Hands-on Activity Word Origins & Metaphors:
Take Their Word for It!

Quick Look

Grade Level: 5 (4-6)

Time Required: 1 hours 45 minutes

(two 50-minute sessions)

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.00

Group Size: 1

Activity Dependency: None

A drawing of a sun rising from a cloud with raindrops falling from it followed by a plus sign, followed by the words: meteorologyprecipitationnimbusbarometercumulstemperaturehumiditystratusthermometercirrustroposphere.
A rebus — a picture puzzle that represents words. Can you figure it out?


Students learn how scientific terms are formed using Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes, and on that basis, learn to make an educated guess about the meaning of a word. Students are introduced to the role played by metaphor in language development.

Engineering Connection

Engineers often research so deep into a topic that their resulting textbooks and articles are full of technical words that are hard to understand. Just like in medicine, in science and engineering, recognizing Latin and Greek word origins can help with the understanding and communication of technical material. Even so, the well-educated engineer is skilled at explaining technical concepts to audiences of all backgrounds, and often uses metaphors to explain scientific and engineering concepts.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Incorporate source materials into their speaking and writing (for example, interviews, news articles, encyclopedia information).
  • Write and speak in the content areas using the technical vocabulary of the subject accurately.
  • Read, respond to and discuss literature that represents points-of-view from places, people, and events that are familiar and unfamiliar.
  • Understand that well-educated engineers are skilled at explaining technical concepts to audiences of all backgrounds

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Explain how various relationships can exist between technology and engineering and other content areas. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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Materials List

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_air_lesson04_activity5] to print or download.


Getting to the Root

Science and engineering textbooks and articles are full of technical words that are hard to understand — unless you know the secret. Many of the words are built from roots, prefixes and suffixes originating from the Latin and Greek languages. If you learn these parts of the words, you have an easier time guessing other words made from the same parts in different combinations. Take their word for it — the Romans and the Greeks!

In the lesson Weather Watchers, you learned some weather words, such as the word meteorology. You know it means "the science of weather" not "the science of meteors." That's because the Greek root "meteor" means "things in the air" in general, not just meteors. Weather is literally something that happens in the air. In fact, it happens in the layer of the atmosphere known as the troposphere. But, let's get back to our word of the moment, meteorology. The suffix "-ology" means a "branch of knowledge" or "science." It comes from the Greek root "logos" meaning "word" or "speech."

In Weather Watchers, you also learned the word barometer. It is made of the roots "baro-" and "-meter." "Baro" is from the Greek "baros" meaning "weight." "Meter" is from the Greek "metron" meaning "measure." (Notice the big difference between "meter" and "meteor" — just one letter for a completely different root.)

Think of all the words you know that end in the suffix "-meter." (Thermometer, centimeter, kilometer, etc.) They all mean something is being measured. (Heat, hundredths of a meter, a thousand meters, etc.)

This study of the root origins of words is called etymology. The root of the word "etymology" itself means "the study of the true sense of a word." Words are, in a sense, condensed history. Much like archaeological artifacts, they show how language has developed. The way people think is reflected in the history of word formation.

As you learn the etymologies of words, you begin to notice that many unfamiliar-sounding abstract words have very familiar physical concepts at their roots. Take the word humidity for example. You may already know that humidity means moisture or dampness in the air. In fact, it comes from a Latin word meaning "moisture." If you also know that the suffix –ify means "to make," you can probably guess (correctly) that humidify means "to make moist." Even further, you can probably guess that a humidifier makes the air moist in a dry climate.

Figuratively Speaking

For fun, look up the etymology of the word "daisy" in a good dictionary, one that includes word etymologies. The American Heritage® College Dictionary, Fourth Edition is an excellent dictionary that provides etymologies along with basic definitions of words.

As you can see, "daisy" comes from "day's eye" and refers to a variety of the plant that opens in the morning to reveal a yellow disk, like the sun, and closes again at night. The sun is like the "eye of the day" in the sense that it allows us to see. The daisy is like the "eye of the day" because its yellow disk resembles the sun. This is a good example of a word that developed from a metaphor. Remember that a metaphor is a word that compares one thing to another because of a similarity or likeness between the two things. The daisy looks like the sun because it is a yellow disk surrounded by petals that resemble "rays."

