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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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Condensed" History of the English Language course

I am once again offering my very popular course which explains why English is so weird, Tuesdays and Thursdays starting next week at the University of Toronto. If you have taken this course and enjoyed it, please pass the word on to your friends!

http://learn.utoronto.ca/interactive-course-search#/profile/2414

Friday, February 27, 2015

10 common usages once criticized as wrong

Quick now, what's wrong with saying "the prestigious Nobel Prize"? Nothing, you say? A mere 30 or so years ago, someone would have found fault with you for saying it. 

Wordlady readers know I get a kick out of looking at bygone prescriptive comments about the language which now seem ludicrous. Here's another bundle, gleaned from the Oxford English Dictionary.

1) agenda
O.E.D. Supplement (1972) : ‘[Treating agenda as a singular rather than a plural noun is] A use now increasingly found but avoided by careful writers.’


2) contrast
Introduced c1600 in the sense "contention, opposition", it was adversely criticized in 1644 as a new-fangled term. The word soon became obsolete in the literal sense but was reintroduced with the verb as a term of art c1700.


3) forth, adv., prep., and n.

Criticized as obsolete in 1771.

4) iron
The current standard pronunciation ("I earn" rather than "I ruhn")  was still criticized by some commentators in the 18th century.

5) microbe
This word was coined by the French military doctor Charles Sédillot in March 1878 from micro- (small) + ancient Greek βίος (life). It was coined expressly to provide a suitable alternative to a group of words (such as microzoaire, microphyte, animalcule) which had been used with greater or lesser precision to denote various types of microorganism. This formation has frequently been criticized on the grounds that, had an adjective *μικρόβιος existed in ancient Greek, it would have had the meaning ‘short-lived’.


6) narrate
1813   Quarterly Review  The style [of McCrie's Knox] is..free from all modern affectation, excepting the abominable verb ‘narrate’.


7) perfunctory
The first recorded use of the word, derived from Latin perfunctorius (done in a careless or superficial manner, slight, careless, negligent) in a book by Gabriel Harvey in 1592, was almost instantly criticized as an "inkhorn term" by Thomas Nashe. Borrowing from Latin and Greek was very popular in the Renaissance, resulting in many  polysyllabic words entering English. Since they soaked up a lot of ink, they were derided as "inkhorn (ie inkpot) terms". Some of these didn't survive, but many did to become part of our standard vocabulary.  Here's another one:  

8) neophyte
1583   W. Fulke A defense of the sincere and true translations of the holie scriptures into the English tong. Except you would coin such ridiculous inkhorn terms, as you do in the New Testament, azymes, prepuce, neophyte..and such like.


9) prestigious
On the grounds that the Latin (and original English) meaning of the word was "Of the nature of or characterized by sleight of hand, juggling, conjuring or trickery; deceptive, illusory; (of a person) that cheats or deceives, deluding.", use in the sense "Having, showing, or conferring prestige or high status; inspiring respect and admiration" was frequently criticized in the 20th century, and the  O.E.D. Supplement (1982) at that entry comments ‘in this sense many prefer to use prestigeful a. or some other adjective’.

10) raise, n.
Use in the sense "pay increase" was sometimes criticized by U.S. usage guides until as late as the 1980s, "rise" being preferred. Although "rise" is the standard UK term, "raise" is standard in North America.




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Friday, February 20, 2015

How do you pronounce "schedule"?

SKED or SHED? The pronunciation of the word "schedule" is something that provokes quite virulent debate, with some members of each camp feeling that only theirs is "correct". Why people get so dogmatic about these things, I don't know.

So what's the scoop (or is it the shoop)?

The word came into English legal and official language from French in the 1300s, at which time it was written "sedule" or "cedule" (plus other variants) and meant "a slip of paper containing writing". The first syllable was pronounced the only way it could be pronounced: "SED". In modern French cédule is still pronounced this way, and most European languages other than English followed suit:
Provençal cedula, cedola
Spanish cédula
Portuguese cedula
Italian cedola
German Zettel 
Dutch cedel 
Swedish sedel
Danish seddel

Why did we English speakers mess things up? French had acquired this word, like most of its vocabulary, from Latin, and this was the root of the problem. In Latin, the word was  scedula (in medieval and modern Latin also written schedula), a diminutive of Latin sceda (medieval Latin also scheda), a page or a strip of papyrus. This was probably a back-formation from schedium (an impromptu speech) in turn derived from Greek  schedios (casual);. In Latin, the first syllable was pronounced SKAYD. But in the passage from Latin to French, the "K" sound had fallen out of the word.

