The Stellar Seller and the Chilly Cellar

For homophone Friday, I wanted to study <cellar> because it is a word on a spelling inventory that I give to students. Most of the kids start to write <seller> until the hear it in context. The sentence has the meaning of <cellar>, while some students don’t realize it’s even a homophone. Every time this happens, it makes me wonder about its etymology.  It is my intention to help figure this word out further.

Lets start with the most common word <seller>. This is the person that sells things, a salesperson. The word sum is <sell> + <er> -> <seller>. The word is made up of a base plus a suffix. The suffix is what is called an “agent suffix.” When I was at Pete Bower’s Summer Institute this summer I asked about agent suffixes, “like, what does agent really mean?” Well, in SWI fashion, we studied it. An agent is one who acts. The base of <agent> is <ag(e)>. What? I thought. I’ve always envisioned <agent> as the base. The base comes from Latin: agere “to set in motion, drive forward; to do, perform; keep in movement.” Now I can see agent as the doer, the performer, the driver. Going back to <seller>, the <seller> is driving, performing the sale. The base is Old English sellan. This is a free base, which means it can be a word on its own without affixes. The double <l> is there because of the base <sell>. English convention doubles the final <l> in one syllable bases with one vowel right before it, such as <fall>, <cliff>, <pull>.

The word <cellar> has a much fuller etymology and story. A cellar is an underground room typically used for food storage because it was a cooler place of the home (or castle) before refrigeration existed. Cellar can also be used as a verb – to bring something to the cellar. “I’m going to cellar the wine.” The word came to English through Anglo-French originally as celer which derived from Latin cellarium. In Latin a cella was a pantry. One can visit old castles and abby’s and find cellars in the basement. They were chilly, so that gathered food such as vegetables could be stored and kept for a longer period of time. Often there were nooks to keep the food. Today we have refrigerators for this kind of cooler storage, and a cellar is often relegated to mostly wine storage. So <cellar> has an analysis of <cell> + <ar>. It is also related to words such as cellular, cellmate, cellulite, celluloid, and cellulose. The word <cellar> has another meaning which means the lowest rank (such as subpar, or in the bottom as a cellar is the bottom of the house). So a sports team could be in the cellar when they come in last in the season. This is opposite of <stellar>, which I find the construction interestingly similar, although there is no etymological connection between <cellar> and <stellar>. Stellar relates to the stars. So if something is stellar, it is far and high reaching. “The first place sports team was stellar.”



Lastly, I want to touch on the pronunciation and graphemes. These two words a homophones so the pronunciation is the same, at least where I live. Here are the graphemes in these two homophones. The dots are placed between the graphemes.

The grapheme differences between these two words are <s> -<c> and <er> – <ar>. The <s> is the expected choice for the phoneme /s/, but <c> is can be pronounced as /s/ when there is an <e>, <i> or <y> after it, such as cemetery and cent. The ending <er> is the default spelling for /ɚ/ The final <ar> grapheme is less common with this phoneme but we do still have common words with its use, such as sugar, dollar, solar, lunar, cedar, and collar. The other note is that <cellular> is spelled with <ar> just as <cellar> is. The Latin connection is cellularus which is why it was spelled in English with an <ar> instead of an <er>.

So, now when I give my spelling inventory with <cellar> I will be able to further assist students in its understanding beyond that of <seller>. Living in California, cellars are very rare due to our soil, which is another reason that the word <cellar> is a tough one for students to grasp as it is not a commonly used word here.

Authored by Lisa Klipfel, MA, MFT, Educational Therapist

Lisa provides online sessions to help students understand the written English writing system.


Agent | Origin and History of Agent by Online Etymology Dictionary,

Cooke, Gina (2014). LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange Grapheme Deck, 2nd Edition.

Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Cellar.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Nov. 2011,

“Cellar.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

Cellar | Origin and History of Agent by Online Etymology Dictionary,

“Sellar.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

Seller | Origin and History of Agent by Online Etymology Dictionary,

“Stellar.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

Stellar| Origin and History of Agent by Online Etymology Dictionary,


Homophone Friday Series: ferry, fairy

I am starting a new series to sighing the homophone principle. English has a unique characteristic to its language

ferry vs fairy

called the homophone principle. Essentially if there is a word that is pronounced the same as another word with a different meaning it will take a different spelling if it is possible.

Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently. English has many, many homophones. The most common are: two/to/too, eye/I, won/one, four/for/fore, here/hear, wear/where. Many people get confused with homophones, which are a characteristic of our English writing system and not a defect.

The grapheme choice for homophones are mostly etymologically driven. This means that studying where the word comes from and what its story is tells us a lot about how it will be spelled. When this is taken into account rather than thinking that spelling is only about phonology, then homophones make more sense.

I have recently started a series called, “Homophone Friday” looking at homophones which may be common or uncommon. The series will feature the IPA symbol representation of a homophone, as IPA is the way “sound” can be written. It will feature at least two words that are pronounced the same. Sometimes, there may be 3 or 4 words that are pronounced the same.

If you have a homophone that you are intrigued about, please email me at I am keeping a live Google slideshow of the homophones that I study to share with you. Click here for link.

Homophone of the Week: Fawn, Faun

Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently. The base <phone>  relates to sound, while the base <hom>  denotes “same”. The study of homophones allows us to look at the meaning behind the spelling of two words that sound the same and why they might be spelled differently.

This word pair came up when a student spelled <fawn> as <faun> and I’ve learned that sometimes what we might think is a “nonsense word”, is actually a real word. It certainly was here. This was one of my favorite homophone studies to date!


Fawn is a noun meaning a young deer (Websters). Bambi is a fawn, a very cute fawn. Fawn can also be used as a verb to show affection. The teenagers are fawning over the band. The noun originally came from Old French <faon, feon> earlier derived from the Latin of meaning an offspring (Etymonline). Originally the term referenced any animal baby, but over time it grew to just apply to deer. The verb however is Old English <fægnian> denoting “rejoice, be glad, exult, applaud”. It derives from the Old English word for glad.



Faun is a noun meaning a deity with human form along with goat characteristics in their ears, horn, tail and legs (World Reference). Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia is a faun. A faun is similar to a satyr, that is referenced in Riordon’s Percy Jackson books. While fauns and satyrs are similar, fauns are Roman mythology and satyrs are from Greek mythology. A faun’s animal characteristics are goat and wasn’t always represented with goat hind legs. The animal characteristics of a satyr are typically horse or donkey. The word faun derives from Latin <faunus> which came from Greek φαῦνοςphaunos. Faunus was a Roman woodland God. He was written about by Virgil and in modern times he is referenced as Pan. A grammatical note that the plural of <faun> is <fauni>.


I would like to thank my students who brighten my day with their questions and Doug Harper at Etymonline for providing us with such valuable resources, as well as the artists who created these fabulous images.



Faun image credit: http: Amanda Edlund //

Fawn image credit:Jessica Lee


Word Analysis: Is it gray or grey?


Is it gray or grey?

After a long discussion and confusion about the spelling of whether it is <gray> or <grey> at the dinner table, we had to “look it up.” <Gray> started in use in 1863 as the color the Southern troops of the US Civil War.

The distinction between the two spellings is defined by location. The US spells the color <gray>, while in Britain it is spelled <grey>. I think some of the confusion comes from the word <greyhound>, a specific dog bread. Although most greyhounds are not necessarily gray, it has created some confusion about how the word <gray> is spelled. <Greyhound> came from the word <grew> which is a middle English word for <Greek>. There is reference to a saying, using <grey>, that was used by the Old Norse in Iceland which almost sparked a war between the pagans and the Christians. In this saying <grey> referenced a derogatory term for a female dog.

So, if you are in the US, it might be especially important to spell the color between black and white with an <ay> at the end. You wouldn’t want to offend an Icelandic person, or anything. If you don’t know anyone who is Icelandic, you do now.