Metaphors like this are called figures of speech because they enable you to see pictures in your mind's eye. They help you visualize the meaning of a word and enrich your understanding of language. When you use metaphors such as these, you are speaking figuratively.

Now let's have some more fun with words. You will build your vocabulary in the process, and science and engineering terms will not seem so hard to decipher.


The point of this activity is simple: to have fun building vocabulary. The focus is on how science and engineering terms are formed from Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes; but the activity is more wide-ranging and includes lots of resources for general wordplay that spark a student's interest in words.

The basis of the activity is the concept that language is metaphorical. Many abstract terms, for example, are based on physical metaphors. As language develops, the physical concepts at the roots of words are largely forgotten. Once students learn that "humid" means "moist" in ancient Greek, they have a clue that "humidity," "humidify," "humidifier" and "humidistat" have something in common — moisture. When students learn that familiar physical concepts are at the heart of difficult abstract terms, the terms seem less forbidding. Thus, the process of vocabulary building accelerates.

For background on Latin and Greek word elements, see the WordWise, Fact Monster information at: https://www.factmonster.com/latin-and-greek-word-elements. The tables of Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes can be adapted for classroom use. For more on the metaphorical basis of language, see Word Origins by Wilfred Funk, Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and Figures of Speech by Arthur Quinn. All are highly readable. See the References section for more information.


Have the students conduct background reading and research: Use your dictionary and Fact Monster at https://www.factmonster.com/latin-and-greek-word-elements or an online etymology dictionary to complete the table in the Weather Words Worksheet (see Table 1). Fill in as many additional weather words derived from Latin and Greek roots — such as precipitation, temperature, cirrus, cumulus, stratus — as you can. Identify the roots, prefixes and suffixes. Try guessing the meanings of unfamiliar technical terms based on the roots, prefixes and suffixes you learn. Another good Internet source is the Online Etymology Dictionary at: https://www.etymonline.com/.

A chart showing the English form, root/prefix/suffix, root form, Latin/Greek, and root meaning for many weather words, such as barometer and troposphere.
Table 1. Latin and Greek components of common weather words. See the Weather Words Worksheet.
Copyright © Jane Evenson, Literacy Consultant, Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2003.


Know your roots! Your knowledge of the root meanings of terms in one area of science can be transferred to another area so you can understand the terms of that field. Take the field of medicine, for example. You may already know the word trauma means "injury." Now that you know the root meaning of "baros" as in barometer, what do you suppose the word barotrauma means? You probably won't find it in a regular dictionary; you would have to consult a specialized dictionary. But, even without that help, you could probably make a reasonable guess. (Answer: Barotrauma is injury caused by pressure.)

Thinking Figuratively: Below is a very famous and very simple poem by Carl Sandburg comparing, metaphorically, the way fog moves in like a stealthy cat.

The Fog

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

Below is a more difficult poem by Emily Dickinson about another type of weather. She speaks about it figuratively, using metaphors, and never mentions it by name. Can you guess what type of weather the poem is describing? Which words gave you clues? (Although this is a more difficult poem than "The Fog," students are often able to figure out these riddles if they know the meanings of a few words. Sometimes they understand them more spontaneously than adults do! In guiding students through the poem, focus on the first stanza. "Powder" is an obvious clue. "Sieves" may be more difficult, but the image of flour being sifted through a sieve will be familiar once it is placed in that context. "Alabaster Wool" is even more difficult and is characteristic of Emily Dickinson's original use of language. The aspect to emphasize is that alabaster is typically white, like snow, and that snow can look very much like "white wool." Once the image of snow emerges from the first stanza, the rest of the poem should open up.)

It Sifts from Leaden Sieves

It sifts from Leaden Sieves—

It powders all the Wood.

