Straight into the Sun, by Lloyd Bishop

In an earlier article posted here, we explored some words that start with “st-.” Let’s add the letter “r” to that initial consonant cluster (two or more consonants that begin a word) and see what connections we can find among some “str-” words.

The first “str-” words that occurred to me were strength, strong, strain, strive, and stress. These all seem to be about effort, exertion, force, and tension, don’t they?  

Strength and strong evolved from similarly spelled equivalents in early northern European languages springing from an ancestral root meaning “tight, narrow; pull tight, twist.” String also comes from this root — not surprising, since strings are made of narrow fibers, often twisted together, and pulled tightly for weaving, measuring, shooting arrows (from bows), making music, and many other tasks. A more murderous variant meaning “twist, choke, suffocate” evolved into the verb strangle.

The related Latin verb stringere, meaning “to draw tight, bind tightly, compress,” led to strain, stress, and strict, expressing various senses of tightness, pressure, and narrowness. For about 700 years, strain has been consistent in its definitions: “to tighten,” “to exert or overexert,” “to press through a filter (i.e., a strainer),” and “carry something too far, force an interpretation of,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).  

Stress, too, has maintained its 14th-century meanings of “hardship, adversity, force, pressure,” adding “physical strain on an object” in the 15th century, and “psychological strain” in the mid-20th century.  

Back to our original “pull tight” root: another likely descendant is stretch, via early northern European words for “draw out, extend, reach, spread out.” Interestingly, an Old English past participle of stretch gave rise to straight, which retains its original sense of “stretched; not crooked, uneven, or bent; direct.”

When cities are planned, it’s no surprise the streets are laid out straight. The etymology of street reveals an ancestral root meaning “stretch/extend,” as well as Latin roots meaning “lay down, spread out; cover, pave.”

Latin extra, meaning “outside of, beyond,” survives intact in many English words, and its “-xtra” element contains a “-stra” syllable, even as we pronounce it today: EK-stra. So it’s logical that some “str-” words come from Latin versions featuring extra. One example is strange: outside of the normal, beyond the familiar. 

Let’s end on a word with both gentle and violent associations. The Old English equivalent of our verb stroke expressed the modern meaning: “lightly rub, gently pass the hand over.” Its ancestral root meant “stroke/rub/press,” but that pressaspect extended to a harsher sense of striking, which eventually led to our verb strike (“hit, deal a blow to; attack”) and noun stroke (“the act of striking” and “sudden attack on brain function if blood flow stops,” among other meanings). 

So if you find paradoxical words intriguing, consider that stroking (“caressing”) the victim of a stroke (“partial brain shutdown”) is not only soothing but may even help the patient recover and evade the stroke (“strike, attack; fatal blow”) of death.

SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “strength,” “stretch,” “*stere-,” “strain,” “straight,” “street,” “stroll,” “stray,” “stroke,” and related entries); English Wiktionary ( “street,” “stroll,” “stroke,” and related entries); Google dictionary ( “stroke”).

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A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on October 21, 2021.

Last Wall Standing, by Lloyd Bishop

In a recent post, we explored connections between some words beginning with “scr-.”  Finding connections between vocabulary words with similar sounds and spellings can help you remember them longer. This time, let’s examine some “st-” words with related ancient roots.

There are thousands of words beginning with “st-,” but this short initial list I made — stand, stable, static, steady, staunch, stem — got me wondering: how related are they? Pondering their meanings, would you agree these words suggest an upright position, vertical state, constant condition, or firmness?

Sure enough, their etymologies reveal an ancestral root meaning “to stand, be firm, make firm.” Adjective static (“unchanging, remaining in a constant state”) looks and sounds like its ancient Greek parent statikos, which meant “causing to stand, skilled in weighing/balancing.” It turns out that static is closely related to lots of other st- words, like stay, state, status, station, and stationary.

In fact, the Latin word for state was status, meaning “a station, position, place; way of standing, posture; order, arrangement, condition,” according to Etymonline (see source note below). These meanings are still associated with English status and state. In 14th-century English, state came to mean “political organization of a country, government,” based on Latin phrases with meanings like “condition of the country.”

Steady became common only about 500 years ago as an updated version of steadfast, referring to things firmly fixed in place. Over time, both words increasingly referred to firmness of mind, constancy of character, and constant rate of progress. The earlier word stead (“place, position; standing, firmness, stability”) survives today, but mainly in the adverb instead (“in place of”).

Like steadfast, staunch often means “loyal” when referring to friends, allies, and supporters, but its evolution from the “stand/firm” roots took a roundabout route through Old French in a word meaning “watertight” — that is, water-stopping, which is what the closely related verb stanch (notice: no letter “u” in spelling) still means: “stop the flow of a fluid (like blood).” 

