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 books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

More reasons not to trust your spellchecker

Frequent readers of Wordlady know that I love to dance, and yesterday I saw something in the paper that suggested a new Terpsichorean possibility for me: "They went to Spain for flamingo lessons". I can see myself in a hot pink tutu standing on one leg with the other bent backwards at the knee. Presumably the people in question were really taking flamenco lessons. Two words I wouldn't have thought anyone would confuse, but yet another reason not to trust your spellchecker.

Flamingo was borrowed into English from the Portuguese word flamengo when the Portuguese started exploring the New World and discovering flocks of this exotic fauna in the Caribbean and South America. Flamengo came from the Latin word flamma (flame), because of the bird's bright pink and red colouring (flamingo trivia: this is due to carotene in its diet, sometimes supplemented in zoos by food colouring!).

Interestingly, though, in Spanish, the word flamenco is used for both the pink birds and the stirring music and dance style originated by gypsies. Although the origin of flamenco is uncertain, it is also the word for "Flemish" in Spanish, and it is thought may have been used indiscriminately by Spaniards for anyone they deemed "foreign".

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Who loves ya, baby?

Happy New Year to all Wordlady readers! The New Year is traditionally symbolized by a baby. Before 1377 this couldn't have happened... because we didn't have the word “baby”! It and the related “babe” cropped up in the 1300s, possibly as a short form of an earlier word baban, which in turn probably arose in imitation of a baby babbling. Of course, they did have a word for newborns before then: child. But as it gradually came to apply to older children, something was needed to fill the gap, and “baby” did it. Incidentally, the use of "babe" to mean a woman, particularly a good-looking one, dates from the beginning of the 20th century.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hoarfrost in a downward spiral

Further to my previous post about "hoarfrost", I just used google's nifty new word frequency tool, http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=hoarfrost&year_start=1800&year_end=2010&corpus=0&smoothing=3, to track usage of the word since 1800. There is definitely a quite rapid downward trend since 1946, a trend that is common to both American and British English. I know, let's blame global warming! Or possibly people are avoiding this word because of the phonetic similarity with "whore". Intriguing!

Why not to trust your spellchecker

Just saw this on a menu:
"Sandwiches may be mad on any beard of your choice."

Word of the week: mall

Heading to the mall these days may seem like an endurance sport, and “mall” does have its origin in sports. A trendy game of the 1600s was “pall mall”, involving balls – Italian palla – being whacked by mallets – Italian maglio, from the Latin malleus (hammer). The very long alley in which this was played came to be known as the “mall”. After the game fell out of favour, malls – often roofed over to protect from the English climate – became a fashionable place to promenade. In the 1950s, the word seemed appropriate for the long covered walkway down the middle of the new enclosed shopping centres, and thus for the whole complex.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chomping at the bit: bridle vs bridal

Just when I think there are certain homophone confusions no one will ever make, I come across ... "bridle party" instead of "bridal party". Admittedly, it's not that common a mistake (most of the examples on the web are journalists making puns in headlines about the horsey set), but some people do make it. And it's one you really don't want to make, as apparently the term is also used for a sexual practice that Wordlady doesn't want to get into. That is, she doesn't want to get into explaining it! Well, actually, neither does she want to... oh, never mind.

Back to my staid etymological persona!

Bridle goes all the way back to Old English, derived from a Germanic root bregdan (pull or twitch), which is also the origin of the word "braid". The -le ending is what is called an "instrumental suffix", meaning "something with which the root verb can be done"; for example a handle is something which you can take in your hand; a girdle is something which girds you. So a bridle, the headgear of a horse including the bit and the reins by which it is controlled, is literally a tool used for pulling.

Bridal, which also goes back to Old English, has a very interesting history. It was originally a noun, literally meaning "bride ale". It used to mean the banquet and other festivities associated with the wedding, when, of course, the Anglo-Saxons would quaff a lot of ale. I guess wedding receptions haven't changed much in 1500 years. But by about 1600, people started to think that "bridal" was an adjective meaning "of a bride". They were influenced by that -al ending, more typically used in adjectives (nuptial, mortal, fatal...) than in nouns.

Remember, using the wrong homophone is something that your spellchecker cannot identify or correct!

PS: some readers have commented that they think the correct expression is "champing at the bit". Please check out my other post about this, Breakfast of... chompions?

