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, 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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Friday, September 19, 2014

With bated breath

Faithful readers! I know you wait for your weekly Wordlady fix with bated breath, and indeed one of you has asked about the origin of this phrase.

First of all, be careful with the spelling: the phrase is "bated breath", not "baited breath". "Bait" (something used to tempt or entice, as in a baited hook) comes from an Old Norse word meaning "hunt or chase" and is unrelated.

"Bated breath", for which our first evidence currently comes from Shakespeare (but see this post about the problematic nature of Shakespearean first evidence), comes from a now otherwise defunct verb "bate" meaning "lessen in intensity", which in turn was a shortened form of "abate". "Abate", originally meaning "beat down", came from the French abattre (to beat or cut down), which in turn came from Latin.

Originally, then, bated breath was literally shallow breathing, as one would do if whispering, trying not to reveal oneself, or holding one's breath in anticipation of something momentous. The phrase therefore came to be associated with the word "wait", until "wait with bated breath" came to be an idiom in itself, meaning "be in suspense or anticipate eagerly". 

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Eager, zealous, diligent, and addicted to study, yup

http://www.old-print.com/mas_assets/full/D5011905259.jpgWith school and university terms now underway, a Wordlady reader has asked about the words "pupil" and "student".


Both "pupil" the student in school and the pupil of the eye derive from the same Latin word, but took quite diverging paths. The Latin word was pupillus which meant "child", but specifically an orphan child, one who was under the care of a guardian. This is what the word meant when it first entered English. In Wycliffe's translation of the Bible in 1382, for instance, people are adjured to "visit pupils and widows in their tribulacioun". Two hundred years later, in Shakespeare's time, the word was being used to mean a university student; by the 19th century it came to be restricted to schoolchildren. 

Meanwhile, the original Latin word was also developing along other lines. The feminine form was pupilla, which, as well as meaning "female child", also meant "doll". The Romans used this word for the opening in the iris because if you look into the pupils, tiny reflected images can be seen. The word didn't get borrowed into English in this sense till the 1500s; before that the pupil was called the "black of the eye", or the "sight" or "sight-hole", or, way back in Old English, "the apple of the eye". .The figurative use of "the apple of someone's eye" dates all the way back to King Alfred the Great's time.

Teachers will no doubt be entertained to learn that the word "student", defined in its first sense in the Oxford English Dictionary as "A person who is engaged in or addicted to study" ("addicted"??), is derived from the Latin word stud─ôre (to be eager, zealous, or diligent at studying; to seek to be helpful). Although the language distinguished between students at university and pupils in lower education, starting in about 1900 in the US, the word "student" came to be used of all levels of instruction.

For the origin of the word "truant", see this post:

For the origin of the word "school", see this post:

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Pining for the fjords

http://laughingsquid.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/14627986986_957cbabae2_z.jpg
A Wordlady reader is intrigued by the word "pine" in the sense "long for something, usually unhappily".   Odd, really, when you think about it. Does it have anything to do with the tree?

Not surprisingly, when you think how iconic the pines of Rome are, the name for the tree came from Latin, in which the word was pinus. This was borrowed very early into English, when it was still Anglo-Saxon.

The verb "pine" started out as a noun (one of THOSE!) and also came from Latin, but from a different word, poena (a penalty or punishment). Those cheery monks who converted England to Christianity introduced this word so that they could talk about the nasty fate in  hell which awaited the Anglo-Saxons if they continued their heathen ways.

By the 1200s and 1300s, "pine" had taken on the meaning of any kind of physical or mental suffering, in some cases caused by severe lack of food, so it also came to mean "intense hunger".

The verb senses of "pine" paralleled its noun senses, starting off as "inflict or feel suffering", then "exhaust or become exhausted with physical suffering, especially from hunger, disease, or grief", and finally "long or hunger for, especially in a painful way". 

Along the way, "pine" lost its association with physical affliction, for which purpose it was replaced by the word "pain". Why was this? It was because of the English tendency to want to get its money's worth out of Latin words. One derivative is never enough.

This same Latin word poena had also made its way into French, where it became peine.  Ultimately, thanks to the Norman Conquest, it ended up in English towards the end of the Middle Ages as "pain" and took over that chunk of the semantic coverage of "pine".

And while we were on the "buy two Latin words, get the third free" plan, heck, why not take good old poena straight into English in its Latin form as well, which we did in the 1400s with the word "subpoena".  Sub poena were the first words, literally meaning "under pain [of a penalty for non-compliance]", of the summons requiring someone's presence at court. We were quite happy to spell it "sub pena" until the Renaissance mania for "authentic" Latin spellings complicated it.

This is a very good example of a common phenomenon in the history of English, where the same original word came into English at different times and by different routes and therefore ended up being pronounced differently.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: as well

#Canadianism of the day: as well = furthermore, moreover: Only Canadians use "as well" in a sentence-initial position

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: go to the washroom

#Canadianism of the day: go to the washroom = esp. Cdn euphemism defecate or urinate.

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If you find the English language fascinating, you should check out my entertaining history of the English language courses. More info here

Friday, August 29, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: make strange

#Canadianism of the day: make strange = Cdn & Irish (of a baby or child) fuss or be shy in company.

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If you find the English language fascinating, you should check out my entertaining history of the English language courses. More info here