Sunday, February 14, 2010

Word Pairs (poll)

Responses varied among the 134 who took the word relations quiz. The task was to decide whether the two words share a root meaning. If two or more words share a core meaning and also a similar root spelling, it makes sense to consider a morphological relationship, even if the meaning only partially overlaps, as in thermos and thermostat, and the vowel sound shifts from one word to another, as from heal (long e) to health (short e).

Morphological awareness, including the ability to recognize root relationships and affixes (prefixes, suffixes) correlates with reading ability. By middle school, morphological awareness helps account for proficiency in decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension (Mann & Singson, 2003; Nagy, Berninger, & Abbott, 2006). At-risk readers need to better understand morphology, but this line of study is not typically required in credential coursework nor well articulated in K-12 English or reading/language arts curriculum.

Now to the poll. Do the two words share a root meaning? 

car, cart, chariot: Budding vocabulogicians might be interested to learn, through a semantic sorting activity, that these conceptually related words all appear to flow from the same root, meaning 'wheeled vehicle'. Linguists have reconstructed an ancient Mother Tongue, called PIE (Proto-Indo-European). PIE is thought to have given birth to several hundred languages, including Sanskrit, Persian (Farsi), Latin, Greek, French, German, Irish, English, etc. From the PIE root kers-  sprang many related words, like car, chariot, cargo, charge, carry, carriage and probably cart. Many of these words eventually entered English through Latin. After sorting this large but somewhat distal group of groups, try brainstorming all the words and phrases that more directly flow from carry, like carriage, carrier, carryall, carry-on, carryover, carry the ball, carriage house, baby carriage, etc. (See comments.)

choate, inchoate: No. Inchoate (in—ko'—it) means ‘incomplete or half-formed’ but it does not begin with the prefix in-, meaning ‘not.’ Thus, the mistaken backformation choate does not, etymologically speaking, mean complete, even though that is how it might be used. In fact, some contend that choate is not even a word. Justice Scalia has chastened attorneys for using it (see New York Times). 

feat, defeat: Yes. Both words share the same Latin root meaning ‘to make, to do.’ Thus, a feat is an accomplishment, something successfully done, as in ‘a feat of endurance’ but a defeat is the opposite. Another related term is the French phrase fait accompli. 

guise, disguise: Yes, probably. Both words appear to stem from Old French. The root, meaning ‘manner, appearance, style’ is still central to the modern meaning. A less obvious connection is geezer, first spelled guiser. See Podictionary. 

merit, demerit: Yes. Both words share a common Latin root indicating ‘reward’ (and also ‘fault’ in demeritum). We can trace these words from Latin to Old French to English. Another related word is meritocracy. 

please, pleasant: Yes. Both words stem from Old French plaisir ‘to please’ and further back to Old Latin. The morphological family also includes pleasure, displease, etc. Students are less likely to realize the connection between please and pleasant because the vowel sound shifts from long to short, but the similar spelling provides a clue, as does the overlapping meaning. 

ruth, ruthless: Yes. I have only recently seen the word ruth, in the book Jane Eyre. The word ruth indicates ‘compassion’ and ruthless indicates the opposite. Both words stem from the same Old English root, but ruth is obsolete, as is ruthful.

spin, spindle: Yes. Spin and spindle stem from the Old English root for ‘to spin’ as does spinster and spider, the original spinner. 

tile, reptile: No. These two words are not related through the root. Reptile is from a Latin root meaning ‘to creep, to crawl’ but tile is from Old English ‘roof, to cover.’ These words do not share a close conceptual relationship, either. 

traction, action: No. These two Latin derivatives do not share a root meaning. In traction, the root is -tract- meaning 'to pull,’ and in action, the root is -act-, as in active, actor, etc.  Other words in the traction family are tractor, attract, contract, detract, subtract, etc. 

yard, yarn: No. Even though both words stem from Old English, they do not share a common root or a common concept. 

Limitations: Some of these word pairs are too advanced for K-8. Having said that, forming networks of related words is a sound strategy for teaching and learning vocabulary. However, associations should not be limited to morphological links. When studying word meanings, it is effective to create conceptual networks of words as well as morphological networks (Ebbers & Denton, 2008). Further, an association can be artificially created to link any word pair, boosting memory. As a literacy coach stated, “Tile and reptile could be related, because a turtle is a reptile, and its shell appears to be made of little tiles." Word-sorting works well as a collaborative effort. A portion of the effect realized may stem from the debate and discussion that ensues as partners sort out word relationships.
"The greatest benefit from instructional time spent on word study can be gained from exploring roots, prefixes, suffixes, and networks of related words" (Marcia Henry, researcher, 1997).


  1. Susan,

    Something about Vocabulogic makes me rather klempt (the backformed of the Yiddish word, not the Hungarian word, meaning hungry, which I happen to be since I haven't eaten my Sunday breakfast). My usual irreverent self is contained.

    I found the car/cart relation especially interesting since in Spanish, carro can be used for all three: automobile, carriage and cart. Though there are other words - coche, carruaje, & carrito (this last one to distinguish the kind of cart you might use in a grocery store, for example).

    I would never question you, but, the online version of the Royal Academy of Spanish Dictionary ( says that it comes from the Latin, carrus which is borrowed from the Welch, carros.

    As far as choate is concerned, that reminds me of that famous essay that appeared in the New Yorker some time ago called "How I Met My Wife".

  2. I hadn't had my morning coffee when I made my earlier comment.

    Of course, I meant Vocabulogic makes me verklempt. No slight was meant.

    -the pg

  3. Hi PG,

    I must fess up...have been on East Coast 5 days now, with no access to my Oxford English Dictionary password. Alas, I cannot yet check origin of cart therein, but I will soon. Hoping you are correct, bc when I created the quiz, I did expect a root link to car. Etymonline says no connection, but ... We'll see. Thanks for sharing the Sp. cognate, btw. So much interrelatedness!

    Also, must fess my ignorance of klemp!

    Love that New Yorker piece. Hope folks hit your has long been a fave!

  4. verklempt! Sat Night Live...and Vocabulogic. Yes, equally emotional in every regard. As for coffee, I am now at Phoenix airport, Starbucks.

  5. Found conflicting info on car and cart relationship. This one is tricky! If we go way back to Proto-Indo European we find a link, but perhaps not Latin.


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