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Teachers: Literacy: Word

Last Updated: Tuesday March 01 2005 17:56 GMT



Image: Nasa
Three new moons discovered around the planet Saturn have been named after characters from Greek mythology.

Methone and Pallene have been named after the beautiful daughters of a giant and Polydeuces is named after the son of Zeus who was king of the gods.

Using dictionaries, students discover where words come from.

Learning aims
  • Explore the origins of some English words
  • Learn the meaning of the etymology
  • Understand the etymological function of a dictionary
  • Explore times when knowing the etymology of a word helps you understand a passage.

Read out this story to the class.

Then distribute copies of the story to the class. Ask students to underline proper nouns or names, as it is read aloud for a second time.



Mobile (phone) comes from the Latin word for moveable
Marathon comes from the story about Pheidippides running 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to relate the Greek victory over the Persian army
Some say kangaroo comes from the ancient Australian Aboriginal word gangurru which means I don't know. This is the supposed reply given by Captain Cooke when he first saw the animal.

Make a class list of the proper nouns or names found by students.

They are:

  • Saturn
  • Methone
  • Pallene
  • Polydeuces
  • Greece is a proper noun, Greek is an adjective
  • Zeus
  • August
  • October
  • Cassini
  • Huygens
  • Titan
  • US Space Agency (Nasa)
  • European Space Agency (Esa)
  • Italian Space Agency (Asi)
In pairs, students to look up one of the bold words in a dictionary to see if they can find where the word originally came from. The class then feedback their findings.


    An alligator
    Alligator was originally a Latin word lacertus
    This became the Spanish words for the lizard which is el lagarto
    This then became known as alligator in English
  • Saturn - Named after the father of Zeus (the king of the gods) in Roman mythology.
  • Methone and Pallene - In Greek mythology, they are two of the seven daughters of a giant called Alkyoneus. He and his band of giants were defeated by the gods of Mount Olympus after trying to reach them by stacking two mountain ranges on top of each other. When Alkyoneus was killed his daughters threw themselves into the sea and were transformed into kingfishers.
  • Polydeuces - The son of Zeus (the king of the gods) in Greek mythology.
  • Zeus - The leader of the gods, and god of the sky and thunder, in Greek mythology.
  • August - Named in honour of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar.
  • October - Comes from the Latin octo for eight. October was the eighth month in the Roman calendar.
  • Cassini - Named after the Italian-French astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini.
  • Huygens - named after the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens.
  • Titan - In Greek mythology, the Titans are 12 gods who oppose Zeus and the Olympian gods in their ascent to power.
Explain to the class that the words we use today have come to us from all sorts of places and languages.

Introduce the word etymology as the study of the origins of words. (You may wish to ensure everyone can pronounce it properly too!)

Main activity

Distribute copies of the etymology worksheets. Students use dictionaries to work out where the words come from.

The crater of a volcano

Worksheet answers:

  • adder - Old English 'naedre', meaning snake
  • atlas - Greek god's name, often shown carrying the world on his shoulders
  • thug - Indian word for 'assassin'
  • bungalow - Indian for a 'one-storey house'
  • crater - Greek 'krater', meaning 'mixing bowl'
  • genie - Latin 'genius', meaning 'guardian spirit'
  • limbo - Latin 'limbus', meaning the place where souls go that cannot enter heaven
  • salary - Latin 'sal', meaning 'salt'. Roman soldiers were paid with salt
  • style - Latin 'stylus', meaning a pointed instrument used for writing
  • pandemonium - Greek 'pan' and Latin 'daemonium' meaning demon. Used as the capital of Hell in 'Paradise Lost', a poem by John Milton
  • papier-māché - French meaning 'chewed paper'
  • vandal - Latin, meaning a member of a Germanic people that sacked Rome in 455 AD
  • butler - Old French 'bouteillier', meaning 'bottle bearer'
  • denim - French 'serge de Nīmes', a type of cloth from Nīmes
  • hamburger - German 'Hamburger steak', meaning meat from Hamburg
  • ketchup - Chinese, meaning 'fish sauce'
  • magazine - French 'magasin', meaning 'storehouse'
  • monster - Latin 'monere', meaning 'to warn'

Extension activity

Students research the etymology of their own first and surnames. E.g. Amy is derived from Old French aimée meaning beloved.


Recap on the definition of etymology and hear students' findings.

Ask students: Can you think of times when knowing the etymology of a word helps you understand a whole passage?

For hundreds more news-based lessons, click on Teachers on the left hand side.

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