Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, July 31, 2015

The great divide

A Wordlady correspondent has asked about the pronunciation of "divisive". He pronounces it "di VICE iv", and the "di VISS iv" pronunciation "drives him nuts".

Apparently he is not alone in this, as there is much chatter on the web (negative, naturally, because Lord knows we need to find more things to criticize him about) about Barack Obama using the latter pronunciation. 

First off, please don't let different pronunciations than your own drive you nuts. There are many different ways to pronounce many of the words in English, and getting upset about them is not worth the effort. Just as the other person's pronunciation is driving you nuts, yours is driving them nuts too, and that makes two of you getting upset for no good reason.

In this case, if you live in Canada and say "di VICE iv", and are driven nuts by "di VISS iv", you're going to spend a lot of time tearing your hair out. At the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we found that "di VISS iv" is in fact the most common pronunciation in Canada for this word.

This preference for "di VISS iv" seems to be unique to Canada. Dictionaries from other countries give their pronunciations of the middle syllable in order of frequency:

Britain: VICE
NZ and Australia: VICE , VIZZ

US: VICE, VISS, VIZE, VIZZ
Canada: VISS, VICE, VIZZ, VIZE

So you might wonder where these pronunciations come from. "Well, of course it should be di VICE iv, because after all it comes from di VIDE," you might say. Well, so do "division" and "divisible", don't they? Sigh, I wish English were like French, where the middle syllables of the words "diviser", "divisible", and "division" are all pronounced the same way.  

Actually none of these English words are derivatives of "divide"; they were borrowed separately from Latin.

"Divide" came first, in the 1300s, with "divisor" a little later. They would have been pronounced "diveed" and "diveezor" back then. But they arrived in English just in time to be subject to the Great Vowel Shift which happened not long afterwards, eventually causing them to be pronounced as they are today, with what we call a "long i". "Division" arrived at the same time as "divide" but, because many multisyllable words escaped the Great Vowel Shift, its "veez" became "viz" rather than "vize".

By the time "divisible" arrived in the 1550s and "divisive" in the early 1600s, we therefore had two pronunciation patterns for "divide" words in English.  "Divisible" went one way, "divisive" the other. I do not know why (if anyone does, I'd be fascinated to hear the explanation). We see the same pattern with "decide, decision, decisive" (unfortunately we have no word "decisible").  But obviously we COULD have chosen to pronounce "divisive" like "division" and "divisible". I do not know how long the "di VISS/VIZZ iv" pronunciation has been in the language, but perhaps it was kicking around when settlers moved from Britain to North America and Australia, and has survived since then. 

Having lamented that our pronunciations are not consistent as in French ("pronunciation" is in fact another example of this phenomenon), I should in fairness point out that there is no word "divisif" in French. To translate the idea, bilingual dictionaries have to resort to periphrasis like  
‹of a policy› qui sème la discorde; qui entraîne la division
to be socially divisive = créer des inégalités sociales
Maybe we should send French speakers "divisive" with our compliments. At least they wouldn't argue over its pronunciation.

How do YOU pronounce "divisive"? 



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Friday, July 24, 2015

What the F is an F doing in "lieutenant"?

As I mentioned last week, as a result of my CBC interview about Stuart McLean's pronunciations of "schedule" and "raspberry", I've had a number of queries about other pronunciations. 

First up: lieutenant and colonel. 

LIEUTENANT comes from the two French words lieu (place) and tenant (holding), because literally a lieutenant is the person who would be holding his superior's place in the superior's absence. 

Now the question is, why do some people say lootenant and others leftenant? 

Lootenant is closer to the Old French pronunciation, but right from our earliest evidence, in the 1300s and 1400s, we have spellings that indicate that both pronunciations existed. Probably the English had a hard time pronouncing French, or they may have confused lieu with the English word they already knew, "leave" Or they confused the written "u" with a "v." 

