During the 2011-12 school year, Dan Allen’s Fifth Grade students in Zürich were an inspiring beacon of orthographic joy and pedagoguery-free scholarship in action, as the class blog constantly revealed. 


Dan’s new cohort (yes, there is a connection with <horticulture>!) fifth graders started their term only a week or so ago and, ye gods and little fishes! have they hit the ground running. 


An essential part of my daily early pre-dawn routine is to visit the ZIS blog to see what new goodies have appeared. A few days ago, as a result of curiosity about the spelling of <accidental>, the class got to pondering the possibility of a bound twin base element <cide> (they had only met real spelling for the first time the week before!). The blog records the discussion.


Dan's merry band have become great hypothesizers and seekers after after evidence in less than a week. The students assembled a preliminary evidence bank for investigation. As well as <accidental> it offered these words.


<cider> <decide> <coincide> <incident> <suicide> <homicide> <pesticide>


What intrigued me was the first word: <cider>. Why? Simply because I had never given the word a second though before. My curiosity was triggered and I was not to be disappointed! Here’s the response that I sent to those starter orthographers for their blog.




Until I saw <cider> in your evidence bank I had never given the word a second thought. I was pretty sure that a very pleasant beverage made from fermented apple juice would have nothing to do with words like <decide>.


And it doesn’t.


But I’ve learned that in word investigation we must never take anything for granted - and that there are often entertaining discoveries to be made. So since <cider> was in your evidence bank I needed to check it out.


Normandy (called after the ’Northmen’ Vikings who invaded and took it over in the Middle Ages - William the Conqueror is probably the most famous Nor(th)man Viking), in the north of France, is known for its apples and the drinks that are made there from apple juice. The Vikings had a lot to do with old England too, so I think I just assumed that English ‘cider’ and the French ‘cidre’ referred to to the sort of Jolly drink that Vikings liked, and that the word was probably Old Norse.


I certainly didn’t expect to find that the root of the word is in the Bible!


The earliest Old French form of <cider> was <cisdre> that came from a Latin word <sicer(a)>. So the modern initial <c> was originally <s>. But I was pretty sure that the Romans hadn’t invented cider. And they didn’t. The Latin word first appeared in the official translation of the Bible into Latin, called the ‘Vulgate’ that was the work of St Jerome. Here’s a passage from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 31, verse 4, where I found this word.


Date siceram moerentibus

et vinum his qui amaro sunt animo.


“Give ‘sicer(am)’ to those who are mourning

and wine to those who are of bitter mind”.


I know enough Latin to see that <sicer(am)> isn’t a native Roman word, so I wasn’t surprised to find that St Jerome had just transliterated the Greek word <σικερα> that is used in the Ancient translation into Greek, called the ’Septuagint’ in that passage from the Book of Proverbs.




I know Hebrew and realized that the Greek was simple an attempt to find an equivalent for the Hebrew <שכר> → <shekhar> that means “strong drink” from a Hebrew root that means “be, become drunk”.


So, etymologically, <cider> is any drink that can make you drunk!


So over the centuries "cider" has narrowed its reference from any strong drink to just one type.




What has happened to the meaning over the centuries is called ‘specialization’. That’s a term that refers to a word that once covered a pretty wide range but now only refers to just one aspect of all that it originally meant.


Here are some more examples of ‘specialization’.


The Old English root of <apple> originally referred to any type of edible fruit that grows on trees, or fruit in general; now it only refers to one sort of fruit.


The Old English root of <deer> originally referred to wild animals in general; now it only refers to one sort of quadruped. Here’s a well-known passage from Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’.


But mice, and rats, and such small deer,

Have been Tom’s food for many a year.


<Girl> originally referred to a young person of either sex; now it only refers to young female humans.


<Meat>, as a simple opposite to ‘drink’, originally referred to anything solid rather than liquid that is consumed as nourishment; now it only refers to animal flesh that is eaten. Just think of it; until a couple of centuries ago, we could say that vegetarians ate ‘meat’!


You could make these words the start of your own collection of words whose meaning has ‘specialized’ - add to the list as you come across such words.