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.
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Seller | Origin and History of Agent by Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=agent.
“Stellar.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stellar.
Stellar| Origin and History of Agent by Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=agent.