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Thursday, March 5, 2009

It's All Greek to Me

While most educators would agree that the best method for vocabulary acquisition is the act of reading itself, there's something to be said for word root study, especially Greek and Latin roots.

This became clear to me years ago when we were studying decimals. I made the casual observation that deci- typically means "one-tenth of" and mentioned the word decimeter as an example. Michael raised his hand and asked, "So is the word decimate somehow related to that?" Being the confident, all-knowing teacher that I was in my third year teaching, I answered, "No," and dismissed the class to lunch.

As I munched on my chicken salad sandwich, and regained strength of both body and mind, I realized that I had missed an opportunity. Following the lunch period, I encouraged Michael to look up the word in the dictionary.

The word decimate in present use means ‘to destroy a large part’ of something, but its origin sheds light upon a somewhat drastic means of behavioral intervention. According to the Merriam -Webster New Book of Word Histories,

A technique used by the Roman army to keep mutinous units in line was to select one-tenth of the men by lot and execute them, thereby encouraging the remaining nine-tenths to follow orders. The Latin verb for this presumably effective form of punishment was decimare, literally, ‘to take a tenth of,’ which was derived from decimus, meaning ‘tenth.’ (pp. 133-4)

Since that time I've been an ardent believer that vocabulary instruction can greatly benefit from word study (etymology). Etymology can, in fact, shed some light upon the world in which we presently live.

The Greek origin of the word ostracize, for example, cements its meaning into the memory:

Ostraka were shards of broken pots re-used as voting 'ballots' cast by the
Athenian assembly, who would each choose a politician they wished to have
'ostracized', or exiled for ten years. If any one name received a majority and a
total of 6,000 or more votes, that man would have to leave Athens.

At the time the hit television series Survivor premiered, it was hailed for its originality. Turns out that its premise was actually thousands of years old!

Below you'll find some links where you and your students can check out word origins for yourself.

Etymologically Speaking... Word origins appearing alphabetically. For word origins, click where it says "Expand your vocabulary."

Greek and Latin Roots Information and activities for understanding Greek and Latin roots.

Meanings and Origins of Phrases Searchable database.

Online Etymology Dictionary An A-Z searchable collection of word origins.

Word Detective Origins plus other cool word-related facts.

Word Origin Game Given a word, select its origin or meaning from three choices.

Word Spy Web site is devoted to lexpionage, the sleuthing of new words and phrases. NOTE: Some adult themes here!


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