Posts tagged ‘Etymology’

Word Nerd Wednesday: Dude!

Hey, Dudes!

Or is it Doods?

Thank you Arika Okrent for your article on the MentalFloss blog. You saved me! See, a few weeks ago, I heard on Jeopardy that the word “Dude” came from the song “Yankee Doodle.” I thought that was great fun, and planned to blog about it.

Except my dictionary came up with a blank for the etymology of the word. So did the Online Etymology Dictionary, for the most part.

But this was Jeopardy. They couldn’t be wrong. Right?

Well, along comes this article from Ms. Okrent, in which she reports more current research that shows the word DOES come from the song “Yankee Doodle”. You know how it describes a fashion-fastidious man who must have a feather in his cap, and who likes very continental things like Italian macaroni? Well, that’s where “dood” comes from.

Then we started spelling it “dude,” and transported the term to those Easterners who could only play at being cowboys of the Wild West…you know, like at a dude ranch? They dressed as cowboys, but were not really cowboys.

All dressed up and no real.

Gotta say, though, there are plenty of women who are all dressed up and no real, too! Dudettes!

However, we use Dude and Dudette as general male-female terms any more.

[CORRECTION: It was pointed out to me that the word “dude” doesn’t appear in “Yankee Doodle, and technically it doesn’t. LOL. “Dude” was shortened from “doodle,” and even used to be spelled d-o-o-d. (Which makes more sense then d-u-d-e, I’ve gotta say.)]

Enjoy this video celebration of all you Yankee Doodle Dandys out there:




Word Nerd Wednesday: Why Etymology Matters

Hey, fellow Word Nerds:

There is a discussion ongoing at The Conversation which explains why etymology could be an important part of the language-learning process. I know my love of words is what caused me to dive into the waters of etymology. Why should our children not be allowed the same joy? How we tend to dumb down  for our kids, and shame on us. It’s so much simpler to give a test of word memorization than to take the time to teach WHY a particular word is spelled that way. (Jump + ed, not jumt, as the author points out.) That’s how they will develop skills in both reading and spelling when they come across unfamiliar language. (They can then apply the same past-tense concept to cooked on their own and not spell it cookt) As the article points out, kids love stories, and etymology is basically a short story. I’d love to hear what you think of the article. How were you taught to spell?

With no further ado … Here is the article by Misty Adoniou of the University of Canberra.

Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help

By Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

A couple of years ago, early one morning, I received an SMS advising “resadents to stay indoors because of a nearby insadent”. I was shocked by the spelling, as much as the message. Surely, I thought, if it was a real message then the spelling would be correct.

Spelling matters. In a text message from a friend teeing up a night out “c u at 8” is fine – but in an emergency warning text from a government agency, I expect the spelling to be standard. But why is it that some people struggle with standard spelling?

Spelling remains the most relentlessly tested of all the literacy skills, but it is the least taught.

Sending a list of words home on Monday to be tested on Friday is not teaching. Nor is getting children to write their spelling words out 10 times, even if they have to do it in rainbow colours.

Looking, covering, writing and checking does not teach spelling. Looking for little words inside other words, and doing word searches are just time fillers. And writing your “spelling” words in spirals or backwards is just plain stupid.

And yet, this is a good summary of most of the current spelling programs in schools today.

So, what should spelling teaching look like?

Finding meaning

Children should know the meanings of the words they spell, and as logical as that sounds – ask a child in your life what this week’s spelling words mean, and you might be surprised by their answers.

If spelling words are simply strings of letters to be learnt by heart with no meaning attached and no investigation of how those words are constructed, then we are simply assigning our children a task equivalent to learning ten random seven-digit PINs each week.

That is not only very very hard, it’s pointless.

More than sounds

English is an alphabetic language; we use letters to write words. But it is not a phonetic language: there is no simple match between sounds and letters.

We have 26 letters, but we have around 44 sounds (it’s not easy to be precise as different accents produce different sounds) and several hundred ways to write those sounds.

So, while sounds – or phonics – are important in learning to spell, they are insufficient. When the only tool we give young children for spelling is to “sound it out”, we are making a phonological promise to them that English simply cannot keep.

How words make their meanings

Sounds are important in learning to spell, but just as important are the morphemes in words. Morphemes are the meaningful parts of words. For example, “jumped” has two morphemes – “jump” and “ed”. “Jump” is easily recognised as meaningful, but “ed” is also meaningful because it tells us that the jump happened in the past.

Young spellers who are relying on the phonological promise given to them in their early years of schooling typically spell “jumped” as “jumt”.