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:

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

English spelling: a cross we have to bear

Misspelling across with two c's is surprisingly common. Remind yourself that it is in fact related to the word cross; originally, in the Middle Ages, across meant "in the shape of a cross", that is, with one (often shorter line) intersecting a longer line at right angles. So you could hold your arms "across" your body. Then it started to have the sense of "from one side to the other of something", when the longer side was being traversed. Nowadays, when we go "across", something, it doesn't matter if we're using the shorter axis or the longer; we're just getting from one side to the other. In fact, if I say "I cut across the park", I'm likely to be doing it diagonally, which is the longest axis of all. But if you remember the image of a cross, it will perhaps help you to avoid that incorrect double-c spelling.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A frosty Friday

This time of year, we sometimes see hoarfrost in the mornings. Hoar in Old English meant “old” – a sense which still survives in the phrase “a hoary old joke”. From meaning “old”, hoar came to mean “grey-haired from age” and then simply “greyish-white”. The frost that forms on trees looked to the Anglo-Saxons like white hair on the head, so they called it “hoarfrost”.
I was talking about this word to some friends and was quite surprised to learn that they thought it was a fairly obscure word that they themselves wouldn't use. Perhaps this is because hoarfrost is not a very frequent meteorological phenomenon in Toronto. I didn't ask them what word they would use when it does happen. But I'm curious: is "hoarfrost" part of your active vocabulary? If not, what would you call the white frosty stuff that forms on trees and grass? Let me know in the new, improved, easy-to-use (I hope) comment field.
See also the results of my inquiry into the declining popularity of this word in my post "Hoarfrost in a downward spiral".

Friday, December 3, 2010

Word of the week: plastic

As we give our credit and debit cards a workout in the next few weeks, it's hard to imagine using the noun “plastic” as when it first appeared in English in 1598, in an art treatise: “Carving is nothing else but a painful imitation of plastic,”. Back then it meant the art of modelling in clay or wax, a sense of which we still see a hint in “plastic surgery”. Derived from a Greek word meaning “moulding”, it was very handy when the highly mouldable substance we now know as plastic was invented in the early 20th century.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

New improved easy commenting!

Thank you to my faithful readers who alerted me to the fact that adding a comment to this blog seemed to be requiring special clearance from the CIA (or CSIS for us Canadians)! I have now clicked and unclicked a few things (that I wasn't even aware of before) so you should be able to comment easily (please make them nice comments!). You will still have to click a button that says "profile" but you can choose "anonymous" or just fill in your name (or a nom de plume... in this day and age possibly a nom de keyboard). My apologies for any frustration you may have encountered attempting to respond to my inquiry about how you spell "grey/gray".

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The long and the short of it

Length, width, breadth, depth, and .... height?

Which of these things is not like the other ones? Why don't we have a -th at the end of the noun derived from "high" as we do with other nouns describing dimensions? Do you feel superior when you hear someone say "heighth", convinced that you are right and they are wrong? Well, stop it.

The "heighth" pronunciation goes much further back in English than the upstart "height", a northern dialect form which took over, for unknown reasons, after about 1550. Indeed, the OED's "height" entry, which was written at the end of the 19th century, gave "highth" (a form which so eminent a person as the poet Milton preferred) as a second headword along with "height". As late as the 18th century this spelling was giving "height" a run for its money, but I doubt the OED lexicographers would include it now, as "height" has established itself as the only standard spelling. But in Old English and Middle English, the form with the -th ending was more common. I'll save the explanation of why we spell "height" with an "e" but "high" without one for another day.

Nowadays people who use the -th pronunciation tend to tack the sound on after a -t- sound (on the analogy of "width" and "breadth", almost certainly affected by that contending pronunciation ending in -t, and possibly influenced by the pronunciation of "eighth"). In the Middle Ages the -t- sound before the -th- would have been absent. It is not uncommon for older pronunciations to survive in North America after they have died out in Britain ('erb for "herb" is a very good example). So, in North America at least, the pronunciation "heighth" can be considered simply a variant rather than an "incorrect form".

While we're on the subject of dimensions, did you know that the word "width" was a literary invention of the 17th century, replacing the word "wideness", with which we had been quite happy for about 500 years, and standing alongside "breadth", which had cropped up a century earlier. (English has never been a language to make do with one word for a concept when two are available.) Samuel Johnson was of the opinion that "width" was "a low word". That just goes to show how little impact lexicographers' pronouncements have on usage! "Depth", was a similar latecomer, appearing in the 14th century to bump off "deepness", which had been the Old English word.

