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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Thursday, April 28, 2016

A smorgasbord of possibilities



Inquiring minds want to know...

What's with the word "smorgasbord"? Does anyone use it anymore?

In my Winnipeg youth, quite a few restaurants boasted a smorgasbord or all-you-can-eat buffet, but it's a word that is hardly ever used in English in this literal sense anymore, except referring specifically to the original Swedish buffet of open sandwiches and other dishes, such as smoked and pickled fish, cheeses, and salads. 

Its etymology is as follows:
< Swedish, < smörgås (slice of) bread and butter ( < smör butter, cognate with smear n. + gås goose, lump of butter) + bord board n., table
Food fashions are notoriously transient, and the smorgasbord trend of the 60s and 70s seems to have been particularly fleeting. I don't really know if these smorgasbords limited themselves to authentic Swedish food; I rather think they were just buffets with a fancy name. 

But we English speakers have not abandoned the word "smorgasbord". That would be so unlike us, to get rid of a good word. It is alive and well meaning "a rich variety or selection".   Here are some examples of the types of smorgasbord we may hear about today:
a smorgasbord of:
sights
events
possibilities
ideas
approaches
political candidates
law school dropouts
Do you use the word "smorgasbord" to mean "buffet"? Did you in the past?

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Friday, April 15, 2016

When you are mizzled by English spelling

We all know that English spelling and pronunciation do not match up very well.

A facebook group I belong to recently had a very entertaining discussion of words that its members had mispronounced for a very long time because they had only ever seen them written.
The culprits:

WORD
MISTAKEN PRONUNCIATION
CORRECT PRONUNCIATION
Placebo
PLACE-bo
Pluh SEE bo
Pinochle
Pin OACH'll
PEE nuckle
Epitome
EPPY tome
ip PITTA mee
Awry
AWEree
Uh RYE
Rely
RELLee
Ruh LIE
Asylum
ASSY lum
Uh SYE lum
Misled
MIZZ'ld, MIZE'ld
Miss LED
Underfed
Un DERFD
Under FED
Ascites
ASS kitties
Uh SITE eez
Whodunit
WODD you nit
Hoo DUNNit
Subunit
Soo BUNNit
SUB you nit
Fatigue
FATTY goo
Fuh TEEG
Anathema
ANNA THEEmuh
Uh NATH uh muh
Voila
VOYL uh
Vwah LA
Infrared
In FRAIRD
IN fruh RED
Flamingo
FLAY ming go
Fluh MING go
Sundried (tomatoes)
SUN dreed
SUN dried
Nauseating
NAW seeting
NAW zee ate ing
Paradigm
Para DIDGE um
PARA dime
Omnipotent
Omnee POTE 'nt
Om NIP uh t'nt
Redolent
Ree DOLE 'nt
REDDA l'nt
Picturesque
PICK chur skew
Pick chur ESK
Cesarean
Seez ur EEN
Suhz AIR ee 'n
Pseudo
Puh SWAYED oh
SOO do
Hyperbole
HIPE ur bole
Hi PURR buh lee
Colonel
Koe l'n ell
KER n'll
Bedraggled
BED ragg 'lld
Buh DRAG 'lld
Hitherto
HITHER toe
HITHER too
Indict
In DICKT
In DITE
Chaos
CHAY oze
KAY oss
Fajitas
Fuh JYE tiss, FADGY tass
Fu HEE tuhzz
Aspartame
A SPARTA mee
ASS purr tame
Inchoate
INCH oh ate
In KO uht, INKO uht

What words have you had this experience with?

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, April 8, 2016

No rhyme or reason

Coat of arms of Canada.svg
There's a reason for those thistles and shamrocks

A Vancouverite facebook friend of mine recently posted that she had "rhymed off" her telephone number to someone. 

I leapt on it, as I am wont to do. "Did you know that 'rhyme off' is a CANADIANISM?" I exulted triumphantly (and felt quite smug when a few Americans chimed in to say that they had indeed been perplexed by her usage). "Ha!" said I. "Seeeeee! Other people don't use this!"