When attempting to spell a word, the first question we should teach children to ask is not “what sounds can I hear?” but “what does this word mean?”. This gives important information, which helps enormously with the spelling of the word.

In the example of “jumt” it brings us back to the base word “jump”; where the sound of “p” can now be heard, and the past marker “ed” , rather than the sound “t” which we hear when we say the word.

Consider the author of the emergency text message at the beginning of this article as they pondered which of the many plausible letters they could use for the sound they could hear in “res – uh – dent”.

If they had asked themselves first, “What does this word mean?” the answer would have been people who “reside”, and then they would have heard the answer to their phonological dilemma.

Where words come from

English has a fascinating and constantly evolving history. Our words, and their spellings, come from many languages. Often we have kept the spellings from the original languages, while applying our own pronunciation.

As a result, only about 12% of words in English are spelt the way they sound. But that doesn’t mean that spelling is inexplicable, and therefore only learned by rote – it means that teaching spelling becomes a fascinating exploration of the remarkable history of the language – etymology.

Some may think that etymology is the sole province of older and experienced learners, but it’s not.

Young children are incredibly responsive to stories about words, and these understandings about words are key to building their spelling skills, but also building their vocabulary.

Yet poor spellers and young spellers are rarely given these additional tools to understand how words work and too often poor spellers are relegated to simply doing more phonics work.

Teaching – not testing

The only people who benefit from spelling tests are those who do well on them – and the benefit is to their self-esteem rather than their spelling ability. They were already good spellers.

The people who don’t benefit from spelling tests are those who are poor at spelling. They struggled with spelling before the test, and they still struggle after the test. Testing is not teaching.

Parents and teachers should consider these questions as they reflect on the ways in which spelling is approached in their school.

Are all children learning to love words from their very first years at school? Are they being fascinated by stories about where words come from and what those stories tell us about the spelling of those words?

Are they being excited by breaking the code, figuring how words are making their meanings and thrilled to find that what they’ve learned about one word helps them solve another word?

Put simply – is spelling your child’s favourite subject?

If the answer is no, then something needs to be done about the teaching.

Misty Adoniou is a Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and Teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Canberra. She occasionally presents workshops in schools on the teaching of spelling.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Word Nerd: Apologies + New Generational Word Battle


Great discussion on “I’m Sorry” vs. “My Bad” last week! Thanks so much, everyone.

Here’s my Word Nerd take on it.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “Sorry” comes from the Old English sarig, “distressed, grieved, full of sorrow.” The Dutch version is zerig, “full of sores.”


I might be distressed and full of sorrow if I truly offend or injure someone. But in the case of a minor bump in a crowd, an unintentional mix-up, or something that was out of my control, not so much. Probably not even if I accidentally bat a ball into your window, though I will want to take responsibility and fix the window.

Tossing off a “Sorry” in a situation where there was offense or injury is not a good idea. A true, look-you-in-the-eyes “I’m sorry” is. However, I plan on leaving “I’m sorry, but …” out of my vocabulary.

If I’ve done something intentionally (hope I’ve matured beyond this at this point in my life!) or especially egregious, I’ll go for a “Please forgive me.” Following up with a sincere discussion about what I’m seeking forgiveness for.

Now, onto “My Bad.” Don’t go hang out on with children, but I found their definition of the term very amusing and quite telling:

A way of admitting a mistake, and apologizing for that mistake, without actually apologizing. The best definition I ever read of this, now paraphrased:

“I did something bad, and I recognize that I did something bad, but there is nothing that can be done for it now, and there is technically no reason to apologize for that error, so let’s just assume that I won’t do it again, get over it, and move on with our lives.”

Ruder than apologizing, but with the same meaning: a flippant apology.

As much as I despise “My bad,” maybe we do have a place for it in our society. Just for the little unintentional bumps and bruises of real life, situations that call for an apology without delving into unnecessary sorrow and issues of forgiveness. It’s the “flippant” part of “my bad” that bugs me, so maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to use “my bad” without getting flippant? And, might I suggest a sense of humor in these situations? Non-flippant, of course. I’m gonna try it!

Or will I sound like a 40-something trying to sound like a teenager?

So … the generational word battle for next week?

“No, thanks” versus “I’m good.”

“Would you like a soda?”

“No, thanks.”

“Would you like a soda?”

“I’m good.”

Weigh in below!



Word Nerd Wednesday: Sorcery

English: A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egid...

