A number of years ago, my orthopedic surgeon told me that I needed surgery on my knee to repair a structure called the plica and I asked him, “Oh, is that a fold? Are they folds?”
He looked at me in surprise and asked, “How did you know that?
I knew that because in Latin plico means “fold.”
That was just one of many, many examples of how even a passing knowledge of etymology can benefit you in your real life, helping you understand more of the world around you and more about yourself.
In all of my years of teaching English, and in all of my education (undergraduate and graduate degrees in English) the idea that I have come to again and again is that etymology is the key that unlocks both knowledge and a love of language.
I’ve been teaching English for decades, and I have yet to find anything more powerful in helping students bring language alive in their lives than etymology.
Let’s look at why etymology is so beneficial to our students.
🌺 1. Etymology enriches words.
When we first teach children language, we begin with the letter forms themselves – the straight lines, long and short, and the curved lines that make up the letters of our alphabet.
We teach kids letter recognition, and then we put those letters together to teach word recognition. This is the first dimension of learning language.
Next, we begin to teach children the meanings of those words, and the words take on a second dimension. Children will (hopefully) use those words in their speech and writing.
What students often never get to is etymology. Etymology is the study of the origins of words and how the meaning has changed over time. What does the word mean in its parts and pieces? How did that meaning come to be and how has it changed?
While English is a Germanic language, it shares many roots and prefixes with both Latin and Greek. Because of this, when you understand a single root or prefix you can apply that not only to a particular word that you’re looking at, but to many, many words.
In Depth and Complexity, we would call this its Origin. When you know this, the word becomes multifaceted, and now you have the third dimension.
No longer is the word tied to its current definition or connotation. Now we understand what it meant to those who came before us. We understand the implications of what we’re saying and what we’re writing. It helps us better understand not only the word, but each other. We also better understand those who came before us.
One popular example of this is to explore the etymology of the word disaster. It has the prefix dis-, meaning not, apart, or away. You can probably think of many words that begin with dis- (disconnect, dissatisfied, disinclined). In this particular use, it simply means “ill” in the same way we’d say “ill-used” or “ill-gotten.”
You can guess the meaning of the root of the word, can’t you? Astro means star. So etymologically, disaster means “not in the stars” or “ill-fated/starred.” The etymological meaning implies that something that is happened is very bad because the stars misaligned. This hearkens back to earlier times when people believed that natural disasters were the result of the displeasure of the gods.
From this one simple example you can see how much richer our understanding of the word becomes. When we understand the etymology and not only the definition, the word itself becomes more meaningful to us.
We lift it up off of the page and spin it around in all of its glory. It is now three-dimensional and far more alive than it was when it was simply lines and curves or even a definition in isolation.
🌺 2. Etymology supports English learners.
Many English learners have their first language as one that is a Latin-based Romance language such as Spanish. Many others have a language that is commonly spoken in that is also a Latin-based language. For example, because (unfortunately) of Colonialism, many African and South Asian students will speak French.
When we teach vocabulary, including the etymology of the word makes it much more likely that our children who are learning English will understand the word better and more quickly. Of course, some of these are false cognates (words that look like they should mean the same, but don’t), but that is a small problem compared to the large benefit that understanding the etymology has for our students.
For example, the Latin prefix con– means “with” or “together.” We see it in words like consistent and connected. This has real benefit for the English learner whose first language is Spanish. In Spanish, the word con means “with” or “together.”
When we explain to the students that it means the same in English because we are a shared family of languages, not only do they understand the word itself, but they feel more connected to English, recognizing that there are many points of shared origin between English and their language. They feel more on the inside of things.
🌺 3. Etymology is the ultimate two-for-one special.
Although all of the benefits of learning etymology are important and wonderful, the one that stands out to me from an educational perspective is the enormous “two-for-one special” dynamic of etymology.
Even students who are not native speakers of a Latin-based language can still benefit from etymology because etymology is the ultimate two-for-one special. When you know one prefix, you probably get access to dozens or even hundreds of applications of that prefix. In this way, etymology becomes somewhat like a master key where, by teaching a single definition we unlock that word, but by teaching the etymology, we unlock many.
For example, when I understand that ject means “throw,” a whole world of worlds make sense to me.
Projectors throw images to a screen. We object when we throw our thoughts against something. We can be subjected, or thrown under, someone’s expectations.
Sports players get ejected, or thrown out, of games. We reject, or throw back, a fish we catch that is too small. We make a conjecture, a thrown-together thought about something.
You can’t help but get a little shot of dopamine when you hear about a jet plane and know that it’s called that because it’s thrown into the air by its engines. Just that one root opens up a world of language possibilities.
Etymology helps students understand words in a more complete and lasting way. Let’s take the math term integer. The root word is tangere, meaning “touch.” The prefix in– here is a negation. So the word integer means “untouched” or “whole.”
When we look at the etymology of the word, its origin and its pieces, often the meaning makes far more sense than if we just memorize a definition of the word disconnected from any true understanding.
