Fall 2018


On Top of the Word: The Structure and History of English Words (55+)

Have you ever wondered why we can say “unhappy” but not “unsad”? Or what the “-ceive” means in words such as “receive,” “perceive” and “deceive”? We will explore the structure of English words and attempt to answer questions like these.

We will look at the main ways words are formed in English. We will also examine the historical sources of the lexicon and look at how certain words have changed structure and meaning. We’ll see, for example, that while the dissimilar words “salt,” “sausage” and “salary” share a common history, pairs such as “male/female” and “man/human” are not etymologically related. We will also discuss names, ponder what “meaning” really means and decide whether we agree with G.K. Chesterton that “all slang...is poetry.”

Note: Back by popular demand, from spring 2016.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Defining the Word

We all intuitively know what a word is, yet it is surprisingly hard to define one. We examine several definitions. We also look at the smallest unit of meaning in a word, the morpheme, as well as the types of affixes in English.

Week 2: Types of Word Formation: Derivation and Inflection

In this class we discuss the two most important types of affixes in English, derivational and inflectional, which will allow us to see why we can generate a verb such as "privatize" from the adjective "private", but not use the same process to generate "securize" or "corruptize", for instance.

Week 3: Other Types of Word Formation

We look at compounds, one of the most prolific ways of forming new words in English, and examine their many properties. We also discuss some other methods of word formation, such as blends and shortening.

Week 4: Sources of the Lexicon and Meaning Change

In this class we look at the native Germanic word-stock of English and compare it with foreign borrowings, and then go on to examine word meaning change of various kinds.

Week 5: Semantic Fields: Names, Sense and Nonsense, Word Associations, Anomalies

We examine various names of things, people and places.  Then we briefly discuss other aspects of various sense relations, such as prototypes, word associations and the ambiguity of a phrase such as “an old friend.”

Week 6: Other Types of Words

In this last class we look at the poetic aspects of word creation, and finish up by looking at the individual histories of some interesting words.

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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