It fills with Alabaster Wool

The Wrinkles of the Road—

It makes an Even Face

Of Mountain and of Plain—

Unbroken Forehead from the East

Unto the East again—

It reaches to the Fence—

It wraps it Rail by Rail

Till it is lost in Fleeces—

It deals Celestial Veil

To Stump and Stack—-and Stem—

A Summer's empty Room—

Acres of Joints where Harvests were,

Recordless, but for them—

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts

As Ankles of a Queen—

Then stills its Artisans—like Ghosts,

Denying they have been—


Try composing your own poem about weather. You can also illustrate the poem with a drawing or watercolor. For inspiration, see the References section for links to poems on the theme of weather. Also, look at How Artists See the Weather: Sun, Wind, Snow, Rain by Colleen Carroll.


Abstract: Not concrete or practical; theoretical. Difficult to understand: an abstract concept.

Artifact: An object produced or shaped by human craft, especially a tool, weapon or ornament of archaeological or historical interest.

Barometer: An instrument for measuring atmospheric pressure, used especially in weather forecasting; something that registers or responds to changes. An indicator: Opinion polls serve as a barometer of the public mood. (A metaphorical usage.)

Decipher: To read or interpret; solve; decode.

Derive: To trace the origin or development of (a word).

Etymology: The origin and historical development of a word or other element of language determining its basic components and changes in form and meaning; the study of etymology.

Figurative: Based on or making use of figures of speech. Metaphorical: figurative language.

Literal: Using the exact or primary meaning of a word or words. Word for word: a literal translation. Avoiding exaggeration or metaphor, factual: a literal description. Unimaginative: a literal mind.

Metaphor: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily refers to one thing is used to refer to another, thus making an implied comparison, as in "a sea of troubles" or "All the world's a stage" (Shakespeare).

Meteorology: The science that deals with the phenomena of the atmosphere, especially weather and weather conditions.

Prefix: An element added to the beginning of a word that affects its meaning.

Rebus: A representation of words in the form of pictures or symbols, often presented as a puzzle.

Root: The element that carries the main component of meaning in a word and provides the base for adding prefixes or suffixes.

Suffix: An element added to the end of a word that affects its meaning.

Troposphere: The lowest atmospheric layer, from 4 to 11 miles high (depending on latitude); the layer of the atmosphere at which weather occurs.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Conduct a vocabulary quiz to test knowledge of roots, prefixes and suffixes. As part of the quiz, have students divide the word into prefix/root/suffix and give the definition of the word. Some new words may be introduced that require students to guess the meaning of the word based on roots, prefixes and suffixes they already know.

Activity Embedded Assessment

The Thinking activity tests students' understanding of figurative language. After the poems are discussed, use other poems about weather (see the References section) to test the students' understanding of how figurative language works.

Post-Activity Assessment

The students' poems may be graded or not, at the teacher's discretion.

Activity Extensions

The introductory graphic to this activity is a rebus, a picture puzzle that represents words. Can you solve it? Hint: Divide the block of letters to form words. What do these words have in common? (Answer: Weather words.)

An idiom is a common expression that cannot be taken literally, such as, "barking up the wrong tree." It is a figurative expression. Use the computer graphics program on your school or home computer to create a visual idiom puzzle. The fun thing about the puzzle is that it takes the idiom literally.

See Mrs. Oates Multiage Class at St. James All Grade, originally found at: http://projects.sd3.k12.nf.ca/multiage/weather/teacher.html for lots more activity suggestions.

Activity Scaling

  • Wordplay and analysis of words into their roots, suffixes and prefixes may be a team activity.
  • Links to games, puzzles and poems for all levels of ability are provided in the References section.


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More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
Weather Watchers

Students are introduced to some essential meteorology concepts so they more fully understand the impact of meteorological activity on air pollution control and prevention. They build a simple aneroid barometer to understand how air pressure information is related to weather prediction.


Albert, Toni. Ecoprints: A Complete Kit for Writing about Nature. Mechanicsburg, PA: Trickle Creek Books, 1997.

The American Heritage® College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. [The best dictionary for word origins and word usage tips. Not just for college students!]

Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NY: Prentice Hall, 2001. [For the teacher: A classic and well worth a read, but expensive! Save your money and get it at the library.]

