What’s In A Word?

From KRP’s What’s in a Word NIE supplement from the NIE Institute. 

What’s in a Word?  Probably more than you think. Take the word word, for instance. Word is more than 10 centuries old. It’s related to the Germanic word wort. It’s also related to verbum (Latin for “word”) and eirein (Greek for “to say or to speak”). Who would think there could be so much history in four little letters?

Every word has a story, and some words have more than one. All of them together make up our language. Put them together, and you can say just about anything you want. Words are symbols that stand for things and ideas. Each word means something in particular; we combine them to express concepts ranging from simple to complex. Each word has a spoken and a written form, so that we can communicate either by talking or writing.

But everything about language isn’t simple and straightforward. A word often has several meanings. Sometimes several words mean the same thing. A single word can sometimes have different layers of meaning – it can express one idea openly and merely hint at another. Words can also be used to disguise a meaning when we don’t want to come right out and say it.

Every word has a root. A root is a base word, which may be changed by adding prefixes, suffixes, or other root words to it. Some roots, such as bio, geo, and ped, must be combined with other parts to form complete words. Others are complete words in themselves.

The word know, for example, can be modified or combined with other word parts to create many new words: knew, knows, knowing, knowingly, known, knowable, knower, unknown, knowability, knowingness, unknowingly, unknowingness, knowledge, know-how, know-it-all, know-nothing, knowledgeable, knowledgeably, knowledgeability, knowledgeableness


1. Find a root word in a newspaper headline. Using this word as a base, see how many other words you can form.

2. Pick a comic strip from today’s newspaper and rewrite it using only the root words (no prefixes or suffixes allowed!). Read the new version out loud.

3. Pick one section of the newspaper and see how many words you can find that are based on the following root words*:
auto (self)
chron (time)
feder, fid, fide (faith, trust)
form (form, shape)
gram, graph (write, written)
log, logo, ology (word, study, speech)
mem (remember)
mori, mors, mort (mortal, death)
port (carry)
psych (mind, soul)
sens, sent (feel)
techni (skill)
tele (far)
uni (one)
*(From Basic English Revisited by Sebranek and Meyer)