But I was much deflated the very next day when the First Law of Lexicography (The minute you make a pronouncement about a word not being used, you will be sure to hear it or see it in the mass media within 24 hours) raised its ugly head. Thanks to another facebook post, I learned that a certain Ross O'Carroll-Kelly (a name so cartoonishly Irish that it is, not surprisingly, a pseudonym) wrote this in The Irish Times
Sorcha goes, “Oh my God, Ross, this is the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done to me!”
I’m pretty sure it’s not. I could rhyme off a list, although I’m not sure it would help the situation.
Was I -- gasp -- WRONG about "rhyme off"?

The OED did not include "rhyme off" when they revised the entry for "rhyme" in 2010. Not surprising that they overlooked it, considering that there are only two instances of the phrase (both from Scottish speakers) in the 1.6 BILLION words of British Hansard (the record of the debates in the British parliament) between 1805 and 2005. Only one example (from Ireland) appears in the 100 million words of the British National Corpus. So it certainly isn't used in English English. 

The 1.9-billion word corpus of Global Web-based English has only 
5 examples from the UK, three of those being definitely Scottish, 
5 from Ireland,
none from anywhere else,
but a significant
18 from Canada
In contrast, in a mere 50 million words of the Strathy Canadian corpus, "rhyme off" appears 9 times. 

So I think we can still claim Canadian citizenship for this word. 

Or perhaps we should say Canadian landed immigrant status, because it seems we inherited it from our numerous Scottish and Irish settlers.

The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English has this entry:

rhyme off verb to recite; to talk (UK: SCOTLAND) From Scottish dialect rame (to talk nonsense; to reiterate): "For one thing, rhyming off the places he'd broken into."
The OED also has an entry for "rame":
Of uncertain origin.
Scottish, Irish English (northern), and English regional (northern)
To shout, cry aloud, scream; to keep up the same cry, to repeat the same thing continuously; to complain persistently.

So it would seem that "rhyme off" is actually a corruption by folk etymology of "rame off", and has nothing really to do with rhymes.  Clearly, it landed on fertile soil when it arrived in Canada, where it has continued to thrive

Tell us about YOUR usage of "rhyme off". Where are you from, and do you use it/recognize it, or not

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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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Of coffee, monks, and monkeys

 

This week, Wordlady is guest blogging for her friends at beautiful Château Mathias in the south of France. Find out the fascinating story behind your morning cappuccino by clicking here: 
http://chateaumathias.blogspot.fr/2016/03/of-coffee-monks-and-monkeys.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! You can either:

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Enjoy!



This week I was involved in a facebook discussion about the use of "Enjoy!" as uttered by waiters. The discussion started off with someone identifying this as an anachronism when she heard it in the recent movie Carol, set in 1950s New York. She felt that it has only been in use in the last 15 or 25 years (and said it "raises her hackles" whenever she hears it). In the old days, waiters would use the verb transitively, with the object expressed: "Enjoy your meal!"

(There's another usage of "enjoy" that came in for criticism in the past, but we'll come to that in a minute.)

As with many things, "Enjoy!" is older than you think. I remember people complaining to me about it in the 80s, but it goes back farther than that amongst Jewish English speakers, because it seems to be of Yiddish origin. This is what the OED has to say:
[In later use, probably after dialectal Yiddish genist.]
In imperative, with ellipsis of object: take pleasure in the thing (freq. food or drink) being presented.
1876   H. James Roderick Hudson ix. 304   Don't mind the pain, and it will cease to trouble you. Enjoy, enjoy; it is your duty.
1959   H. Golden For 2¢ Plain ii. 92   When my mother served our meals..she would always say, ‘Enjoy, enjoy’... The word ‘enjoy’ was seldom used by itself. It was always repeated.
1964   Prevention July in L. M. Feinsilver Taste of Yiddish (1970) 306   Just read, enjoy, absorb!
1985   L. Sanders Fourth Deadly Sin v. 41   ‘Spend money’, he said. ‘Enjoy.’
1998   30 All Time Great Recipes (BBC Good Food) Autumn 1/1   We hope that in this selection, you will rediscover some old friends—and make some new ones as well. Enjoy!
Apart from that intriguing first quotation from Henry James, the early examples are from Jewish English speakers. It's quite possible that "Enjoy!" could have been used in a Jewish restaurant or by a Jewish waiter in the 50s, but since the scene in Carol involved neither, it clearly was an anachronism. I wish film and TV writers would pay as much attention to linguistic anachronisms as they do to other production values. (See my posts on Downton Abbey here and here and on Murdoch Mysteries here and here.)