Of these dimension words ending in -th, the only one that dates back to Old English is "length", and you may be interested to know that, judging by the spelling, people have been pronouncing it "lenth", without the "g", since at least 1400. The word "lengthy" was an American invention of the 1600s, inevitably attacked as a dastardly and unnecessary Americanism by British usage commentators of the 1700s. Thus do usage pet peeves fade away with the passage of time!

I hope you haven't found this blog post to be lengthy, as "lengthy" usually has connotations of being overlong and tedious. But it certainly has been a long one, unlike my usual posts, which tend to be distinguished by their... shorth?

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Monday, November 29, 2010

More than one Brussel

I am currently organizing a great "Ballet and chocolate" trip to Paris and Belgium over Eastertime (if you're tempted, please email me at toursenlair@gmail.com for more info!), so I've been thinking a lot about the capital of Belgium, and more specifically about its famous mini-cabbages. Don't forget: Brussels has an s on the end of it (except in Flemish, but we're not speaking Flemish) so those little brassicas are Brussels sprouts, not Brussel sprouts (a very common spelling mistake).

A grey (gray?) area

Yesterday in Canada was our annual football championship, the Grey Cup. The trophy is named after one of our Governors General, but for those of us who are more interested in language than in football, the burning question is: why do we have two spellings for the colour grey? The Anglo-Saxon word, graeg, diverged into some forms with “a”, parallel to the evolution of the word “clay”, and some with “e”, parallel to the evolution of the words “whey”, “fey”, and … “key” (how annoying English spelling is!). Blithely ignoring both the lexicographers who favoured “gray” and also, more justifiably, the pundits who maintained that “gray” and “grey” were two different shades (!), the British public finally opted for “grey”. Americans prefer “gray”. Canadians use both, but “grey” more often. The family name, which can also be spelled both ways, was originally a nickname for someone with grey hair.
I'm curious to know which spelling you use. Post it in the comments!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Desert vs desert

Further to my previous posting about desserts and deserts, I should point out that the "desert" in "just deserts" is not the dry, sandy place. These are two different words; they just happen to be spelled the same way. The Sahara is a desert (pronounced DEZZert); the word comes from the Latin desertus (abandoned, left waste) and is related to the verb "desert", which is (confusingly) pronounced duhZERT.

The "desert" in "just deserts" is pronounced duhZERT, but is related to the word "deserve".

So, to summarize:
desert 1. noun. dry sandy place, like the Sahara. Pronounced DEZZert
desert 2. verb. abandon. Pronounced duhZERT.
desert 3. noun. what you deserve. Now only used in the phrase "just deserts". Pronounced duhZERT
dessert. noun. sweet thing served at the end of a meal. Pronounced duhZERT.

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:

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Friday, November 19, 2010

A cheery thought

Cheers! The Beaujolais nouveau has just been released. “Cheer” has its origins in an ancient Greek word for “head”, kara, which, by the time the Normans arrived in England, had become chere and meant the face or facial expression. Back then, it could be either a sad or happy expression, or even the emotion revealed by the expression. Gradually the association with happiness won out; so it was no longer possible to have a “sorry cheer”. By the 1700s a “cheer” was a shout of encouragement. The drinking toast did not crop up until the early 20th century.

Monday, November 15, 2010

No such thing as "just desserts"

I LOVE desserts. Cake, cookies, ice cream, pumpkin pie... love 'em all. So never would I dismiss these wonderful treats as "just" desserts (unless of course I was saying "Let's eat just dessert and forget about the main course"...).
Neither should you use the phrase "just desserts". Because what you probably mean is "just deserts". When someone gets what is coming to them, it is what they deserve. "Desert" in this case is spelled with only one "s".
Whatever way you think about it, there is no such thing as "just desserts"!
See also my desert vs. desert post.

Long-a-go and far-a-way?

In a similar vein to the mistake that people make with "sing-along" I have also noticed "look-a-like". There is even a TV show called this, mistaken hyphen and all. What is so hard to understand? One person looks like another. They look alike. You can even call them "lookalikes". Look-alike or lookalike. NOT look-a-like!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Word of the Week: Wallop

With the Royal Horse Show in full swing here in Toronto, there's a lot of galloping going on. “Gallop” comes from two Frankish words, wala (well) and hlaupan (run), which the Norman French brought to England as “wallop”. For centuries, horses walloped. Meanwhile, in Central France people couldn't say “wallop”; they changed it to “gwallop” and then to “gallop”. Being greedy, the English wanted that word too, and our horses started galloping instead of walloping. But we kept “wallop” for things making the sound of a hoofbeat – like thwacking someone upside the head!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sing a long what?

