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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Saturday, December 20, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Geese a-laying

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-ns2mZWaOzss/UOA9GDYbP0I/AAAAAAAACew/0JDgQw_vy-4/s640/Six-Geese-a-laying.jpg
Six geese, possibly a-laying

It will come as a shock to some of you to know that "lay" has been used intransitively to mean "lie" since about 1300.  and for almost the first half-millennium of its use, no one objected to it. 

Like so many of our usage shibboleths, the attempt to create a  firewall between intransitive "lie, lay, lain" and transitive "lay, laid, laid" (which are ultimately of the same origin) was an artificial creation of the 18th century prescriptivists. Clearly, as with many of their prescriptions, this one is not working so well: intransitive "lay" is used very commonly, especially in speech and especially in North America. I hear more and more confusion of the past tenses of "lie" and "lay" as well, with people saying things like "I had lain it on the bed." 

Personally, although I observe the distinction because I was taught to do so, I don't think the world will come to an end if people say "She was laying on the bed", because, seriously, we know that humans don't lay eggs, and birds are not usually found on beds. This distinction is an unsustainable one. After all, we use "stand" both transitively and intransitively without endangering English-speaking civilization as we know it.

For those of you haven't harumphed off at the above display of heresy, let's look at the word "goose", which, surprisingly, manages to illustrate several important phenomena in the history of English.

In Old English, the word was gós, and back in the mists of time its plural would have been gósiz. By the phenomenon called "i-mutation", the vowel in the second syllable affected the vowel in the first syllable, so by Anglo-Saxon times, the plural had ceased to be gósiz and had become gés - our modern "geese". I-mutation is perhaps the most common cause of our irregular plurals.

Over time, the "o" in gós became lengthened, so that it was pronounced to rhyme with "dose". In the Middle Ages, they came up with the brilliant idea of representing lengthened vowel sounds by doubling the vowel letter, so we got the spelling "goose". All would have been well, but then the Great Vowel Shift came along, and every long "o" vowel sound shifted to become a long "u" sound. But we kept on spelling the word as if it was still pronounced to rhyme with dose. It's really quite crazy that we use a double letter "o" to represent a sound that has nothing to do with the sound "o".

A baby gós  was a "gosling". But while the "o" sound became longer in "gos", it got shorter in "gosling" (as was always the case when a vowel was followed by two consonants). As a result, it was not subject to the Great Vowel Shift, and we ended up with this oddity where the parent bird has one vowel and the baby a quite different one. (For another example of this, see The Fifth Day).

We're still not done with the role of "goose" in the English language. As you will recall, many English words acquired extraneous silent letters in the Renaissance to reflect their etymology. "Goose" narrowly missed this fate, as William Caxton tried to rewrite it as "ghoose" (as he succeeded in changing "gost" to "ghost").

OK, that's quite enough for "goose". The question why a male goose is called a gander will have to wait for another day.

For a different "lay", see this post.

For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-fifth-day.html  

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-calling-birds.html

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-french-hens.html

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.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! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email 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




 








Wednesday, December 17, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: The Fifth Day


Five golden rings

Well, I have to tell you, "golden" and "ring" are pretty boring words, having meant the same things since, well, forever.


But "fifth", now THERE'S an interesting story.

If I said , "On the fift day of Christmas", you'd probably think, "Don't you know how to speak proper, Katherine? You sound like a gangster!" Even worse, can you imagine if I referred to that famous history play of Shakespeare's as "Henry the Fift"?

And yet....  

http://streetsofsalem.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/band-of-brothers-folger.jpg?w=490
The first edition of Shakespeare's Henry V


So, what gives?

"Fift" was indeed the original ordinal form of the number "five". The -th ending started to appear only in the 13th century, by analogy with "fourth" (which had always had a -th ending). But "fift" survived well into the 17th century, and in some dialects much longer.

A more recent development in the pronunciation of this word is the dropping of the second "f", so that it sounds like "fith". This naturally causes much gnashing of teeth in some quarters. But it is here to stay, the result of the phonetic difficulty of saying "f" followed by "th".

Another obvious question is: if the number is "five", why aren't its derivatives "fiveth", "fiveteen" and "fivety"?

First, let's look at the difference in the vowels. This is the result of the dastardly Great Vowel Shift, which messed with many English words between about 1400 and 1700. 

Back in Old English, all these words were much more closely related: fif, fift, fiftene, fiftig.  In all cases the first syllable would have originally sounded like "feef".  In the derivatives fift, fiftene, and fiftig, however, because the vowel was followed by two consonants, fif gradually shortened to sound like "fif".  Short vowels were not affected by the Great Vowel Shift, so these are still pronounced today as they were in the Middle Ages. Long stressed vowels, such as the long "ee" sound that still survived in "fif", however, moved to a different place in our English mouths, in this case to the diphthong we call a "long i".

