Impertinent Lieutenant Plays Tennis with Tenacity

Hold on! I have an exceptional root to share with you. It shows up in various spellings like tain, ten, tent, and tin, and means “hold, reach, occupy, persist, remain, retain, grasp.” In one form or another, it’s all about holding.

Let’s look at impertinent. What’s the logic of this word? For starters, it maps back to pertain, “be appropriate, related, or applicable”. The prefix per “through” modifies the base root tain to create the sense “to hold through”. The adjective pertinent, “relevant or applicable to a particular matter”, is closely related. When it picks up the extra prefix im “not” to form impertinent, we get the sense of an idea “not holding through”, or “not relevant or applicable”. Over time this meaning also picked up a sense of deliberateness. Now it’s not just that an idea or comment is not applicable, it’s that the speaker meant it that way. Impertinent moves the focus from the message to the messenger, from not relevant to rude and disrespectful.

“Who are you talking to?” said the King, coming up to Alice, and looking at the Cat’s head with great curiosity.
“It’s a friend of mine—a Cheshire-Cat,” said Alice: “allow me to introduce it.”
“I don’t like the look of it at all,” said the King: “however, it may kiss my hand, if it likes.”
“I’d rather not,” the Cat remarked.
“Don’t be impertinent,” said the King, “and don’t look at me like that!”
From: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carrol

But if you will listen to his letter, you may perhaps be a little softened by his manner of expressing himself.”
“No, that I am sure I shall not; and I think it was very impertinent of him to write to you at all, and very hypocritical. I hate such false friends.
From: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Next, let’s look at lieutenant. What does this word have to do with holding? The lieu, loc root means “place”, and the family includes words like milieu, locale, dislocate, and locomotive (“that which moves from place to place”). So a lieutenant is “one who holds the place of another”, a substitute or deputy. For example, an army lieutenant is put in command when the captain is absent.

Tennis players must hold a racquet, but is the sport named for this? No, the most common story describes the server hollering “tenez!”, meaning “hold, receive, take”, prior to delivering the ball. Also, the sport was originally just played with the hands and called jeu de paume, “game of the palm”. This certainly required some holding and reaching. But overall there is no consensus on the etymology of tennis. Somehow the French came up with the name and we’ve been holding onto it ever since.

Which brings us to tenacity. This is a great example of a word that really comes to light if we focus on the roots. To have tenacity is “to hold fast, to persist”. And there are many others like this. Our countenance is our composure: “that which holds us together.” An untenable argument does not hold up to scrutiny. That which is sustainable is well supported: “held up from below.” Similarly, sustenance holds us up and helps us “remain, persist.” A tenet is a belief that is held as true.

Let’s help our students become tenacious root detectives and to take hold of the logic of words!

Just Sitting Around the Residence Learning Assiduous and Insidious

According to the US Department of Education, the number one strategy for improving reading comprehension is explicit vocabulary instruction. General guidelines are provided, but teachers must still decide what words to teach and how to deliver them. Using lists, workbooks, and other one-word-at-a-time options, students will generally cover 150-300 words in a school year. Considering high-stakes assessments draw on many thousands of words, how can this approach improve outcomes?

There is a better way. Rather than having your students memorize one word at a time, teach word families! The English language has about 2000 critical Latin and Greek root families that drive the vast majority of multisyllabic words. This may sound like a lot of families, but it’s a manageable number compared to the tens of thousands of words students need to build a robust vocabulary. Roots bring this task within reach, especially if the families are learned systematically over several years. (Grades 4-10 are ideal). Once a student has taken on the habit of looking for roots in unfamiliar words, reading comprehension is certain to improve.

Consider these passages:

…they would sit staring at the copper with such eager eyes as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed, employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. From Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

I have been working very hard lately, because I want to keep up with Jonathan’s studies, and I have been practicing shorthand very assiduously. From Dracula, by Bram Stoker

The reader can glean some sense of assiduously from the context, but analyzing the roots really brings it to light. Here are the steps:

  1. Break it down! as-sid-uous-ly.
  2. Identify the base root: sid
  3. Think of a word with sid that you knowHere’s one: residence, “place where one sits back, settles.”
  4. Apply the base root meaning to the context. In both cases, the protagonists are very focused on a task. They have “settled into” the task and are applying themselves to it.

You might ask: why not just look the word up? Yes, but this takes time, and on a test is not permitted. Also, decoding the word as part of a family will make retention more stable. The student will now be on the lookout for other “sit, settle” words, and there are many!

Let’s consider a couple more passages:

The seniors had been trotted off to the improvised obstacle course in the woods, or to have their blood pressure taken again, or to undergo an insidious exercise in The Cage which consisted in stepping up on a box and down again in rapid rhythm for five minutes. From A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

Although teachers do not hold bombs or knives, they are still dangerous enemies. They fill us with insidious revisionist ideas. They teach us that scholars are superior to workers. They promote personal ambition by encouraging competition for the highest grades. From Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-li Jiang

Now what “sitting and settling” is going on with insidious? The context definitely signals a negative vibe. Our students, the roots detectives, must investigate! (Side note: the root vestig comes from the Latin vestigium “footprint, track”, so to investigate is etymologically “to follow footprints.”) The idea of settling on something does not mean you are squashing it all at once; it has more of an “exerting pressure over time” connotation. The pressure may be subtle at first, but it sits there, working its treachery, and eventually doing harm. It is insidious.

If our students learn to follow root paths from easy words like residence, residue or subside to challenging words like assiduous and insidious, they will gain more than just large vocabularies. This process also builds word curiosity and critical thinking. Working with roots draws the reader into the word, and by extension, into the text. Let’s teach our students to be word investigators!

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Agnostic Gnome Goes Incognito

In the book, Greek and Latin Roots- Keys to Building Vocabulary, Dr. Timothy Rasinski, and his co-authors state an amazing fact: 90 percent of English words with more than one syllable are Latin based. Most of the remaining 10 percent are Greek based. A single Latin root generates 5-20 English words. Another excerpt: Latin and Greek prefixes, bases, and suffixes are fairly consistent in their meanings and spelling patterns. Consequently, students can figure out the pronunciation and meaning of many new words by looking at their roots. They will understand the logic in the spelling pattern. 

Knowing the logic in spelling patterns is the key to building vocabulary exponentially. For example, a student who knows the words ignore and recognize has a good start with diagnose, ignorant, cognition, prognosis, cognizant, gnostic, ignoramus, incognito, agnostic, and gnomeThe shared letter pattern meaning “know, think, learn; wise, well-known” is altered in interesting ways by the prefixes, and the suffixes join in to establish the parts of speech. It’s critical that our students develop the eyesight to spot these details. 

And it gets better. Spotting letter patterns means slowing down. Skimming is out. And, as explained by Dr. Abigail Konopasky, investigating roots promotes critical thinking. The key is starting early–around the 4th grade. This is when root words start showing up in large numbers. Lacking direct instruction in roots, many students will become habitual word skippers. This unfortunate habit can follow them through the upper grades, undermining reading comprehension and academic success. The good news is that the roots will always be there, ready to help. Let’s teach our students to become word tinkerers and masters of their own language!

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