This is from Billy Wilder's 1960 megahit movie The Apartment (both the writer, Wilder, and the character being Jewish):
MRS. DREYFUSS Here. The best thing for dizzy is a little noodle soup with chicken white meat -- and a glass tea. She sets the tray down on Fran's lap. FRAN Thank you. I'm really not hungry. MRS. DREYFUSS Go ahead! Eat! Enjoy! She hands her the soup spoon, turns to Bud.
One can only wonder if the immense popularity of this movie, which was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five (including Best Picture), started "Enjoy!" out on its journey into the vocabulary of every restaurant waiter, Jew or gentile. 

It's hard to search online corpora for examples "with ellipsis of object", but already by the late 70s, The Globe and Mail was publishing this:

The church cookbook is a good book, too

Burkhart, Shirley. The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 01 Dec 1977: F.1.
...oven for 30 minutes, uncovered. Season and thicken. Enjoy.

and, as you can see from the BBC Good Food quotation in the OED, the usage was well established in British English by the end of the 90s.

In fact, there is British English evidence (referring not to food but to marijuana) from the early 90s:


Title Jay loves Lucy. Cooper, Fiona. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991, pp. 11-154. 3899 s-units.


Francis drifted in while Jay was changing.' Sweetheart!' he said, hugging her silk-clad body, butterflying her just-rouged cheek.' Best of luck! And happy birthday to you! Here's your prezzie. I feel like one of the three wise men, love, enjoy! 
All of the above examples are in the imperative, but the logical next step would be for the verb "enjoy" to start being used "with ellipsis of object" in other circumstances. And indeed, we are starting to see this:
.
Date 1999 (19990924)
Title CHEF DAVE HARTUNG DEMONSTRATES HOW TO PREPARE STRIPED BASS
Source CBS_Morning


ASSURAS: Don't force yourself. If you don't like rockfish... ENGBERG: I think that I can be forced into doing this. ASSURAS: It does look like a beautiful plate. McEWEN: Mm-mm-mm. You know, I love it. Dave knows exactly... ASSURAS: Uh-huh. ENGBERG: That is just terrific. Mr-HARTUNG: Very good. ENGBERG: That is just terrific. Mr-HARTUNG: Well, I'm glad you enjoyed .

Date 2011 (110828)
Publication information KIDSPOST; Pg. Y03
Title Bookin^
Source Washington Post


Almost 800 of you joined KidsPost's 2011 Summer Book Club. This year we featured books that were made into movies. We hope you thought about how books are different from movies, but mostly we hope you read and enjoyed. 

The interesting thing is that, if "enjoy" is to become a true intransitive as a result of this, it would be reverting to its very earliest usage in English, when it was borrowed from a now-obsolete French word and used to mean "To be in joy, or in a joyous state; to manifest joy, exult, rejoice."

You may be astounded and entertained to learn that this is not the first time that a usage of  "enjoy" has provoked criticism. In the 19th century some critics inveighed against "enjoy oneself" (if you can believe it).  They said that the "true" meaning of "enjoy" was "take pleasure in" and that therefore "enjoy oneself" could only mean "take pleasure [and we know exactly what kind of pleasure they had in mind] in oneself". SHOCKING!!! It goes without saying that this is a ridiculous objection to a usage that has existed since the 1600s.

All I can say is I hope you all enjoy yourselves when reading Wordlady posts.

How do YOU feel about "Enjoy!"? If you don't like it, what would you prefer waiters say to you? Let me know!


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, March 16, 2016

Oversight investigations

Furniture...and other things (including words)

Today at my "Tea and Wordlady" event, one of the attendees brought up the question of the meaning of "oversight". We both agreed that the use of "oversight" to mean "supervision" (e.g. "effective oversight of the financial reporting process") rather than "unintentional failure to notice" (e.g. "was the mistake due to oversight?") was both new and confusing.