As regular Wordlady readers know, Latin messed up our spelling big time the 16th century. Scholars of the time looked at the original Latin and Greek words from which many English words were ultimately derived and said "Hey! We should spell our English words like that too [so that people will know I'm really smart and know Latin]!". So, sensible old "sedule" had to be changed to "scedule" or the even more popular "schedule". People still pronounced it "sedule", though (much as we still pronounce  "debt" as "det" despite that interloping Latin "b"), until well into the 19th century.

This is the point at which the SHED/SKED schism (SHIZZM? SIZZM? SKIZZM?) took place. Noah Webster convinced his American compatriots that the pronunciation should reflect the Greek origin of the word, and follow the example of similarly Greek-derived "school" and "scheme". In Britain, however, the SED pronunciation morphed into a SHED. 


We Canadians? Of COURSE we have to have both pronunciations. When we surveyed people for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary on this question, we found that more Canadians said "SKED" than "SHED", but that both pronunciations exist. The "SHED" crew tend to think that the "SKED" lot are traitors to Canadian nationality, having adopted an American pronunciation. This is quite a ridiculous attitude to take, as we don't feel the same way about the vast majority of Canadians who say "toMAYto" like Americans rather than "toMAHto" like the British. I say "SHED", by the way, but am unperturbed by those who say "SKED".


The now most common meaning of "schedule", a timetable, is a fairly recent development, dating only from the mid-19th century in the US. From being an official piece of paper in the Middle Ages, "schedule" came to apply to tabular listings of figures (which is why we have "schedules" to attach to our income tax returns). With the coming of the railways, it was a handy word to use for tabular timetables. 

Another thing that happened to "schedule" in the 19th century as a result of the railways was that it started to be used (here comes my hobbyhorse) as ... gasp... a verb. Noun-verb conversions, what would we do without them? Indeed, having now finished writing this, I am moving my cursor over to ... schedule it for publication.




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:

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Friday, January 30, 2015

From Utopia to Stepford: 20 words & meanings we owe to literary titles

A friend of mine, having just finished reading Joseph Heller's Catch-22, inquired this week how many English catch phrases were derived from book titles. She also mentioned "Jekyll and Hyde".

Wordlady is happy to oblige with more, extracted via some Oxford English Dictionary data mining (love that "Advanced Search" function!). There's even a Canadian one in here (though it hasn't made it into the OED yet). And I've included some famous literary characters who have "become words" too, if their name appears in the title of the book.

1) Babbitt
(the name of George F. Babbitt, the eponymous protagonist of Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel) 

A person likened to the character George Babbitt, esp. a materialistic, complacent businessman who conforms unthinkingly to the views and standards of his social set. 


http://www.strengthsinternational.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/New-Orleans.jpg

2) Big Easy 
[popularized by the title of James Conaway's novel The Big Easy (1970) and the 1986 U.S. film of the same name, and perh. originally coined by Conaway]  the city of New Orleans, Louisiana

3) bovarism
the name of the principal character in Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary (1857)
(Domination by) a romantic or unreal conception of oneself.

4) brave new world 
the title of a satirical novel (1932) by Aldous Huxley (after Shakespeare's Tempest v. i. 183) portraying a society in which ‘progress’ has produced a nightmarish ‘utopia’

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Arts/Arts_/Pictures/2009/5/5/1241530455098/Marlon-Brando-in-The-Godf-001.jpg

5) godfather

There is no equivalent expression in Italian of the use  with reference to the Mafia. In specific use with reference to the U.S. Mafia ‘boss of bosses’ after its use in the film The Godfather (1972) by Francis Ford Coppola, and the 1969 novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, on which the film is based 

6) last hurrah   
[after the title of E. O'Connor's novel The Last Hurrah (1956), which was filmed in 1958]
orig. U.S. the final campaign or initiative in a politician's career; (hence) any final performance or effort, a swansong.

7) Manchurian Candidate  
[popularized by the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, adapted from the 1959 novel of the same name by Richard Condon (1915–96)] 
a person who is (or is believed to be) brainwashed into becoming a subversive agent, esp. an assassin.

8) Moby Dick
Moby Dick, the name of the whale in Herman Melville's 1851 novel of the same name.
Something likened to Moby Dick, esp. in being very large, important, or impressive. 

9) needle park
popularized by the novel The Panic in Needle Park (1966) by James Mills, in which Needle Park referred to a traffic island in New York at the junction of Broadway and 74th Street.
A public area in a city, usually with trees, bushes, benches, etc., where drug addicts gather.


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Mr_Pickwick_1889_Dickens_The_Pickwick_Papers_character_by_Kyd_(Joseph_Clayton_Clarke).jpg 
10) Pickwickian 
the name of Mr. Pickwick, the eponymous character in Dickens's novel Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837) 

When applied to a person, usually used to suggest plumpness, joviality, benevolence, or innocence.

11) pimpernel
A person whose deeds are likened to those of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’; a person engaged in clandestine activities. Also: a person who or thing which is elusive or much sought after. In the novel the Scarlet Pimpernel (Sir Percy Blakeney) rescues victims of the Terror and smuggles them out of France.

