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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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:

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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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:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady




Friday, January 9, 2015

This is key

It being winter, Canadian thoughts most naturally turn to...

Florida.

(As I write this, it feels like -27 Celsius outside, so who can blame us?)

A Wordlady reader has asked about the words "key" (used to mean a low-lying island, not the thing for unlocking a door), "cay", and "quay".


View Larger Map




View Larger Map


Let us start with the word "quay" (pronounced "key"). Here is the OED definition:

A man-made bank or landing stage, typically built of stone, lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships, a wharf.


It is certainly not a very common word on this side of the Atlantic, though here in Toronto we have a road running alongside the lake called "Queen's Quay". Really, why is English spelling so ridiculous? Try explaining to someone why that isn't pronounced "Kweenz Kway"! 

This word came into English from Norman French, and its origin can be traced from there to the Gaulish (Celtic) word caio- (an enclosure, probably originally an enclosing hedge). The French word was probably originally used with reference to fence-like wooden revetments, which were used to stabilize riverbanks and allow boats to moor. 

In medieval French and English, it was pronounced "kay" and (surprise) it was spelled "kay" or "cay". Then, however, the French adopted a new spelling for it, "quai", or "quay", and we just HAD to have this new spelling. The French had introduced "qu" spellings for English words like "queen" (originally "cwene"), because that is how they spelled the sound "kw". But French pronunciation moved on, with the "w" sound disappearing from their French words like "qui" and "quand", whereas we continued to pronounce our "w". So, whereas it made a kind of sense for the French to start spelling "cay" as "quay", it made no sense for us to follow them.

Another word that was pronounced "kay" at the same time was "key" (the "lock-and-key" one). It was pronounced "kay" until the late 1600s. But in Northern England, people started to pronounce it "kee", and this pronunciation crept southward. Under the influence of one "kay" pronunciation shifting to "kee", the pronunciation of "quay" also shifted from "kay" to "kee". This is how we ended up with a word that looks like it should be pronounce "kway" actually being pronounced "kee".

 Now to "cay".

A low insular bank of sand, mud, rock, coral, etc.; a sandbank; a range of low-lying reefs or rocks;orig. applied to such islets around the coast and islands of Spanish America.

This comes from Spanish cayo shoal, rock, barrier-reef , which may ultimately be of the same origin as "quay",or perhaps from a native Caribbean language.

 

Here are some examples of "cays":

 

The Exumas are an archipelago of 365 cays and islands, beginning just 35 miles southeast of Nassau.

Rama Cay is an island in the Bluefields Lagoon on the eastern coast of Nicaragua

The Prickly Pear Cays are a small pair of uninhabited islands about six miles from Road Bay, Anguilla, in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean. 

Just like "quay", the pronunciation shifted from "kay" to "key" (although for "cay" both pronunciations exist), and this brings us finally to our Floridian islands.  Because "cay" was being pronounced "key", people confused it with the other "key" (the "lock and key" one) and started using the spelling "key" for the low lying islands off the coast of Florida.

Remnants of the convoluted history of these words can be seen, for example:

Harbor Cay Drive, Longboat Key, Florida,

I'm sure the reader who asked about these words did not know how torturous it would be for me
a) sorting all this out 
and
b) looking at pictures of white beaches and azure water sparkling in the endless sun while I researched it. 

Longboat Key, Florida


Now, where's that Air Canada website? 



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
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


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

12 Days of Wordlady: The twelfth day

 
Oops, maybe not such a great gift idea. "But you didn't teach me much!"

Well, here we are at the 12th day of Christmas, otherwise known as Epiphany, and yet another inconsistency in English. If the cardinal number is "twelve", why is its ordinal not "twelvth" but "twelfth"?

This story is similar to the story of "five" and "fifth", but without the vowel shift. 12 was originally "twelf", and indeed variations of that survived until the 1600s. But often a pronounced "e", or some other ending starting with a vowel, was required after "twelf" for grammatical reasons. This vowel caused the unvoiced consonant "f" to eventually become its voiced sibling, "v", so that the spelling and pronunciation "twelve" were the established ones by the end of the Renaissance. 

