What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 115 of 132

Getting the gist of “ist”

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The word orthodontist has an interesting prefix, root and suffix. “Ortho” means straight. “Dont” means teeth, and “ist” means someone who works in a particular field or someone involved in a cause or way of thinking. Examples: Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, became a famous scientist. Through his efforts to rid the U.S. of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison became a well-known abolitionist.

If we had never seen the word orthodontist before but we knew each of its word parts, we could correctly infer (make an educated guess) that it means someone who is in the business of straightening teeth. Of course, anyone who has worn or is wearing braces right now probably knows the meaning of the word all too well!

Other people involved in a particular field include geologists, florists, biologists and chemists.

A fun way to remember that “ist” means someone is doing something is to think of many instruments in an orchestra and decide what those playing them are called. For example, a musician who plays the violin is a violinist. I’ve come up with at least ten others, which I’ll share tomorrow. How many can you think of?


One number at a time

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sudoku is Japanese for “one number." The Daily Sentinel prints Sudoku puzzles at levels ranging from easy to hard.

Since the level of the puzzle below is easy, I’ll attempt to solve it with a pencil that has a good eraser. I suspect I’ll need a number of tries to get it right.

You may find the answers in today’s print edition and e-edition.


Sweet repletes

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, November 8, 2010

Yes, history can repeat itself.

To make a pun out of this saying, the current creator of Frank & Earnest had to turn a perfectly good adjective into a verb. No wonder students have difficulty learning the eight parts of speech. It is a clever pun, though, so let’s forgive Tom Thaves, who has taken over the cartoon from his father, Bob Thaves.

Used as an adjective, replete means “well-filled or plentifully supplied,” according to Webster’s.

Webster’s also gives a noun form that means honey pot. I investigated that term on the Web and came up with a fascinating lesson on how some honeypot ants keep other ants called “repletes” stuffed with honey and then use them rather like vending machines whenever they cannot find honey in other ways. The repletes are poked until they upchuck some of their honey. Yum!

My source was a NASA blog; it’s worth checking out:


Obese honeypot ants cling to the roof of a nest
Photo courtesy of Greg Hume at en.wikipedia



Super-sized words

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, November 5, 2010

Mega is a prefix that means large. It starts out words such as megabytes and megalopolis.

A megabyte is about a million bytes. When computers first came out, most of us considered a megabyte of memory more than we could ever use. Now we generally want at least one gigabyte (1,000 megabytes.) Some people say that soon we'll want even more, so we may decide on storage of one terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes.

Megalopolis comes from two Greek words meaning “great city.” In modern terms Webster's says it is “an extensive, heavily populated continuously urban area, including any number of cities.”

Below are photos of two megalopolises taken by NASA, our country's space agency. The top photo shows the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, which contains a chain of cities from Boston in the north to Washington, DC, in the south. The bottom photo shows a string of cities on the southern tip of Honshu, a major island of Japan.

If you’re wondering how many bytes of memory it took to store these photos, I’m afraid I haven't a clue!

NASA photo courtesy of Wikipedia


Taking a gander at goose and moose

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, November 4, 2010

Two well-composed photos of wildlife in today’s paper prompted this question: The plural of goose is geese, so why isn’t the plural of moose meese? The short answer: setting.

Setting is a literary term meaning both time and place. When we read fiction, we should know a story’s setting. Setting also helps us understand the origins of words. When and where did they come into use?

Goose has the longer and more complicated history of the two words. Webster’s says that it evolved in a roundabout way from the Latin word anser. (We still have the word “anserine,” meaning “of or like a goose, stupid or foolish,” according to Webster’s.)

The Romans brought Latin words into English in two ways: by conquering England and staying there for centuries and also by conquering Germanic and French people who ruled England at various times, too. Goose actually evolved from a Dutch and German word gans, which morphed from anser. It is why we also have gander, the name of a male goose.

Bill Bryson, author of The Mother Tongue, says the plural form of goose was in use during the Old English period in England’s history, which ran from A.D. 450 to 1150. During that time people formed plural words in at least a half dozen ways.

One way was to change the main vowels into different vowels. For example, mouse became mice, foot became feet and tooth became teeth. Eventually the language became easier to learn when most words were simply made into plurals by adding “s” or “es.” Geese, however, was one of the plural forms that did not change.

Moose came into American English much later and in a vastly different environment than Merry Old England. According to Webster’s, moose is an Americanism that was borrowed from the language of the Eastern Abenaki. They lived in the northeastern part of the United States and were part of the Algonquin nation.

Chances are that the Puritans and many other early settlers from across the Atlantic had never seen a moose before. Having no word for it, they took mos from Native Americans and turned it into moose. It’s unclear why its plural is simply moose. Perhaps mooses sounded awkward and the plural of mouse was already mice.

Goose and moose: two short, simple words that demonstrate our language’s long, complex history.


Page 115 of 132


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