Getting to the heart of the root

Rootonym® is a popular root-based word association game created in 1997 by Jan and Carey Cook, college sweethearts who now reside in Vero Beach, Florida. Since 2007, Andrews McMeel Syndication has syndicated the puzzle, which appears daily online, on mobile devices and in print. It’s an ideal partnership because both the Cooks and Andrews McMeel are heavily invested in improving literacy.

Words play a powerful part in their lives, both in their careers and ancestry. (Jan is a retired high school teacher, and Carey is a retired investment professional. Carey’s grandfather, Carey Orr, was the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune.) Over time, the Cooks became increasingly worried about the struggling U.S. educational system, particularly with students’ lack of vocabulary skills, and wanted a way to directly contribute. Rootonym was one of their answers to the problem. Using Latin word roots, the quick, addictive game helps users expand reading comprehension and problem solving, all while having fun.

Andrews McMeel caught up with the Cooks to learn more about their work and their mission.

Carey and Jan Cook

Where did the idea for Rootonym come from?
We started Rootonym because we were concerned about some of the problems in education that needed to be addressed. Rootonym facilitates mastering vocabulary and challenging words. The puzzle uses a definition clue to encourage success in solving words. The “hint” shows a Latin or Greek word root origin. Research has proved that Latin roots improve learning and clarify meanings for participants of all ages and skills. As a result, Rootonym was born! It was first published at the Moline Dispatch and in the Palo Alto Daily News under the name Rooty Hoot Hoot and Word Webs.

What makes Rootonym unique and valuable?
Rootonym is unique because it provides stealth learning in addition to being fun! Users appreciate a quick puzzle with hints. Upon completion, the puzzle features a definition, a word in a sentence, speed of the answer and an accolade.

You also founded and Vocabulary University. Tell us more about these.
Correct, we created and published in 1997. It is a free resource for teachers, students and participants with grade level-appropriate word puzzles that adhere to state and national educational standards. In order to address differentiated learning, offers seven kinds of puzzles, 735 word lists, vocabulary for required literature (novels, books, plays, etc.), resources for the ACT and SAT tests and calendar-specific puzzles. During the school year, more than 350,000 unique visitors come to the site every month, and teachers from more than 40,000 schools depend on the content at

The name Vocabulary University provides similar words and, as the name suggests, selects high-end SAT- or ACT-type words. As a result, Rootonym and Vocabulary University are complementary. As a high school teacher myself, and with Carey’s interest in literacy, we wanted to create an avenue for better word comprehension.

What does it mean to produce these types of resources and have an impact on literacy?
We take the responsibility of creating worthwhile content very seriously. We believe that the 2,500 pages of free web content saves teachers preparation time and is used in a variety of ways: before class begins, in after-school programs, in tutoring sessions and as enrichment for gifted students. We post a monthly newsletter on, which features timely content and topical resources. It also gets electronically distributed to more than 20,000 people, particularly teachers, students and readers, both national and international.

What has been your experience working with Andrews McMeel?
In addition to syndicating Rootonym, Andrews McMeel publishes The Mini Page, which includes some of our word puzzles for younger students and their teachers. Everyone we have met in Kansas City and with whom we share ideas has been inspirational. We are delighted to be a part of such an outstanding organization, and are thrilled that readers of Smithsonian, USA Today, Puzzle Society and Uexpress enjoy our puzzles.

Is there anything else you’d like to add or share?
We are always busy and thinking of new puzzles ideas! We have created RootbyRoot, another themed word puzzle, for the San Antonio Express News, and enjoy our daily and weekly contributions. On a personal note, we have three sons, all Northwestern graduates, six grandsons and just last year, a little girl! Aren’t we lucky?

The Cooks displaying their site,, at the Texas Teachers Educational Conference in 2013.