Telling Stories about Words

“Stories are psychologically privileged in the human mind.” Daniel Willingham

The mind thinks and remembers in stories. It is part of the architecture of human memory and our human experience. Given it is so rooted in how we think, storytelling proves vital to learning and is useful in all sorts of ways in the classroom.

When it comes to teaching vocabulary, or simply teaching subject knowledge, etymology the  study of the origins of words and how they have changed over time – offers us a useful tool for memorable learning.

We use words daily, usually without a deep understanding of their origins and changes over time. And yet, when their meaning is unveiled to us, they can prove memorable, curious and downright intriguing.

Here are some of my favourite words and that what I think exhibit an engaging etymology:

  1. Anthology. I’ve used this word for countless years as an English teacher, but without any knowledge of the rather lovely etymology. ‘Anthos‘ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘flower’, with ‘logia’ meaning collection (from ‘legein’ – ‘gather’). So each time we see a bunch of poems or essays, we can beautify them a little by remembering that word ‘anthology’ emerges from a bunch of flowers.
  2. Nightmare. A ‘mare‘, from ‘mara’ in high German, described an evil spirit or goblin that rode on people’s chest whilst they slept, giving them nightmares. These gruesome fairy-tale-like origins capture something of visceral, physical experience of a nightmare.
  3. Clue. This word comes directly from Greek mythology and the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. As the story goes, in the fabled labyrinth, Theseus used a ball of yarn to track his path. A ball of yarn was called a ‘clew’. Roll few many centuries and we have our modern day word: ‘clue’.
  4. Fascinate: This Latin word is truly bewitching in origin. From the Latin ‘fascinat’ – meaning ‘bewitched’, and the verb ‘fascinare’, from ‘fascinum’, meaning ‘spell, witchcraft’, or a phallus shaped amulet to ward off spells. There you go, fascinate is a truly bewitching word (just watch our for a dangerous phallus!)
  5. Mortgage. The etymology of this word is unerringly accurate and apt. Once more Latin in origin, from ‘mortuus‘ – meaning dead combined (familiar in words such as ‘mortality’) with ‘gage‘ – ‘pledge‘. The word then literally means “death pledge”! As I said, pretty apt.
  6. Corridor. A familiar word and path for teachers, it has rather ironic Latin origins. It comes the Latin ‘currere’, meaning ‘to run‘. Originally linked to fortifications, as a strip of land running along a ditch, it has more recently been stripped of its more specific origins. Next time we bewail running in the corridor, we can recall the ironic running roots of the word.
  7. Salary. This word for regular payment has some supposing roots linked to ‘salt’. You can see the resemblance in the ‘sal’ prefix, with ‘salary’ coming from the Latin, meaning a payment to soldiers – ‘salt money, or soldiers allowance to buy salt’. Salt was of course much prised in our ancient past and so its links to finance revealed just how essential it was.
  8. Malapropism. This word is used to describe mistaken word use for comic effect. It is actually an ‘eponym‘, which denotes a name or noun named after a person in history. In this case, it is a literary character Mrs Malaprop, from Sheridan’s eighteenth century play, ‘The Rivals‘. This narrowly beat out another literary eponym for the same meaning – a ‘Dogberryism‘ – named after the character, Dogberry, from Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.
  9. Hysteria. This word, used to describe a state of uncontrolled emotion, conveys some of the patriarchal roots of our English language. It has roots emerging from the Latin – ‘hystericus’ – meaning ‘womb’. And so, this particularly emotional madness is attributed to women and not men.
  10. Etymology. How could we explore word roots and etymology without tacking the etymology of… well ‘etymology’? From the Greek words ‘etymos’, meaning ‘true’, and ‘lógos’, denoting ‘word’ – it means then a ‘true word’.


And so, with a little digging, we can find the roots of words, illuminating some memorable truths about their history and meaning.

Though many of these words offer us simply the pleasure of a great story, etymology and word roots can be harnessed as an effective teaching strategy. I have written a chapter on this, with an array of strategies, in my new book, ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap‘. It is available on Amazon HERE and at Routledge HERE.

6 thoughts on “Telling Stories about Words”

    1. Alex Quigley

      Ah, that is great to hear – thank you! Me too – the more I learn, the more I want to learn Latin too.

