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On the roots of teaching and learning.

Early in my Hebrew language education, I learned that the root of the word for teach/learn [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] coincided with that for the goad, specifically the one used to prod cattle. Then I found out that another teaching-related family of concepts in Hebrew (based on [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the root of both Jewish midrash and of Muslim madrasah), originated in other Semitic sources, where it means "beat" and "tread." I started to wonder: Do learning and beating have to go hand in hand? Does teaching have to contain a violent element? In his discussion of the Semitic root [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Kapelrud (1983, p. 577) did not find the association coincidental; he thought that this connection characterized the old Semitic world, where "teaching and learning did not take place entirely without penalty ... It is easy to see that such [teaching] often happened with the help of the whip." (1)

To find out more about these strange bedfellows, I have investigated the source of several teaching/learning-related English words. However, since the following depends so much on the acceptance of etymologies as a source of important information, I consider it my duty to acknowledge the controversial aspects of this issue. So let me first distinguish between two uses of etymologies.

In the first and most frequently encountered type of etymologizing, its practitioner has a message which s/he then bolsters by pointing out the sometimes true, often false, source of some of the terms used. Friedrich Nietzsche did this in his Genealogy of Morals (1913/2003) no more successfully than Michel Foucault did in Madness and Civilization (1971). There the latter writes that at one time in England madmen were shown to visitors, a penny a head, and adds that monster comes from "to show." However, he erred: it comes from the Latin monere ("warn"; recognizable also in "monitor"), rather than from monstrare ("wonder," present in "demonstration"). (2) This practice comes close to the offering of popular etymologies. The latter have ancient roots: We find their prototype in Genesis 11:4-9, dating as far back as the tenth century BCE. There we read of men building "a tower whose top may reach unto heaven," and God saying, "... let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." The narrator then adds: "Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth." Babel, due to the Hebrew root BLL, meaning mix, confuse, rather than the accepted etymon babilu, or "the gate of god" in Akkadian. (3)

The other use of etymology has more to do with curiosity than with ideology. As Lester (1995/96) has observed, "Derivations of a word are often as intriguing as the sorts of explanations psychologists come up with for human behavior." This use, employing the systematic treatment of the source of words, has deep roots, as well: It probably started with Sanskrit linguists at about the sixth century BCE. Ever since, many philologists, linguists, as well as laypersons have devoted much of their time and energy to unearthing the long-forgotten origins of their language. Most of them realized that etymologies do not reveal the "true meaning" of words (despite the etymology of "etymology"). In Douglas Harper's words, they "are not definitions; they're explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago" (Harper, 2001). (4) As Korzybski (1958, pp. 20-22) makes clear, the search for the meaning of a word always ends at the unspeakable level: "We can only speak legitimately of 'meanings' in the plural." During modern times, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm serve as good examples of professional etymologists. Many consider their work on a German dictionary, the Deutsches Worterbuch (begun in 1852 and continued by other scholars until 1960), as one of the most important etymological dictionaries of the German language.

In the following, I will not make any etymological revelations of my own. I will confine myself to reporting what reputable sources have gathered concerning the source of several teaching- and learning-related words.

I notice two different traditions--in one, the TEACHER (see below) drags an unwilling PUPIL (see below) along a difficult path, both having a rough time. In the other, we find quite the opposite: Here, an all-knowing source of wisdom illuminates the path for an undistinguished LEARNER, who may have shown an interest to gain knowledge. In a third group of words, I shall lump oddities, which throw further light on the complex picture of LEARNING/ TEACHING, drawn by the ancients.

Group A: Save the Rod, Spoil the Child! (5)

STUDY When traced back through Old French studier, medieval Latin studiare, Latin studium, and Sanskrit tudati, to its hypothetical Proto-Indo-European source, we arrive at the root of STUDY as (s)teu, which meant "to push, stick, knock, beat." Note the similarity to Semitic [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], above. (6)

EDUCATE While its Latin root educare and Proto-Indo-European source deuk indicate leading, by the time this word entered Old English as togian, it meant "draw, drag." We can find an interesting parallel in the German equivalent of EDUCATION, namely, Erziehung, where one can see more clearly the verb ziehen, or "pull, drag."

TRAIN A perhaps not-so-strange connection between the previous entry and TRAINING (as in vocational training, or teacher training) has to do with German Ziehen, which forms the root of Zug, or "train." The latter originates (through Old French and Vulgar Latin) in classical Latin trahere: "pull, draw."