12) point-counterpoint
Probably originally chiefly after the title of Aldous Huxley's 1928 novel Point Counter Point

The alternation of points (in an argument, etc.) in opposition or contrast to one another; a debate, argument, or match in which points for two opposing sides are made in succession.

13) quiet American   
[with allusion to Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American (1955)] a person likened to Graham Greene's character Alden Pyle, the ‘quiet American’, esp. in being involved in espionage, or in being naive or idealistic.
 
14) Stepford 
Stepford, the name of a fictional American suburb in Ira Levin's novel The Stepford Wives (1972), which was the basis of a popular film adaptation in 1975. In the novel and the film, Stepford is a superficially idyllic suburb where the men have replaced their wives with obedient robots.
 
Robotic; docile; obedient; acquiescent; (also) uniform; attractive but lacking in individuality, emotion, or thought.

15) three musketeers  
[translating French les trois mousquetaires (title of a novel (1844) by Alexandre Dumas père] 
three close associates

http://www.littleblackcherry.co.uk/ekmps/shops/yasmilena/images/-size-large-circ.-58cm-size--2457-p.jpg
 
16) trilby
The title of a novel by George du Maurier published in 1894, and the name of its heroine.
 1. colloq.
   a. A jocular name for the foot (with reference to Trilby's feet, which were objects of admiration). ? Obs.
b. A particular type of shoe. (Formerly a proprietary name in the U.S.) Obs.

 2. In full trilby hat: a soft felt hat, esp. one of the Homburg type with a narrow brim and indented crown; any hat of a similar shape.

https://tce-live.s3.amazonaws.com/media/media/4e44b2ba-988b-4361-82e1-beefe353be10.jpg 
17) two solitudes
from Two Solitudes (1945) a novel by Hugh  MacLennan, alluding to Rainer Maria Rilke “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other. ”

Cdn the anglophone and francophone populations of Canada, portrayed as two cultures coexisting independent of and isolated from each other.


18) Uncle Tom
The name of the hero of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel (1851–2) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, used allusively for a black man who is submissively loyal or servile to white men. 
 http://eranistis.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/utopia-2.jpg
19) utopia
post-classical Latin Utopia ( T. More De optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (1516)
 1 a. An imaginary island in Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), presented by the narrator as having a perfect social, legal, and political system. Critics have questioned the extent to which More intended Utopia to be understood as an ideal society, given the many seemingly satirical aspects of the book and the apparent contradictions between Utopian practices and More's own life.
 
2.a. An imagined or hypothetical place, system, or state of existence in which everything is perfect, esp. in respect of social structure, laws, and politics.
 b. A real place which is perceived or imagined as perfect.

20) 1984
Nineteen Eighty-Four, the title of a novel published in 1949 by the English author ‘George Orwell’ which gives a dystopian depiction of a future totalitarian state.
A totalitarian society in which propaganda and intensive surveillance techniques are used to subjugate the population. Hence allusively: a society in which personal freedom is (thought to be) similarly curtailed or controlled.

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:

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Friday, January 23, 2015

8 more surprising "language errors" that have become standard

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, said the Romans: "Times change, and we change with them".

From time to time I like to look at usages that have been roundly criticized in the past but are now standard. Click here for "11 surprising "language errors" that have become standard". 

Here are 8 more, from the peeververein (to use John McIntyre's great word) of the 19th century:

The Normal Grammar, Analytic and Synthetic: Illustrated by diagrams

Stephen Watkins Clark - 1870

"The teacher requested William to recite" is proper and not inelegant. But, "I believe the milkman to be honest" inelegant and objectionable. The thought is better expressed thus: "I believe that the milkman is honest".

Good Words - Volume 24 - Page 404

https://books.google.ca/books?id=D_BLAAAAYAAJ
Norman Macleod, ‎Donald Macleod - 1883 -


EXECUTION, EXECUTED -- We read, from time to time, that So-and-so was executed for murder. "Execution at Maidstone gaol" is intelligible enough; but "Execution of the murderer Nokes" is nonsense. The plain English is that the executioner hangs Mr. Nokes, and thereby follows out (which is the meaning of executes) the sentence of the law.

APPRECIATE, ESTIMATE --   The genteel vulgar are much given to appreciate  all sorts of things, without saying how or which way the appreciation is determined. You may appreciate a thing quite as much in detesting as in relishing it, provided that your detestation or your liking be definite. But in nine cases out of ten, where appreciate is used, the word should have been estimate.

"TERRORISM" -- What force has this abominable coinage that the word Terror lacks? What added meaning does your wretched ism confer? Let us pass from this absurdity to ananother, equally vulgar, feeble, and modern.

