The Unusual Stories Behind Words

Elfrieda Hiebert
Elfrieda Hiebert
30 Mar
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Learning the stories behind words can be intriguing.  Creating word stories as part of your instruction can be a fun way to involve students in the adventure of language.  Here are one of my favorite word stories:

A Word Story: Alligator

The English word alligator comes from Spanish: el lagarto (the lizard). English speakers didn’t understand that “el” meant “the.” They thought it was part of the word. Instead of “ligator,” the word became alligator. When we say “the alligator,” we are saying “the the”!

It would be the same as if, when other languages use English words, they added the word “the” to the original word. They would talk about “the thespace shuttle” and “the thefrying pan.”

It’s not only English speakers that have made the mistake of including “the” or “a” with the original word. The Spanish did it too. When words from Arabic came into Spanish over a thousand years ago, the Arabic alor a was put in with the original word. With the al or a added, the Spanish word was alcoba (alcove or bedroom) rather than coba and azucar (sugar) rather than zucar. Other words that came to English from Spanish and are from Arabic (and where the al or a was thought to be part of the original word) are algebra, admiral, and alcohol.

Here are some interesting words to use as the basis of word stories:

  • salary
  • denim
  • ketchup
  • magazine
  • monster

QUICK TIP: If you or your students go on an internet search, don’t use “word stories” in a search engine. Instead, use the word “etymology” in your search.

Elfrieda_HiebertAbout the Author – Dr. Elfrieda Hiebert is President and CEO of TextProject, a nonprofit that provides open-access resources to support higher reading levels, and a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hiebert received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked in the field of early reading acquisition for 45 years, as a teacher’s aide and teacher in California and, as a teacher educator at universities across the nation. Hiebert’s research on fostering fluency, vocabulary, and knowledge through appropriate texts has been published in numerous scholarly journals and books. She has been the recipient of several awards for her work, including International Reading Association’s William S. Gray Citation of Merit and the American Educational Research Association’s Research to Practice award.

Article sources:
– Concept from Suzanne Kemmer,
– Elfrieda Hiebert’s blog –


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