A spelling mistake I see very often is "Sing-a-long", as in "Sing-a-long Messiah". As opposed to "Sing-a-short Messiah"?

Ok, so Messiah is a long sing, but that's not what they meant! It mystifies me why people don't recognize the adverb "along" when they write this phrase. "Along" is hardly an obscure word! The audience is singing along with the performers. In fact, you can even write "singalong" as one word (although admittedly it does look vaguely Malaysian), thus saving you the question of where to include hyphens at all. So your choices are:
Singalong Messiah or Sing-along Messiah.

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:

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A dog will have his day

A popular attraction at Toronto's Royal Winter Fair, which opens today, is the performing dogs. Where did some of our favourite dogs get their names? A dachshund is literally a “badger dog” in German, as they were used to draw badgers from their dens. Another German dog, the poodle was originally a Pudelhund or “puddle dug” as they were developed as water retrievers, their clipped coats making it easier for them to manoeuvre in water. The spaniel was originally a Spanish dog: its name derives from the Old French espaignol (Spanish).

French or English?

Just found this wonderful example of franglais about a Paris hotel:

Relooké en 2009 par la styliste Marina Bessé, l’hôtel Edouard VII est élégant. Le bar rond apporte une touche très cosy.

Le charmant Ludovic et toute l’équipe servent une clientèle trendy. Les adeptes des cocktails ont suivi ici l’ancienne chef barmaid Sandrine Houdré-Grégoire, devenue responsable food & beverage de l’hôtel. le bar manager a élaboré la carte des cocktails. On peut également apprécier un snacking de luxe.

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:

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Out, damned apostrophe!

There has been a mini-flutter among some of my facebook friends who seem to feel for some reason that it is important to write "Hallowe'en" rather than "Halloween". 

Halloween has been written without an apostrophe since at least 1773, according to the OED, and among the people using that spelling were Robbie Burns and Queen Victoria. There is no more reason to spell it with an apostrophe than there is to write "fan'cy" (contracted from "fantasy"), "gam'ut" (contracted from "gamma ut"), "lau'nder" (contracted from "lavender"), or "goodb'ye" (contracted from "God be with ye"). I think you can let it go!
For more on why the apostrophe is doomed, visit this post.
For more on the pronunciation of "Halloween", see this post.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Not to be confused with politebeckia


My newspaper, ever a rich source of spelling mistakes, today had an article about a flower the writer called a "rudebeckia". That would be "rudbeckia", named after a Swedish botanist, Olaf Rudbeck, the botanical name for the plant more commonly called a "black-eyed Susan".

Friday, October 29, 2010

It's a cutthroat world out there

Just saw the following in a job posting:

"This will include working closely with the Marketing Department on marketing and signage deliverables, and the Production Department on artist involvement and some execution deliverables, and with other Sponsorship team members on sales and activation planning."

Execution deliverables, eh? Sounds more like they're hiring for the mob than for an arts organization!

Spelling mistakes: Piqued by peeking at a peak

An extraordinarily common spelling mistake is "sneak peak". Since a peak is a mountain, it would be pretty difficult to sneak one anywhere. What people mean is "sneak peek". I know they are being influenced by the -ea- in "sneak" (and truly English spelling is sadistic in cases like this), but that's no excuse. Whenever you find yourself using this phrase, STOP! and think about the spelling.

What is the difference between peak, peek, and pique?

A mountain or something that looks like one (whipped egg whites, for instance) or a metaphorical high point is a peak. It can also be used as an adjective, as in "peak condition", and a verb, as in "athletes train to peak for the Olympic Games".

A quick look is a peek. This can also be used as a verb, as in "he peeked around the corner". If you have a hard time remembering that it's spelled with a double e, think of other words that have to do with seeing things: see, seek, peer, even leer if that helps (hey, whatever it takes...)

If you're angry or resentful, you're having a fit of pique. If something makes you interested, it piques your interest. This is a fairly old word in English, coming from Middle French pique a quarrel, resentment, which in turn came from piquer to prick, pierce, sting.