"Well", said I, "I wonder how old that is? Surely just since the last century. Let me look it up."

You know where this is going, don't you?

Turns out the "supervision" sense is OLDER than the "negligence" sense. What's more,  both are older than I suspected: 1413 for the former and 1470 for the latter. The "supervision" sense has been in uninterrupted use over all those centuries.

Why, then, do we perceive it as "new"? Looking at some Google ngram charts of typical uses of "oversight" in this sense gives us a clue (keep scrolling after the chart):

Ngrams: regulatory oversight, effective oversight, subject to the oversight
You can see that it has become dramatically more frequent since the 1970s. If we look at another chart, for "oversight of" (which will include some in the sense of "negligence" but is predominantly in the sense "supervision"), we notice something else: before its rapid post-1970 rise, this sense was DECREASING. Those of us born between 1940 and 1970 were therefore at the bottom of the trough of "oversight" usage in this sense, so its dramatic increase in frequency since then (to the point where it is now much more frequent than the "negligence" sense) appears to us like a brand new usage. (Keep scrolling, I'm not done yet.) Ngrams: oversight of

 

Moral of the story: never assume that a usage is new just because you've never heard it before. It may be, in the parlance of the used-car salesman, just "new to you". 

All the same, it's odd to have one word with two apparently contradictory meanings: close attention paid to something vs. failure to do or notice something. It's surprising that both have survived for so long. One of these meanings may become obsolete; with the way things are going, it's likely to be the "failure to notice" sense. But perhaps not. If we've lived with this for over 600 years, perhaps we can continue to muddle along.
 
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, March 4, 2016

National Glamour Day

The Kate in this picture is into glamour; the Kate writing this post is into grammar


Well, apparently it's National Grammar Day. I don't know where these "days" originate and don't usually observe them, but hey, I'm as much of a sucker for people clicking on my site as other people, so I am going to share the surprising history of the word "grammar".

"Grammar" comes ultimately from the Greek word gramma (a letter of the alphabet or something written). In theory, "grammar" in the Middle Ages meant the study of language, but in practice it meant only the study of Latin, because Latin was the only language that was taught using the study of structures. People probably weren't even aware that languages like English, French, and German even had something that could be called "grammar". Many students are probably wishing at this point that we could go back to those innocent days.

Grammar is magic

Because "grammar" meant the knowledge or study of Latin, it was also used to mean the knowledge of those who belonged to the learned class, and this knowledge was thought to include magic and astrology. So "grammar" or "gramarye" could mean "magic" or "occult learning" as well.

Grammar is beauty
 
Yet another variant of this word was "glomery", which the Scots changed to "glamour" in the early 1700s, still with this association with the occult. So "glamour" started out in Scots English meaning "magic" or "spell". Then Sir Walter Scott used it  in this sense. Because Scott's novels were such big bestsellers, this Scottish word became very popular, shifting in sense to mean a kind of bewitching beauty, and gradually acquiring its current sense of highly refined beauty or attractiveness. 

When I was a teenager, my sister and I used to read Glamour  magazine (you would never be able to tell by looking at me now). I bet it wouldn't sell half so well if it were called Grammar magazine!

Grammar is glamour

So, unlikely as it may seem, grammar and glamour have the same origin.

A couple of spelling issues with "glamour". 

  1. Even Americans spell it this way; there is no "glamor" variant listed in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary. This is because its history is different from other words ending in -our/or (for which click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2011/07/discouver-vancouver.html)
  2. Just to be annoying, however, the adjective derived from "glamour" is spelled "glamorous" by everyone.  This maintains the pattern established by such pairs as "humour/humorous", "odour/odorous", "rigour/rigorous" etc.


May 18 & 19 "Tea and Wordlady": Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English is filling up. Book before the end of March. You don't need to know anything about Hebrew or Yiddish to enjoy this presentation. For information, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2016/02/tea-and-wordlady-hebrew-yiddish-in.html 

March 16 "Tea and Wordlady": Bachelor for Rent: Things You Never Suspected About Canadian English is now SOLD OUT 



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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