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.
You can also order my best-selling book of over 500 intriguing word histories, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs. It's a fun read!


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Friday, November 21, 2014

Oh my darling, oh my darling...

I love this time of year, when the first crates of the aptly named Citrus nobilis var. deliciosa arrive in the grocery stores. Yum. How did this easy-peel, seedless cross between a Mediterranean mandarin (tangerine) and a sweet orange come by its more common name: clementine?

We owe it to a French priest, Father Clément Rodier, who first cultivated the hybrid, accidentally, it seems, in 1902 near Oran, Algeria.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the heroine -- daughter of a "miner, forty-niner" -- of the famous ballad dating from the 1880s. Her name, a feminine form of the French Clément, was fairly popular in the US in  the 19th century but slid progressively out of fashion in the 20th, finally disappearing off the charts in the fifties. Although her name is unambiguously pronounced to rhyme with "tine", the fruit can rhyme with "tine" or "teen". I myself say "teen", mostly because I first encountered the fruit in France, but, as a result, I have been roundly teased by other Canadians (for whom "tine" seems to be the overwhelming favourite) for being pretentious. What do you say? (That is, "How do you pronounce this?", not "Am I pretentious?")

Most of our clementines in Canada come from Morocco, and their older cousins the tangerines have a connection with the same country, for they are named after the Moroccan port of Tangier.

Both are subcategories of the mandarin orange, of Chinese origin, which is possibly so-called in reference to the rich yellow colour of the robes of the upper echelon bureaucrats in the imperial Chinese civil service.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Silent letters in English: The Series

One of the numerous things that bedevil English spelling are the many silent letters we have in our words. 

I have already addressed a number of them in other posts:

the p in ptarmigan

the h in heir, honest, honour, hour and (for some people) herb

the b in crumb

the b in lamb, comb, and dumb

the (for some people) first r in February

the g in reign

the t in hustle, castle, bustle, bristle

the c in muscle

the (for most people) first d in Wednesday 

the l in almond, calm, psalm, and palm

Clearly, there are so many I can't deal with them all in one post, and there are still more, so we should now consider this a series.

The latest installment is inspired by a kindergarten teacher neighbour of mine who relayed a question from her students (out of the mouths of babes, as they say): Why is there an "l" in "could"?

As irregular verbs go, this one takes the cake. Quick, what's the infinitive of "can"? 

"To be able to".  

Sheesh. It's from a different language altogether, "able" being a word of French origin, and "can" being Anglo-Saxon. 

Of course, in Anglo-Saxon, there was an infinitive, cunnan, whose relationship with "can" was much more obvious. Cunnan, however,  meant "to know" (it is the source of our word "cunning").  It was only by the 1300s that its meaning had slid from "to know" through "know how to do something" to "be able to do something".

The past tense of cunnan was cuth, spelled couth by the French scribes who meddled with English spelling after the Norman conquest. You will have guessed that it is the source of our word "uncouth", which slid from "unknown, unfamiliar" to "strange" to "distasteful, unpleasant" to "clumsy, awkward", finally landing in "uncultured" by the 1700s.

"Couth", meanwhile, as the past tense of "can", gradually saw its -th ending replaced in both speech and spelling by a -d, so that by the 1500s it was spelled "coud". Unfortunately for it, this meant that it now rhymed with a couple of other auxiliaries, "should", and "would".  These came by the "l" in their spelling honestly, "should" being a form of "shall" and "would" being a form of "will". But by the 1500s their "l" was no longer pronounced. 

Instead of doing the sensible thing and dropping the "l" out of "would" and "should", we did the English thing and, by analogy, inserted a perfectly unjustified one into "coud".

Good luck to the kindergarten teacher in explaining this one. No wonder teachers have to resort to "just because" so much! 

P.S. If you are interested in taking my popular "Rollicking Story of the English Language" course in Toronto after Christmas, please email me and let me know what day(s) and  time(s) (morning or afternoon) would suit you best.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The power of acronyms


Hmmm, what could that mean? Let me consult a dictionary. Oh, here it is. 

Bachelor of Divinity and Stipendiary Magistrate (in New Zealand). 

Sounds eminently respectable. Certainly no one should be fired for being a Kiwi theologian judge in their private life. And look, apparently there's a whole "community" (what a cozy word that is) of them out there.

"No, Katherine," you say, "you lexicographers don't get out enough."

This acronym has been much in the news here in Canada since disgraced CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi used it in his facebook apologia for his sexual practices, which have precipitated a full-blown Canadian sex scandal (to paraphrase The Beatles, these are words that don't go together well).

Just think, though, of the power of using an acronym (or technically, in this case, an initialism). First of all, it distances us from the actual meaning of the words represented only by their initials. "BDSM" certainly doesn't confront us with the same reality and shock value as using the words "bondage, discipline (or domination), sadism, and masochism" (see, I really did know what it stood for), let alone "tying women up and beating them but it's ok because I'm having sex with them TOO."

Secondly, using an acronym suggests that EVERYONE is so familiar with this that it doesn't need to be written out in full. BDSM, RCMP -- surely they both come equally trippingly off the tongue for your average Canadian. Isn't it just an everyday phenomenon? Certainly all the hip people don't have to have it explained to them. And if YOU don't know what it means, then clearly you're one of those boring types who are not "adventurous in the bedroom".

My advice to you is: when people resort to alphabet soup, they are often aiming at obfuscation or trying to pull the wool over your eyes. And you should resort to a snappy initialism of your own.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Voting or polling?