This did not happen with the ordinal of "twelf", which was "twelft". Like "fift", it gradually changed by analogy with "fourth", so that by the end of the Middle Ages, it became "twelfth", leaving us with a consonant cluster even harder to say than the final one in "fifth". Not surprisingly, people were already saying "twelth" in the 1400s.

There we are, we're done!  

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
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email at wordlady.barber@gmail.com with the subject line SUBSCRIBE

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
 
For what lords have to do with bread: 
Why I'm not the Word Wench:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-nine-ladies-dancing.html

For why milkmaids work in a dairy rather than a milkery:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-8-maids-milking.html

For what swans have to do with singing, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-swans-swimming.html


Why we don't say "gooses" and "gooselings: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-geese-laying.html


For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-fifth-day.html  

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-calling-birds.html

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-french-hens.html

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.html

Sunday, January 4, 2015

12 Days of Wordlady: Pipers

http://www.oocities.org/theangells2002holiday/images/holidaylandimage/christmas/11PipersPiping.gif
The end is almost nigh for the 12 Days of Wordlady (or, as we have affectionately come to call it at Chateau Wordlady, "the blogathon from hell, whose idea was that anyway?"). Soon we will be reverting to our regular Friday schedule, or the end will be nigh for Wordlady herself.

So, to "pipe". This is a very old word in English. Its ultimate origin seems to be the Latin word pipare 'to peep, chirp', clearly imitative of a bird. But unlike most Latin-origin words in English, this one was borrowed from Latin while the Germanic tribes who later moved to Great Britain were still living on the continent. By the time they had settled down in England, "pipe" was being used to mean "make a birdlike sound by playing a tubular wind instrument".

The sense development for the noun in English was:
tubular wind instrument
tube of various sorts
tube used for smoking

"Pipe" would have been pronounced "peep" in English until the Great Vowel Shift. Birds, however, did not participate in the Great Vowel Shift, and obstinately kept saying "peep" rather than the newfangled pronunciation rhyming with "hype", so we had to invent the word "peep" (i.e. the chirping sound "peep", not the peeking out "peep", which is a different word) at that time.

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
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email at wordlady.barber@gmail.com with the subject line SUBSCRIBE

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
 
For why I'm not the Word Wench:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-nine-ladies-dancing.html

For why milkmaids work in a dairy rather than a milkery:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-8-maids-milking.html

For what swans have to do with singing, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-swans-swimming.html


Why we don't say "gooses" and "gooselings: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-geese-laying.html


For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-fifth-day.html  

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-calling-birds.html

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-french-hens.html

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.html








Friday, January 2, 2015

12 Days of Wordlady: Lords a-leaping


The Anglo-Saxons, living as they did in pre-glutenophobic times, were apparently obsessed with bread (or hláf as it was known back then, the ancestor of "loaf").

We have already seen that "dairy" came from a word meaning "kneader" and that "lady" came from a compound meaning "bread kneader" (hláfdige). 

The origin of "lord" was hláfweard (bread keeper). As usual, the women were doing all the work. Who was the hláfweard / lord (we've obviously lost a few consonants along the way) keeping his bread for (or from)? Why, the voracious servants, of course, known in Old English as hláf-ǽta, literally a ‘bread-eater’. This word has not survived.

I don't have ten lords a-leaping for you, but here's (quelle surprise!) one ballet dancer a-leaping, pretty darn nicely (and turning too): Josua Hoffalt of Paris Opera Ballet:

http://youtu.be/X2whiPYdcS8



If you love ballet, please check out my season of outstanding ballet trips by clicking 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:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email at wordlady.barber@gmail.com with the subject line SUBSCRIBE

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
 
For why I'm not the Word Wench:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-nine-ladies-dancing.html

For why milkmaids work in a dairy rather than a milkery:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-8-maids-milking.html

For what swans have to do with singing, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-swans-swimming.html


Why we don't say "gooses" and "gooselings: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-geese-laying.html


For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-fifth-day.html  

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-calling-birds.html

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-french-hens.html

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.html