Vocabulary development: Storytelling word histories

(Presentation from National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference, 2013)


Storytelling has a long history as a way to pass knowledge to the next generation. For instance, the first fairy tales were oral cautionary stories about taking care when going into the woods alone, not trusting a stranger, or eating a suspicious apple. Generation after generation passed these stories along, committing to memory the pertinent facts and attached emotions. Indeed, “story” and “history” have common roots – both deriving from the Greek and Latin for accounts of factual events.  In time, “story” concentrated more on fictional accounts, “history” with actual events of the past.

Bruner (2002) claimed storytelling is universal and a “dominant form of discourse” (Atta-Alla, 2012).  Studies have shown that storytelling enhances language skills (Egan, 2005) and develops vocabulary and syntax (Strickland and Morrow 1989). “Storytelling is a tool that can be used in any form of [the] language development curriculum” and has particular potential in urban settings (Ali, 2008, p. 70). “Those who have observed children listening to an absorbing story have often been impressed with the quality and persistence of their attention, surely an important ingredient in any learning context” (Elley, 1989, p. 176). Storytelling can take vocabulary learning out of the memorization model and into “making memories” about words. Dewey reminded teachers not to simply “give” information to their students. Otherwise, “the information was likely to be committed to memory in a rather lifeless or mechanical way. He called this ‘static, cold-storage’ knowledge” (as cited in Phillips & Soltis, 1998, p. 39). Students are not “passive recipients of information about new words” (Wilkinson & Houston-Price, 2013, p. 592). Indeed, “teachers discovered that children could easily recall whatever historical or scientific facts they learned through story” (NCTE, 1992, unpaged).

Considering the size of the English language, memorization is not the only way to learn new words. Having students be actively engaged in encounters with words makes the learning memorable.

So where does the storytelling begin?  Try word histories. Whet their appetite with interesting stories (see end of handout – Great stories to tell). Once they get interested in these, have students research words as related to your curricular needs (content area studies, vocabulary development) or their interests.  There are many ways to engage even the most reluctant learner when he or she discovers the secrets behind English words.  Try the following suggestions to take the word stories into captivating and memorable activities.

Mystery guest – who am I?

This activity is played like the old party game of taping a name to each person’s back and they must ask questions to discover whom they are.  Choose words that the class has been using in a content area – the students’ questions should lead them to  the word. (You may want to do an example so students understand the type of questions to ask.)

You complete me

 A word, its origin, definition can be combined in a number of ways for a partner hunt. For example, make sets of cards using:

(1) book

(2) Germanic boks related to boka meaning “beech” – the wood used for writing tablets.

(3) a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.

Mix the pairs (or trios). Students find “buddy” or “buddies” by matching a pair (Word/origin; word/definition) or trio. Or, use the cards as a “memory” matching game – 2 card matches or challenge advanced students with 3 card matches. 

It’s all about me (Eponyms)

Have students investigate these words named after people.

Frisbee (Frisbie Pie Company) Leotard (Jules Leotard)
Ferris Wheel (Washington Ferris) Sideburns (Gen. Ambrose Burnside)
Silhouette (Étienne de Silhouette) Mattel (Harold Matson & Eliot Handler)
Sandwich (Earl of Sandwich) Graham Cracker (Rev. Sylvester Graham)
Dunce (John Duns Scotus) Doberman Pinscher (Ludwig Doberman)

Link to content studies

 Many words in the content areas can provide interesting stories to make words memorable. Tell these stories or have students investigate and share with the class.

History/Civil war = deadline (prison in the field)

Math = zero (empty), twelve (two left over after counting to ten)

Inventions = zipper (B.F. Goodrich’s “Zip ‘er up!” galoshes)

Human body = south paws (baseball stadiums)

Social Studies/Mapping = Antarctica (no bears)

Economics = corny jokes (Seed catalogs); dollar (Jachymov stalers); Salary (salt)

Language Arts = sincerely (without wax); plagiarism (kidnapper)

School Community = secretary (secrets); janitor (Janus, God of gates/doors); teacher (one who “shows”); student (to be eager, diligent); school (leisure)

A rose by any other name

Encourage students to find words that are more descriptive than those of Germanic (colloquial) origin by suggesting synonyms of French (literary) or Latin (learned) origin.  Discuss how each synonym set differs. For instance:

Germanic French Latin
rise mount ascend
kingly royal regal
ask question interrogate
holy sacred consecrated
sweat perspire exude
deer venison
need require mandatory
forgive pardon amnesty

Unabridged fun

Unabridged dictionaries include etymologies before the definition. These provide the connection to the history of the word and its current use.
Some great origins to storytell

comet Ancient Greek: “kometes” – “having long hair.” Aristotle first used “kometes” to describe the heavenly body that seems to have long hair trailing from its “head.” The name was later adopted into Latin as “cometes,” which eventually made its way to English.
palindrome Greek dromos, for “running” (also origin of the speedy desert runner, dromedary). palin means “again.”



French grue for “crane”; Old French – “crane’s foot” – referred to as a pie de grue. Seeing a genealogical chart with its three-line diagrams indicating who + who begat whom, and it is evident why speakers of Old French called this figure /|\  pie de grue.



Persian shir o shakkar, or literally, “milk and sugar” – reference to the smooth white stripes alternate with rough ones that make it resemble thin lines of sugar.
funny bone This spot, that gets a “tingly” feeling when bumped, is at the enlarged end of the “humerus” bone.
globe Old French “globe” or the Latin “globus” meaning to roll together or stick. Maps were only flat at one time, and thus rolled together.




