Friday, September 30, 2016

The Key to 100,000 Words (Part 1)

Prefixes, roots, and suffixes are the raw material of the English language. They are the stuff of which words are made. A knowledge of prefixes, roots, and suffixes allows any reasonably intelligent person to make a stab at defining a word like “antidisestablishmentarianism” in spite of its formidable appearance, or to define a word like “antimalarial” without a moment’s hesitation. 

An eighth grade English teacher tells this story about teaching prefixes, suffixes, and word roots to one of her classes on the day after Ernest Hemingway’s death. While she was explaining the meanings of “mono-,” “bi-,” “tri-,” and “quadri-,” a boy raised his hand and asked what “sui-” meant, as in “suicide.” Now, as is so often the case, there was little connection between “sui-” and the prefixes being taught; but being a good Latin scholar and wishing to answer all questions, the teacher replied that sui-meant “of oneself.” Not being able to think of any other example except suicide--in fact, there is no common one-she continued with that. Sui-, “of oneself”; -cide, “a killing.” Thus, suicide is “a killing of oneself.”

So far, so good. But of course it didn’t end there. “Insecticide” entered the picture from another student. “Insect,” the teacher patiently explained, is a world known to everyone. Insecticide is “an insect killer.”

And so it went. Before the period was over, the class had learned about homicide, genocide, parricide, infanticide, matri’ cide, patricide, fratricide, sororicide, and uxoricide.

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