History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

Etymology in the history classroom: Using language to make it stick


I’m sure many of you who’ve taught a module on female suffrage have had many a tittering class over Isabella Beeton’s advice from 1861, that a wife should rise before her husband, “and having given due attention to the bath, and made a careful toilet…” in order to be what Lord Chatham would describe as a ‘good wife’.

Use this source as a starter activity (“What does the source say? What can you infer about a “good wife”? What can this tell us about Victorian upper-class expectations?” etc.) and you’re guaranteed to have an engaged class giggling as they imagine a lady in a fine dress on the lavatory.

Being very careful.

At this point I reach in to my teacher-drawer and locate my emergency perfume (I have emergency everything) and put it under the visualiser; “eau de toilette” it says. “Come on – you lot do French; what does that translate as? Toilet water? Okay. So what does this mean? Does it mean that French ladies pee perfume and send it to us to spray on ourselves as delightful scent? Or could the meaning of the word “toilet” have changed in the last 100 years?”

I find these small etymology-based hooks very useful, usually for learning some good vocabulary but also for making bigger concepts stick, and for training students to perhaps pick apart a word they come across and don’t understand to try to work it out. After all, which words the exam board decides to explain from a source and which ones your students need may not be the same.

Indoctrination is a good one. The word “brainwashing” for me never quite cuts it; it conjures up images of pathetic brains bobbing along in some sort of dirty water. Not “indoctrination”, no. This is something far more hard-core and involved, especially where something like Nazi Germany is concerned.

EtymologyI ask the students if they can see any similarities to other words – perhaps doc and doctor? What does it mean to be a doctor? Does it only apply to medicine? In Latin, to learn is “docere”, and that “doc” is important.

Hopefully our doctors have been taught and learnt properly, but to indoctrinate is to have someone learn the wrong thing, almost wire their brains up wrongly, so that they start to think a certain way on their own.

This also fits in nicely with British Values – it doesn’t take students long to realise that their own learning requires thinking from different points of view in most of their subjects.

Because and Consequence

Of course, it’s not limited to this – inter, hyper, bi, tri, pre, super, and countless others allow students to start to make links in their language and lead to a better understanding both within history and literacy in general.

The cause in because and sequence in consequence have also come in useful. Sometimes they’ll spot something on their own – sometimes right, sometimes wrong – but I am always happy to help them explore their linking.

The other week I was very impressed when a student asked if “coon” was connected to the word “barracoon”, a word we had learnt months before. I’d never made that connection myself, and it turned out she was right.

Often used words in history: Evaluate 

What does “evaluation” mean? Good luck with that one – evaluation seems to mean something different in every subject; in DT, evaluation is will someone buy it? In Geography, will a solution be any good, or will it cause more problems? In History, is this source any use to us for finding out about x? Confused? Yes so are your students’ especially if your school is obsessed with Blooms.

To help, I’ve devised to explain its overall meaning by picking out the word “value” from within.

ValueI find it is better to approach this the other way around – what does “value” mean? Money comes up first, but other ideas are quickly explored. The value of friends and family, the “sentimental value” of a favourite photograph, the value of a sewage system in getting rid of cholera, and so on. Therefore, evaluation rather depends on what you are looking for. For us, does this source help us learn about x, or should we be cautious?

Sometimes I have brought it back to money: you’ve got £100 to buy all the sources you need to learn about this topic. The chap selling you this source says it’s 100% reliable and therefore worth your whole £100. Do you agree with him or do you think it’s value to you is less?

Often used words in history: Interpretation

Starter – a source in a foreign language. What do you need to help you understand this source? Answers will usually include dictionaries and google translate, more-tricky answers like more knowledge or a translator/interpreter may have to be teased out, but ultimately it’s a useful tool for getting students to see that an interpretation is how someone who was not there understands or interprets the past, in much the same way as you need an interpreter to help you understand a language that you do not speak.

Obviously, different interpretations of the same thing and the reasons for different interpretations can then be explored.

I like to start with an ambiguous source with two different “interpretations” and ask students how come the two historians read the same thing and came up with such different interpretations? This new GCSE lesson on the German economy does just this, but the kick-start was what I used to find difficult, especially in a manner which made it stick.

One last word

A word which takes us back to the tittering classes studying women’s suffrage. Embrace the words and have fun with James Ramsey McDonald’s complaint:

“I wish the working women of the country who really care for the vote would come to London and say all this to these fussy middle-class damsels who are going out with little hammers in their muffs.”

By Jess Aitken

Jess works at Withernsea High School in East Riding



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