All three of the entries DISCUSSED so far have a pushing or dragging connotation, with an added hint at more aggressive methods in STUDY. The next two items also belong to the more violent branch of our lexicon:

DISCUSS We find the roots of this highly recommended educational practice in Latin discutere--"strike asunder, break up," itself made up of dis- ("apart") and quatere ("shake").

DEBATE Another method of considerable importance, DEBATE has a history quite similar to DISCUSSION: we can trace it back through its modern and Old French intermediaries (debattre, "to fight, to beat down") to Latin battuere, which most likely originates in Proto-Indo-European bhan, "to strike."

ERUDITION All of this STUDYING and EDUCATION results in an ERUDITE person. When looked at through etymological spectacles, one discovers ex rudis, Latin for "ousting the rudeness" ...

SCHOOL I'll end this group with the place where all of this takes place. While in Greek skhole indicated "a place for otiose discussion," the Proto-Indo-European base segh (also appearing in "scheme") meant "hold in one's power." While not necessarily violent, this source also carries with it an unpleasant, conflictful connotation. (7)

Having seen the violent side of SCHOOLING, we can now turn to its more didactic, if not necessarily gentler, aspects.

Group B: The Age of Enlightenment

As I have suggested above, the etymology of words in this group leads us to the TEACHER directing or GUIDING the LEARNERS, rather than dragging them.

TEACH The hypothetical Proto-Indo-European origin deik meant "to show, point out" (more visibly preserved in "diction"). From there we can proceed to Proto-Germanic, Gothic, and Old English sources; the latter include tacen, or "mark, sign" (as in modern "token"). In all of these, the TEACHER seems to point or direct the STUDENT in the right direction. An EDIFYING comparison with French enseignement ("education"; and similarly in Spanish and Italian) shows that the latter also comes from "sign," which, in turn, we can trace back to Proto-Indo-European sekw or "point out, see."

LEARN One has to keep in mind that until the eighteenth century the now frowned-upon use of LEARN in the sense of TEACH (as in "I'll learn you!") did not count as an error. The word has Old High German sources, which originate in Proto-Indo-European leis ("track"), so it probably meant "to follow the track" left by the TEACHER.

PEDAGOGUE In Old French this word meant "teacher of children," but its immediate Latin origin indicated the slave who accompanied children to school. So even though we have a "leader of a child" here (from Greek pais, "child," and agogos, "leader"), PEDAGOGUE lacks the etymological connotations of "showing the way," found in TEACHING and LEARNING.

COACH The Hungarian village of Kocs (pronounced kotf) can boast of giving us this toponym, for its fifteenth-century inhabitants made the carriages known by this name. Eventually, it became a British slang term for one who carries a STUDENT through an examination. Unlike the previous two entries, the COACH not only shows the way, but actually carries the LEARNER on his/her back ...

GUIDE Though this word seems to speak for itself, I find it important to point out that its Proto-Germanic source, wit, meant "to know"; this turned into witan, "show the way," in the West Germanic Frankish language. The same word came to mean "to see" in Old English, and became the source of "wisdom," "wit," as well as "vision," in modern English.

Group C: Miscellany

EDIFY Unlike EDUCATE, similarly sounding but totally different in derivation, a combination of the two Proto-Indo-European roots of this word meant "making a hearth"; later this hearth became "temple," and eventually "building." We can see in the fourteenth-century metaphorical use of this word to denote "instruct" the first attempt to consider the activity of TEACHING (but not of LEARNING) a constructive one. The next appearance of this line of thought occurred about one hundred years later:

INSTRUCTION This word arrived into English in the fifteenth century from Old French, and to there from Latin, where struere meant "to pile, build." We find the ultimately identifiable origin in Proto-Indo-European stere, "to spread, stretch out." Both of these last two entries, then, consider building as a useful metaphor for TEACHING. (8)

INFORM Its Latin roots suggest that INFORM originally meant "to form, mold, shape." So, unlike the two previous entries, which regarded TEACHING as the bringing together of ideas, INFORMING someone has an ancient, yet still discernible, connotation of molding the LEARNER into a desirable shape.

TUTOR Along with tuition and tutelage, TUTOR comes from Latin tutus, meaning "watch over." The TUTOR'S role, then, approximated that of the PEDAGOGUE, mentioned above. I have placed it in this group of miscellany because it lacks the latter's leading function.

