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Words You Need To Know

Words from Old English

Old English was the language spoken in Britain before the French arrived in 1066. If you could listen to a conversation in Old English, you would probably be scratching your head a lot. A few of the words would make sense, but most of them wouldn't. Like plants and animals, languages evolve—keeping the things that they find useful, discarding others, and picking up new things along the way. This study list represents some of the real success stories in English: words coined long ago that have not lost their usefulness over dozens of generations!

Tip from the Top

You have a great advantage in learning to spell a word that has been in English for a very long time. Chances are that the word belongs to a group of words that show the same spelling pattern, since words in all languages have a habit of conforming to each other over time. As you study the words in the list, try to remember them together with another word or words with a similar sound and spelling.

Peer Pressure: Words Feel It Too!

Have you ever noticed that when someone joins a group, he or she often does whatever possible to blend in? Believe it or not, words often do the same thing! The best way for a new word to survive in a language is to look or sound like other words. Before long, the new word is accepted as a native. For example, our list has three words that (a) have two syllables, (b) have a double consonant, and (c) end with ock: paddock, mattock, and hassock. The -ock part of these words is an Old English suffix used to form diminutives (smaller versions of something). Now, look at these non–study-list English words: cassock, haddock, and hammock. If you guessed that they all came from Old English using the same suffix, you would be wrong! All these words came into English later and some came from other languages, but it was easy and convenient to spell them according to a familiar pattern.

Now You Try

Now's your chance to fill up some of the empty spots in your memory with a few non–study-list words in English that look like some words on the study list. We'll give you a pattern and then some clues to see if you can think of other words in English that are spelled according to the same pattern.

example: paddock

pattern: double consonant followed by ock

clue: a small hill: hillock

  1. A. example: harrow
    pattern:double consonant followed by ow
    1. clue: a pointed weapon:
    Show Answer
    2. clue: the filling of bones:
    Show Answer
    3. clue: a small songbird:
    Show Answer
    4. challenge clue: a wild plant with yellow or white flowers:
    Show Answer

    That's Correct!

  2. B. example: sallow
    pattern:consonant sound followed by allow
    5. clue: not deep:
    Show Answer
    6. clue: thick fat from cattle:
    Show Answer
    7. challenge clue: a plant with showy flowers:
    Show Answer
    8. challenge clue: (of a field) not cultivated:
    Show Answer

    That's Correct!

  3. C. example: lithe
    pattern:ending \th\ spelled as the
    9. clue: feel strong dislike for:
    Show Answer
    10. clue: churn or foam as if boiling:
    Show Answer
    11. challenge clue: twist as a result of pain:
    Show Answer
    12. challenge clue: a cutting tool with a curved blade:
    Show Answer

    That's Correct!

  4. D. example: nestle
    pattern:ending \səl\ spelled as stle
    13. clue: a stiff hair:
    Show Answer
    14. clue: a common weed with prickly leaves:
    Show Answer
    15. challenge clue: a frame that supports:
    Show Answer
    16. challenge clue: a formal word for a letter:
    Show Answer

    That's Correct!

Spelling Tip

Old English likes double consonants following short vowels, especially if the vowel is in a stressed syllable. Examples include quell, paddock, mattock, sallow, fennel, hassock, errand, barrow, kipper, and Wiccan.

Spelling Tip

A long a sound (\ā\) at the end of words from Old English is nearly always spelled ay as in belay.

Spelling Tip

Long e (\ē\) at the end of an adjective or adverb from Old English is nearly always spelled with y. Examples include dreary, watery, windily, fiery, creepy, daily, stringy, timely, womanly, and chary.

Spelling Tip

Long o (\ō\) at the end of words from Old English is typically spelled with ow as in sallow and barrow. By contrast, a long o at the end of a word in many languages that English has borrowed from is simply spelled with o.

Spelling Tip

When the syllable \səl\ ends words from Old English, it is nearly always spelled stle, with the t being silent (as in gristle and nestle).

Spelling Tip

Silent gh after a vowel is common in words from Old English, as in slaughter. Silent gh usually appears after i in words like plight (not on the study list) and nightingale, and it signals that the vowel is pronounced \ī\.

Spelling Tip

The vowel combination oa in words from Old English is nearly always pronounced as long o (\ō\) as in loam and goatee. Examples not on the study list include shoal, boastful, and gloaming.

Spelling Tip

Silent e on the end or not? For words from Old English that end in either hard th (\th\) or soft th (\th\), remember this: More often than not, soft th will have a silent e at the end of the word. Consider, for example, bequeath, dearth, kith, hearth, and hundredth versus blithe, lithe, and tithe. Interestingly, the word blithe can be pronounced both ways.