Meaning Links History to Spelling

When I was young I really disliked history. I found it dull to study wars and dates in traditional 1960’s education: read textbook, answer questions at the end of each chapter, take multiple choice tests (mostly designed to trip up the kids). I was the classic American student who got A’s on history tests, but I couldn’t recall a thing I learned.

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My link to history happened when I took an Art History course in college, as one of my required Gen-Eds. The professor was passionate about his topic, and I suddenly began to piece together a timeline through art and architecture. From there, I added information through historical fiction, movies, and my university’s Fashion Museum.

When I homeschooled my children, I taught history the way I liked to learn it: through story, art, architecture, clothing, and movies. I threw in some music for good measure, and a healthy dose of PBS. Years later I read Bill Bryson’s book, Home, and thought: Wouldn’t it be great if kids could learn history through a topic of interest, such as art, science, engineering, weaponry, interior design, or . . . spelling. Spelling?

The history of the English language begins in the Middle East and lands all over the world! Every step reveals how words evolved over time, where they traveled, who influenced them, and why. Investigating spelling is akin to an archeological dig. It is a journey through time and place.

Early this month I traveled to England. Maybe because I am learning about words or maybe because I was in the location where the English language had its formation, but everywhere I traveled, I noticed words as a part of history. I was particularly interested in place names. I had read that in England, old roads called Way or Gate harken back to the Vikings, while old roads titled Street are Roman in origin. Interesting.

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When we traveled to the Cotswold area, I pondered that name. I read a bit of Rick Steves, who suggested <wold> referred to the sheep/wool industry, and there were plenty of fluffy white sheep dotting the fields, so I formed this Structured Word Inquiry hypothesis:

cot + s + wald → Cotswald

The base word <cot> made sense, since it fits nicely with the word <cottage>, but I knew from experience I had to consider that the base might include a final-e, as in <cote>. Hmmm. Like a dove cote. New hypothesis:

cot(e) + s + wald → Cotswald

I went to Etymonline and sure enough, <cottage> comes from <cot>. There was an Old French word <cot> from the Old Norse <kot> giving rise to <cottage>, and there was also an Old French word <cote>. Both meant a “hut.” Also, the Old French suffix <-age> suggested the meaning of an “entire property attached to the cote.” The Cotswold region contains many “cottages,” so this made sense.

Next I looked up the word <wold>. From the Old English meaning “woods, forested upland,” the Middle Dutch <wold> back to the PIE (Proto Indo European) <welt> meaning “woods or wild.” Etymonline states that the word <wold> survives in place names. Therefore, the name Cotswolds provides evidence of the deforestation of England.

Did I mention that I hated spelling as much as history when I was young? Who knew I would spend the second half of my life enjoying one subject because of the other!

Rita Cevasco