When you explore the history and roots of a word – the etymology – you draw upon a rich story that can unlock understanding for our pupils in science, maths, geography, and more. It can add a layer of understanding that helps our novice pupils hook into a tricky academic term that may have remained abstract and inscrutable to them.

In truth, I rarely deployed this strategy in the first decade of my teaching in the classroom. Only in the few couple of years did I regularly deploy this strategy. Indeed, it was only when I was sitting in science lessons and other subject areas as a senior leader, I begun to see the legion of opportunities that had quietly passed me by.

I have written before about my ten favourite etymologies, but I have always held short of compiling subject specific lists. Ultimately, it requires more subject expertise than I can muster to do this task justice. That said, I do have some favourite subject specific etymologies:

  • Phagocyte – biology. This terms derives from Greek – ‘phago’ meaning ‘to eat’ and ‘cyte’, meaning ‘cell’. This ‘cell eater’ meaning offers a very concrete and vivid representation of the actions of this cell, given it consumes other debris, such as dead cells. Related terms, such as ‘macrophages’, ‘monocytes’ and ‘granulocytes’ all become more readily understood when you already know the roots of ‘phago’ and ‘cyte’.
  • Chiaroscuro – art. In art, students need to understand many specific words and phrases about artistic methods and periods etc. One such interesting artist term is ‘chiaroscuro’. Italian in origin, this term is perhaps most famous in describing Leonardo Da Vinci’s use of of it in the iconic ‘Mona Lisa’. It describes the play of using both light and shadow (literally meaning ‘light and dark’) to create a vivid three-dimensional sense in a painting or image. 
  • Propaganda – history. We live in a media age where pupils have a million webpages at their fingertips. The word ‘propaganda’ derives from ‘propagation’ and means ‘things to be shared/spread’. For centuries, the term was deemed positive, including the sharing of religious faith. In the last century, the negative sense of spreading false information for political purposes has emerged. Not only that, very recently, the notion of the phrase ‘fake news’, has become the embodiment of ‘propaganda’.  
  • Theism – religious education. Understanding religious education requires a demanding grasp of worldly – and otherworldly – knowledge. The very word ‘theology’ and ‘theism’ are at the very root of that understanding. The root of the word ‘theism’ is the Greek word ‘theos’ – meaning ‘god’. The root ‘the’ is at the heart of so many related terms: atheism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, Judaism, theology, theocracy, and more. By securing these linguistic roots, the very roots of religious understanding are unveiled to our students. 
  • Climate – geography. The word ‘climate’ doesn’t just characterise one of the most pressing issues in the world today – it is also a term that geographers need to know with confidence. The origins of the word are helpful and memorable for our pupils. The ancient Greeks has the belief that the world sloped, from the equator to the north pole, and that this slope accounted for the different climates. The original Greek ‘klinein’ meaning ‘slope’ then accounts for the word we know today, after ‘klima’ came to denote a more local region that had its own weather/climate. So, with our pupils, we can at once expose long-held myths whilst bolstering their vocabulary. 
  • Algorithm – computer science. This word derives from Arabic (like much of the foundations of mathematics) and is named after an ancient mathematician, ‘Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi’, who was known as the ‘father of algebra’. As his name was Latinised to ‘Algorithmi’, it gave the name to a series of steps to solve a problem. In modern day computer science, we can see its essential mathematical roots.

I look ahead to a day when a raft of subject experts pool their expertise to create a more complete story of etymologies for every subject.

Related Reading and Resources:

  • Rebecca Dann, a secondary school AHT, has shared these whole school resources on the etymology of a host of academic vocabulary – here.
  • This ‘Origins of Mathematical Words’ does a comprehensive job of doing what it says on the tin – here.
  • This is a thorough list of Greek and Latin roots – here.