A made-up word by English author/historian Horace Walpole. In 1754, he wrote a letter claiming he’d coined this word, based on a Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip.” He said the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.'” Serendip, is a form of Sarandip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka.
tulip From the resemblance to a type of headwear – the turban. In the 1500s, Austria’s ambassador visited Turkey and was enchanted by the unusual flowers. The Turks’ traditional name for the flower was lale, but the ambassador’s interpreter jokingly called the blossom a tulbend, the Turkish word for “turban,” because of its shape. When the ambassador brought home several of these exotic plants, he also brought along its picturesque nickname, tulbend, which slightly changed in English.
basketball Invented by Dr. James Naismith. A Canadian, Naismith was teaching physical education at International Young Men’s Christian Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1891. He needed an activity to keep the young men busy during the winter months. He cut the bottoms out of peach baskets, challenged the students to move a ball down the gym floor and throw it through the basket.
candidate Latin “candidatus” meaning person dressed in white. Early Roman politicians wanted white togas to make a good impression.


Bell ringing was quite an art during the Middle Ages. But, just like any instrument that is being learned, novice “ringers” practice for hours and not all of it sounded good!  So, a craftsman (whose name we do not know) invented “dumb or silent bells” which were weighted ropes that did not make noise.  The weights of the ropes varied, just as the weights of bells did, so novices got stronger practicing on these.
earmark From Old English herdsmen needing a way to mark their cattle (branding was not yet used).  The herdsmen notched the ears of cattle to signify which was theirs when using common pastureland for grazing.
hurricane Taino “huraca’n” meaning center of the wind. Christopher Columbus brought this word back, making its way to Spanish, and eventually English.
jeep Abbreviation for the all-purpose vehicle developed for the military. The “General Purpose” vehicle became nicknamed g.p. which was shortened into a pronounceable word.
piggy bank


In the 1400’s, household pots and dishes were made of cheap clay called “pygg”. Housewives would store extra coins in the “pyggy jars”. They became known as “pygg banks”.
canoe From the Haitian, brought by Columbus, “kanoa” meaning dugout or hollow log. When Columbus returned to Spain, the spelling changed.
starboard Old English steorbor”, “steor” meaning rudder or the steering oar, “bor” meaning a side. In the early ships, the steering mechanism was on the right hand side of the ship.
typhoon Chinese “tai fung” – big wind.
window When Norse carpenters built homes, they left a hole or eye in the roof to allow smoke to escape. Wind often blew through this hole and it became known as “vindr auga” meaning wind eye.
lunatic From the Roman moon goddess, Luna, who supposedly caused people to go mad during the changing phases of the moon.
galore Irish Gaelic go leor meaning “enough or plenty”.
caravan Persian – from karwan meaning “company of travelers”

Suggested Resources for Word Stories

Almond, J. (1985). Dictionary of word origins. Secaucus, NJ:  Citadel Press.

Ayto, J. (1990). Dictionary of word origins. New York: Arcade.

Barber, K. (2006). Six words you never knew had something to do with pigs. New York: Penguin.

Branreth, G. (1988). The word book. London: Robson Books.

Bryson, B. (1990). The mother tongue. New York: William Morrow.

Bryson, B. (1994). Made in America: An informal history of the English language in the United States. New York: Harper.

Crystal, D. (2006). Words, words, words. London: Oxford University Press.

Essinger, J. (2006). Spellbound: The surprising origins and astonishing secrets of English language. NY: Bantam.

Flavel, L & R.  (1992). Dictionary of Idioms. London: Kyle Cathie Ltd.

Fresch, M.J. (2007). Word study: Ways to captivate reluctant learners. AdLIT. http://ohiorc.org/adlit/inperspective/issue/2007-03/Article/vignette.aspx

Fresch, M.J. & Wheaton, A. (2004). The spelling and word study resource book. New York: Scholastic.

Funk, W. (1950). Word origins. New York: Wings Books.

Hendrickson, R. (2004). Word and phrase origins (3rd Ed.). New York: Checkmark Books.

Hoad, T.F. (1993). Concise Oxford dictionary of English etymology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, J. (1996). Word stems: A dictionary. New York: Soho Press.

Liberman, A. (2005). Word origins…and how we know them. London: Oxford University Press.

Merriam-Webster new book of word histories. (1991). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Suid, M. (2007). Words of a feather: A humorous puzzlement of etymological pairs. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Todd, R. W. (2007). Much ado about English. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

White, R. (1994).  An avalanche of anoraks. New York: Crown.

Wulffson, D. & Wulffson, P. (2003). Abracadabra to Zombie: More than 300 wacky word origins. Illustrated by Jared Lee. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.











Ali, M.M. (2008). Storytelling: A boon to children’s language development. Journal of Urban Education, 5 (1), 68-73.

Bruner, J. (2002). Making stories: Law, literature, life. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Elley, W. B. (1989). Vocabulary Acquistion from Listening to Stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 24, (2), 174-187.

Jackson, H. & Zé Amvela, E. (2000). Words, Meaning And Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology. London: Continuum.

National Council of Teachers of English. (1992).Guideline on teaching storytelling. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Nazir Atta-Alla, M. (2012). Integrating Language Skills through Storytelling. English Language Teaching, 5(12), 1-13.

Phillips, D. C. & Soltis, J.F. (1998). Perspectives on learning (3rd Ed.). NY: Teachers College Press.

Strickland, D.S. & Morrow, L.M. (1989). Oral language development: Children as storytellers. The Reading Teacher, 43(3), 260-261.

Wilkinson, K.S. & Houston-Price, C. (2013). Once upon a time, there was a pulchritudinous princess . . . : The role of word definitions and multiple story contexts in children’s learning of difficult vocabulary. Applied Psycholinguistics, 34 (4), 591-613.

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