photo of thousands of bugs on a red-orange surface

Source: Bug rush hour, Paul Watson, Flickr

Did you know that there are over five million species of insects in the world? That’s a total population of at least one quintillion! Do you know how many that is? Maybe you do, or maybe you don’t. One thing is for sure: you’d have a better shot at knowing how many one quintillion is if you knew the meaning of the word. Chances are it’s an unfamiliar word, one that you don’t hear every day. Given that it’s probably a new word for you, how do you go about figuring out what it means? This question relates to the subject of this lesson on how to use parts of words such as affixes and roots to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words. You will learn that most English words are made from parts of other languages. Furthermore, you will learn that the building blocks from other languages can be recognized within words that are new to you. Thus, they help you understand the meaning of the new word.

These building block languages, principally Latin and Greek (and a little Anglo-Saxon), were around thousands of years before you arrived. Latin, for example—which together with Greek forms the basis of our English words—was spoken in the streets of ancient Rome for over a thousand years. The Romans extended their empire throughout the Mediterranean, taking their language with them, and that’s how we ended up using it to form English words.

Photo of a huge pile of salt

Source: Salt pile, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Flickr

Let’s look at the word salary, for example. This is the English word for “regular payment for work done for a company or a person.” The basis or root of this word, sal, means “salt” in Latin. What’s salt got to do with pay? In ancient Rome, it turns out that salt was a dear commodity because meat was cured (kept edible for long periods of time) by using salt. Because it was so dear, workers often were paid in it. Did you ever hear the expression “She really earns her salt”? Now you know it comes from ancient Rome.

As you will see in this lesson, English has many ancient roots. The beauty of this lies not only in its fascinating history, but also in our ability to use the language’s roots as a dependable tool for figuring out unfamiliar words. You will learn that you can use this vocabulary tool from both angles: to break a word apart to figure out its meaning (divide and conquer) and to put word parts together to understand an unfamiliar word (combine and create).

By the way, do you remember the word quintillion from the beginning of this section? Besides being an interesting word, it’s a word you might encounter in math or science class. Knowing roots and affixes can help you become a star reader in those classes. Many of the meanings of academic words you encounter in math and science classes and other classes can be discovered by learning a few common affixes and roots. Now, if you’re curious about how many insects are buzzing around you, place your cursor on the word quintillion.