Book review: Once Upon a Word

Once Upon a Word

Once Upon a Word:
A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids. Building Vocabulary Through Etymology, Definitions & Stories,

by Jess Zafarris

Rockridge Press
Juvenile Nonfiction/Dictionaries
For Ages 9-12
268 pages


Buy the book

Once Upon a Word is a  very attractive dictionary designed to develop the vocabulary of young readers. But I bet you would discover treasures there, whatever your age.

It starts with Word Jungle, a part explaining in very simple terms the basics of linguistics: Indo European, Ancient Greek and Latin, and the evolution from Old to Modern English.

I like the smart way the author played with the image of language trees, with roots and branches. From roots, we go to prefixes and suffixes.
Very clear tables are provided: a green one for words having Latin-Based roots.

Here is an example of the chart:

Latin Based

 Then we have the same type of chart, in pink this time for Greek-Based roots.

Then an orange chart presents the list of main prefixes, and a grey chart the list of main suffixes.

Before going into the dictionary itself (Part 2), the author proposes a few games to use these charts. She also explains how the months of the year have been named, and details how the 2nd part is structured:
Over 800 words are listed in alphabetical order (the pages are color coded in the margin for each letter, with a rotation of four colors, and each letter is introduced with a neat illustration). Each word comes with its pronunciation; the part of speech it belongs to (noun, verb, etc); its definition; its historical background, and its etymology. Some words are used in a sentence.
Here is the top first page of that section

Letter A

All along, some colored boxes pop up, for instance on page 56 on words that sound funny.

I did learn a few words: a bandicoot, a kerfuffle, a scuttlebutt, widdershins.

And I made some other cool discoveries:

  • the connection between a buoy and the adjective buoyant. 
  • caterpillar literally means ‘shaggy cat’
  • curmudgeon could be coming from cœur méchant (mean heart) in French!!
  • Dismal comes from dies mali
  • A fedora comes from the character Fedora in the 1889 play of the same name, famously played by Sarah Bernhardt
  • Hazard comes from al-zahr, the Arabic word for dice
  • Hiccups means ‘elf pains’, because they were thought to be caused by elves!
  • Jeopardy comes from the French jeu parti
  • Karaoke from the Japanese kara= empty and oke= orchestra
  • And Karate = empty hand
  • Khaki means dusty in Urdu
  • Lackadaisical comes from “alack the day!”
  • Nerd comes from nut, as crazy
  • Safari means journey in Swahili
  • Shampoo comes from the Hindi word champna, to massage
  • Sherbet comes from the Arabic shariba, to drink
  • Sideburns comes from American Civil War general Ambrose E. Burnside
  • Ukulele means leaping flea in Hawaiian
  • Vaccine comes from the Latin vaccinus, “from cows”, because the first vaccine in 1800 by Doctor Edward Jenner was an injection of the cowpox virus.
  • Window comes from the Old Norse for wind eye
  • An X-ray got its name because at the time it was discovered in the 1800s, it was unknown type of radiation
  • And this one:


I think the book could have stopped here, it had enough treasures.
The author added a third part, with a list of food related words, and music related words, with their meaning and etymology. Why only two categories, and why these two? I think really this part was unnecessary.

The book ends with a list of references for the educators who would like to go further.

You can also discover all kinds of word etymologies with gorgeous pictures on the author’s website: or on her Twitter account

VERDICT:beautiful example that children’s books can be a mine of resources for all, here about language.

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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book free of charge from the publisher through The Callisto Publisher’s Club. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.


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