Etymology ─ Word Roots

A Supplementary Guide to Professor Simpson's College English Class (COMM1007)

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The Story of English
Etymology ─ Word Roots 
Essay Writing


Etymology Online ─ the best etymology resource available on the net.

Word Roots and Prefixes ─ Robert Harris' list of common roots

"It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial
repositories, put together well after the languages they
define. The roots of language are irrational and of a
magical nature."

Jorge Luis Borges, Prologue to "El otro, el mismo."

Building A Vocabulary

There are two ways to improve your vocabulary. One is by memorizing words. As is often said, if you only memorize one new word a day, you will have learned 365 new words by the end of the year. If you learn five words a day, you will have learned 1,825.

Not bad.

The other method is by learning word roots. By learning what the actual roots of the words mean, you increase your vocabulary at an exponential rate. In some ways it's a little more demanding, on the other hand, it's easier than memorizing a batch of unconnected words.

Learning Through Etymology

Etymology tells us the original meanings of our root words.

For instance, the word "etymology" comes from the Greek word, etymon, which means "true sense." The ending, ology, comes from logos which means "word" and is used in the sense of "to study." "Etymology" therefore means "the study of the true sense." 

"Entomology," on the other hand, comes from the Greek word, entomon, which means "insect." Hence, "entomology" is the study of insects.

These, it should be noted, are two entirely different things.

Sample Etymological Exercise

First, go to  the Online Etymology Dictionary.

  • Enter "hypo" into the search box.
     Note the meaning of the word, which is "under."
     Read over several of the words formed by this root.
     Take two of these words:
  • hypodermic    1863, formed in Eng. from Gk. hypo- "under" + derma "skin."
    hypothermia    1886, Mod.L., from hypo- (q.v.) + Gk. therme "heat."
  •  These give you two more roots: derma and therme.
    •  Look up "derma"
      taxidermy:  1820, from Gk. taxis "arrangement," from tassein "arrange" (see tactics) + derma "skin."
      thermometer:  1633, from Fr. thermomètre (1624), coined by Jesuit Father Leuréchon from Gk. thermos "hot" (see thermal) + metron "measure" (see meter (2)). An earlier, Latinate form was thermoscopium (1617). The earliest such device was Galileo's air-thermometer, invented c.1597.

For each root you learn, you are learning several words. In the beginning this won't amount to much, but over the course of a couple of weeks, each new root gives you roughly five to ten new words

Top illustration from the article, "Magic in the Air" by Julie-ann Davies at  HERO: Higher Education & Research Opportunities.