Tuesday, June 07, 2005


My husband loves etymology, so when he decided to give the kids a mini-lesson in how we got the word alligator, I wasn't surprised. Apparently he was reading his American Heritage Dictionary and discovered that alligator comes from the Spanish el lagarto, the lizard. So, that leads into a mini-history lesson about Spanish explorers in Florida. But, how you may ask, as we did, does el lagarto turn into alligator? Well, of course the American Heritage tells us:
Such changes, referred to by linguists as taboo deformation, are not uncommon in a name for something that is feared and include, for example, the change in sequence of the r and t that occurred between el lagarto and alligator.

This led to more discussion about words and the English language. Apparently, our 9 year old thought that "Old English" was when people used thee and thou. Well, it makes sense, and her observation that English has changed is a good one. When dad reached back into his memory for the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales (hear it by clicking) she realized that Middle English is basically a different language than Modern English. Who knows where this will lead?

If a common word like alligator can take you back to the Middle Ages, I wonder where you'd end up in a discussion of the origin of school . If you like word history or want to find want to do more than have your children memorize greek and latin roots, check out this Take Our Word.


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