So if you have a staunch ally or friend, then your alliance is watertight and your friendship is as strong as steel (yet another word based on those ancient “stand/firm” roots, thanks to its iron-surpassing toughness and durability: ability to stand up to or withstand anything).

A stem is the upright support for a plant, a wine glass, and similar structures, and it used to refer to more massive vertical supports like tree trunks. Interestingly, a cousin of our ancestral “stand/firm” root, meaning both “post, stem” and “to support, place firmly on” and also led to step (“to place one foot in front of the other,” or “a support or resting place for the foot”) and staff (“a thick wooden rod, support pole, walking stick”). A staff might be used ceremonially or as a symbol of authority; such use by military commanders led to the meaning “group of officers,” and (later) “group of employees.” 

Different but apparently related ancestral roots meaning “to stick, pierce, push” and “sharp, pointed” inspired words like stick, steep, steeple, and stimulate. This sense of pointed pushing extended to notions of “bumping, butting, knocking, beating, blocking, closing off,” and led to words like stop and stuff, which relate to ending movement, blocking flow, or plugging up.

In the days of knights in armor, stuff was the padding stuffed under a warrior’s metal garments for comfort in combat! This meaning arose from a French word for “quilted material, furniture, provisions,” according to Etymonline. That wide variety of materials and equipment broadened into the “all sorts of things” meaning of stuff today.

Finally, the ancient “push/knock/beat” roots inspired both study, via Lain studere — “to be diligent” — in the sense of pushing oneself forward, toward greater understanding, and stupid, from Latin words meaning “struck senseless” and “stunned, amazed, confounded.” So students beware: too much studying can be stupefying!

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SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “stand,” “state,” “stead,” “staunch,” “steel,” “step,” “staff,” “stuff,” “study,” and related entries); English Wiktionary ( “step,” “stop,” and related entries).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 13, 2021.

Scraping the Sky, by Lloyd Bishop

When you’re learning English, finding relationships between vocabulary words and grouping them can help you remember them longer. Speakers of English as a first language can also find such connections interesting and worth sharing with learners.

You can sometimes sense a connection between words based on their sounds and spellings. Words beginning with “s” plus another consonant or two — like those beginning with “scr-” — start off in the same way, and I’ve been wondering how related they really are. 

I’ve noticed some “scr-” words give me an immediate feeling of friction, rubbing, or cutting, like scrape, scratch, and scrub. It turns out these words evolved from early ancestral roots meaning “cut, scratch, tear.” And they’re cousins of words associated with writing:

script — something written; a text version of spoken words 

scribe — a person whose job is to write or copy documents

scribble — to write or draw something quickly or carelessly

Since writing has traditionally meant scratching a surface in some way to make language-relevant marks, the connection with cutting/scraping makes sense! Sure enough, those ancestral “cut, scratch, tear” roots evolved into Greek and Latin words meaning “write, carve marks, sketch.” 

Here are more “scr-” words related to writing, scratching, or scratching-movement:

scrawl — to write something roughly or carelessly

scramble — to stir quickly, mix together randomly; originally a variation of scrabble

scrabble — to scratch or scrape at, grab at, grope for, try to hold on to, struggle; (earlier meanings included “scrawl, scribble”; 16th-century compound scribble-scrabble meaning “hasty writing” led to the name of the popular modern word-formation game Scrabble)

Additional “scr-” words developed from the “cut/pierce, cut off/divide” meanings of those ancient roots:

scrap — fragment, piece, scraping (something cut or scraped off)

screen — panel that divides a space, shields/protects from (i.e., cuts off) wind, fire, insects, etc., or displays information

screw — pin engraved with continuous threading groove in a helix pattern that pierces, fastens, holds tightly 

The name of the infamous character Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s story “A Christmas Carol” evokes the sound and meaning of screw: for most of his life, Mr. Scrooge was tightfisted (extremely withholding: stingy with money), held tightly to his savings, and put the screws on his employees and associates (forced or threatened them to do what he wanted). 

Scrooge’s name may have been inspired by the word itself: in 18th-century English, scrooge meant “push, jostle,” according to Etymonline (see source note below), and is likely related to scrounge, which still means “try to get things stealthily, or at the expense or through the generosity of others; forage for, rummage for.”  

A few final very common and useful “scr-” words to consider:

scrutiny — close, careful, critical examination; incisive observation (i.e., cutting/piercing to the essence or truth), based on a Latin root meaning “to examine, investigate, search,” which derived from an ancestral root meaning “to cut; cutting tool.”

scream — loud, piercing cry, often high-pitched

screech — harsh-sounding scream

Screams and screeches cut through the air and seem to pierce our eardrums, so they have that “scr-cutting/piercing word-texture. These last two words developed from similar words in early northern European languages, all of which likely evolved from a much older ancestral root with the same meaning.