And why is it "five" rather than "fife"? In Old English, fif  had various endings depending on the role it was playing in a sentence: fífe, fífa, fífum. Because there is a very old tendency in English to voice (i.e. to make the vocal cords vibrate when saying) consonants between two vowels, the second "f" became a "v", and voila, fif became "five".

Now you are no doubt wondering about "fife", the small flute. This came into the English language much later, in the 1500s, possibly from German pfeife, which already had what we would call a "long i", and which turned up too late for its final "f" to become voiced into a "v". 

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-calling-birds.html

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-french-hens.html

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.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! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email 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


 



Saturday, December 13, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Calling birds

http://www.peterward.info/Images/illustration/illustrationtwelvedays/maintwelvedays/mainfourcallingbirds.jpg 

"Bird" in Old English meant only the young of feathered creatures, like "kitten" for cats. The generic word for feathered things was "fowl". By about Chaucer's time "bird" was being used to mean not only young fowl, but also small adult fowl, until finally it supplanted "fowl" almost entirely. For a while before this happened, "bird" was also used for the young of other animals and even of humans. In fact, it was a quite respectful synonym for a young girl. So we have a 1300s quotation referring to the Virgin Mary as a "bird". Quite incongruous to our ears! 

As well as changing in meaning, "bird" changed in form. Originally the word was "brid". But, just as "thrid" became "third" by metathesis (for more on this, see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2012/04/friday-threeteenth.html), "brid" was metathesized into "bird" in the north of England and gradually worked its way down to the south, taking over by about 1400.

In the Christmas carol, the "calling" birds were originally "colly" birds, meaning they were black. This word derived from "coal", originally designating something black with coal dust or soot. 


For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-french-hens.html

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.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! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email 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


 
 

Friday, December 12, 2014

North America vs UK: Stuffers or Fillers?

 



Today we are going to take a break from the 12 Days of Wordlady for our regular Friday posting, but fear not, the Four Calling Birds will be arriving in a couple of days.

Today's topic is an interesting difference between British and North American English: on this side of the pond we stuff our Christmas stockings, and over there, they fill them.

Both expressions seem to date from the early 1940s (much earlier than the OED's current earliest quotations) and both seem to originate in the US.The custom of having Christmas stockings goes back at least a century earlier.


Harper's Bazaar - Page 23

https://books.google.ca/books?id=ONYhAQAAMAAJ
1939 - ‎Snippet view - ‎More editions
B16- • Five precision instruments on a pilot wheel • An amusing stocking-filler for a bachelor and to enhance his desk: clock, calendar, barometer, an infallible gift for an epicure is a can of Cafe hygrometer, thermometer. $75. B55. Rico for ...

Consumer Reports - Page 29

https://books.google.ca/books?id=g8vgAAAAMAAJ
1940 - ‎Snippet view - ‎More editions
For the little gifts — the stocking filler, or just remembrance gifts — the giver with a lean purse should seek out the five-and-ten: Here the little girl playing "mama" can be fitted out with all sorts of domestic trappings. Here the little boy playing ...

Hardware Age - Volume 146, Issues 7-13 - Page 42

https://books.google.ca/books?id=wo8TAQAAMAAJ
1940 - ‎Snippet view - ‎More editions
We have everything from the smallest stocking stuffer to big toys that you will want to buy now and have us store for you until just before Christmas. But no matter what you have in mind for your youngsters, get here today while our stock is ...

The idea didn't seem to catch on in the UK till the late fifties. Goodness knows why the alliterative "stocking stuffer" lost out there to the (in my opinion) lamer "stocking filler". If you have any theories based on our different personalities (or perhaps our different stockings), please share them.

And don't forget, whatever you call them, either of my books makes a great one! You can order Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do with Pigs and Only in Canada You Say from me and
Only in Canada You Say from amazon: 
http://www.amazon.ca/Only-Canada-You-Say-Treasury/dp/0195429842/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418403912&sr=1-2 

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! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email 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


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: French hens

Three French hens
So...if the country is called France, why isn't the adjective (and the name of the language) ... Franch?

The word was originally "Frankish", derived from the Franks who invaded Gaul after the fall of Rome and gave France its name (more about them in this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/01/frankly-im-incensed.html).
But a phonetic phenomenon happened in Old English words where the second syllable had an "i" sound in it, called "i-mutation" (more about this when we get to the geese a-laying). To put it simply, the "i" affected the sound of the vowel in the preceding syllable, so that Frankish morphed into "frenkish" and then got squished down to "Frenksh", ultimately written as "French".