It’s the ultimate two-for-one because you understand so many words from one root/prefix/suffix and you better understand the words.
🌺 4. Etymology is a strong differentiation tool.
High-ability students often love word play and words in general. When a teacher encourages them to dive into the etymology of words, it provides a simple and effective differentiation tool.
Rather than working on spelling a word, what if students were expected to understand why the word is spelled that way, based on its roots?
What if, rather than simply memorizing a definition, a student was encouraged to find other words that shared the same root?
Gifted students especially love the backstory, the trivia of a thing. Etymology is an easy, accessible, and free way to build on strengths while using the same content as the rest of the class.
🌺 5. Etymology is essential to the development of a free mind.
One of our goals as teachers is to help our students become effective critical thinkers. We want them to be able to evaluate the input and information and media onslaught that face them every day with the tools and skills they need to parse out what is true, what is valid, what is worthwhile, and what should be rejected.
Etymology is the keystone of the skills needed to do this. Etymology makes us less dependent upon the way that other people use words. Words cannot be used against us as a weapon if we ourselves understand them. When we understand how a word has been turned, adapted, and changed in its connotation from the way it was first used to the way it’s being used now, we are less likely to accept things that people say at face value.
When we hear a word all sorts of neural pathways fire in our mind that lead us to think about what they’re saying more deeply than were we just to accept it as what they were saying. Knowing the etymology gives us a healthy intellectual skepticism.
When we understand etymology, we are more likely to be able to use words in the way that we mean them and to be better understood in the things that we ourselves say. We are less likely to say something that we don’t actually mean.
This makes it more likely that we will be understood and that we will better understand others as well.
🌺 6. Etymology is essential to understanding the interconnectedness of all things.
Let’s look at a fairly challenging word, assiduous. The root word of assiduous is sed-. This is the same root as the word “sit” and also “sediment.”
The prefix is a super fun one. It’s ad-, meaning “to” or “towards.” This prefix is super fun because its consonant changes depending upon the root word. It can be spelled ag-, al-, ac-, just a- and even more variations. That’s super fun, isn’t it? It’s like a puzzle piece that changes shape to fit better with other pieces.
From the root and prefix, we learn that assiduous means “towards sitting.” It is to work diligently at something, to be continually present or busy.
When I understand the pieces, my brain has many more opportunities to create neural pathways. I then have multiple ways that my brain can approach this word. I can envision someone sitting somewhere for a long time. I can think of times I’ve sat somewhere for a long time doing the same thing.
Additionally, the next time I hear another word with the root sed-, I might think to myself, “Oh, that’s kind of like in assiduous,” or, “That’s kind of like sediment.”
When I start making those connections between words, it’s easier for me to make connections between people, places, events, cultures, languages, and races. I begin to understand that nothing is as simple as it seems and that nothing exists in isolation from everything else.
When you learn written prefixes as well as a history of the word, you gain an understanding not only of that word, but also of the many, many words with which that prefix is associated. An understanding of etymology is essential if you are going to understand the interconnectedness of all things.
With etymology, you start to understand the interconnectedness of language and culture, as well as the interconnectedness of history with language. You better understand the interconnectedness of words with each other and the way that words have brought people together and divided them over the centuries.
When you understand where things came from, everything becomes more interesting. You begin looking at the world as though through sparkly glasses where everything takes on a deeper and richer meaning. It is as though you have been let in on some great secret, admitted to some private club.
🌺 7. Etymology builds mental flexibility.
Etymology isn’t just the origin of a word. It’s exploring how that word meaning has changed over time. We know that words take on new connotations that they didn’t originally have. That can be important because that change can make a significant difference in the meaning of the word. A word can shift in its entire meaning away from its roots, prefixes, and suffixes as the connotation changes over time.
Let’s take one of my favorite words, egregious. Its root is greg-, meaning “flock.” The prefix is ex-, meaning “out of.” (This is another prefix that morphs into different letters – so cool!). The suffix -ous is the adjective form, so it’s a describing word. It originally meant “illustrious” or “select” because you were “standing out from the flock.” In the late 16th century, however, it took on a negative meaning somehow, probably when people used it ironically, and now it means “exceedingly bad.”
When you understand where words came from and how they have changed over time, it is easier to understand and accept that things do change, that language is fluid. You become less rigid in your thinking about words. You understand that something could take on a connotation that it did not previously have. You understand how words shift. Rather than resenting rules of pronunciation and spelling, you begin to see those as part of a great whole of the beauty that is language.
🌺 Wrapping up.
I could probably write an entire book about the importance and value of etymology and language instruction. I hope that these ideas will persuade you that it is worth the extra minute or so to share the etymology of words with students.
When we’re looking at words and we’re hoping that students will understand them, it is worth the time to look at where the word came from, to look at the patterns that we see in the word, to look at the way that the word has changed over time, and to look at the way that the word is viewed by different people and in different contexts.