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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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fun, fun, fun



I have just started teaching a new session of my Rollicking Story of English course, and a fun time is being had by all. 

As usual, I start off right away by brainwashing, oops I mean indoctrinating, oops I mean educating my students about how, when they encounter  usages different from their own, it's better to be curious and dispassionate than to be censorious.

All the same, a student came up at the end of class to complain, oops I mean inquire about a "young people today" usage she says causes her to "roll her eyes": saying something is "so fun" rather than "such fun". I get this complaint a lot from people over 70 (most of my students being in that age group).

So, the noun "fun" has become an adjective. This is not a surprising phenomenon in English, where we can easily use any noun to modify another one. As time goes on, that noun used attributively is just treated like an adjective. Some other nouns that have also morphed into adjectives are:
  1. giant
  2. dowdy
  3. key
  4. myriad
  5. standard
  6. staple
  7. stock
  8. dismal
  9. cheap 
  10. genius
 "Fun" itself didn't even start out as a noun. In the 17th century, it was a verb meaning ‘‘to cheat or hoax", a dialect variant of late Middle English fon (make a fool of, be a fool), related to fon (a fool), of unknown origin. 

But in the 18th century, "fun" took on a new role as a noun, meaning "a trick or joke", and then "a kind of amusement". Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary, however, was not amused. He called it "a low cant word". But obviously it served a purpose, because it stuck around.

There is attributive use of the noun "fun" (functioning effectively as an adjective) going back to the earliest years of the 20th century:

The Sigma Chi Quarterly: The Official Organ of the Sigma ...

https://books.google.ca/books?id=5hATAAAAIAAJ
1907
Boys should have fun, but, as Superintendent Cotton says : "It is generally conceded that the fun side of boys and girls does not need any coaching." The high-school fraternity does not give the right kind of fun.

The Judge - Volume 69

https://books.google.ca/books?id=mzJKAQAAMAAJ
1915 
“Film Fun”, the new magazine of the Comedy Motion Pictures, is devoted exclusively to the fun side of the films. It contains illustrations, funny stories, jokes–everything to make you happy.

The Saturday Evening Post - Volume 192, Issues 44-48 - Page 122

https://books.google.ca/books?id=8no4AQAAMAAJ
1920 
Luxury articles were in demand. Manufacturers were making big profits on them. So they kept on paying high wages to these laborers who were making luxury articles—fun stuff

Motorcycle Illustrated - Volume 18 - Page 30 

https://books.google.ca/books?id=jdI_AQAAMAAJ 

1922 

... best looking blonde and brunette, for the most expert lady drivers of sidecar outfits: for the neatest lady's riding suit; for neatest solo and sidecar outfit, including machine and driver. And still other fun events, but there isn't space to tell you all.

Boys' Life - Jul 1947 - Page 13

https://books.google.ca/books?id=OewRADmIubAC
Vol. 37, No. 7 - ‎
FOUR-MAN CANOE RACE is a standard event that calls for plenty of teamwork. Place the best canoeist in the stern to keep canoe on the straight course. NO-PADDLE RACE is a fun event.

Having made that leap to attributive adjective, it was not hard to interpret "fun" as a predicative adjective rather than as a noun in sentences like "It will be fun". Logically, then, it requires the adverb "so" to modify it, rather than "such". It seems that "so fun" is a child of the Sixties, just after my students' linguistically formative years, the earliest I have found being: 

American kaleidoscope - Page 397

https://books.google.ca/books?id=-EYIAQAAMAAJ
Julius Toldi - 1960 
9-year-old Kathleen likes art "because It is so fun and It teches me how to be a good artes and takes us away from school most lee arithmatic
Since then, it has become more and more common. Soon, no doubt, it will be as unexceptionable as using "cheap" as an adjective. 

Personally, I say "such fun" (I think), rather than "so fun". What do you say? Does "so fun" bug you?

For other words that were condemned when they first appeared but have since become standard, see this post:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/10/11-surprising-language-errors-that-have.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:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
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
 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Of Blizzards and Snowzillas

 http://www.weather.gov/images/dmx/SigEvents/2012-12-19_Blizzard/Blizzard2.jpg

A furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow, in which man and beast frequently perish

Such is the rather poetic definition for "blizzard" (written in 1887, when #Blizzard2016 or any other hashtag was undreamt of) in the Oxford English Dictionary.
 