Well, enough with the ancient phonetics, you really want to know about the connections between "French" and ... sexually transmitted diseases. 

When Europe experienced its first recorded outbreak of syphilis after the French siege of Naples in 1495, the Italians blamed the French, and called it "the French disease". The French had other ideas, and not surprisingly called it "the Naples disease". But "French" became the  popular designation throughout Europe thanks to a poem published in 1530: Syphilis, sive Morbvs Gallicvs ‘Syphilis, or the French disease’).  The author was (it goes without saying) Italian. Syphilus was the name of a shepherd in the poem, supposedly the first sufferer from the disease. Oh for the good old days of literature, when people wrote poems about ... venereal diseases.

The English were not slow to hop on the anti-French bandwagon, and called this new "pox" by various francophobic names: French compliment, French disease, French evil, French goods, French marbles, French measles, French pox. But, being equal-opportunity xenophobes, they also called it variously "Neapolitan", "Spanish", "Persian", and even occasionally "Scottish". One misguided person proposed the "English pox", but that surprisingly did not catch on.

Having wandered quite some distance from the origin of this post, I should say that I do not think there is any nasty innuendo in the true love's third gift!

And to take your mind away from syphilis, here are some adorable hens (and yes, they are French) from the delightful ballet La Fille mal Gardée by Frederick Ashton:

http://youtu.be/oAAodYX3xI8



If you love ballet, please check out my season of outstanding ballet trips by clicking here.

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.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! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email 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


Sunday, December 7, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Turtle-doves


I hope you've all recovered from the shocking revelations about partridges and are now ready to move on.

The first time I heard "the voice of the turtle is heard in the land" in the Song of Solomon, I thought, "That's just WEIRD. Do turtles even have voices?"

I was confusing two words of entirely different origins.

The turtle with a shell was originally a tortuca in popular Latin, believed to be a derivative of tortus (twisted), because the south European species had crooked feet*. This came into English around 1400 as "tortuce". This could be spelled in a dizzying variety of ways, so of course we ended up settling for the least logical one, "tortoise". Apparently, according to  some British English dictionaries, this is in fact pronounced "TORtoyze" by some people. Do any of you say this, rather than the more common "TORt'ss"?

Meanwhile the French had also got their tongues wrapped around tortuca, and had reduced it to tortu, so we borrowed that one too just to be on the safe side. 

This is where confusion arose. English sailors confused the word "tortu" with the already existing "turtle" (about which more later), and started calling marine tortoises "turtles". In North America "turtle" came to be the default word in common speech for all critters of the order Testudines, though zoologists make a distinction between strictly terrestrial tortoises and freshwater or saltwater turtles. 

The "turtle" with which  "tortu" became confused was the turtle dove, so called since Anglo-Saxon times, the proverbially affectionate pigeon which the Romans brilliantly dubbed a turtur in imitation of its burbling coo.

Here's a beautiful pas de deux from Frederick Ashton's Two Pigeons which plays on the association of doves and love (start at 1:40). (If you're a ballet lover, please check out my ballet website toursenlair.blogspot.com):


http://youtu.be/65sHoOe8guY?t=1m40s

Why is "dove" (and "love", for that matter) pronounced "duv" but spelled with an "o"? See this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/01/isnt-it-funny-how-bear-likes-honey.html
  *Note: Merriam-Webster gives a different etymology for this  "turtle": "modification of French tortue, from Late Latin (bestia) tartarucha, feminine of tartaruchus of Tartarus, from Greek tartarouchos, from Tartaros Tartarus; from Mithraic and early Christian association of the turtle with infernal forces"

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! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email 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




Thursday, December 4, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Partridge



I am starting today a series to keep you entertained during December and early January, looking at each of the gifts mentioned in the well-known "Twelve Days of Christmas" song. And, before you start protesting, yes, I know that the first day is Christmas itself and the last day Epiphany, but I don't delude myself that you would rather be reading daily Wordlady blog posts than having fun with your family over the holidays, so I'm spreading the joy a little bit.

First up: The Partridge.

Inquiring minds will of course want to know....

What does it have to do with farting?


When partridges are scared, they take off with a loud cackle and whirring sound of their wings. For this reason, the ancient Greeks called the bird a perdok, which was related to their verb perdesthai, which meant "to break wind." If you go even further back than Greek, into Indo-European, you find the root perd meaning "to break wind". As we have seen, this migrated down through Greek and Latin and French and English to give us "partridge". 

But it also migrated through Germanic into English, undergoing a few consonant and vowel changes to give us the word "fart"!

OK, you are never going to be able to hear this song in the same way again. 

If you or a friend would be interested in taking my "Rollicking History of English" course in downtown Toronto in the new year, please get in touch (wordlady.barber@gmail.com).

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! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email 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