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SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “*sker-,” “*skribh-,” “scream,” “scramble,” “scrabble,” “Scrooge,” “scrounge,” “scrutiny,” and related entries); English Wiktionary ( “scream,” “*(s)ker-,” “*(s)kreybʰ-,” and related entries); Google dictionary ( “scrabble,” “screw,” “scrounge,” “scream,” “screech,” and related entries); Etymologeek ( “*skrīhaną”).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 5, 2021.

Pandemic Ending

July 26, 2021

Rosing Up Again! by Lloyd Bishop

In recent posts, we discussed two ancient Greek roots of the word “pandemic”: “pan-” (“all, every, entire”), and “demos” (“people”). Now let’s examine the “-icending of “pandemic” … and in that spirit, here’s to completely ending the Covid pandemic!

The suffix “-ic” comes from Greek “ikos” (Latin form “icus”; early English form “ick” or “ik”), meaning “pertaining to, related to.”  

Even though its roots are ancient, “pandemic” is relatively recent, inspired by an earlier word: “epidemic,” from Greek “epi” (“among, upon”) and “demos” (“people”). An “epidemic disease” spreads quickly and widely “among people,” but a “pandemic disease” is much broader, affecting an entire country or even the world, as we all know too well. These words started as adjectives, and later became common as nouns.

According to Etymonline (see source note below), several hundred years ago, English nouns for many subjects of study ended in “-ic”: “arithmetic, logic, magic, music, rhetoric.” Words for academic subjects that emerged later often ended in “-ics” (inspired by the original Greek “ikos”), like “mathematics, linguistics, economics, politics,” and “academics” itself.  

Interestingly, the earlier “-ic” subjects continue mostly as non-count nouns (no plural form), while the later “-ics” subjects tend to be either non-count or plural. For example:

  • Logic is a useful tool (non-count) — not “logics” 
  • Politics is a hot topic (non-count) — not “my politic”
  • My politics are different from yours (plural) — but not countable with numbers: not “two politics”

Such “-ics” subjects often have “-ic” adjective forms:

— athletics (N), athletic (ADJ)

— aerobics (N), aerobic (ADJ)

— genetics (N), genetic (ADJ)

— robotics (N), robotic (ADJ)

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Other “-ic” words more likely to countable may act as both nouns (with final “s” for plurals) and adjectives:

— an epic (N), many epics, an epic (ADJ) journey 

— a romantic (person-N), a couple of romantics, a romantic (ADJ) comedy  

— a plastic (N), various plastics, a plastic (ADJ) toy

— an acrylic (N), several acrylics, acrylic (ADJ) paint

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Some “-ic” words are adjectives only, not nouns, like: 

— energetic 

— manic 

— tragic 

— toxic 

— sonic 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Do you know these words’ noun forms? Test yourself by filling in the missing letters below:

— energ_  

— mani_  

— trag_ _ _  

— toxi_  

— so_ _ _  

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Occasionally, an “-ic” word works well as a noun or a verb

— panic (recall the Greek god Pan’s glee in spreading needless fear!)

— picnic

— traffic

— mimic

— frolic

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

When used in “-ed” or “-ing” forms, “-ic” verbs add a “k” to avoid being pronounced like “ice” (as in “iced tea” or “icing on a cake”): “panicked, picnicking, trafficked, mimicking, frolicked.” 

But wait — some “-ic” endings in this last group do NOT come from our Greek root. Take a look at the etymology of “picnic,” “traffic,” and “frolic” (think fun!) on your own.

SOURCE for information in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “pandemic,” “epidemic,” “-ic,” “-ics,” “picnic,” “traffic,” “mimic,” “frolic” and related entries).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 23, 2021.

In a recent post, we explored the Greek root “pan-” that begins the word “pandemic.”  Now let’s look at the second root in that word, also from ancient Greek: “demos,” meaning “ordinary citizens, common people.”

Demos” appears as “dem” or “demo” in key English words like “democracy,” whose suffix “-cracy” is from Greek “kratos, -kratia,” meaning “rule, strength, power, authority.”  Several important words end in “-cracy” (meaning “power structure, government by”) and the related “-crat” (“person holding that power or participating in that system”).

As you can see, “democracy” means “people power.”  President Abraham Lincoln aptly expressed it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in an eloquent speech he made in 1863, known as the Gettysburg Address.

