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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Friday, September 24, 2010

Fiddling about

Symphony orchestras, with their armies of violinists, are back in season. Is their instrument a violin or a fiddle? Both words come possibly from Vitula, the Roman goddess of joy. Vitula became fithele in the Germanic language brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons, viole in the French brought by the Normans, and viola in Italian. In medieval England, the previously honourable pedigree of the Anglo-Saxon “fiddle” was soon under attack from the more prestigious French word, and then even more so from Italian, so highly prestigious in matters musical. So we now have the more formal “violin” and the slightly less formal “fiddle”.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Verbs: it's ok to do this. Really!

Consider the following work of fine literature. What do all the verbs (not counting the auxiliary verbs like "be", "have", "do") have in common?

What a morning!

My usual routine: plug in the kettle for tea, microwave the porridge, spoon some sugar onto it, wolf down a buttered, toasted bagel.
Then I showered, soaping myself down, shampooing and conditioning my hair.
I towelled myself off, then brushed and flossed my teeth and combed my hair. Since my skirt needed hemming, I threaded my needle and stitched it up, then ironed it. I zipped up the skirt, buttoned my blouse and pinned on a brooch.
Before biking off to work, I gardened a bit, deadheading the flowers, weeding the beds, and watering the flowerboxes. Typing really fast, I emailed a few friends and phoned some others. After printing out some stuff, I headed off to work, locking the house carefully. As I was pedalling along, someone darted in front of me and I had to brake really hard. Then someone doored me and I somersaulted over the car, landing on the sidewalk. Fine the bastard!!

Did you figure it out? Every single one of those verbs started out life as a noun. And yet people persist in saying "I hate it when people use nouns as verbs". The idea that you shouldn't "use nouns as verbs" is possibly the most ridiculous statement about the English language ever made. It seems to have cropped up in usage commentaries in about the 1980s and then spread virally without anyone ever examining it critically. So if you adhere to this rule, let me assure you: You only THINK you object to verbs that are created from nouns. If you really did, you'd be at a loss for words. Literally.

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, September 18, 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

Plazacast

I came across this word today in an article about opera companies (ballet companies do it too) doing free live broadcasts of their performances in giant screens outside their opera houses. From Google, it looks as though the word may have been invented by the Metropolitan Opera in 2007.

When coach was first class

With amateur sports getting into full swing, let's look at the originally Hungarian word “coach”. There are not many Hungarian words in English, but this is one. In late 15th-century Hungary, in the town of Kocs (pronounced COTCH), a new type of carriage was designed: the kocsi szeker. It must have been the Mercedes-Benz of its day, because all the best people throughout Europe just had to have one. It's a bit of a mystery why, because a picture of one from the 1500s shows a carriage with no roof and no suspension, but that's fashion for you. It got to England from France as coche in the mid-1500s, gradually applying to any kind of conveyance. In 19th-century Oxford student slang, a tutor who helped you improve your exam results (or your rowing) was a “coach”, because he carried or conveyed you along, sort of like a bus, geddit? Such wits they were.

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, September 12, 2010

Upward(s) and onward(s)

Recently someone asked me which was correct: "toward" or "towards".

Today the sternly reproving red squiggle of my mailer's spellchecker attempted to persuade me that my favourite, "towards" was "incorrect". But both "toward" and "towards" are correct in English. It seems that the British favour "towards" and the Americans "toward", but both are used on both sides of the Atlantic. When we researched the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we did a survey of Canadians and found, as is so often the case with Canadian usage, that they were divided about 50/50 between the two, perhaps with a slight edge for "toward".

In Old English, the adjective and preposition ended in -ward, a suffix meaning "in the direction of"; as in German, -s was an adverbial ending, so "towards" was an adverb, but even back then it was being used as a preposition as well, even by such people as King Alfred the Great. Of course, nowadays we no longer have an adverb "towards" at all; it is only a preposition. You cannot say "I didn't know which way to go so I went toward(s)." You have to go toward(s) something.

There are many words in this family: backward(s), forward(s), upward(s), downward(s), onward(s), heavenward(s), etc. Unlike "toward(s)", which is a preposition, these other words are adverbs -- he moved backward(s) -- but also adjectives, in which case only the s-less form is used -- a downward spiral.

This is what the OED has to say about the -ward(s) suffix
"In English the history of -wards as an adverb suffix is identical with that of -ward ; beside every adverb in -ward there has always existed (at least potentially) a parallel formation in -wards, and vice versa. The two forms are so nearly synonymous (the general sense of the adverbs being ‘in the direction indicated by the first element of the compound’) that the choice between them is mostly determined by some notion of euphony in the particular context; some persons, apparently, have a fixed preference for the one or the other form."

The pronunciation of "toward(s)" is also interesting. An older-fashioned pronunciation is "tord(s)"; the much more common current two-syllable pronunciation was apparently looked down upon as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, as the OED, which included it only as the last of four possibilities when the entry was edited in about 1910, has this note: "[this] pronunciation is not recognized in any modern dictionary, British or American, nor apparently by any orthoepist; but it appears to be the prevailing one in London and the south of England."

"Forward(s)" is an interesting case. It is quite unusual for people to use "forwards" in the phrase "look forward to" (although I have a friend who does say "look forwards to", and judging by a Google search, he is not alone, though in a smallish minority).

And speaking of that word, may I vent my spleen against one of my pet peeves (I don't have many, but I do have them): the much overused phrase "going forward". Why can't people just say "In future"? Or, hey, just use the future tense of the verb?

