Ignominious and other Words of Renown

Here’s another great example of the built-in clue system in English. All of these words share the meaning “name.” To recognize this root is to have a leg up on a huge variety of words (there are actually over 100 in the family). It takes practice, but in the end, studying vocabulary in root families is far more efficient than trying to master one word at a time.

Of course, there are lots of words that don’t have Latin and Greek roots, but the majority are high-frequency and familiar to the average reader. The more letters and/or syllables a word has, the more likely it is to be a root word. In the book Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary, Dr. Karen Bromley notes that 90 percent of  English words with more than one syllable are Latin based and most of the remaining ten percent are Greek based. These words are more complex, can be used in different ways, and often deliver vital descriptive content. Students need a reliable attack strategy to make sense of them.

For example, let’s analyze the roots in ignominious. Spotting the nom “name” root gets the ball rolling. The ig prefix is a variation on in “not, opposite of, without”, as seen in invisible “not seen”, so the root-level meaning of ignominious is “not named, or without a name.” Interesting. What does it mean to be without a name? Let’s consider the plight of Hester Pryne in The Scarlet Letter:

A crowd of eager and curious school-boys, understanding little of the matter in hand, except that it gave them a half holiday, ran before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare into her face, and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the ignominious letter on her breast.

It’s clear here that ignominious is something bad, but why didn’t Hawthorne use conspicuous, strange, or ominous? They all would have worked. This is a wonderful critical-thinking path for students to take. They can discover a broader sense of name as it relates to reputation, the idea of losing one’s good name, of being shamed. Ignominious is a powerful word–it doesn’t mess around!

Here’s how Orwell used it in Animal Farm:

At a moment when the opening was clear, the men were glad enough to rush out of the yard and make a bolt for the main road. And so within five minutes of their invasion they were in ignominious retreat by the same way as they had come, with a flock of geese hissing after them and pecking at their calves all the way.

Again, the context gives us a sense of what ignominious¬†means, but the roots close the deal. The men’s names, their reputations, have been damaged. What’s more, knowing the full weight and meaning of ignominious lets us appreciate the irony in the scene. The men were stripped of their good names by a bunch of geese.

Spotting word roots builds critical thinking, engenders word curiosity, and improves reading comprehension. But there’s more: roots also promote exponential vocabulary growth. Once a student has made sense of nom in ignominious, he/she is primed to go after misnomer, nominate, binomial, nomenclature, onomatopoeia, denominator, nondenominational, and many others. This path will also lead to the root-spelling variations, opening doors to words like antonym, synonym, homonym, acronym, pseudonym, eponym, anonymous, noun, renown –the list goes on!