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Updated 17 December 2003, 13.48
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Learning aims
  • Explore the origins of some English words

  • Learn the meaning of the word 'etymology'

  • Understand the etymological function of a dictionary
Explain to the class that the words we use today have come to us from all sorts of places and languages and that they will use dictionaries to find out not what words mean but where they originally came from.

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

Read through with the class the stories:

Highlight the word "mobile". Ask the class if they know how this word came about.

It comes from the Latin word "mobilis" which means moveable.

Highlight the word "marathon". Ask the class if they know how this word came into use.

It comes from the story of Greek hero Pheidippides, who ran the 26 miles to Athens from the Plains of Marathon to tell of the Greek victory over the Persian army.

'Kangaroo' - is it really Aboriginal for 'I don't know'?

Display the word 'kangaroo'. Ask the class if they know how this word came about.

It comes from the ancient Australian Aboriginal word 'gangurru'.

(Some people believe that 'kangaroo' is an Aboriginal word that means 'I don't know'. When he first arrived in Australia, Captain Cook asked what the unusual jumping creature was and received the reply 'kangaroo' or 'I don't know'.)

Fact File
Etymology of '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

Also highlight the word 'alligator' and ask the class if they can guess how this word came about.

Give out good quality dictionaries and ask the class to find the words 'kangaroo' and 'alligator' and their etymologies.

Main activity
Give out copies of the

and get the class to guess the origins of the words first and then use their dictionaries to research their etymologies.

Here are some suggestions for

to help the class.

Listed below are the correct etymologies for the words on the worksheet:

  • 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-mache - 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
Children can collate their own research words with their etymologies.

Recap on the definition of 'etymology' and hear their children's own findings.

More InfoBORDER=0
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TeachersWorksheet: Etymology
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