems to contribute to the high levels of motivation and collaboration is the investigation into word origins and their…effect on meaning.”

(c) Middle School Learners’ Use of Latin Roots to Infer the Meaning of Unfamiliar Words (Crosson & McKeown 2016) — that’s the same Margaret McKeown that phonics drools over every time she writes with Isabel Beck. How do you study Latin “roots” without etymology? Huh, DisIngenuous Tutor-Educator? How?

(d) Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners (Graves, August, Mancilla-Martinez 2012), again featuring a favorite vocabulary researcher among the phombies, Michael Graves. Along with his co-authors, Graves writes about word origin and language origin and cognates. A lot of ELL research pertains to the study of cognates. How on earth would you study cognates without etymology? In fact, when people try to do so, it gets pretty messy and misguided.

Like Moats and her colleagues, Graves also thinks etymology is important enough to flag, but apparently not important enough to fact-check: he misidentifies as “Germanic” the words glue, pencil, and table, all of which are actually Latinate, and bat, which was influenced by and collapsed with a French word. Four of the six examples he gave were wrong. That’s an F. Seriously, why can’t people actually look up the origins of words if they want to tell teachers it matters? Maybe this is why teachers are so confused.

(e) You might also be interested in all the work of Victoria Devonshire & Morris Fluck in the U.K. since about 2009. They write about etymology in literacy instruction.

You know, DisIngenuous Tutor-Educator, it’s cynical and intellectually dishonest to continue to pretend like etymology may not be important or well-researched in literacy circles. Etymology and word origins are written into the Common Core State Standards, into the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers, and into the current Reading/Language Arts Frameworks for California Public Schools.

But none of that matters one lick to me, because the facts — discovered by investigation — are that the orthography is not primarily phonological and the system is governed by etymology. You can’t understand the system without its origins, DisIngenuous Tutor-Educator. You already study it; you already teach it, and you already know that.

You’re not really asking for research. You’re just circling your wagons.

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All the Latest News

Well I’m running late.

Been running late all week. I was suppose to end the Etymology V Earlybird Discount price yesterday (2/25), and I neglected to do so. So I’m extending it instead, to the end of the month, Tuesday, 2/28. After that point, deposits already made are non-refutable, and only the full-price registration will be available.

However! I also do plan, after careful consideration, to have a Zoom-In option, live only, no actives. For folks overseas or unable to travel, I will have assistants in the room, at the event, manning the Zoom camera and addressing Zoom issues so that Doug and I can do our thing. Th online option will come at a slight discount, since I will not be charging for catering, room fees, or site insurance.

The live attendance fee structure will remain in place for two more days, an then it’s full-price. The single online price will be made available that same day. Registration is still in my online store or via P.O.

Gotta go — running late.

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The Measure of a Man

Recent conversations with my colleagues involved the words percent (‘for every 100’) and cubit (the length of the ‘lying down’ part of the arm when bent; the forearm). I got to thinking about the words we use to talk about measuring things. The lexicon of physical measurement includes some very bodily words: think about that cubit, or a foot, or marking a horse’s height in hands (four-inch units). There is an ell, now equal to 45 inches, but historically variable and denoting some measure of an arm’s length, like a cubit; that <ell> is unsurprisingly a free allomorph of the <el> in elbow and cousin to ulna, a Latin word used not only as the name of the bone, but also of a Roman unit of measurement. It is also the name of the letter that looks like a bent arm.

Of course, this way of making meaning is not unique to English. In German, pi mal daumen, or ‘pi times thumb,’ is a term for approximating a measurement. The French word pouce means both ‘inch’ and ‘thumb.’ I recall learning this while living in Paris, and I marveled, because my dad had once told me that if you don’t have a ruler, using your thumb from the first knuckle to the tip is a good estimate. While it’s not an exact measurement across human incarnation, it anchored deep in my belly, as a kid, what an inch is. Made it internal and recognizable, fathomable. It allowed me to embody and own my understanding of an inch, gave me an inch to stand on.

Sometime after college I first heard the apocrypha suggesting a link between a rule of thumb and domestic violence. While there’s no evidence for that link, it’s been in our collective consciousness since at least the 18th century, and that (false) consciousness is anchored by a rich and surprising set of semantic links between sizing things up and body parts.

Sizing things up by body parts. We do that in So. Many. Ways. Tall men are judged as good and honest; women’s shapes are…evaluated. Literally. An outsized public figure with tiny hands boasts and speculates about other anatomical measurements. Look, don’t make me spell it all out for you. Body parts are measures as much as they are measured.

Anyhow. As I was researching and writing this post, I noticed something about the terminology of measurement, especially the modern metric system, that is built out of classical roots: it has sharp edges and joints and movable parts.

per + cent
mill(e) + i + liter
kilo + gram
met(e)r(e) + ic

This agglutination is common for words of modern scientific origin in general, plucked from classical words in parts or as wholes. This is something Douglas Harper and I have been talking about lately in our joint work (pun intended, I guess, now that I’ve noticed it), but I’m confident that he’s been thinking about it a lot longer than I have. In fact, the sharp-edges trope is his. He has a gift for linguistic metaphor.