Here's a cute thought: there used to be a word "fromwards" as well. Perhaps the thing to do when you find yourself in the company of someone who overuses "going forward" is to promptly move fromward(s)!

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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(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


Friday, September 10, 2010

Playing hooky

School has just started, but some students will already be playing hooky or, to put it more formally, being truant. “Truant” comes from a Celtic word meaning “wretched” (probably something the kids hanging out at the mall aren't). When the word was first used in English, it was a term of abuse for a beggar thought to be sufficiently able-bodied, but too lazy, to make an honest living instead of panhandling. The first person so designated in English was that layabout Saint Francis of Assisi! “Truant” started being applied to children skipping school as early as the 1400s.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Samuel Johnson's garret

Lexicographers' cats


Keeping with the theme of "lexicographers' cats" I have included a picture of my own, Papagena.
And her predecessor Bathsheba is immortalized in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary entry for "enter", with the following example:
"entered Bathsheba in the cat show".

Samuel Johnson's cat




I was recently in London and had the great pleasure of visiting the house, not far from St. Paul's Cathedral, where Samuel Johnson's mighty dictionary was compiled. As you enter the quiet square, you are greeted by this lovely statue of Samuel Johnson's cat, Hodge. Johnson spoiled his cat, going out to buy him fresh oysters rather than asking his servants to do it lest they come to the resent the cat for having to run errands for him! You can see the oysters on the book -- the Dictionary, naturally -- which serves as the base of the statue. I have to wonder whether Hodge disturbed the lexicographer and his amanuenses by jumping up and stretching out on the tables piled with books in the garret where the dictionary was researched. What self-respecting cat would miss that opportunity?

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, September 5, 2010

A tip for teachers

Looking for something to spice up your classes, provide a warmup for ESL students, or a way to help you teach the history of the English language? Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs includes over 500 fun and fascinating word histories explained in a chatty, humorous, and accessible way. The words are organized thematically over the course of a year, so if Thanksgiving is coming up, you can find out why we call the bird a turkey if it's not from Turkey, or with the World Series on the horizon, you can find out that an umpire used to be a numpire (really!). There is also an index by language of origin, so if you're doing a unit on a particular culture, say India, you can easily find words that English borrowed from that culture (did you know "shampoo" was originally an Indian word?). You can order it directly from this blog!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

History of the English Language course at U of Toronto

Just a reminder that I am teaching a fun History of the Language course at the School of Continuing Studies starting September 13 for 8 weeks. You can still register by following this link; .

2414 History of the English Language

Did you know that the word "travel" is derived from an instrument of torture? That "tragedy" originally had something to do with goats? That hotels and hospitals have something in common? The fascinating history of the English language is full of such surprises. This course is a survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years, covering the Anglo-Saxon and Viking origins, the influx of Norman French and Central French, later Latin and Greek borrowings, standardization and French borrowing in the 18th century, and international borrowing since the 18th century. We will tie linguistic developments in with the social and political events with which they coincided. Topics will include why English spelling is so difficult, why we have such a large wordstock, and how dictionaries are written.

Federal judge strikes blow for lexical reference books!

A convict's desire to own a thesaurus is taken to court and upheld against wardens who deemed it wasn't "educational".

http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/856608--humpty-dumpty-takes-fall-in-b-c-court-ruling-on-thesaurus

I wish....

Just stumbled across this statement in a Calgary Herald article from earlier this year:
Since it first appeared in 1998, more than a million copies of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary have been sold. And Katherine Barber, who supervised its production and that of the 2005 second edition, has become a minor celeb as "Canada's Word Lady."
A million copies! Wow! So how come I don't have a job anymore???
(Actually I think that figure is, shall we say, somewhat exaggerated).

Tweeting about bunnyhugs?

This article in the Toronto Star suggests that regionalisms such as "bunnyhug" (Saskatchewanian for "hoodie") might spread thanks to Twitter and Facebook. I want "jambuster" (Manitoban for "jelly doughnut") to take over the world! Get to it, you Manitobans!
All the same, I wonder how much people actually talk about their hooded sweatshirts and doughnuts on Twitter or Facebook.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Word of the Week: pilot

Pilots will be showing off this weekend at Toronto's annual air show. To designate someone in charge of a boat, the English had been quite happy with the Anglo-Saxon word “steersman” till the mid-1400s. Why they decided they needed to replace it with a nifty new French word, “pilot”, we don't know. The French word came via Latin from the Greek pedota, from pedon (an oar or rudder). Since there were no aircraft, “pilot” was originally confined to people steering boats, but in the 19th century we see pilots in hot-air balloons, and just two years after the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1905, the word was being used of fliers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

No flora in your lightbulbs or toothpaste

Two related words which are very commonly misspelled are "fluorescent" and "fluoride". Don't forget the "U". Fluorescence and fluoride have nothing to do with flowers. They're derived from a mineral, fluor, called that because it is easily melted and thus fluid.

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


What century are they living in?

I was reading an online ballet magazine today which had a post, written this week, in which I was astounded to see that the writer wrote about "taking a 'bus" and "talking on the 'phone". Considering that the word "phone" has been used to mean "telephone" since 1880, a mere 4 years after Alexander Graham Bell first wrote about his invention, I think we can happily say that we don't need the apostrophe anymore.
"'Bus" is an even more glaring example of pretentious punctuation. We have evidence of "bus" as a short form for "omnibus" back to 1832, only three years after the first evidence of "omnibus" itself, which is so dead in the English language that surely no one needs to think that they have to memorialize that missing "omni" with an apostrophe. People, buy yourselves a dictionary published in the last decade!

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.