Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tests, Assessments, & Quizzes

Tests, Assessments, & Quizzes

Last week’s entry took a look at the words learn & study. This week we’ll take an etymological look at a topic that (in my humble opinion) has been getting an inordinate amount of focus – the purported measurement of learning.

The word test came to English in the 1300s through Old French from Latin, originally meaning an earthen pot used in assaying precious metals. It took till 1590 for it to generalize to mean trial or examination to determine correctness.

In the last few decades, the educational community has become fond of the word assessment, which showed up in English in the 1540s, and, like test, came through Old French from Latin. It originally referred to a value of property for tax purposes. Assess comes from the Latin word assidere, to sit by (referring to the fact that the judge or assessor was usually seated while proclaiming property’s value). By the 1640s assessment also meant an estimation. Assessment didn’t discover its application to education until the 1950s.

The verb quiz, showed up in English in 1847 from the Latin qui es?, who are you? (the first thing one must answer on a quiz). By 1867, quiz made its way into the world of nouns, however, at that point quiz meant an odd or eccentric person. Quiz’s next life as a noun started in 1807, when a quiz was a hoax, a practical joke, or piece of humbug. By 1891 the noun quiz began its long association with the classroom & began to mean the act of questioning, specifically of a class or student by a teacher.

So, dear blogophiles, what irony, humor, or intrigue do you find in these word histories?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, & the OED.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Learning & Studying

Learning & Studying

Modern American society appears to be ambivalent about learning. We all claim it’s of paramount importance, but oddly, those who excel at it are seldom considered heroes. After looking into the etymologies of these two words, I find myself wondering whether the concept so many of us really admire and aspire to is that of studying more than learning.

To my surprise, the word learn covers only 2/3 of a page of the OED. To be truthful, the entry isn’t fascinating reading. Learn has roots in all the Germanic languages (except for Dutch, for some unknown reason). Ever since it entered English about 900 AD, learn has meant to acquire knowledge. About the most intriguing story learn has to tell us is that back in the 1400s, “I learned him his lesson,” was considered proper English.

The word study, on the other hand, is worthy of some study. It covers nearly three pages of the OED. It’s related to studio, student, & etude. Study comes from Latin through French, and originally referred to zealousness, affection, seeking help, and applying oneself. It made its way into English writings when Chaucer employed it in 1374, and has countless shades of meaning. The verb alone includes, but is not limited to these varied nuances:

-devotion to another’s welfare
-the action of committing to memory
-an employment, occupation or pursuit
-careful observation or examination
-a state of mental perplexity
-a state of reverie or abstraction
-application of mind to the acquisition of learning
-attentive reading
-desire, inclination, pleasure or interest in something

What a world it would be if we all immersed ourselves in study in all its various meanings. Even that state of mental perplexity can be a great thing. When I’m perplexed about something, it often leads me to, well, study it.

Dear followers, what connections do you make with the various meanings of study, or what theories do you have regarding society’s apparent ambivalence regarding this topic?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, & the OED.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Martin Paddles a Canoe

Martin Paddles a Canoe

Last week I mentioned that this week’s post would include an audio version of “Martin Harrison Takes a Paddle,” the story that won the 2012 Ingrid Reti Literary Award. But first, some etymological considerations of two words that figure highly in the story…

The word canoe comes from the Arawakan language of Haiti. Canaoua first appeared in English in the 1500s, taken from the notes of none other than Christopher Columbus (who some revere & others feel should’ve received a paddling). The noun referred originally to a narrow boat made of a log with the center hollowed or burnt out. After a few centuries, the meaning broadened and the noun verbified, creating opportunity for the sadly seldom used pick-up line, “Voulez vous canoe avec moi?”

The word paddle takes up a page and a half in the Oxford English Dictionary. Interestingly, one meaning of the word paddle has no known source. We Americans seldom use paddle this way – to walk about in mud or water. There’s also a paddle which refers to a small leather bag (diminutive of pad), & another paddle which refers - for unexplainable reasons - to the sea-toad or lumpfish. The paddle we might use in a canoe is a relative of the word spade, & some linguists contend it was initially spaddle. Originally, it meant a long-handled spade-shaped implement used for clearing a ploughshare of earth or digging out thistles. In time, it morphed into the paddle we know today.

Thanks for indulging me in a bit of word history. Below, you’ll find the twelve-minute audio file for “Martin Harrison Takes a Paddle,” a story of a fourteen year-old boy attending Cancer Camp. I hope you find it satisfying.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,  Latintos, & the OED.