Get Original! Using Etymology in the Social Studies

What’s possibly the nerdiest statement that I can make today? Here it is – I love word origins. Yup, etymology is something that just makes me smile. I always preach to my students about the power of words, and I feel it’s important to know where words come from. How can we use word origins in our social studies classrooms?  Here are a few ideas …

Word origins are an awesome hook for many social studies topics, as they can serve as the introduction to a discipline and help students personalize and gain a deeper understanding into the social studies.  When I begin our study of history every year in eighth grade, I asked students to define the word ‘history’ and then to predict the origin or root meaning of the word. Inevitably, students predict that the origin must have something to do with the past, time, or telling a story.

Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 12.23.36 PMWhile story, chronicle, and past are all parts of the history of ‘history‘, the deeper origin sets the stage for my entire class.  Going all the way back to the Greek, history means “learning by inquiry”, “wise”, and “see”.   Want to see?  Want to be wise?  Then you have to ask questions (and study history)! Our class is based on inquiry – essential questions, compelling questions, lower and higher level questions, you name it – it’s all about questions. The root sets up the thrill of the chase involved in our class as well.

You can use this easy concept for any of your disciplines, whether it is economics (household management), government (steer or direct), politics (citizen of city) geography or sociology (companion). The root of etymology is “true, real, actual”, so using word origins can lead to a discussion or debate about if the concept truly represents the meaning of the word.

I also like to use word origins and meanings when it comes to names. I always start with student names, asking if they know what their names mean. Do we match the meaning of our name? I like to share mine – I am Martin (warrior) Charles (man) Taft (a building site), which leads to a great pose early in the year.  You take it to the next step by looking at some famous people past and present and discuss if they match the meaning of their name. This can be an interesting writing prompt or discussion starters.

Do the names and actions match? Could be a wrtiting prompt or class starter!

Using the etymology in word roots also helps students build vocabulary in and out of the social studies. We have a great opportunity to help students understand Latin roots such as geo-, trans-, chrono-, -graphy, – ocracy, demo-  – tons of opportunities! Look at the word pandemic  – how is it different than epidemic and why? Hook up with a Latin teacher for some cross curricular activity.

The origins of place names are also interesting for teachers and students to investigate.  For example, the origin of my home of Wisconsin is an English spelling of a French translation of a Miami term for “river running through a red place“.  Think about what the name says about the Wisconsin – the geography of the red sandstone bluffs of the central part of the state, the native history of the state, the exploration of the French and Jacques Marquette, and the British soldiers and American miners that came to the territory before statehood. Wow – that’s a lot of info in one word origin!  Try it with your town, city, county, or state. Of course, we all know the origin of my city of Milwaukee – thanks Alice Cooper.

Some words that we come across and use in social studies classes have very interesting roots.  Ballot comes from putting balls in jars has a method of voting; sabotage comes from the French word for wooden shoes, which industrial workers wore; boycott derives its meaning from Charles Boycott, who was shunned by English land tenants due to his unfair policies. These tidbits seem trivial, but they help students gain greater insight into words, and maybe win some money on Jeopardy!

By the way, loud comes from the Greek root for “to hear”.  Hopefully you “heard” some ideas that you can incorporate into your class!

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