English: A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egidio Forcellini: Totius Latinitatis Lexicon, 1858–87) in a table in the main reading room of the University Library of Graz. Picture taken and uploaded on 15 Dec 2005 by Dr. Marcus Gossler. Español: Diccionario de latín (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Author Jennifer Weiner, in The New Republic, introduced me to a new word in her article “What Jonathan Franzen Misunderstands about Me.” The point isn’t the article and the Franzen-Weiner debate, but the new word! I was delighted to meet my new word, and now to introduce her to you.

Ensorcell, these are my Word Nerd friends. Fellow Word Nerds, meet my new friend, Ensorcell.

(She doesn’t mind being spelled with one l, by the way.)

Ensorcell comes from the Middle French ensorcerer. En- means, of course, “in” or “on.” In this case, it can also mean “make to become.” Sorcerer, not surprisingly, is the same root from which we get our English “sorcerer” and “sorcery.” It comes from Latin sors, meaning “lot, fate, chance, to join together, sort.” Interesting take on the word sorcery, yes?

And I’m not going to tell you any more!  See if you can use just that much information to use it properly in a sentence! You could also use ensorcellment, if you prefer her dressed up as noun instead of an adjective. But please, share your sentences in the comments section! Bonus points if you come up with some good synonyms.



Word Nerd Wednesday: How many can you make?

So, to follow up on last week’s challenge to use the word bombastic correctly in a sentence…

Bombastic comes from the French bombace, (“cotton, cotton padding”) which comes from the Latin and Greek words bombyx, “silk.”

How’re your sentences doing now? 😀

Seriously, the Online Etymology Dictionary points out that it is the term for the stuffing used in upholstery and clothing, but has been extended to mean pompous speech. I daresay, stuffy speech, yes?

Yes, I know! With b-o-m-b at the start of the word, it ought to mean explosive, angry speech. Alas, bomb as an explosive device comes from the Latin bombus, “a deep hollow sound, a buzzing or booming sound.” No relation to the derivation of bombastic.

So, now, how’d your sentence do?  (In some of your sentences, you could’ve been using the word either as angry speech or pompous speech…your call!)


Here is a list of prefixes, roots, and suffixes. I want you to make as long a list of real words as you can from this list, separately or in combination. No fair using different forms of the same word, such as bombast, bombastic, bombastically.

phon (sound)

graph (writing)

dict (say, speak)

gen (birth, produce)

photo (light)

hydro (water)

thermo (heat)

re (again)

pater (father)

pro (before/in favor of)

in (not)

in (in)

ab/abs/a (apart/away from)

bene (well, favorable)

arch (first, chief)




The Thinker




[Thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary for teaching me about bombastic, and to the Michigan State GRE study helps website for the simple and concise list from which I chose these roots, prefixes and suffixes.]



Word Nerd Wednesday: Bombastic

Hello out there in Word Nerd land!

Writer Bonnie Grove issued a word challenge a week or so ago, and it quickly became clear she’d caught me out on a word I didn’t know, but thought I did.

I felt pretty silly!

English: Nerd Deutsch: Nerd

But the fun of learning a new word far outweighed the silly feeling. So, with her permission, I’m posting the same challenge here.

On the honor system… (Of course, all word nerds are honorable, right? 🙂 )

WORD NERD CHALLENGE OF THE WEEK: Without looking it up, use the word bombastic in a sentence.

Next week, I’ll post about the fascinating etymology of the word, but first…

I’m truly looking forward to your bombastic sentences in my comments!

If you haven’t already, feel free to go back and cast your vote in last week’s Word Nerd poll about the dueling etymologies of the word nerd. Doing so doesn’t make you a nerd, I promise. Unless you want to be one. Totally up to you!



Word Nerd Poll: NERD

This week, y’all get to vote on the etymology of a very important word.

Cover of "If I Ran the Zoo (Classic Seuss...

Cover of If I Ran the Zoo (Classic Seuss)


‘Cuz there’s two very, very different options (other dictionaries say something to the effect of “uncertain American origin”). Therefore, YOU get to choose!

Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary says:

<<nerd (n.) 1951, U.S. student slang, probably an alteration of 1940s slang nert “stupid or crazy person,” itself an alteration of nut. The word turns up in a Dr. Seuss book from 1950 (“If I Ran the Zoo”), which may have contributed to its rise.>>


And here is what the Webster’s New World  College Dictionary (Fourth Edition) says about nerd:

<<[[? Rhyming slang for TURD]] a person regarded as socially dull, unsophisticated, awkward,  etc., specif. as from being preoccupied with schoolwork, an intellectual hobby, etc.>>

This terribly important decision about this terribly burning issue counts as this week’s WORD NERD CHALLENGE. Vote early, vote often, in this very first Word Nerd poll. Tune in on Friday for the results, too.