After our recent municipal elections, a friend posted this picture to facebook,
Photo: Gael Spivak
commenting, as a fan of Plain English, that  the unambiguous wording "voting place" was much better than the more traditional "polling station". Polling stations are more commonly "polling places" in the US, but the latter term was also used in Scotland's recent referendum. Incidentally, I noticed on all similar pictures in Google Images of Ottawa signs that they were affixed with the same blue tape, which makes me wonder whether democracy in Ottawa is being held together by duct tape, but I digress.

It's "polling" that's the issue. Since the word "poll" took on the meaning "conduct an opinion survey" in the early 20th century, that has become by far its most common meaning. The "record votes in an election" sense has been replaced altogether, surviving only in these compounds, "polling station" and "polling place". So there is an argument to be made that "polling station" is now misleading, or at least not helpful, especially in a society like Canada's where English is a second language for many.

"Voting place" seems to be catching on in official communications from the elections authorites (though Elections Canada still seems to prefer "polling station"). However, in newspapers, the favoured word is still overwhelmingly "polling station", by a factor of 10 to 1.

Here in Toronto, whatever we call our venues, our signs went for a very efficient, space-saving, bald command (or maybe, in view of the ghastly four years of municipal politics we've just endured, it was a plea?):

I wonder if anyone has done a study on whether a verb lures more people to vote than a noun does. I know there have been studies showing that using the word "please" persuades people to act, so maybe in future our signs should say "Please vote here".

Where did "poll" and "vote" come from?

"Poll" arose in the  13th century, possibly borrowed from Dutch pol (top, summit), and originally meant "the part of the head on which the hair grows, the top of the head". It soon came to be used as a verb meaning "shave the hair on the head" and, after a couple of centuries, this verb was being used to mean "establish a head count" (a much more recent expression dating from the early 1900s). By the 1600s, "poll" was being used to mean "count votes" and, later "cast or record a vote".

"Vote" comes from the Latin vōtum (vow, wish), a past participle of vovēre (to vow, desire). Like many words borrowed from Latin, it came into English at the Renaissance, but was used only by the Scots until the 17th century.

So, if it hadn't been for the Scots, those Toronto signs would say "POLL HERE".

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The cream of the crop

Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians!

I hope you all enjoy a generous dollop of whipped cream with your pumpkin pie (I feel it is only a matter of time before the medical establishment determines that cream is, in fact, the absolutely best thing for our health).

Most dairy-product-related words go back, not surprisingly, to Anglo-Saxon times: milk, cheese, skim, curd, butter, cow. But "cream" didn't crop up in English till the 1300s. So, first of all, you have to wonder what the Anglo-Saxons called the stuff, since they obviously knew it existed. Their word was fliete, which was related to "float" (because cream floats on top of milk). "Cream" came into the language with the arrival of the French. We probably ended up using the French word because cream is, after all, a luxury product, and the French were the ruling classes in medieval England. 

Where the French got the word is an interesting story. They crossed a word from Gaulish (i.e. the language of the Celts living in France before the Romans arrived) meaning "cream" with the Latin word chrisma (an oil for anointing). In particular, chrisma was a specially consecrated oil mixed with balm  and used in certain sacraments such as baptism and confirmation. "Chrism" has this meaning still in modern English. Since cream is a fatty substance, the French took this Latin word meaning "oil" and applied it to "oil of milk", so to speak.

For the story behind "pumpkin", click here
For the story behind "turkey", click here

And if you're a fan of cream teas, you might want to check out my ballet trip to London in February. Click here for details. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

When is a Segway not a segue?

I recently came across this sentence in an article about Royal Ballet dancer Eric Underwood:
"And while he may not have intended for his “black and white” remark to be a pun, it does create a segway into ballet and its relationship with race." 

"Segway" is a proprietary name for a kind of scooter. One has to assume that this is not what the writer had in mind.

The correct spelling (and indeed the inspiration for the name "Segway") is "segue", which admittedly is a pretty unusual way in English to transcribe a word sounding like "SEGway". But, like so many musical terms, this one is originally Italian, segue being the third person singular present of seguire (to follow). It came into English, again like many Italian musical terms, in the 18th century, and has been used since then as a musical direction (1) to proceed to the following movement without a break, and (2) to continue a formula which has been indicated.

It chugged along as a technical term known only to musicians for a couple of centuries, until the mid-20th century, when musicians started to use it to mean "transition without a break from one melody or song to another". By the 1970s, "segue" had expanded beyond the world of music to cover any kind of transition, and was being used as both a noun and a verb.

All of the conjugated forms of "segue" look a little odd, but here they are: segues, segued, segueing.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Finding one's elf

Back in my dictionary editing days, my colleagues used to have a game that would help us get through the tedium of proofreading 1700 large pages of tiny type. (What, you say, lexicography can be less than a non-stop barrel of laughs?)

As you can imagine, the word "oneself" is used a lot in defining verbs used reflexively. Sometimes the typesetter would break it incorrectly at the end of a line, so that instead of getting "help one
self: serve one
self with food"
We would get
"help ones
elf: serve ones
elf with food"
We found elves like this all over the dictionary. (If you find any that made it past our eagle eyes, please.... I don't care.)

OK, so were desperate for something, ANYTHING, to provide some distraction. My point, and I do have one, is that "oneself" is one word. In the past little while I've seen people write "one's self". "One's self" is wrong; the word is "oneself", just like "itself".

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