ACADEMY From Greek Akademeia, named after a hero from Attica whose name probably meant "of a silent district." Plato established his academy on this legendary character's estate near Athens.

GYMNASIUM Though in English a GYMNASIUM has always referred to a place of physical exercise, many will recognize its German meaning of "high school" when reading of a "Gymnasiast." Its Greek origin gymnazein means "to train naked."

DISCIPLE Its Latin roots reveal that a DISCIPLE "takes apart" or "thoroughly analyzes." The derived term DISCIPLINE has taken on further meanings (such as "chastisement," "mortification by penance," "military drill"), thus creating a connotation much in line with the entries in Group A, above.

LECTURE Along with LESSON, this word, and its Latin source legere, "to read," come from Proto-Indo-European leg, "to collect" (words, in this case).


(1.) Hundreds of years later, Plato strongly disagreed with such methods of education: "... nothing taught by force stays in the soul" (in the Republic 536d). A noble thought--especially from a philosopher whom many have accused of blatantly fascist tendencies (e.g., Popper 1969). For a discussion of the apparent incongruity of this statement with some aspects of the "ascent from the cave," see Barney (2008).

(2.) I found many of the derivations appearing in this article in Harper's Online Etymological Dictionary (2001).

(3.) See also, inter alia, the naming of Moses in Exodus 2:10, where Pharaoh's daughter explains: "Because I drew him out of the water." The narrator based this popular etymology, curiously attributed to an Egyptian, on the Hebrew root MSH, "draw from water," rather than on the Egyptian word mes or mesu for son (cf. Kedar-Kopfstein 1963 and Moore 2002).

(4.) See also B. F. Skinner's remark, "etymology is, in a sense, the archeology of thought," quoted in an APA Monitor interview (1987).

(5.) The verse in Proverbs 13:24, dating from about the sixth century BCE, may have served as justification for many a rod-wielding teacher.

(6.) The fact that Taliban means "students" (in Pashto, from Arabic [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] talib, to ask) has relevance here only insofar as it demonstrates the fascinating life of words.

(7.) I wonder whether this caused the governors of a Sheffield, U.K., primary school to ban the use of the word "school," and replace it with "a place for learning." "School," they said, had "negative connotations" (Bingham 2009).

(8.) Contra constructivist and constructionist approaches, which regard learning as "the meaning-making activity of the individual mind" (Crotty 1998, p. 58), or the triad of "epistemic conflict, self-reflecting, and self-regulation" (Forman & Pufall 1988, p. 236). Seymour Poppert, the founder of constructionism, writes that "learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner experiences as constructing a meaningful product" (Wikipedia 2008). None of these aspects appears in the twenty learning/ teaching-related English words I have examined.


Barney, R. (2008). Eros and necessity in the ascent from the cave. Ancient Philosophy, 28, 357-372.

Bingham, J. (2009). Primary school drops word school from name as "too negative". The Daily Telegraph, 3 January, p. 4.

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research. London: Sage.

Forman, G., & Pufall, P. B. (1988). Constructivism in the computer age: A reconstructive epilogue. In G. Forman and P. B. Pufall (Eds.), Constructivism in the Computer Age, pp. 235-250. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Foucault, M. (1971). Madness and civilization. London: Tavistock.

Harper, D. (2001). Online etymology dictionary. Interview with B. F. Skinner. APA Monitor, November 1987, p. 5.

Kapelrud, A. S. (1983). Lamad. In Theologisches Woerterbuch zum Alten Testament, vol. 4, pp. 576-582. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Kedar-Kopfstein, B. (1963). Etimologias populares. In Enciclopedia de la Biblia, vol. 3, pp. 247-251. Barcelona: Ediciones Garriga.

Korzybski, A. (1958). Science and sanity, 5th ed. Chicago: Institute of General Semantics.

Lester, T. (1995/96). Worries about words. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 52, 401-405.

Moore, M. (2002). What's in a word? On etymological slurs. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 59, 150-154.

Nietzsche, F. (2003). Genealogy of morals. Mineola, NY: Dover. (Originally published 1913)

Popper, K. R. (1969). The open society and its enemies, vol. I: The Spell of Plato. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wikipedia (2008). Constructionism (learning theory). Retrieved March 23, 2009, from

Michael Moore is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Education in Technology and Science at Technion--Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel.
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Author:Moore, Michael
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
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Date:Oct 1, 2009
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