By Doc Larrick

People chit-chat about a mish-mash of subjects as they dilly-dally.  Charm bracelets jingle-jangle,  roads zig-zag, rain goes pitter-patter.  Knick-knacks might teeter-totter at the edge of a shelf.  Politicians may criss-cross the state and flip-flop on their issues.  
Language has fun with its sounds, and there is a whole classification of words that do this sort of repeated, doubled play on a word.  They are called reduplicatives (as in re-double), and they imply a repeated or continuous action, often a sound (tick-tockclick-clack), often aimless or humorous.  Have you ever shilly-shallied?  What you were doing is asking yourself over and over “Shall I or shall I not?”

A related type of word formation is the frequentative, a word that means doing something over and over.  Many languages have a morpheme (a meaningful piece of a word) built onto a root word to show that the action is done again and again.

For example, in English, the suffix –le on a verb root sometimes has the effect of repeated action:  consider words like babble, cuddle, drizzle, fizzle, giggle, haggle, jiggle, nibble, rattle, shuffle, tickle, and scores of others (you’ll  think of more as you try to fall asleep tonight).  

Think about the repeated action involved with stars that twinkle or thumbs being twiddled and babies being dandled.

   With many such words, the original verb root has become obscure, but there are some that can be figured out:  a dribble is a constant drip, to crumble is to break into lots of crumbs, to scribble is to write (scribe) over and over, to snuggle is to keep trying to get snug.


   Just picture in your mind how the suffix –er creates repeating action in such words as bicker, flicker, mutter, shudder, shimmer, or glitter.   
Again, the original English root is often obscure, but you can still detect the root in some words, such as flutter (to float repeatedly) or slither (to slide back and forth).   One of the most common forms of communication in current society is the tweet.  A tweet is one message among all the scattered, repeated, silently noisy twitter that gets muttered, blabbered, sputtered, stuttered, and stammered across the air frequencies!

By Doc Larrick

A word we’ve been seeing and hearing lately is caucus, a Roman-looking word if there ever was one.  However, the word is one of very few that can claim to be American English, a genuine New World coinage.
The published diaries and letters of John Adams (second POTUS) reveal the first known printed usage of the word.  He mentioned in February of 1763 that a certain “caucus club” was regularly held at the home of a fellow Bostonian.  Another even earlier figure in American history gives us a clue about the word.  adams
johnsmith Captain John Smith, one of the Virginia leaders of the Jamestown settlement, mentions in his History of Virginia (1624) an Algonquian word he was familiar with, very similar to caucus, meaning “advice giver” or “counselor”.
It happens that the Algonquian tribes lived along the Atlantic seaboard and were the first to greet the early English settlers.  Later, the English colonists would adopt native American words to name their secret meetings for discussing discontent with the mother country, and by the mid-19th century, caucus was well entrenched in American English as the word for a lively meeting to discuss and decide on political candidates.  algonquian
By 1853 the British had adopted the term from their former subjects, and Lewis Carroll (the Alice in Wonderland author) was poking fun at “caucus” races.  From there, the word spread all over the English-speaking world.
Other political words that American English adopted from the Algonquians are mugwump, “great man” (made famous in the 1884 election) and sachem “chief” (from the Tammany Hall “Boss” Tweed era ).  And if you’ve ever had a pow-wow, a meeting to supervise (“look over”) a problem, you’re carrying on a long-standing American tradition.

By Doc Larrick, first published March 3, 2016 in the Dynamic Literacy newsletter

I had the great fortune for many years to enjoy conversations about words with my grandmother, bright-eyed and witty to the day she died at age 96. Not only was I listening back in time to language usage from the early 1880’s throughout the first 75 years of the twentieth century, but–even more astounding–my grandmother had learned much about words and English usage from HER grandmother, who had been born in 1803!

And so on many occasions I would look up a word that my grandmother had casually used and find the entry was marked obs., or, as I came to discover, obsolescent–going out of modern usage. There are hundreds, even thousands, of words that were once commonly used in English but have all but disappeared (or dis-sounded) from the language.

I’m not going to entertain you (for now) with the joy of such words–for that, let me direct you to two wonderful resources: Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, by Josepfa Heifetz Byrne (1974), and The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten, by Jeffrey Kacirk (2000).  mrsbyrne

Instead, I’ll share with you a word family revealed in the suffix of obsolescent, using WordBuild’s greatest strength: using familiar words to enlarge your vocabulary without having to memorize useless word lists.

So, if obsolescent means “becoming obsolete”, what, for example, is adolescent? An adolescent, it turns out, is someone “becoming an adult.” A convalescent is someone who is “becoming strong (valid)” again.