The origin of the word "blizzard" is a mystery. Before it started to be used of violent snowstorms in the 1850s, it was being used in North America to mean a violent blow. 
1856   Sacramento City (Calif.) Item   When some true archer, from the upper tier, Gave him a ‘blizzard’ on the nearest ear.
The OED speculates an onomatopoeic origin, mentioning such words as blow, blast, blister, and bluster. By the 1870s the word was being applied to snowstorms in the western US and Canada.  Not surprisingly for those of us who grew up in its tender climes, the first reference to a blizzard in Canadian sources is describing the weather in Manitoba in February 1875:
The glass measured -38 last night... The boss blizzard of the season howled over Manitoba on Sunday, and kept people from going to church and pleasure driving.
Technically, though, a blizzard is not just any big snowstorm.

For the US National Weather Service, a blizzard requires snow and/or blowing snow reducing visibility to 1 / 4 mile or less for 3 hours or longer and sustained winds of 35 mph or greater or frequent gusts to 35 mph or greater.

"Only THREE hours? Pfft!" says Environment Canada, which issues a blizzard warning when winds of 40 km/hr or greater are expected to cause widespread reductions in visibility to 400 metres or less, due to blowing snow, or blowing snow in combination with falling snow, for at least 4 hours. Anything less than that, and Canadians, it is well known, will be out barbecuing.

It is unlikely that the meteorological authorities in either Canada or the US will ever provide a technical definition of "snowzilla", a word which has been with us since early 2000. For more on the -zilla suffix, see this post :  http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/-Zilla

And we must not forget "snowmageddon", which came along in 2005 and is still going strong. 

Happy shovelling!


P.S. If you liked this post, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! Sign up here.
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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tea & Wordlady: Thurs. Feb. 18, "Wacky English"

Word lovers! What could possibly be better than talking about words?

Talking about words... while eating scones! 

"Tea and Wordlady"
Why the English Language is so Wacky

A fun look at how our language has evolved

Full afternoon tea (sandwiches, mini-quiche, scones, cream, and jam, fruit and petits fours, pot of tea) including tax and tip,
and a fun-filled one-hour talk and Q&A with
Katherine Barber

$50
Thursday February 18
230 pm
T-Buds Tea Lounge
2nd floor (17 steps)
3343 Yonge St, Toronto
At the corner of Yonge and Snowdon/Fairlawn
3 blocks north (about 5 minutes walk) 
of the north (Ranleigh) exit of 
Lawrence subway station

Space is limited to only 22


A great gift for your Valentine!

To register, please
1) send me an email (wordlady.barber@gmail.com) 
to say that you are coming
2) send a cheque for $50 per person (includes tax) made out to Katherine Barber at 
201 Hanson St, Toronto M4C 1A7.
If you use online banking, you can also do an Interac e-transfer.
3) On receipt of your payment I will email you your ticket(s) 

PS: If you want to know how to pronounce "scone", see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2011/06/con-or-cone.html)


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Tea and Talk

Word lovers! What could possibly be better than talking about words?

Talking about words... while eating scones! 

Therefore, I am proposing an entertaining
"Tea and Wordlady"
event to be held on a weekday afternoon in Toronto sometime in February.
Here are the details:
 
Full afternoon tea (sandwiches, mini-quiche, scones, cream, and jam, fruit and petits fours, pot of tea) including tax and tip,
and a fun-filled one-hour talk by  

Katherine Barber

$50
T-Buds Tea Lounge
2nd floor (17 steps)
3343 Yonge St, Toronto
At the corner of Yonge and Snowdon/Fairlawn
3 blocks north (about 5 minutes walk) of the north (Ranleigh) exit of Lawrence subway station

Space is limited to only 22

If you think this sounds like fun, please let me know, to help me schedule it, by emailing me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com:

1) which weekday(s) suits you

2) which of the following talks interest you (you can choose more than one!)

Why the English Language is so Wacky
A fun look at how our language has evolved

Bachelor for Rent:
Things You Never Suspected About  Canadian English
A hilarious look at what is distinctive about

Canadians and their language
 
Hebrew and Yiddish:
Alive and Well and Living in English
An entertaining look at how Hebrew and Yiddish words have enriched the English language over the course of its history
A great gift for your Valentine!
PS: If you want to know how to pronounce "scone", see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2011/06/con-or-cone.html)


Friday, January 8, 2016

Shakespeare's contributions to English



It's the beginning of a year-long party to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, so get ready for ... a lot of hooey about Shakespeare's contribution to the English language. All those words he invented!! I've written about this before, but there will no doubt be a veritable onslaught of claptrap in the next twelve months. 

Already The Globe and Mail  has published this nonsense from British PM David Cameron (which I suspect has been picked up by many newspapers):
"Shakespeare played a critical role in shaping modern English and helping to make it the world’s language"
I'm really not sure how Shakespeare helped to make English the world's language. Geopolitics did that. 
The first major dictionary compiled by Samuel Johnson drew on Shakespeare more than any other writer; 3,000 new words and phrases all first appeared in Shakespeare’s plays."
Well, at latest count the OED lists 1620 words whose first attestation is from Shakespeare, but hey, there's not that much difference between 3,000 and ... about half that many.  Many of those words are obscure or archaic, or in entries that are yet to be revised, and lexicographers will no doubt find earlier attestations than Shakespeare for most of them.
"Words such as dishearten, divest, addiction, motionless, leapfrog – and phrases such as “once more unto the breach,” “band of brothers,” “heart of gold” – have all passed into our language with no need to reference their original context."
Too bad that of these examples, the following all appeared before Shakespeare:
  • dishearten
  • divest
  • addiction
  • motionless
  • heart of gold 
and it's unlikely he invented leapfrog.
"He also pioneered innovative use of grammatical form and structure – including verse without rhymes, superlatives and the connecting of existing words to make new words, such as bloodstained – while the pre-eminence of his plays did much to standardize spelling and grammar."
We'll just hop over the fact that verse without rhymes is not "grammatical form and structure", and skip straight to...

Superlatives? Shakespeare pioneered superlatives? That would be news to English speakers who have been using "-est" since Anglo-Saxon times and "most x" since Middle English times, not to mention the occasional "most -est" double superlative. And English speakers have merrily been  "connecting existing words to make new words", a process otherwise called compounding, since Anglo-Saxon times.  

I don't want to be the party pooper at Shakespeare's celebrations. Many catchphrases indeed have their origin in his plays. But actual current, frequently used words? Not so much, that we can be sure of. And the ones that you often see attributed to him turn out,  when one does a very little research, not to be his coinages.

Shakespeare was a great writer, and there are many other aspects of his work that are worth celebrating. We do him a disservice by instead repeating these clichéd falsehoods.


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



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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Safe as hice

Some nice hice in San Francisco
Plurals seem to be the flavour of the month, with readers asking why many moose aren't meese, and this leads inevitably to the question, "If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn't the plural of house ... hice?"

"Mouse" was mus in Anglo-Saxon. Way back, when the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in England, its plural was musiz (pronounced moo-seez). Just as with "goose", the sound in the second syllable affected the first syllable (the phenomenon called "i-mutation"). Whereas gosiz became ges, musiz became mys (pronounced "meese"). With the Great Vowel Shift, this became the "mice" that we know today.

The Anglo-Saxon ancestor of "house" (hus), however, belonged to a category of noun, like the ancestor of "deer", where the form was the same in the singular and the plural. One hus, two hus. So there were no husiz to precipitate the i-mutation that would have led eventually to a plural "hice". 

Two house, two housen, two houses?
The unchanged plural "house" (one house, two house) actually survived into the 14th century, but it was ultimately defeated by two other possibilities. One was an irregular plural "housen", which still survives in some dialects.  Inevitably, though, the strength of the regular "add (e)s to make the plural" pattern in English gathered "house" to its ample bosom and "houses" was the ultimate winner.

But, just to make life difficult for ESL learners, we added a subtle pronunciation change to the plural. Whereas the "s" in "house" is pronounced with a hissing "SS" sound, without the vocal cords vibrating, that same "s" in "houses" is pronounced like a "z", with the vocal cords vibrating. (If you put your hand on your throat and hiss a "ss" followed by a "zz" you can feel the difference).

This phenomenon is caused by the fact that the consonant is between two vowels, and to utter a vowel, you HAVE to vibrate your vocal cords, so it's easier to keep vibrating them for the consonant in the middle as well.  This voicing of consonants between vowels (intervocalic consonants) has existed in English since the earliest times.

T becomes D, F becomes V, S becomes ...
We North Americans voice our intervocalic t's (e.g. "tutor" sounds like "Tudor"), and English has many words where an unvoiced "f" becomes a voiced "v" in the plural where the "e" following the "f" used to be pronounced: wife/wives, half/halves, leaf/leaves, life/lives, loaf/loaves, and so on.  With those, at least we indicate the change in sound by the spelling. But  "houses" is the only example in standard English of a plural where a voiceless intervocalic s becomes voiced. Think of words like "buses", "asses", "cases", "bases", "cabooses" (no, the plural is not "cabeese"!) and so on.
 
HOUZes or HOUSSes?
Being the sole example of a pronunciation phenomenon in the language is not good for phonetic job security. Inevitably the predominant regular pattern will start influencing the irregular one. And indeed, a reader from Michigan informs me that her children (in their fifties) pronounce "houses" with a voiceless ss sound, that is, "HOUSSez", although she herself says "HOUZes". I conducted a poll of my facebook friends, and of 73 who responded, only one, from Ohio, said "HOUSSez". Nonetheless, Merriam-Webster dictionaries include both pronunciations for the plural, and there is chatter on the Internet about the voiceless version (complaining about it, naturally). I cannot for the life of me understand why people get so upset about slight pronunciation differences. 

How do YOU pronounce "houses"?

For more information about mouse-related words (not to mention some titillating pictures), see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2012/08/of-mice-and-men.html

For some more examples of voiced intervocalic consonants, see these posts:

Congratulations, Women's Hockey Team! (Now, how do I say that?)

Off with their heads!

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:


use the subscribe window at the top of this page

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.




Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why is the plural of moose not meese?

Moose (North American meaning)


I've had quite a lot of traffic to my "Six Geese a-laying" post about why the plural of "goose" is "geese" rather than "gooses".

To save you going to that post (although there is also interesting information about "lie" and "lay" there), here's the explanation:  

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 late 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.

Inevitably, people want to know why, then, the plural of "moose" is not "meese". 

First, as with most or perhaps all members of the deer family, we use the same form of the word for the singular and the plural. (This is because the word that gave us "deer" belonged to a noun group in Old English which didn't add an -s for the plural).

But even if the moose belonged to, say, the cat family, and thus typically had a plural different from its singular, we wouldn't use the plural "meese". This is because, unlike "goose", the word "moose"  did not exist in early Anglo-Saxon times, so it couldn't undergo i-mutation. "Moose" was borrowed from Eastern Abenaki in the 1600s. The Abenaki are a native people of Quebec, the Maritimes, and New England, for whom this majestic animal is a mos.

Over the years, there have been occasional instances of people using "mooses" for the plural, but this is so much a minority usage that it has to be considered incorrect.

Just to add more complications to the story of "moose", the animal which it designates, called by zoologists Alces alces, is known as an "elk" in Europe. In North America, "elk" is used instead for the wapiti (a Cree word), Cervus elaphus canadensis.
Elk (North American meaning)
Are you confused now? I tell you, lexicographers hate these cervids!

Here in Canada we have a lot of moose. I was quite entertained on my first trip to Newfoundland, where there are an estimated 150,000 of them (one for every four Newfoundlanders), to find "Moose bourguignon" on a restaurant menu (yes, of course I ordered it). Mooseburgers are another option.

But we also have some more fanciful "moose" derivatives:
moose pasture 
noun Cdn slang
  • 1. a piece of land promoted as having mining potential but in fact unproductive.
  • 2. worthless land, useful only for grazing moose.
moose milk 
noun Cdn
  • 1. a drink including alcoholic liquor (usu. rum), milk, and often other ingredients, esp. eggs.
  • 2. home-distilled liquor.
  • 3. any alcoholic drink. 

Well now, all that remains is for me to wish you all a very merry Christmoose:




For why the plural of "house" is not "hice", see this post:

Safe as hice


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:


use the subscribe window at the top of this page

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