Learn Something New: The Etymology of ‘Teach’

Etymology, the study of the meaning of words, can be a great way of investigating the history of a concept. We rarely get any actual information about what the concept is when we look into etymology but we do get something interesting. We can see how the concept was thought of when the word was first being developed – in this case, around the 16th century.

The word ‘teach’ arises from the Old English tæcan meaning “to show, point out, or demonstrate”. This makes sense. The act of teaching is often compared to lifting the wool from someone’s eyes – showing them some fact so that they can understand the universe a little better.

This ‘showing’ facet to teaching can be seen all the way up the language tree: from Old English tæcan to Proto-Germanic taikijan all the way to deik in the Indo-European’s original language (PIE). From this original word we also get the English words didactic, doctor, token, direction, toe, and disk!

All of these have some ‘showing’ aspect apart from maybe toe… but that one’s a bit more convoluted! Deik, though, has another aspect to it: to accuse.

This takes us back to the way in which it was thought when the idea was still in its infancy - but what is the connection between teaching and accusation? Well, ask any naughty child in class and I’m sure they’ll tell you! It is easy to imagine how these two concepts could be related. When you educate someone you take them from one state of understanding to another; when you accuse someone you do the same. Rather than showing the learner something new however, you show the accused to be something new.

So, when you next teach, remember to live by the true meaning of teaching and be the shower not the accuser! 

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