Two days ago the textbook had a reading about a course for “speedaholics”. I started simply by writing speedaholic on the board and asking them what they thought it meant. They quickly figured out that it was somehow analogous to alcoholic. One student guessed it referred to cars – a car provides speed in the same way that a drink provides alcohol.

The suffix -(a)holic means “a person who has an addiction to or obsession with some object or activity”. When you think about, it really should be –ic, because alcoholic is alcohol+ic, but no-one would understand speedic etc. Continue reading


Grammarbites part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

This batch took me forever! Prefixes and suffixes are a major and sometimes overlooked aspect of English. The websites and books I consulted either had too little information with a random selection of prefixes and suffixes, or too much information (Wikitionary has 1,443 prefixes and 703 suffixes). Among other things, the same letter or group of letters can function in different ways: sometimes as a prefix or suffix with one meaning (or one of a small group of different meanings), sometimes as an integral part of a word which had that meaning originally, but which now doesn’t, and sometimes as a completely unrelated word. I had to find the right number of best examples Continue reading

-ful and -less

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Yesterday, he posted about the (non-)word ruthful (the opposite of ruthless). He says “We don’t say ruthful though, do we? It sounds weird. It was used long ago though.

In fact, there are enough occurrences of it on the interweb to conclude that people do use it, but these may be mentions, rather than uses, for example dictionary definitions and questions like ‘Is ruthful a word?’. However, ruthless is certainly far more common than ruthful.

Continue reading

The planets

For some reason, I got thinking about the pairs of adjectives venereal and Venusian, martial and Martian, and jovial and Jovian. The second of each pair relates only to the Roman goddess or god or the planet, while the first relates to personality (jovial), soldiers or personality (martial) and love (venereal). The last could have positive collocations (affections, delights) but has come to be associated primarily with sexually transmitted diseases and their symptoms.

So, are there also mercurial and Mercurian, and saturnial and Saturnian? No, lower-case mercurial refers to personality and upper-case Mercurial to the god and the planet. Lower-case saturnian refers to personality ‘prosperous, happy, or peaceful’ and upper-case Saturnian to the god and the planet. But saturnine means ‘sluggish in temperament; gloomy; taciturn’ (somehow one god and/or planet was seen to be responsible for both happiness and gloom) as well as ‘due to absorption of lead … suffering from lead poisoning’ . (In Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Saturn is subtitled ‘The Bringer of Old Age’.)

These were the planets known to the ancients and early and middle English speakers. From the modern age come Uranian, ‘pertaining to the planet Uranus’ and ‘(of males) homosexual …from Aphrodite Urania heavenly Aphrodite, inspiration for male homosexuality in Plato’s Symposium’; Neptunian, relating to the god or the sea, the planet, or ‘(often lowercase) Geology. formed by the action of water’.

Where’s Pluto? For the sake of completeness, I’ll add Plutonian ‘Also, Plutonic of, relating to, or resembling Pluto or the lower world; infernal’.

Note also the chemical elements mercury (ancient), uranium, neptunium and plutonium (modern). In classical alchemy, Venus was associated with copper (?a woman’s mirror), Mars with iron (?a soldier’s weapons), Jupiter with tin (??) and Saturn with lead (see ‘lead poisoning’ above).

[all definitions from Dictionary.com]


A few days ago I explored a box of class materials accumulated by a colleague or colleagues unknown. One of them was a set of small, laminated slips of paper with one or two words each:


The aim is obviously to create sentences, but that’s easier said than done. The sentences aren’t from any textbook I’ve used or seen, and searching online for the five names returns nothing useful.

Continue reading

geology, geography and geometry

Yesterday, I posted twice. In the first post I mentioned the book Alex through the looking glass by Alex Bellos and in the second I mentioned the delight of finding that two words are actually related, or actually not. This morning, something happened to combine both those ideas. To explain what, I have to flash back several decades.

Possibly in my last year of high school, when some of my classmates were studying geology and others were studying geography, I used the little Greek I had picked up to figure out that geo-logy was the study of earth/land and that geo-graphy was ‘drawing’ it. Possibly because geometry was not a final year high school subject in its own right (it was a sub-subject of mathematics), I didn’t think about it as well. Also, modern-day geometry has very little connection with land.

But ancient geometry did. Bellos writes, ‘The historian Herodotus was the first to use the word ‘geometry’, or earth-measure, describing it as a practice devised by Egyptian tax inspectors to calculate areas of land destroyed by the Nile’s annual floods’.

(Compare and contrast astro-nomy, the ‘naming’ of stars, and astro-logy, the ‘study’ of ‘stars’, where the modern disciplines have diverged and refocused.)