  1. Thanks for some Saturday morning etymological fun! Reminds me of a self-indulgent poem I wrote in my self-indulgent university days:

    Etymologically Speaking

    Etymologically speaking I’m feeling obsolete
    like I’m on repeat
    I think its from the etymology of etymology.
    There’s a funny psychology to it you see

    If you start with ‘etymon’ you’ve got ‘true sense’
    but there’s a sense that truth is both pervasive and evasive
    in all those sounds that come out of our mouth
    if we end with ‘logia’ its the ‘the study of’
    explaining the sociology of our obsessive use of ‘-ology’
    making every word into an ‘-ology’ but

    the ology – the study of – words
    is far from explanatory, simple, sensible or truthful
    words are robbers
    and alchemists
    ancient and youthful
    all powerful
    both the creator and resistant
    to definition; their existence always somehow a state of omission
    words are scary and dangerous but –
    at this point we just cannot afford to not listen.

    Etymology seems like the break-down of words
    a simplification of their meaning
    but really it’s a radicalisation
    of all the linguistic compounds that add up to make
    our visionary collective cataracts,
    aiding and failing in the aiding of our short
    and long sighted visions
    of the world, the this and the that, the then and the now, the here and the there, the you and the me

    Etymology seems like the key
    the one to unlock the significance
    that we can never quite decipher
    it seems the genuine article, masquerading as stability with a concrete credibility that we’d be lost without in humanity but

    Etymologically speaking I’m feeling obsolete,
    like I’m on repeat
    with this etymology of etymology.

    Can you see the funny psychology?

    That’s why I’ve been treading carefully and
    I’m here to tell you why with words bought,
    bartered and lended
    in a poem that’s a rehash
    a combination of these words
    where all and nothing is pretended

    Because Etymology on the surface seems interesting
    (maybe fun if you like that kind of thing)
    but trust me don’t start digging
    every conversation is a tricking, trapped in its own

    deathly house of cards

    every word,
    with its own double and triple poker face – each gap,
    space and silence upon the page, around the lips, like awaiting verdict of a fatal legal case.

    Meanings –
    evasions of meanings, in a mean, medium or mode of averaging out
    to penniless gratuities
    nothing but silent screams and shouts
    helpless memes and gifs and video clips –
    a pastiche of all our twisted verbal myths.

    Etymologically speaking I’m feeling obsolete,
    like I’m on repeat
    it’s this etymology of etymology.
    There’s a funny psychology to it you see.

    Because Words seem to represent
    but its no coincidence that Whitehall makes us suspicious
    of a mouth vouching representation

    intonations and indentations, like politicians, make faces
    to illuminate
    but they are really disguising as they seem to reveal
    communication an extended game of hide and seek
    festering in each plosive’s history
    gesturing at a corrosive
    subsidiary to it all,
    millions of pieces in the air as we are left on our hands and knees scrambling, falling into an Alice hole of ongoing rhetorical nightmare, an electrifying irony of shocks and surprises, keeping us on our toes and taunting us with our inevitable demises

    And because of all this

    Etymologically speaking I’m feeling obsolete
    like I’m on repeat
    it’s the etymology of etymology.
    There’s a funny psychology to it you see

    But for all this pitter-patter of pessimism
    this chitter-chatter of self-reflexive cynicism
    an immense unparalleled joy exists.
    The obsolete
    fired up with a new life: In a deranged rebellion
    words hold beauty in their subversion
    are clear in their transgressions
    their cheek teaching us constant lessons of the slipperyness
    of meaning
    to tread carefully through history and the mystery of today.

    They hold us up while bringing us down,
    they bridge gaps while burning bridges
    explaining and communicating while running
    in the opposite direction from all real relating.

    Words are Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
    Necessary – fuelling life, while filling you
    with abject torment and despise.

    So I’ll leave it at this: I accept defeat.
    To the angelic-demons words hold over me:
    our hands in chains as they lead us to the keys
    in a game of locking and unlocking
    in melodies of relentless mocking

    Because it’s good to be mocked by what comes out of our mouth
    like walking through an
    and games of cat and mouse,
    chasing, erasing and rehabilitating
    ourselves, into our self
    through language equally known and unknown.

    The language of the alone and the together
    language divides yet also tethers us together
    we have no choice in the matter

    And now more than ever
    we could do with etymology bringing us together.

  2. Pingback: 6 Excellent Etymologies

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