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The Word Guy: Versatile syllable 'ped' is afoot in English

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By Rob Kyff
Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Ed Collins of West Newton, Pa. writes to ask how the syllable “ped” can have three meanings: “foot” (as in “pedal”), “child” (as in “pediatrician”) and “teacher” (as in “pedagogue”).

Ed, meet “ped,” one of the most-versatile syllables in English. “Ped” actually has five distinct meanings, each derived from a different Latin, Greek or Egyptian root.

Like a podiatrist examining a patient's toes, I'll take each meaning one at a time. This little piggy went ...

• The “ped” in “pedal” derives from the Latin word “pes, pedis” (foot). It's clearly afoot in words, such as “pedestrian,” “pedestal” and “podiatrist,” but also tiptoes into several other foot-related words, including “podium” (a base on which the feet stand), “impeach” (from the Latin “pedica,” meaning “a fetter that ensnares the feet”) and even “pedigree” (because the descending branches of a genealogical chart reminded someone of a crane's foot, “pi‚ de grue” in French).

“Ped” even pioneered the word “pioneer.” The Late Latin “pedo” meant “one who has broad feet.” So when the French astutely noted that foot soldiers have broad feet — all that marching! — they adopted “pedo” as “peonier,” which later came to mean a person who ventures, often on foot, into a new area.

• “Pediatrician” and other “ped” words related to children are derived from the Greek word for “boy” (“paido”). This root also gives us “pedogogue” (literally, “a leader of boys” in Greek), but “pedagogue” and its twin, “pedant,” have since come to mean, respectively, “someone who instructs in a dogmatic manner” and “someone who makes a show of learning.”

• Speaking of making a show of learning, did you know that “pedology” is the study of soil? Neither did I. “Pedology” derives from the Greek “pedon” (earth).

(Call this a “foot”note, but was the Greek “pedon” inspired by “pes, pedis” because soil is underfoot? Alas, such speculation has no sure linguistic footing.)

• “Pediment,” the triangular gable on classical buildings such as the Parthenon, derives not from Greek or Latin but from the Egyptian word for another triangular structure: “pyramid.”

• Ever wonder what “pediculosis” means? I'll give you a hint: “Pedis” is the Latin word for “louse” so “pediculosis” is an infestation of ... It's enough to make you squeal “wee, wee, wee” all the way home.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send reports of misuse , as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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