For whatever reason, the "loo-" version died out of British English but survived in American English, which tends to maintain older pronunciations, for example "herb". Since Americans were the founders of Canadian English when the Loyalists moved here, we also inherited "lootenant" But the Canadian Forces have always been strongly influenced by the British, so leftenant is the official pronunciation there. When we researched the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we discovered Canadians split about 50/50 over this pronunciation, with an edge for "lootenant", although people were likely to say "leftenant-governor" even if they otherwise said "lootenant"! Canadian English is not simple! What do YOU say?

COLONEL Why is it pronounced with an "r" even though there isn't one in the word?! English pronunciation must drive second-language learners mad! 

"Colonel" ultimately comes from Italian colonello meaning the commander of a company or "column" of infantry. When the French borrowed this word, they had a hard time saying "colonel" with two "l"'s (though they manage to do it now). So the first "l" got changed to an "r" and they ended up with coronel, which is what got borrowed into English in the 1500s and then scrunched down in the pronunciation to ker-nel. But then in the 1600s people looked at the origin of the word and changed the spelling back to "colonel" to reflect it, but the pronunciation stuck. 

P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Cummerbund or cumberbund?


First of all, I would like to extend a very warm welcome to the over a hundred new subscribers to Wordlady who heard me on the CBC last weekend. If you missed it, here's the link:
http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/The+Vinyl+Cafe/ID/2661745438/
This interview seems to have unleashed a pent-up spate of pronunciation-related questions, so for the next few weeks I will become the Pronunciation Lady. 

Today's topic is somewhat pronunciation-related.
 
It's wedding season, bringing with it the highly seasonal need to mention this piece of formal attire:


A friend recently asked me if "cumberbund" was an OK variant of "cummerbund". She had a bet riding on it with her husband. This is not the first time I've heard of beers and pizza being the high stakes in a "What's the right word/spelling/pronunciation?" question. I wonder if the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission has ever thought of launching a Language Usage Issue Wager game.

Alas, my friend was out a beer, because "cumberbund" and its close cousin "cumberbun", are, in my judgement, incorrect (though not uncommon, or do I mean uncombon). You will find "cumberbund" listed as a possible variant in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries, but in no Oxford dictionaries. Interestingly, the first quotation we have in English for the word includes that intrusive "b" (and I suspect that historical usage accounts for Merriam-Webster's inclusion):
1616   R. Cocks Diary (1883) I. 147   A sample of gallie pottes..chint bramport, and combarbands, with the prices.

Were I writing a dictionary today, I would still not include "cumberbund", as it is vastly outnumbered in the evidence by "cummerbund".

It's not surprising this word does not come trippingly off the tongue, especially as the wide sash-like belt it describes is becoming much less fashionable (so I understand), replaced by vests in men's formal wedding and prom outfits. 

We borrowed the word and the thing from the Indian subcontinent, where the wide sash it describes is part of some traditional attire: 

It comes from the Urdu and Persian kamar (loins) and band (tie or sash), so literally it is a loin cloth (Wordlady's fashion tip: do not wear a loin cloth to your wedding or prom). 

Our first borrowing of the item was as dress military attire, but by the end of the 19th century, cummerbunds had become an item of civilian formal wear.

So, where did that intrusive "b" come from?  I expect it is by analogy with the already existing word "cumber". And I wouldn't be surprised if it is currently being reinforced by the popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch (whose name, by the way, means "Cumbrian stream").

(I tried to find a picture of Cumberbatch in a cummerbund -- try saying that fast -- but no luck.)


P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Rollicking Story of the English Language in Ottawa, Fall 2015

I will be offering my very popular history of the English language course this fall at Carleton University's Learning in Retirement Program. 

 The Rollicking Story of the English Language

Lecturer: Katherine Barber
Lecture series description: This lecture series is an entertaining survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years, covering the Anglo-Saxon and Viking origins, the influx of Norman French and Central French, later Latin and Greek borrowings, standardization and French borrowing in the 18th century, international borrowing since the 18th century, and Canadian and American English. Linguistic developments will be linked to the social and political events with which they coincided. Topics will include why English spelling is so difficult.
Fridays, September 18th – October 23rd
10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Location: Room 124, Leeds House Building
Lectures, discussions, film clips 
Fee: $130.00 (HST included)
Enrollment capacity: 55 participants  




REGISTRATION:
Registration for all lecture series begins on Wednesday, August 5th, 2015 at 9:00 a.m.
 