Observe how the meanings of these –escent adjectives become clearer as you associate other, more familiar, words with them:

iridescent becoming like the RAINBOW, or the iris
luminescent becoming LIGHT, or illuminated
senescent becoming OLD, or senior or senile
tumescent becoming SWOLLEN, or like a tumor
rubescent becoming RED, like a rubric or rubella (measles)
liquescent becoming LIQUID (melting!)
mollescent becoming SOFT, like a mollusc
There are over 40 other -escent adjectives in modern English usage (to say nothing of ones who have become obsolete). And, they all can turn into nouns by changing -escent to -escence. For example, something phosphorescent has the quality of phosphorescence. phos

But wait–there’s more. Every one of these can be turned into a verb by changing the -escent or the -escence simply to -esce. For example, things that are opalescent have the quality of opalescence, and what they do as they become a shimmering display of color is to opalesce. By the way, all such words, having the suffixes -esce, -escent, or -escence, have a name. They are called INCHOATIVES, or words indicating the process of beginning. If you feel as if you’re getting an inchoative love for obsolete words, just say, “Thanks!”

By Doc Larrick, first published December 3, 2015 in the Dynamic Literacy newsletter

A common question that pops up when we do WordBuild vocabulary workshops around the country is this: How many words are there in the English language? That’s a tough question, and the answer is complicated, if not impossible to determine.

You’d think that answering such a question is a matter of counting the words in a reputable dictionary, say the twenty-volume Oxford or Webster’s Unabridged Third New International, each of which defines nearly half a million words. But no printed dictionary, as the editors of those esteemed works will tell you, can possibly contain every word–there is just no space, and the cost to attempt such a thing would be prohibitive, and no one could lift such a thing! references

Dictionary compilers must make decisions about what to include or exclude–words come and go, they are invented, they are discarded; they are borrowed; they are adapted to new meanings. The English language has been written down and has been evolving for 14 centuries and has distinct varieties all over the earth.

A company based in Texas keeps tabs electronically of texts produced in English, and it tallies the number of words as they become used: the latest count is over one million, twenty-five thousand, changing daily. But even that cannot be right!

Look at it this way. There is a word for every number, right? Try it. How high can you count aloud? If numbers are, well, infinite, so must words be. You will find seventy-three defined as an entry in the dictionaries, but not six thousand seventy-three. bignum

The American Chemical Society identifies over eight million named chemical substances. Biologists tell us that there are a million species of insects, all with distinct names. Exotic food names keep popping up into English all the time. Specialized dictionaries define thousands of words you won’t find in commercial standard dictionaries. Two of my favorites are Dorland’s great dictionary of medical terms, and Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words.

Here’s another way to look at the difficulty. Take the word run. Easy enough. But there are also runs, running, rerun, reruns, runoff, runner, runners, and you will think of many, many more as you try to fall asleep tonight. You can run down the street or you can run down your shoes. The flu or overwork might make you look run-down, or the boss may ask for a rundown on the latest sales. Are run down (2 separate usages), run-down, and rundown different words? It’s not worth an argumentative run-in with anyone! Just enjoy the myriads of possibilities of English.

Bonus Video: The suffix er/or

This is a student video from WordBuildOnLine Foundations Level 1.

-By Doc Larrick, first published December 17, 2015 in the Dynamic Literacy News Letter

One of the goals of WordBuild is to arouse in students–of all ages–a curiosity about words.  Once you start looking at words as pieces of meaning, you develop the habit of noticing patterns and wondering about similarities among words.
For example, did you ever think about the pair of words, today and tonight?  Such familiar words!  But delving into them, after isolating the forms day and night, the keenly curious word student will start wondering about the prefix to– on both words, and probably come to the correct conclusion that to– means something like on this.   The next question that might occur to someone smitten with the love of how words work might be, “Are there other to– words?”

And then some fun begins.  Ah, there’s tomorrow–so what is amorrow, anyway?  And toward, and together!  What’s ward?  What’sgether?  Did you guess that morrow means morning , that ward is adirection and that gether is gather?   In England you’ll still hear the morning greeting “Good morrow”, it’s better to be toward than to be froward, and when things are gathered into one place, they are together.

Perhaps you have noticed that some writers spell the words as to-day and to-night.  Then was there a to-morrow? (The answer is yes).  Such observations in fact show how some words develop and progress.  An originally two-word phrase (to day) will become a hyphenated word (to-day) and then one word (today).

Not to make such a to-do about this, but phrases like to be and to go are now being used as adjectives (to wit, a bride tobe or a togo order of fries).  Can you see why the spellings of these new adjectives will probably remain hyphenated?  (The spellings tobe and togo would not readily be understood in print.)


Such wonderings and comparings lead to entertaining discoveries about words, and consulting a good dictionary with word histories (etymologies) is an enjoyable activity.  Doing so, you’ll even discover that once there was the word to-year (this year).   Put etymology-hunting on your todo list–you’ll be well-rewarded.  Stay tuned for more to come.