Let’s Investigate Pedigree, Oedipus, and Patagonia

No, these words do not share a common root, but they do all have something to do with feet. In fact, as English speakers we seem to be obsessed with feet. The words are everywhere! Let’s start the investigation with, well, investigation. Did you know the root vestig comes from the Latin vestigium meaning “footprint, trace”? Yes, to investigate is etymologically to follow footprints!

And we’re just getting started. What’s up with pedigree? You may recognize ped, the most familiar foot root of all. For example, a millipede etymologically has a thousand feet, when you go on an expedition you are “freeing your feet” for adventure, an impediment is “that which blocks the feet,” and a pedestrian is “one who is on foot.” And as with most roots, a few alternative spellings have evolved. The words pawnpeon, and pioneer all map back to the Latin pedonem meaning “foot soldier.” The word impeach comes from the Latin impedicare meaning “to fetter, catch, entangle”… you guessed it: the feet!

But let’s walk this discussion back to pedigree. This comes from the French pié de grue, “foot of crane.” Here’s the story: back in the Middle Ages the symbol for “descent” was a forked sign resembling the branching lines of a genealogical chart. This sign also resembled a bird’s footprint, specifically that of a crane. Eventually the whole subject of ancestry took on the name of this symbol. Learn more.

And speaking of lineage, poor Oedipus certainly had a lousy father! Who puts their baby up on a mountain with a stake through his feet just because some oracle is making crazy predictions? Too bad Oedipus wasn’t a little older and stronger. Instead of ending up with “swollen feet” (the root meaning of Oedipus), he could have been recalcitrant. A new foot root to the rescue! This word comes from the Latin recalcitrare, “kicking back.” Even better, the calc root means heel. So between kicking back and digging in his heels, Oedi could have saved his family a lot of trouble down the road. But then, it’s likely the old man would have inculcated (“stamped in”) his son with fear sooner or later, and driven him away.

But to where? Well, Patagonia would have been a great option! When life’s complexities (as in Oedipal) have you down, it’s time to head to what early European settlers called the “large foot” of South America! Learn more.


Hyperbole, Metabolism, and the Devil

We all know hyperbole is obvious and intentional exaggeration. But did you know it maps back to a Greek root meaning to throw? At the root level, hyperbole actually means “(that which) is thrown over.” The root has a few different spellings and shows up in lots of words. For example, ball, “that which is thrown”; parable, “a throwing beside, a juxtaposition”; ballerina, “one who throws her body”; and metabolism, “that which throws changes (at the body).”

Roots Analysis Builds Word Curiosity and Comprehesion
If you’re a word nut like me, you love roots. But is it important for students to learn roots? Yes, because root words are everywhere and they often describe characters, scenes, and moods. For example:

What was the diabolic thing that happened to Mr. Cadaver? (from Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech). 

At the same time, the thin straight lines of the setting of the eyes, and the thin straight lips, and the markings in the nose, curved with a sarcasm that looked handsomely diabolic. (from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens).

Context clues offer some help, but not enough; the student must engage the word! But what does it mean to really engage a word? Answer: slow down and check the roots!

Look Inside Language
Let’s look at diabolic. The root dia means “across”, as in diameter, “the measurement across.” And then there’s bol, the throw root! Something is being “thrown across.” But what, and to where? A quick check of the Online Etymology Dictionary delivers the story. Diabolic maps to Devil! To be diabolic is to be thrown or cast from heaven to hell…to be devilish. Bad stuff, but that’s the story and the roots led us to it. It’s fun to engage new words when you know what you’re doing. Roots are the keys that unlock meaning!

The Conversations at the Crossroads

Every word has a story, and many of them are fascinating and fun to know. For example, let’s roll back the time machine to the Middle Ages. You’re a farmer heading to market, walking along with your ox Henry pulling the cart full of produce. Now, you love Henry, but he isn’t exactly conversational, so it’s kind of a lonely trek. Pretty soon you come to a 3-way intersection where you find your neighbor Jeremiah coming along with his cart. You don’t see Jeremiah often, so you eagerly strike up a conversation. How’s the farm? Did you get through that nasty frost? Jeremiah is not a man of many words, and he’s a little strange, but it’s great to have someone to visit with. And it gets even better- here comes another farmer down the lane with his cart. How great! A party at the intersection.

What’s the point of this story? We could use lots of words to describe the little gathering: visiting, talking, catching up, chatting, reminiscing, gabbing. And here’s another: trivial. Huh? How does that fit? Well, the prefix tri means “three;” the base root vi means “road, way, path, journey;” and the suffix ial means “pertaining to.”

Pertaining to Three Roads
Etymologically, trivial refers to the “conversations from the crossroads and everyday places- the place where three roads meet.” How cool is that? And of course there are lots of other words that share the vi root, like: obvious “quality of in the way, in the path”; previous: “pertaining to the journey before”; and deviate “to (go) off the road, away from the path”, just to name a few.

And remember the detail about Jeremiah being strange? We might also say he’s a bit peculiar. This word comes from the Latin peculiaris “of one’s own (property).” The root pecu actually means “cattle or flock.” So it’s possible Jeremiah has been hanging around his farm so long that he’s become “of his cattle.” A little remote, perhaps? Not what we would call effusive or loquacious? Jeremiah needs to get out more!

Roots are the keys that unlock word meanings and supply the first points on the word-story map. As our students read, they are constantly coming to “crossroads” presenting unfamiliar words, or maybe old word-acquaintances that still seem strange. Word Voyage teaches them to slow down, look inside the language, and join the conversations at the crossroads!