It is apparently quite common for people to misspell "pique" too, writing "it peaked my interest", possibly thinking that the phrase means "bring one's interest to a high point". But it doesn't mean that. Perhaps thinking of the etymologically related word "piquant" will help. Food that is piquant stimulates your appetite for more, just as something that piques your interest makes you want more.

So if taking a quick look at a mountain makes you want to know more, you could say your curiosity was piqued by peeking at a peak!

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:

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Happy....Holloween?



Why do some people pronounce the first part of "Halloween" like the word "hollow"?

In Old English, the word we know today as "holy" was halig, pronounced HALLY. In the Middle Ages, the pronunciation started to shift from HALLY to HOLLY. We see this phenomenon in the word "holiday" (literally a "holy day"), where the original Old English pronunciation survives in the family name "Halliday", originally given to people born on a holy day. 

Subsequently HOLLY shifted even further to HOLEY. But in the word "hallow" (originally meaning "saint"), the final shift to HOLE never happened, leaving us with the two older pronunciations: HALLOW and HOLLOW.

The great pumpkin

“Pumpkin” started out in ancient Greek as pepon (a large melon). Migrating through Latin and French, it ended up in English as "pumpion". Squashes are related to melons, and English settlers used the word to designate the big orange squash they found in America, adding the suffix “-kin”. The change is a bit mysterious, because this suffix usually implies something small. The very first recorded usage refers intriguingly to someone's “pumpkin-blasted brains”, while the second, from 1648, is about someone being sued for letting his pigs destroy his neighbours' pumpkin vines. Pumpkins and lawsuits: pillars of American culture.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Don't make this common spelling mistake

Today I saw this surprising spelling mistake in the newspaper:
"Research shows owners who spoil their pets do not complain about behaviour problems more than ridged ones".
After puzzling a bit over what kind of a ridge the pet owners might have, I realized that the writer meant "rigid".
This made me think about a much more common spelling mistake; "priviledge(d)" for "privilege(d)".
How can you remember not to put a "d" in these words?
They both come from French, so if you remember that the consonant combo "dg" does not exist in French, that may help you. But only, of course, if you know French!
"Rigid" comes from the same Latin word meaning "be stiff" that gave us "rigor" (as in "rigor mortis") and "rigour" (strictness), and as you see, they have no "d". Perhaps a good mnemonic for "rigid" would be "oil rigs are rigid" -- we certainly hope they are!
"Privilege" comes from two Latin words: privus (private) and legis (law). A privilege is a "private law" -- one that applies to an individual only. Legis also turns up in "legislature" and "legislation" etc., which may help you, but only if you don't also spell those words with a "d"!
Personally, whenever I go to my ballet class or ride my bicycle or go for a walk, I think how privileged I am to have legs; I certainly never think it a privilege to have ledges!


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:

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Vote for Mr. Big(ger)

The race is down to the wire for candidates for mayor in the Ontario municipal elections. The word is derived from the Latin word for “bigger”: maior. (“Big” was magnus and “biggest” was maximus – all in all, a pretty irregular adjective!) This same word has also given us the word “major”. In ancient Rome, people standing for office wore a white toga (try not to think of how the current batch would look). The Latin word for “white” was candidus, and candidatus meant “dressed in white”; this is why we call them candidates.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Caius pronounced Keys

Visitors to Cambridge, England are often flummoxed to discover that the college called Gonville and Caius is pronounced "Gonville and Keys". The explanation (from the college's website):
After a period of some decline, the College was refounded and extended in 1557 by former student and Fellow, Dr John Caius. Dr Caius had been living in Padua in Italy, where he studied and practiced medicine and made a fortune. Whilst in Italy, he Latinised the spelling of his original surname Keys, to Caius (although it has always been pronounced "keys"). His most visible legacy to the College remains the very beautiful Caius Court and the College's three famous gates.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Days of the Week

Tuesday's child is full of grace. I was born on a Tuesday. Despite years of ballet classes, my experience does not bear this maxim out!
Perhaps because, etymologically speaking, Tuesday is the day, not of the Muse Terpsichore, but of the war god.