Look up the roots of the “-cracy”/“-crat” words below — this will reinforce your comprehension & long-term memory of them:

aristocracy / aristocrat

autocracy / autocrat

bureaucracy / bureaucrat

meritocracy / (“-crat” form is not common … yet!)

plutocracy / plutocrat

technocracy / technocrat

Another word featuring “dem/demo” is “demography,” whose suffix comes from Greek “-graphia,” meaning “description of.”  So “demography” means “description of the people [in a particular place].”  In English, we often use the form “demographics,” which are statistics of measurable aspects of a population, like age, marital status, income & education levels.

By the way, “-graphia” comes from the Greek verb “grapho,” meaning “write, draw, scratch.”  Inherent in writing/drawing is the idea of recording information, so the English suffixes “-graph,” “-graphy” & “-graphic” express some aspect of recording or describing.  Think about that when you see words like “photograph” (“photo” is from a Greek noun meaning “light”) and “geography” (“geo” refers to “world, land”; also from ancient Greek).

“Graph” and “graphic” are not only suffixes; they stand alone as individual words in English, as you probably know from developing visual aids for presentations at work or in school!

Now take “dem” and add the Greek “agogos,” meaning “leader,” and you get “demagogue.”  A leader of the people? Yes … but in this case, “a leader of the mob”: a political manipulator who exploits people’s “prejudices, wishes, ignorance, and passions,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).

The word “demon,” meaning “supernatural spirit, evil spirit,” also comes from ancient Greek, but from a different root (“daimon,” not “demos”).  English author John Milton combined “demon” with the prefix “pan-” (discussed in our recent post) to create the word “pandemonium.”  Interestingly, the pre-Greek heritage of “daimon” & “demos” is closely related.

Another word unrelated to “demos” is “demonstrate” — it’s from Latin, not Greek, and it’s a cousin of the word “monster”!  If you’re interested, research the etymologies of “demon,” “pandemonium” & “demonstrate” on your own.

SOURCES for information included in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “dēmotic,” “-cracy,” “-graphy,” “demagogue,” “pandemonium,” “photo-,” “geo,” “demonstrate” & related entries); English Wiktionary ( “dēmos,” “demon,” “-graphy” & related entries); English Wikipedia ( “Gettysburg Address” & related entries).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 15, 2021.

With the Covid pandemic beginning to subside, we can breathe a little easier & wonder about things like: What does “pandemic” mean, anyway?

Many English words have their roots in ancient Greek and Latin.  “Pandemic” consists of three Greek word-parts:

pan,” meaning “all,” “every,” “entire”  

demos” (reduced form “dem”), meaning “people

ikos” (Latin form “icus”; early English form “ick” or “ik”), meaning “pertaining to

As you can see from these roots, the original sense of “pandemic” is something “affecting all people.”  As the word developed, it became associated with diseases spreading across entire populations.  

If you can recognize roots in new vocabulary words you’re hearing or reading, you’ll be able to guess their meanings and remember them longer.  Hundreds of English words include one of these three Greek roots: “pan”, “dem,” and “ic” (modern English form of “ikos”).  

Let’s talk more about “pan” today, and the other two roots of “pandemic” in follow-up posts.

The “all” meaning of “pan” arises when “pan” is a prefix: a word-part appearing at the beginning of words.  Sometimes this prefix is attached with a hyphen, as in “pan-American” or “pan-African.”  In these cases, “pan-” means “affecting all parts of,” “across all of,” or “relating to all people described as.” 

Other words with the prefix “pan” do not feature a hyphen.  Can you guess the meanings of the words below?

panacea (“acea” comes from Greek “akos, akeia,” meaning “cure”)

panorama (“orama” comes from Greek “horama,” meaning “sight, spectacle,” and Greek verb “horan,” meaning “to look, to see”)

pantheon (“theon” comes from Greek “theios,” meaning “of/for the gods,” and “theos,” meaning “god”)

Another cultural & linguistic legacy from ancient Greek is “Pan” (with a capital “P”): a god imagined with a man’s upper body, a goat’s lower parts, and goat-horns on his head!  Embodying nature, Pan was the god of shepherds & herd animals, forests & fields, wild places & rustic music, and was associated with sex, fertility & spring.

“Pan” appears in the word “panic,” originally meaning “pertaining to Pan.”  The ancient Greeks believed Pan made “mysterious sounds that caused contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in people in lonely spots,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).

Other ancient languages produced “pan” meanings unrelated to Greek (or with complex or less direct connections to Greek), which appear in nouns like “pan” (as in “frying pan,” “pancake”), “panda,” “panache,” and several meanings of the verb “to pan.”  If you’re interested, research the histories of those words on your own!  The etymological notes (very brief word histories) at the end of a dictionary definition can help you learn & remember new vocabulary; etymology is the study of the origins & evolving meanings of words.

SOURCES for information included in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “pan,” “dēmos,” “ikos” & related entries); English Wikipedia ( “Pan (god)” & related entries).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 8, 2021.