A Word Searcher Investigation - <destruct> and <distract>

Getting under way

The Word Searcher is based on an original idea by Pete Bowers. It amazed me that such a simple idea could be used so productively. Here's one example -- I know Pete would have many other better ones.

If you've other, less contrived experiences in Word Searcher usage or similar investigations, then I'd be keen to hear about them and perhaps share them this way with others.

If you spell by surface analogy, it might make little sense that the first three letters of such similar sounding words as <destruct> and <distract> should differ. The Word Searcher can help answer why.

Why not <*distruct>?

Firstly, it also helps if you know that English words are made up of units of meaning known as morphemes (the spelling glossary provides more background to these essential building blocks of written English).

Now try some hypotheses to test. Perhaps the spelling could be <*distruct>? If so, what are the morphemes? Could the word sum be dis + truct?

A search for <dis> shows many words beginning <dis-> such as <distrust> where <dis-> seems to be a prefix with the effect of negation or undoing on the primary meaning.

(Devotees of regular expressions can search for "^dis" to ensure they really do just get the start of the word).

So far, so good; but what about remaining letter sequence <truct>? Is this the base element? Searching for the sequence <truct> strongly suggests that it only exists as part of the morpheme <struct>, which is clearly visible in words such as <structure>. So no, <truct> isn't likely to be a valid morpheme.

(Here the devotees could search for the pattern "[^s]truct" to confirm that there are no words with <truct> without a preceding <s>.)

This suggests another possible word sum di + struct to try.

A dictionary with etymologies can confirm the likelihood of <struct> as base element with a notion of 'building' in the root of words such as <structure>, coming down to us from Latin. But the same dictionary is likely to list prefix <di-> as suggesting a pair - not obviously connected with the meaning of <destruct>.

This all makes it very unlikely that a well-behaved English spelling could possibly allow <*distruct>.

In fact, the attested spelling <destruct> does work, with word sum de + struct.

The suffix <de-> carries a meaning of 'removal' or 'reversal', so the idea so neatly wrapped inside <destruct> is perhaps 'to build in reverse'.

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Why not <*destract>?

Having so confidently solved why <destruct> is spelled the way it is, what can we take from that to the spelling of <distract>, whether to help us learn it, re-create it or explain it?

A simple conclusion might be to try <*destract>, with the word sum either de + stract or perhaps des + tract.

This might seem sensible if we looked at the surface of the two words and how they both sound; but if we delve inside into what makes up the meaning we quickly meet problems.

Although <de-> is a valid prefix, the base in the first word sum would need to be <stract>. The only other family of words the Word Searcher finds containing the string <stract> is that built around the word <abstract>. Since a dictionary can confirm that <ab-> is a prefix, again this may seem promising, but actually a bit more digging provides a diversion into how the prefix <ab-> works, as outlined below.

In contrast, a search for the base <tract> provides a much richer set of results, including the surprisingly related word <tractor>. A dictionary with etymologies finds the meaning 'to drag' contained in their common base <tract>, again coming to us from Latin.

In my dictionary, there isn't a prefix <des->; but the prefix <dis-> does appear, with connotations of 'removal' or negation.

This fits into the appropriate notion that to <distract> somebody from something is to 'drag them away' from it in other directions.

As afterthought, we've identified that both <de-> and <tract> are valid morphemes. Can we put them together to form a word?

We can, of course, form the verb <detract>, meaning to 'take away' a part of something or diminish it. By practising taking some words apart, we're able to put together new ones.

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The prefix <ab->

In searching for <stract>, I wondered at first whether finding <abstract> was going to cause problems in concluding <stract> wasn't a base element.

For <tract> to be a base, <abs-> would need to be a prefix; but I knew that <ab-> was a valid prefix, so was there an explanation for this unexpected <s>?

The Word Searcher and the dictionary both provided an answer. The Word Searcher finds several essentially different words with the string <abst>; but it finds none for the string <abt>.

Several prefixes have variants depending on what letter follows them. It looks as if <ab-> does indeed take the variant <abs-> when it comes before the letter <t>. My dictionary suggest <abs-> really is a valid variant of <ab->.

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Copyright Neil Ramsden 2004.

E-mail comments to me at mail@neilramsden.co.uk
Last updated 2 Dec 2004