Registration details can be found on Carleton's website: carleton.ca/linr/registration/.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What's the right way to say schedule? Wordlady on CBC

Here I am on The Vinyl Cafe (first 15 minutes) talking about the pronunciation of "schedule" and "raspberry", among other things: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/The+Vinyl+Cafe/ID/2661745438/

For more detail on "schedule", see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2015/02/how-do-you-pronounce-schedule.html

P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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Friday, July 10, 2015

Light my fire (please don't)


Forests are burning across Western Canada. They do this every summer (we have a heck of a lot of forest), so every year we hear a lot about them on the news. 

For a few years now, I've been intrigued by what we call these fires. It seems to me that in my youth they were always called "forest fires", but nowadays they are "wildfires". I decided to check whether my intuition was correct, and this is what I found by searching for each term in the archives of The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, two of our major newspapers.



1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2014*
Forest fires 44 130 56 65 47 210
Wild fires/
wildfires
12 0 15 59 36 220

*The 2014 numbers reflect a search in all of Canada's major dailies and weeklies, not a disastrous increase in fires. I searched only the plural form to remove any metaphorical usages of "wildfire". "Wildfire" is much more frequent as a spelling than "wild fire".

It would seem that my intuition that "wildfire" is gaining on "forest fire" is correct. My typically Canadian kneejerk reaction was to blame this on American influence, a result of hearing reports of annual "wildfires" in California, where what is burning is usually grass or brush rather than forest. But really, I have no explanation for this. Judging by the American corpus, Americans have in the past used the word "forest fire" as much as or more than "wildfire". And in fact, "wildfire" is a much older term than "forest fire", with evidence for the former dating back at least to the 1100s, whereas the latter first appeared in the 19th century.

Have you noticed this shift in Canadian usage as  well? What did you call these fires in your youth, and what do you call them now? Do you have any theories as to why we would switch to "wildfire" from "forest fire"?



P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady






Monday, July 6, 2015

All is well in my cosmos

As is always the case at Chateau Wordlady at this time of year, all is well in my cosmos.

That is, the part of my cosmos represented by my patch of boulevard, which has exploded into a mass of feathery foliage and pink petals. Butterflies flit about in the flowers, and the cats lurk in the mini-jungle created by the stems, occasionally imitating the action of the tiger to hiss at passing dogs from the safety of their cat-cave.

Yes, my cosmos (these ones)
Wild Cosmos Seeds - Sensation Mix - Ounce
have come into bloom.

But why are these jolly flowers called by the same name as the universe? 

In ancient Greek, kosmos meant "order, ornament". The philosopher Pythagoras applied this word to the world and universe to reflect the perfect order and arrangement he perceived in them. The flower, being native to the tropics of the New World, was not discovered by English speakers till the late 1700s, and was baptized "cosmos" by a botanist to reflect its elegant ornamental appearance. 

As with "lilac",  there's a pronunciation issue with this word, whether it designates the universe or the flower.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it is pronounced KOZZ moss.
American dictionaries say KOZZ m'ss is the most common pronunciation, followed by  KOZZ moass and KOZZ moss
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary says KOZZ moass first (and that's NOT just because its editor-in-chief says it that way!), followed by KOZZ m'ss, and does not even mention KOZZ moss. 

What do you say? Do you pronounce it the same for the universe as for the flower?

I always feel a bit of a cheat when passers-by say "I LOVE your garden", since I do NOTHING but watch the cosmos come up each year from the seeds they have shed the year before (and then toss the deadheads on the ground when they go to seed). Here's Wordlady's gardening tip: if you want a big gardening bang for no bucks and no effort, plant cosmos. (Virginia phlox are also good).

However, not everyone is a fan, apparently. One day when I was out deadheading, a passing pedestrian observed that if she had her way, she would pull out every last ... "cosmo"! Her hatred for the innocent flower was apparently as strong as that innate English aversion to singular nouns ending in "s".



P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady