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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Saturday, August 23, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: rag the puck

#Canadianism of the day: rag the puck = waste time intentionally.

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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 22, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: kick at the can (or cat)

#Canadianism of the day: kick at the can (or cat) = an opportunity to achieve something.

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.
Follow me 
on twitter: @thewordlady
on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/katherine.barber.37

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

Easy as pie

http://www.gentileproduce.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/peachpie.jpg 

What better time than August, with its abundance of fresh fruit, to talk about the word "pie".

In Latin the word pica was the name for the bird we call a magpie. The French did their usual drop-a-consonant squishing job on this word and turned it into pie (still the French word for this bird). But after we borrowed it from French, we got creative.


First of all, we added the nickname “Mag”, short form for “Margaret”, to the word for the bird, so that now we call it a “magpie”.

Then, in the 1300s, we started to use "pie" for a pastry-enclosed dish of meat or fish and other ingredients. Although the etymology of our edible pies is uncertain, it could be related to the bird, in reference to either its spotted appearance or its tendency to collect different articles, pies being made of assorted ingredients. 

A couple of centuries later, we got the bright idea of putting fruit in pies, and by the 1800s pie was so popular that eating it had become the quintessence of something easy to do, hence "easy as pie", and one's reward in heaven was referred to as "pie in the sky".

To return to the Middle Ages, though, another development of the word "pie" will be of particular interest to indexers. 

A third type of "pie" was a book of directions for church services, listing how saints' feast days could be moved if they coincided with a big feast day such as Pentecost or Easter. Why was this book called a "pie"? Possibly because the pages had a very black-and-white blotchy appearance from unevenly spaced blocks of text. Other similar types of reference books also came to be known as pies or pie books, especially alphabetical indexes to records. There was even a verb in the 17th century, to “pie” meaning to make an alphabetical index.
 
(Incidentally, pica the typeface is possibly related to this, perhaps having been used in one of these liturgical indexes, called “pica” in Latin.)

There are more unsuspected links between indexing and magpies, however. 

A "gazetteer" is a geographical index, for a map or atlas. This word was first used in 1693. This comes from the word "gazette" from Italian gazzetta.  The gazzetta was a type of newspaper first published in Venice about the middle of the 16th century; similar news sheets appeared a bit later in England. They seem to have been the tabloids of the time; the OED says "the untrustworthy nature of their reports is often alluded to by writers of that period; thus Florio [an early-17th-century Italian-English lexicographer] explains gazzette as ‘running reports, daily newes, idle intelligences, or flim flam tales that are daily written from Italie, namely from Rome and Venice’."


The Venetian gazzetta could be had for the price of a coin also called a gazzetta. But there is a possible  connection to gazza (magpie), as the publication was a gallimaufry [there, I've always wanted to use that word!] of trivial items like those gathered by the notoriously thieving bird.

When I revealed these hitherto undisclosed links between their profession and magpies to the Indexing Society of Canada and pointed out that a magpie was in fact a good symbol of what indexers do, flitting over a book and removing attention-grabbing items to their "nest" at the back of the book, the indexers were so tickled by it that they have adopted the magpie as their mascot and created this very handsome pin:

Magpie Pins for Sale (continued)




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.

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

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady






Thursday, August 21, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: hang up one's skates

#Canadianism of the day: hang up one's skates = retire from professional life.

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.
Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: no guff

#Canadianism of the day: no guff = 1. a declaration of truthfulness. 2. an expression of mock surprise at a statement.

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.
Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rollicking Story of the English Language

I am once again offering this fun survey of the English language, described by one of my students as "the best course I've ever taken".

Wednesdays, 1:30-3:30 pm, October 1 - December3
Goethe Institute
100 University Ave., North Tower,
Suite 201
on the west side of University a few steps south of King
St Andrew subway station
This venue is fully accessible.
Nathan Phillips Square parking garage is 9 minutes walk away.

Price: 10 2-hour classes for $250 including HST
Enrollment limited to 20 people.


Please register in advance by 

emailing me or phoning me 416-693-4496
and sending a cheque made out to
Katherine Barber
201 Hanson Street
Toronto ON
M4C 1A7
Please write "English course" on the cheque


  1. Oct 1 Celts and Anglo-Saxons:

Celtic and Latin relics from pre-5th century Britain. The Germanic origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar. Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use apostrophe s for the possessive.  Relics of Anglo-Saxon dialects in Modern English.



  1. Oct 8  Using the Oxford English Dictionary.

A primer in using this essential online and print tool to research the history of English words.



  1. Oct 15 The Vikings:

Old Norse borrowings into English. Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous.



  1. Oct 22 The Norman Invasion:

A brief history of French. Middle English. Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The origins of chaotic English spelling.





  1. Oct 29 The Renaissance: Early Modern English

Spelling and pronunciation don't jibe. The Great Vowel Shift. Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"? The effect of Shakespeare and the King James Bible on the vocabulary



  1. Nov 5 The 18th Century:

The prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century at the origin of our present grammar “rules”. The original dictionaries and Samuel Johnson. Re-examining our pet peeves.  Why are British and American spelling different?

  1. Nov 12 The 19th Century to the Present :

The influence of Sir Walter Scott, the industrial revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire. Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags".

  1. Nov 19 American English:

Have they corrupted the language? Noah Webster and his dictionary.

  1. Nov 26 Canadian English:

The history of Canadian English. Are we more British or more American? How we can be very confusing to other English speakers.

  1. Dec. 3 Writing Dictionaries :

How do new words enter the language? What do lexicographers do?



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! Sign up here.

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady




Rollicking Story of English: Kitchener-Waterloo

FALL SERIES THURSDAY AFTERNOONS - 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.
FORBES FAMILY HALL
RIM Park
Manulife Financial Sportsplex
2001 University Avenue Waterloo

The Rollicking History of the English Language

Why is English spelling so chaotic? Why do we have so many synonyms? What might your name tell you about the history of the language? What is the history behind your favourite language pet peeve? This course is a highly informative and entertaining survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years. We will tie linguistic developments with the social and political events with which they coincided. Forget your dull high school English classes as Katherine Barber takes you on a surprisingly hilarious trip through a crazy language.

Katherine Barber is known as “Canada's Word Lady” for her frequent and popular media appearances discussing matters of language in general and Canadian English in particular. She supervised the publication of two editions of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and many other smaller dictionaries. One of the foremost authorities on Canadian English, she vivaciously and humorously communicates her knowledge and love of the history of the English language.
October 16 - Celts and Anglo-Saxons
Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use the apostrophe for the possessive. German origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar.
October 23 - Vikings
Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous. Blame the Vikings.
October 30 - The Norman Invasion
Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The Norman Conquest, Medieval England and the origins of chaotic English spelling.
November 6 - Renaissance English
Spelling and pronunciation don't jibe. Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"?

November 13 - The 18th Century
Re-examining our pet peeves. British spelling and American spelling are different. Why?

November 20 - The 19th Century to the Present
Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags".

November 27 - Canadian and American English
Have they corrupted the language? How we can be very confusing to other English speakers.

December 4 - Writing Dictionaries
Not as dull as you might think: How do new words enter the language? What do lexicographers do?

http://www.tal-kw.ca/