Unlike the month and the year, which were based on the cycles of the moon and the sun, the seven-day week was not based on any natural or astronomical phenomenon. It was devised by the Sumerians and Babylonians, and borrowed from them by the ancient Jews, who adapted it to the Biblical account of Creation, in which God laboured for six days and rested on the seventh. For the Jews, the day of rest was (and still is) what we call Saturday, and the following days were called simply "first day, second day," and so on. The early Christians moved the Sabbath to Sunday, in honour of the resurrection, but they maintained the ordinal numbering for the remaining days of the week, so Monday was "second day", Tuesday was "third day" and so on. Remarkably, this system survives in modern Portuguese, where Monday is segunda-feira, Wednesday terca-feira, and so on. Lithuanian and Latvian also name the days of the week with ordinal numbers.

But the spread of Christianity throughout Europe coincided with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The Romans named the days of the week after the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets that they knew at the time: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter (also called Jove), Venus, and Saturn, a habit that they borrowed from either the Egyptians or the
Babylonians. So what we know as "Tuesday" was "Mars Day". The long-term impact of the Roman Empire is still felt to this day throughout western Europe, where almost all the languages (except Portuguese as we have seen) retain these non-Christian names for the days of the week in some form. So the Roman "Mars Day" became the French "mardi".

The Romans were in Britain for 400 years, and their names for the days imposed themselves on the inhabitants (who didn't seem to have days of the week, or even seven-day weeks, at the time). Indeed, to this day the Welsh – the descendants of the people living in Britain when the Romans were there – have names for the days which reflect Latin origins, Sunday being dydd Sull, Monday being dydd Llun, Tuesday being dydd Mawrth, and so on.

But after the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons arrived from northern Germany. They and other Germanic peoples had encountered the Roman names for the days, and they translated them using the names of their Norse gods who were equivalent to the Roman gods after whom the planets were named. The closest Norse equivalent to the Roman god
Mars, the god of war, was the Norse warrior god Tiw, so Mars Day became Tiw's Day. The Norse equivalent of the trickster god Mercury, who also accompanied the dead to Hades, was Odin, or in Anglo-Saxon, Woden, so Mercury's Day became Wodnesday, our Wednesday. Like the Roman Jove, the Norse god Thor was in charge of thunder, so Jove's Day became Thor's Day. Venus was equated with the Norse goddess Frija, so
Venus's day became Frija's day. Saturn was not equated with any Norse gods, and this is why Saturday still bears its Roman name.

In Scandinavian languages, Saturday is lordag, literally "wash day" or "bath day". Maybe we should name our days like this: Friday = party day, Thursday = church choir practice day, etc. For me, Tuesday would be "Ballet class day" - still working on that "full of grace" thing!

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Use your head: eat cabbage

Cabbage – the ornamental kind in our gardens or the edible kind on our plates – is a sign that fall is upon us. Medieval English-speakers called it “cole” or, in the North of England, “kale”, since restricted to a particular curly-leaved type. But the ruling Norman French and their cooks used for this bulbous brassica a slang word for “head”: caboche, derived from the Latin caput (head). As French words were more prestigious, it won out, but “cole” can still be seen in “coleslaw” derived from the kool-salade (literally “cabbage salad”) brought by 17th-century Dutch immigrants to America.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Remember "post offices" and "mailboxes"?

I just finished using Canada Post's online tool to ship a parcel. I was expecting that once I printed out the shipping label I would be told to drop my parcel in the nearest mailbox. But no. Apparently I have to take it to a "Canada Post induction site". Really, that just means a post office or mailbox. But maybe my parcel will have to learn a secret handshake...

Friday, October 8, 2010

A real turkey



Turkeys don't come from Turkey. Why are they called that? In the 1500s, a West African bird with wattles and a featherless neck and head was imported into Europe via North Africa, which, being part of the Turkish-controlled Ottoman Empire, was thought of as Turkey. Thus the bird was called a “turkey cock”. When English settlers first saw a tasty but unrelated native American bird which had the same features, they called it a “turkey cock” as well.

And the original turkey cock? We now call it a “guineafowl”, as Guinea was formerly the name for West Africa.
 

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:

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Word of the week: quarry

Moose, deer, bear – for those gearing up for the hunting season, they can all be summed up by one word: quarry. After medieval hunters had killed their deer, they would place its heart and liver on a piece of its hide and let the dogs eat it as a reward (I hope you're not eating breakfast as you read this). The French word for an animal's hide was cuirée, which in turn came from the Latin word corium (skin). In English this became “quarry”, which, by the 1600s, came to designate the whole animal – or anything else – being pursued.
This has nothing to do with the stone quarry, which comes ultimately from the Latin quadrum (square) since stone is cut into square pieces.

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.