PURIST -- What a word! We have here possibly the only instance of an attempt to make a noun, by this clumsy inflection, directly out of a raw adjective. Puritist should be the term, if Puritan will not serve. But why there may not be puritans of language, as well as of life and religion, passes my power to guess.


Every-day Blunders in Speaking

https://books.google.ca/books?id=7pJRAAAAcAAJ
Edmund Routledge - 1866

"One of those American words has so insidiously and effectually crept into our books and periodicals that it has become recognised by most of our writers. It is the word reliable. I wish to ask you if I am right in assuming the word to be incorrect..."
 "I am very glad that you have drawn my attention to the use of this objectionable word...Its legitimacy...was..so clearly disposed of in Notes and Queries of 26th March, 1864...: "That there are forcible objections to this word appears to be evident to a large number both of writers for the press and others. It has not come to be regarded with general favour, but holds much the same position in the language as the verb to progress, which most persons who are careful as to their style avoid. ...it is not a word of just English formation...[F]rom "we depend on the man," "the man is to be depended on," we cannot form the adjective "dependable"... If we would form words in able and ible from such verbs we must take in the prepositions, as in the odd words come-at-able, get-at-able. Similarly from "to be relied on," "to be depended on", we should say relionable, dependonable... All this being so evident, I sincerely hope that the word "reliable" will be at length excluded from the pages of our newspapers and magazines, and especially from all books that wish to take an honourable place in English literature."

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:

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Very cool: History of English in 2 minutes

From the OxfordWords blog:
View an animation showing the growth of English  here.
This animation uses data from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to show how English has developed by borrowing or adapting words from different languages and regions of the world, from 1150 to the present day. These patterns of word-borrowing reflect the changing demography of the English-speaking world; cultural and economic influences on Britain; the spread of explorers, traders, and settlers; and encounters with other cultures.
Each data point shown here represents the first recorded use of a word in English, positioned according to the language from which the word was borrowed. The size of the data point indicates the frequency of the word: larger bubbles for higher-frequency words, smaller bubbles for lower-frequency words. You can pause the animation and hover over bubbles for more information about each word.
The progress bar at the bottom tracks the growth of English, subdivided into the major language groups from which words are derived. This reflects not only the number of recorded words in the language, but also how important those words are (how frequent they are in modern English). This shows how English has remained overwhelmingly dominated by the major language families of western Europe – Germanic, Romance, and Latin. The 7700 words derived from Germanic languages (the blue component of the progress bar) account for 49% of all English usage today. By contrast, the small yellow component at the end of the progress bar represents all borrowings from languages outside Europe: this includes about 5200 words recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, but accounts for only about 0.2% of all English usage today.
It’s striking to see how much of modern English was already established by 1150. Although the language at this stage contained relatively few words that have survived into modern English, these include most of the core words that we use all the time (the, run, head, etc.). So the summed frequencies of these words is very high, which is why at 1150 the progress bar is already over half-way to its modern total.

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:

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Wishing well

Several people have asked me in the last few months about the term "well wishes", as in "Thanks for your well wishes." Shouldn't it be "good wishes", they want to know. What is it with these newfangled changes to the language?!

Usually, when there is a flurry of questions about a usage, it means that particular usage has reached a tipping point in people's consciousness because it has become frequent. It also usually means it's too late to change it, should you be so foolish as to want to attempt to do so.

Indeed, "well wishes" has been on a startling upward trajectory in the last 30 years:



But to stop this nefarious new development in its tracks, you would have had to step in ... in Tudor times. The OED's first evidence of the phrase is this:

1595   A. Copley tr. R. de Cota Loves Owle sig. B2v, in Wits Fittes & Fancies   Thou art that spirit that S. Powle..pray'd our Lord to set him free From such a peeuish enemie of his wel-wishes.

"Best wishes" dates from about the same time, and it and "good wishes" have been very much more common over the years than "well wishes" (I have no explanation for the apparent peak of benevolence in the 1830s followed by a downward slide since then!):




People no doubt feel (and indeed have argued to me) that the adjectives "best" and "good" are what is required by the noun "wishes", whereas "well" must be wrong because it's an adverb. But "well" is also an adjective, and even a noun. In fact, in the phrase "I wish you well", "well" isn't functioning in a very adverby way. "I wish you well" is more like "I wish you joy/success/the best etc." or the archaic "I wish you happy" than it is like "I sincerely wish you would go away".


However you parse it, although "well wishes" is still dwarfed by its rivals, it does seem to be staging a comeback, no doubt helped along by the related "well-wisher" and "well-wishing".  

Since I was so embroiled in keys, quays, and cays last week, I haven't had a chance to wish all Wordlady readers well for 2015 (now, why don't we say "fiveteen"?), so let me do that now.


For another post about "well", click here.

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:
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(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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