The terminology of the English measurement system, on the other hand, is full of Old English and Old French shards whose edges and hinges have been worried smooth or corroded over time. Both inch (OE ynce) and ounce (OF unce or once), for example, are Latinate words that made their way into English within a couple hundred years of each other. Their shared root is the Latin uncia, a unit of measurement that was one-twelfth of a larger quantity, like a Roman pound (libra) or an Anglo-Saxon foot. Uncial is a savant word adopted from Late Latin and first attested in Modern English; it is now most commonly used to refer to the style of Medieval chancery script from which our majuscule letters are derived. Inch and ounce and uncial are members of a huge word family that includes the Germanic one and once and the Latinate unit and unique, and their many cognates and derivations. I think of people counting on their fingers starting with the thumb for “one,” though I could never prove any connection there.

Anyone who has studied real script will appreciate that the measurements and proportions of writing bear a direct and compelling relationship with the hand.

The hand, like the foot, has survived as both a body parts and a unit of measurement, now equaling four and twelve inches respectively. Feet are still part of our everyday dimensional discourse, of course. While hands as a measure only useful for those sizing a horse, connections to hands and the arms they come with are embedded in our ways of measuring things. Both a bushel (now eight gallons of dry goods) and a dram (now 1/8 fluid ounce) are words that once denoted a ‘handful.’  Fathom is both a noun, a measure of depth equivalent to about six feet, and a verb, to understand, to imagine; they are the same word, historically denoting a human armspan, and/or an embrace.

What’s more embodying than an embrace? The <brace> also surfaces in <bracelet>; it’s from the Latin word for ‘arm.’ It’s the very opposite of keeping someone, or something, at arm’s length.

The span in armspan (or wingspan, for the aspirational among us) was used in Anglo-Saxon England as a measurement of about 9 inches, marked by the span between the tips of one’s extended thumb and pinky finger. That word, span, can denote a distance or the thing that bridges it: the Old English verbal root could mean to “join, link, clasp, fasten, bind, connect; stretch,” as Doug puts it. But its relatives really bring more balance to our understanding:

~spangle: think of a glint of something metallic, like a clasp or gold link
~spin, spindle, spider: think of a weight on the end of a string (the span), spinning
~ponderous, preponderance, ponder (to ‘weigh’ something)
~pendant, pendulum, expend, pensive (‘hanging’ or ‘weighing’ something)
~pound: a unit of weight measurement, abbreviated as <lb.>*
~the <poids> in avoirdupoids, a French loanword meaning ‘having weight’
~poise: composure, equilibrium, balance

*A pound is now 16 ounces in the avoirdupoids system, but 12 ounces still in a troy weight pound. While a pound is not a body part, its etymological connections to the physicality of weights and scales, hanging and spinning, spanning a balance, stretching taut a string or a balance, are evident. The mental image I can’t escape is a pockmarked metal weight my brother and I found at the local park when we were kids, on the end of a fishing line. We played with that thing forever. I think we were 8 and 13, two analytical tinkerers, stretching and spinning, hanging and weighing that heavy spangle on its string all summer long. I can still feel its weight in my hand.

*While pound has a lot of Latinate relatives, the word itself is Germanic. The <lb.> that we use to abbreviate it, however, is all Latin, an abbreviation for libra, the Latin word for a balance, for scales, or for a full measure of weight (a pound). A libra pondo is a ‘pound weight’ or a ‘pound weighed.’  After Proto-Italic, the trail goes cold, but moving forward, this Italic word family grew in some meaningful and revealing ways. A pound sterling in French is a livre; the Italian and Turkish lira were units of currency (all money traces back somewhere in history to physical, corporeal goods). And a liter is a Hellenic word, a unit of measurement named for a Sicilian coin, a litra. A pound.

But there’s more bang for your linguistic buck. There’s Libra, of course the zodiac sign whose symbol is the balance. And there’s the bound <lib(e)r> base denoting ‘to weigh,’ as in equilibrium and deliberate. Go ahead, take it for a spin.

How’s your brain?

Anyhow, as I was researching and writing this thread, I located something of editorial note in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and I sent Doug a message about it. He’s the one who pointed me to bushel and to dram, whose cousin is drachma, another unit of currency. He confirmed that the use of the thumb as roughly an inch is attested back to about 1500. He suggested span. I said I had already been down that rabbit hole. He had asked me if I’d already looked at ell (I had); he told me, as only he can, to “give em ell.”

I continued researching, and dove into yard, as in yardstick, which derives from a Germanic root denoting ‘rod, staff, measure.’ An overly-optimistic Shakespeare used this yard euphemistically. Ahem, body parts again. This yard has nautical echoes still present in a yard-arm and in its influence over the spellings of the unrelated halyard and lanyard.  I always unconsciously thought of this yard as the same thing as the other yard, as in backyard. It’s not.

