One way to make English vocabulary less intimidating is to learn to recognize the roots of words. This is especially helpful in making sense of the long, complicated words that are derived from Latin or Greek.
When you look up an unfamiliar word in a good dictionary such as the Free Merriam-Webster dictionary online, you will usually see a line of text at or near the beginning of the definition that tells you the origin of the word. Pay attention to that text every time you have to look a word up, and very soon you'll be able to recognize common roots and make connections among related words. You will even begin to guess the meanings of words you haven't seen before by recognizing the roots.
Sometimes, however, these roots can trip you up. Some of them look confusingly alike, even though they have entirely different meanings. Here are a few of the most common to watch out for.
A note before we begin. Latin and Greek are both inflected languages, which means that they add endings to nouns and adjectives to indicate their grammatical function. The "lexical," or default form of a noun is the one you would use as a subject. When you start adding different endings, the stem of the word may change, and it's from this stem that we often get our English derivatives. Because of this, classicists often state a Latin or Greek word by giving both the subject form and the possessive form. That way you can see more easily, for example, how "nocturnal" comes from the Latin word nox, noctis ("night, night's"), or how "android" comes from the Greek word anēr, andros ("man, man's").
So, if Homo Sapiens was a "homo," why did he like girls?
Homo, hominis in Latin means "human being," "man" as opposed to other animals. It's where we get words like "hominid." It doesn't mean "man" as opposed to woman. In fact, homo in Latin can describe a man or a woman.
And it's not where we get the "homo-" in "homosexual." That comes from the Greek adjective homos, meaning "same." "Homosexual" literally means "same-sex." Similarly, if something is "homogeneous," it's the same kind of thing all the way through. If it doesn't start out that way, you make it so by "homogenization." Like milk.
Guess what the Greek adjective heteros means? If you said, "different," give yourself a hand! "Heterosexual" literally means "different-sex." Before you homogenize it, milk is "heterogeneous," made up of different kinds of things.
Connections: The Greek word for "human being" is anthrōpos, anthrōpou; hence, an anthropologist studies human beings, while philanthropists are people who love their fellow humans. The Latin word for "same" is idem, which gives us words like "identical." You remember that the Greek word for "man" as in a male human being is anēr, andros; the Latin word for "man" as in a male human being is vir, viri, which gives us words like "virile." The Greek word for "woman" is gyne, gynaikos; put that together with the word for man and you get "androgyny," the condition of having both masculine and feminine characteristics. The Latin word for "woman" is femina, feminae, which is where we get the word "feminine."
Then why don't pediatricians have to walk to work? Shouldn't they be pedestrians? They're bipeds, after all!
If we transliterate the Greek word for "child" very literally, it would be pais, paidos, while "foot" in Latin is pes, pedis. How could anyone ever confuse them?
When Greek words are transliterated into English, especially when we use them as the roots of English words, we don't transliterate them exactly letter-for-letter. Instead, we convert them to the Roman alphabet following the same conventions that the Romans used. The diphthong represented by "alpha-iota" in Greek usually becomes an "ae" rather than an "ai" in English. Frequently "ae" then becomes a plain "e," especially in American English. In Commonwealth English it is sometimes represented by an "a" and "e" stuck together, like so: "æ."
That's how we get the root "ped" from both Latin and Greek!
If we look at words with Greek roots, we can see that a "pediatrician" is a doctor who treats children. A "pedagogue," or "child-leader," used to be a slave who walked children to school and carried their books; now we use the term "pedagogy" to describe educational techniques.
If we look at words with Latin roots, on the other hand, we see that a "pedestrian" is someone who goes by foot, "pedals" are things that you push with your feet, and a "biped" is a creature with two feet.
Connections: Latin uses a few different words for "child," but one common one is filius, "son," or filia, "daughter." TV stations that are "daughter" stations, connected with a mother station that supplies some of their programming, are called "affiliates." Another common Latin word is puer ("boy" or "child"); a pejorative* word for "childish" in English is "puerile." The Greek word for "foot" is pous, podos, from which we get words like "octopus" ("eight-footed") and "podiatrist" (foot doctor). The "iatr" root, from iatros, "doctor," is a common root in a number of Greek-derived medical terms such as pediatrician, podiatrist, geriatrics, and iatrogenic ("caused by medical personnel," usually used to describe a disease caught in a hospital).
What about the "-estrian" part of "pedestrian"? Well, "pedestrian" (someone who travels by foot) is related to "equestrian" (someone who travels by horse), so you can tell that "-estrian" means "someone who travels by." You might already know that equus is Latin for "horse," from which that play with a nekkid
Harry PotterDaniel Radcliffe as a disturbed stableboy takes its name.
*"Pejorative" means "having a negative connotation." It comes from pejor, which is Latin for "worse." The Latin word for "worst" is pessimus, which is why we call someone who always expects the worst a "pessimist." The Latin word for "bad," malus, gives us the English root "mal"—but Firefly fans already know that one.
So how do we keep from tripping on all these roots?
Let's go back to the beginning when I mentioned that section at the beginning of dictionary definitions, where it states the roots of the word. Every time you have to look up an unfamiliar word, pay close attention to that section. Pretty soon you'll be seeing your own connections. But be careful; you may find that exploring etymology (roots of words) is so much fun that it's addictive! I sometimes set out to look up the origins of a word in the delightful Online Etymological Dictionary and find myself wandering from one fascinating word to another, completely forgetting what I set out to find.
Liddell, Henry George & Robert Scott. A Greek Lexicon Abridged from Liddell & Scott's Greek-English Lexicon. (This volume is popularly known as the "Middle Liddell," which rhymes. H.G. Liddell was the father of Alice Pleasance Liddell, who served as the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Yes, even the bibliography has trivia!) London: Oxford University Press, 1963 (rept.).
White, John T. The White Latin Dictionary. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1933.
The Online Etymological Dictionary. <http://www.etymonline.com>
The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary>