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Where Do Words Come From?



  • Arts & Humanities
    --Foreign Language
    --Language Arts


  • 6-8
  • 9-12

Brief Description

Discover the foreign-language roots of English words.



  • learn that many English-language words have their origins in other languages.
  • use a dictionary's word derivation notes and abbreviation key.


dictionary, abbreviation, word derivation, word origin, key, vocabulary

Materials Needed

  • dictionaries (with word derivation/origin information included with definitions)

Lesson Plan

Where do words come from? Many words in the English language are derived from words in other languages. Dictionaries (collegiate dictionaries, not dictionaries published for use by elementary-grade students) usually provide information about the derivation of words. In this lesson, students will peruse the dictionary looking for words that have their derivation in other languages.


As you share examples of word derivations from the dictionary your students use, you will also want to refer students to the dictionary's guide to abbreviations. The abbreviations below are used in the examples provided in this lesson.

FR -- French
fr. -- from
Gk -- Greek
L -- Latin
MD -- Middle Dutch

Begin the lesson by sharing the dictionary derivations of a handful of words. As you share the examples below, you might also refer students to the dictionary's guide for abbreviations. (That abbreviation guide is usually found near the beginning of the dictionary.) A list of the abbreviations used in the examples below appears in the sidebar to the right.
blare [fr. MD blaren to shout]
cir - cle [fr. L circus circle; Gk kirkos ring] dis-tant [fr. FR distant remote]
es-pi-o-nage [fr. FR espion spy]
force [fr. L fortis strong]

Challenge each student (or you might pair students for this activity) to find ten interesting words -- each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet -- for which they can document word origin/derivation from another language. Then set aside time for students to share their word lists. By doing this, you will be familiarizing students with the word derivation features of dictionaries and exposing them to other languages.

If you are a foreign language teacher, you might challenge students to use an English dictionary to track down five words that are derived from the language you are teaching them.

After students share their list of words with classmates, you might create a class dictionary that includes all students' contributions.

Many words in the English language have their roots in Olde English (OE) or other old (O) languages, or in the Latin (L) language. You might encourage students to find at least five of their ten words that have roots in other than one of the ancient/old (O) languages or in Latin (L). Doing that will make the task a bit more difficult, but it will provide a better view of the rich origins of the English language.


Write on the white/blackboard ten of the words that students found as part of the above activity. Have them look up each word in the dictionary and use the abbreviation key to identify the language from which the word originates.

If you teach older students, you might have them match the foreign language words from which words on the students' list were derived to its English translation.

Lesson Plan Source

Submitted By

Gary Hopkins

National Standards

NL-ENG.K-12.8 Developing Research Skills
NL-ENG.K-12.10 Applying Non-English Perspectives
NL-ENG.K-12.12 Applying Language Skills

LANGUAGE ARTS: Foreign Language
NL-FL.K-12.3 Connections

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