Posts Tagged ‘evidence’

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

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

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

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

Le sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT this was his example:

crazy is Anglo-Saxon

insane is Latin

lunatic is Greek

I just had to walk out.”

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

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

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

Old English: moony

Latin: lunatic

Greek: selenomanic

See? That makes a lot more sense.


Old English: mad

Latin: insane

Greek: psychotic

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

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

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

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

I’m not crazy.

I am, however, pretty mad about etymology.

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Frequently, when I show fellow educators what I’ve learned about the written word, they balk.  The linguistic evidence I provide sometimes goes against tradition and conventional wisdom in language education.  Instead of offering counter-evidence, however, I find that more often, they offer citations.  They cite other people, like authors, researchers, or even linguists, or published materials, like references, dictionaries, curricula, and websites.  To be sure, that’s often how academic writing works, and much angst and effort goes in to teaching and learning how to cite “correctly.”

But is a citation really the same as evidence? What do those words really mean? Let’s investigate.

My starting place, for convenience, is always my Mac references application.  This time, I’m starting in the thesaurus.  Here’s what I find:



1 a citation from an eighteenth-century text quotation, quote, extract, excerpt, passage, line; reference, allusion.

2 a citation for gallantry commendation, mention, honorable mention.

3 Law: a traffic citation summons, ticket, subpoena, writ, court order.

Okay, all of these are pretty familiar connotations for the word, and they’re in keeping with the common use of citation in academic writing.  From the Online Etymology Dictionary, I learn that citation, and of course cite, derive from a Latin root meaning ‘to cause to move, arouse, summon, urge, call.’  That makes sense: when we cite we call on another author, summon another’s research, and cause the reader to move to another work if they want to understand the original methodology.

If we consider words that share the morpheme <cite> with citation, a stronger sense of the word begins to emerge: excite, incite, recite, resuscitate . . . all involve stirring something up, summoning, calling, even reviving something nearly dead.

If we go back further historically from Latin, we find that citation shares an Indo-European etymology with the Germanic words hest and behest, both of which denote urging or commanding, and with the Greek terms cinema and kinesthetic, both denoting movement.

A citation, then, summons up someone else’s text, moves the reader to someone else’s woven ideas, someone else’s evidence.  But a citation itself offers no real proof, no independent confirmation of the validity of the cited source.

On the other hand, evidence boasts some pretty impressive semantic partners.  Let’s check back with the Mac thesaurus:



1 they found evidence of his plotting proof, confirmation, verification, substantiation, corroboration, affirmation, attestation.

2 the court accepted her evidence testimony, statement, attestation, declaration, avowal, submission, claim, contention, allegation; Law deposition, representation, affidavit.

3 evidence of a struggle signs, indications, pointers, marks, traces, suggestions, hints; manifestation.

Wow!  Proof.  Verification. Confirmation.   Okay, so evidence can mean just a hint or a suggestion, but if it does, it implies that there’s a trace, a vestige, a trail to follow.   Do these connotations hold up under closer morphological and etymological investigation?

Yep.  Using the Word Searcher, I determine that the base element in the word evidence is <vide>, which also surfaces, along with its twin, <vise>, in the words, provide, provision, vision, advise, and supervision.  This twin base hails from the Latin videre, ‘to see.’ The word evidence is built from the prefix <e->, meaning ‘out’ or ‘out of’ and <vide>, ‘to see.’  So evidence is something we can see out completely.

Beyond the morphological family of evidence, we can link the word etymologically to the following list: witness, guide, wit, wisdom, survey, view, clairvoyant, idea and even envy. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, we learn that these words come from an Indo-European root meaning  ‘to know, to see.’  When something is visible, obvious, or apparent, we say that it’s evident, not that it’s cited.

Let’s consider, as an example, the base of words such as credit, incredible, credulous, credential, and credence.  Several published sources, including the NTC’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins, list <cred> as the base of these words, from the Latin credere, ‘to believe.’  But let’s consider the following linguistic evidence:

In English, when a base has 1 vowel and ends with 1 consonant, we double the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix, as in the following example:

<rob> + <er> → <robber>

When we add a vowel suffix to a base ending with a final, non-syllabic (‘silent’) <e>, we drop the <e>, as we see in

<love> + <ing> → <loving>

Understanding these basic rules, then, let’s consider the base of credit, incredible, credence, etc.  If we credit NTC and other resources as credible sources, we would be stuck with such ungainly derivations as

<cred> + <ence> → *<creddence>


<in> + <cred> + <ible> → *<increddible>

If we consider the linguistic evidence, we would have to recognize that the actual structure of such words is, in fact, as follows:

<crede> + <ence> → <credence>

<in> + <crede> + <ible> → <incredible>

<crede> + <ent> + <i> + <al> → <credential>

It may be hard to believe, since the base <crede> does not surface in English anymore.  Its Old English form has long been respelled as <creed>, and all of its modern derivations have vowel suffixes, replacing that final <e> and giving the surface appearance of <cred> as a base.

But wait, what difference does it really make?  You say tomayto, I say tomahto, right?  Can’t we just cite the sources that claim that <cred> is correct?  Not if we’re concerned with ensuring that our writing system that is at work in robber and loving holds up through the whole of English.

In the professional development I’ve offered teachers for the past 15 years, I’ve cited experts plenty.  When something didn’t make sense to a student or a teacher, or to me, the only response I had was to cite the person or the resource that had said it was thus and so.  Now, however, if something about written language isn’t immediately clear to me, I’ve learned to investigate it: the evidence is right there, waiting to be discovered!  I’ve stopped taking resources at face value, and started interrogating them instead.

A good bit of my doctoral research now involves tracking down the original source of ‘linguistic’ information as cited in reading and spelling curricula and teaching materials.  Where was it cited from? What was the methodology of the original source? How did the original source gather its evidence?  Too often, it seems, folks are willing to parade published information as fact, just because it’s published. But the NTC dictionary‘s only methodology for ascertaining a base in a word is to boldface the letters that the words have in common.  But that’s not a real methodology; it’s just a surface observation.

So what’ll it be?  Moving the reader to another text, or proving how language works? Do we insist on seeing for ourselves or are we content with believing what others have written?  Are we too comfortable merely citing resources rather than interrogating them?  How do we know if what a source says about language is credible?

In math and science, we don’t cite sources as proof that 2+2=4, or that baking soda and vinegar react.  We demonstrate, we show, we provide visible evidence. Likewise, teaching language from an examination of linguistic evidence trumps whatever street ‘cred’ a famous person or published source — even the OED itself — might have.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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