That yard, ‘an enclosure,’ is related to garden, jardin, kindergarten, Kirkegaard (‘churchyard’), gird, girth, garth, orchard, horticulture, cohort, and the <grad> in Leningrad, but not to the yard in yardstick. This discovery led me down a new garden path upon which I explored a couple other homographic (but unrelated) elements in this whole measurey arena:

~<pound>: (1) pound weight~ponder; (2) dog pound~pond (also an ‘enclosure’); (3) pound to bits (no known relatives); and (4) the bound base in expound, propound, and compound (related to expose, proponent, and composite). In this last family, this <d> is excrescent, or “unetymological,” in the Dictionary. Hmm…I wonder how that happened?

~<lib(e)r>: (1) deliberate, equilibrium, weigh~ponder; (2) liberate, liberty, liberate, to free (also in deliver); and (3) library, libretto, and delibrate. Not deliberate, but delibrate, which means to peel the bark off a tree. This last family denotes ‘skin, peel, or rind’ and is related to leaf.

How have these historically distinct elements weighed on each other, and what considerations have hung in the etymological balance? Doug has said that words have gravity (‘weight’) and pull each other into their orbits. I messaged him again. Yard,” I wrote. “I had no idea that yard and yard were unrelated.” Doug said, “there’s a collection of words for (sort of) ‘enclosed space’ that seem to lead to something the ancients saw that we can’t understand anymore.” I had seen that also, maybe, in the impound~pound~pond family.

That’s when he sent me to fathom. To embrace. “Neat, huh?” he asked. “And thus the nautical measure of the width of the arms. There were no ‘machines’ on board an English sailing ship until the 19th century. Everything at sea was in human terms. The body is the immediate reference for everything before you introduce the poison of technology.

I recognized a familiar perspective in his words, and I said so. “You are channeling Old Grouch. Or he is channeling you. But he talks about this same phenomenon in terms of the written word, human script, the chancery arts. The hand is the measure of script. There’s a great deal of meaningful proprioception to one’s hand, properly trained or intuited. Both ‘manuscript’ (print) and ‘cursive’ were invented for machines, and that’s what we cram down kids’ throats in schools, if they’re even lucky enough to get some cursive,” I explained. “A legible hand has a sense of measurement and proportion to it. This whole thing is blowing my mind.”

I went from dram to gram, which is, of course, related to diagram and grammar and graph, ‘to write.’ A gram as a unit of measure derives from a special use of the Greco-Latin word gramma, a special use of the the word meaning ‘letter’ to denote a unit of weight.

This post brings together so many conversations over the past several days. Not only the math and measurements of percent and cubit; not only checking in and dialoguing with Doug as I wrote. But a much broader conversation that I return to again and again in my studies: a conversation about ancient connections between physicality, goods, measurements, math, money, and writing. As I studied measuring, I kept coming up against the body, marking, marking on the body and with the body. I’ve been thinking and writing too about the word body since it showed up on a student’s <y>-to-<i> spelling list lately. Why does it only have one <d>? I can’t find any evidence of substructures in <body>, so there’s no doubling as in knobby or dropping an <e> as in copy, but why not *<boddy>, as in <toddy> or <lobby>? Because. An element’s spelling has to wok for every member of its family. A doubled consonant is the mark of a lexical spelling and it doesn’t follow a schwa. The base <body> has to work for every member of the family, including the pronouns anybody, everybody, somebody and nobody. So *<boddy> wouldn’t measure up.

I also kept coming back around to writing, to script, to the hand. To the hand that writes, the human hand that scratches out and wears smooth the written word over time. I thought again of a span, of the joints in words and the joints in hands. I remembered another recent conversation with a colleague about the word ancient with its excrescent <t>: lacking an <ent> suffix and with a base that surfaces nowhere else, it is unanalyzable in present-day English. Its joints and spans have weathered, ossified, but we can still see the structure of the word that was. Here’s what I wrote to that colleague:

“It’s kind of like a fossil: it’s all fused together now but you can still see where its bones once articulated at the joints.” Bones. Joints. Checking the joins. Structures and histories. Maybe I’m catching on to this etymetaphor thing Doug does so effortlessly.

There’s “lots of bad, bogus etymology to hack through in those sorts of words,” Doug had warned me in our dialogue. “But man is the measure of all things. Or human. Why I prefer Fahrenheit to centigrade. It’s human.” That was already the working title of this post when he wrote that. I already had script and da Vinci’s Vetruvian man in my mind. I know that writing makes physical what is not, what is in the human mind. Our grammar, our hand. And then Doug re-minded me about the humanity embodied in our writing, in our words, in how we size up our shared understanding. We discover our humanity in the written word. I’m pretty sure the Old Grouch has led me to ponder that before.

I have got to get those two men within arm’s distance of each other. I can hardly fathom the conversations that might result.

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