Carroll, Colleen. How Artists See the Weather: Sun, Wind, Snow, Rain (How Artists See). New York, NY: Abbeville Press, 1996. [A beautiful accompaniment to lessons on figurative language.]

Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed July 17, 2004. [Source of vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation.] http://www.dictionary.com

Funk, Wilfred. Word Origins: An Exploration and History of Words and Language. New York, NY: Random House Value Publishers, 1992. [For the teacher: Another classic.]

Glossary of Meteorological Terms. NovaLynx Corporation. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.novalynx.com/glossary.html

Hands-On Spelling, Building Words, pg 220. Houghton Mifflin Spelling and Vocabulary, Houghton Mifflin Company. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.eduplace.com/rdg/hmsv/6/handson/page220.html

Hands-On Spelling, Building Words, pg 196. Houghton Mifflin Spelling and Vocabulary, Houghton Mifflin Company. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.eduplace.com/rdg/hmsv/8/handson/page196.html

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003. [For the teacher: A real eye-opener and well worth a read.]

Language Arts and Weather Watch. Mrs. Oates Multiage Class at St. James All Grade, Special Projects Web Server, School District 3, Newfoundland, Canada. Accessed October 27, 2004. Originally found at http://projects.sd3.k12.nf.ca/multiage/weather/teacher.html

Latin and Greek Word Elements, WordWise, Information Please. Copyright 2000-2004. Pearson Education, publishing as Fact Monster. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0907017.html

Mark Seeley Weather Talk - Jargon. Updated September 15, 2004. The Minnesota Climatology Working Group. Accessed September 22, 2004. [For word lovers and weather buffs. Colorful discussion of weather terminology. Learn what Abraham's Tree, fulgurite, nowcasting, comma clouds and the gustiness factor mean and when to expect the ozone season. Written from a Minnesotan's point of view, but interesting at any latitude.] Originally found at http://climate.umn.edu/cawap/mpr/jargon.htm

Moors, Tim. Basic Greek and Latin for Understanding Science and Medicine. Updated April 24, 2001. School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.eet.unsw.edu.au/

NIEHS Kids' Pages. Updated June 8, 2004. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences [NIEHS]. Accessed September 22, 2004. [Lots of games and activities, including word games (brainteasers).] http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/index.htm

Online Etymology Dictionary. Updated November 2001. Douglas Harper. Accessed November 2, 2004. http://www.etymonline.com

Poet's Corner, Subject Index – Weather. TheOtherPages.org. Accessed September 22, 2004. [Poems on weather by a number of well-known poets.] http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/SubjIdx/weather.html

Potter, John. Weather Word Search Puzzle. Updated April 24, 1998. John's Word Search Puzzles, The Potters. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.thepotters.com/puzzles/weather.html

Quinn, Arthur. Figures of Speech: Sixty Ways to Turn a Phrase. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993. [For the teacher: A lively and funny introduction to the subject. Highly readable.]

Sinclair, Sharon. Water, Water Cycle and Weather Poems. Hawaii's Public Schools, Hawaii Department of Education. Accessed September 22, 2004. Originally found at http://www.k12.hi.us/~shasincl/poems_prop_cycle_weather.html#thewatercycle

Templeton, Shane and Bear, Donald. Education Place. Houghton Mifflin Spelling and Vocabulary. Houghton Mifflin Company. Accessed September 22, 2004. [More word building activities.] http://www.eduplace.com/rdg/hmsv/index.html

Watt, Fiona and F. Wilson. Weather and Climate (Science and Experiments Series). Tulsa, OK: E.D.C. Publishing, 1991.

Worcester, Tammy. Idioms / Figures of Speech. Tammy's Technology Tips for Teachers, ESSDACK (Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas), Hutchinson, KS. Accessed October 27, 2004. http://www.tammyworcester.com/

Yamnitz, Kyle. Lesson #21 Weather Thematic Unit. Lesson Bank, Teacher's Net. Accessed September 22, 2004. [Recommended resource for literacy activities based on the weather theme. Includes a detailed bibliography.] http://teachers.net/gazette/JAN02/lessons.html


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.


Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: December 11, 2020

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