Prefixes/Suffixes: Spelling by root words

June 29, 2006: Issue 145

Anyone who caught the final rounds of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee (stop snickering—some of us turned down dinner invitations to stay home and watch) saw whiz kids puzzle out seemingly impossible words by working through their origins. While we’re seldom called on to spell “weltschmerz” or “tmesis,” knowing etymology can help us avoid common errors. Here are a few examples:

foreword: As the preface to a book, the foreword is literally words that go before. The suffix “-ward,” meaning “in the direction of,” plays no part.

marshmallow: Watch what happens to a kid who’s eaten a few and you’ll realize “mellow” doesn’t belong here. Think botanically instead. These puffy confections were once made from the root of an herb called marshmallow.

memento: A little keepsake shares its root word with “memory,” not with “moment.”

minuscule: Web 11 lists “miniscule” as a variant of this word meaning “very small.” But we’re sticking with the original, which is more closely related to “minus” than to “mini.”

playwright: A “wright” is a skilled worker. Although people who craft plays are writers, they are not “playwrites” any more than people who make wheels and carts are “wheelwrites” or “cartwrites.”

sergeant: The shortened form “sarge” often throws people off, but this term for a noncommissioned officer shares its root with “serve” and “servant.”

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