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Word Findings #2

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 20 March 2007

Learning the stories behind words can be intriguing. The creation of Word Stories can be a way to involve students in the adventure of language. I’ve attached one of my favorite Word Stories.

A Word Story: Alligator

The English word alligator comes from Spanish: el lagarto (the lizard). English speakers didn’t understand that “el” meant “the.” They thought it was part of the word. Instead of “ligator,” the word became alligator. When we say “the alligator,” we are saying “the the”!

It would be the same as if, when other languages use English words, they added the word “the” to the original word. They would talk about “the thespace shuttle” and “the thefrying pan.”

It’s not only English speakers that have made the mistake of including “the” or “a” with the original word. The Spanish did it too. When words from Arabic came into Spanish over a thousand years ago, the Arabic al or a was put in with the original word. With the al or a added, the Spanish word was alcoba (alcove or bedroom) rather than coba and azucar (sugar) rather than zucar. Other words that came to English from Spanish and are from Arabic (and where the al or a was thought to be part of the original word) are algebra, admiral, and alcohol.

(Concept from Suzanne Kemmer, http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words/wordstories.html)

Here are some interesting words to use as the basis of word stories:

  • salary
  • denim
  • ketchup
  • magazine
  • monster

[NOTE: If you or your students go onto the internet, don’t use “Word Stories” in a search engine; you’ll get one of the many groups that write specialized stories (e.g., the 6-word story genre based on Hemingway’s “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”). Instead, use the word “etymology” in your search.]