Swash Boggling Phiz Whizzing Word Analysis in Everyday Life

20 Jul

Anyone who has known me for a while has probably heard my argument about compound words: I think a word is compound if and only if the meaning of the two smaller words contributes to the meaning of the larger words.  So

  • grasshopper
  • fireman
  • toothpaste

would all fit that definition, but

  • carpet
  • season
  • hemlock

would not.

I was briefly stuck by the word “butterfly” which someone brought up as a challenge to my theory.  “Butterfly” really feels like it should be a compound word, but I couldn’t figure out how the meanings of “butter” and “fly” added to the overall definition.  Until I googled it, and learned that “butterfly,” comes from Europe, where the fly-like creatures would buzz around freshly made butter sitting in the windowsills.  Crisis averted!

I just came back from a trip to Scotland, and I noticed that there were tons of trucks selling “ice lollys.”  Besides the fact that anyone selling ice cream in Scotland–65degrees on a warm day–seemed strange, I started thinking about why Scotland called them “ice lollys” and we called them “popsicles.”  Where did those words even come from?  I got pretty excited by this theory (my sister thought I was being ridiculous):

  • “popsicle” is a combination of “icicle” and “lollipop,” because it’s like an icicle you eat like a lollipop.
  • “ice lolly” is just the other half of “icicle” and “lollipop.”

Pretty cool, right?  Americans and Europeans just flipped around the word parts!

Except it was wrong.  Going back to trusty google, I learned that “popsicles” in America were originally invented by Frank Epperson, and called “Epsicles.”  When he died, his children called them “popsicles” after their father (at least I got the icicle part right), and the brand name stack, a la Kleenex and Xerox, whereas in the United Kingdom they use the more generic ice lolly.

So why am I going on and on about my great compound-word odyssey?  What does this have to do with literacy?

In reading, we want students to think about what words mean, and one of the strategies to do that is for them to break words apart–to look at the words affixes, roots, and bases (and compound parts!) to discover the meaning.  We need to teach them how to break apart the words to do this, but we also want to imbed a natural curiosity about words and the world.  Mysteries about where words come from like ice lolly and butterfly are one way to engage students in the process of discovery.

We also want students to be able to manipulate words as writers.  We hope the majority of their words are real, but Lewis Carol and Roald Dahl showed the power of taking parts of words that people recognize and smashing them together to make a new word, such as chortle (now an official word) and whizzpopping.

Source: Oxford Dictionaries
Word list filed with the first draft of The BFG.

We can learn about where words come from and how they change over time, and we can study authors like Roald Dahl who manipulate language.  RoaldDahl.com has a series of lesson ideas for Roald Dahl’s birthday that involves children breaking apart words and creating new ones, or writing poems about their new word creations.  If we have students create their own word in their writing, or independently research where a word comes from, how cool would that be?

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