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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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Friday, March 4, 2011

A tram named Desire

Streetcars – or trams as they are known in Europe – are a hot topic in Toronto. “Tram”, derived from a Germanic word meaning “beam of wood”, started its English life in Scotland as one of the shafts on a wheelbarrow (who knew there was a specific word for that?). In the coalmines of northern England, the word started to be used for the wheeled carts themselves, which eventually were run on iron rails called “tramways”. When this light rail system was adapted for passengers in the coal-mining area of Wales, the coal-mining word migrated with it.


  1. Hello,

    In Romanian, a streetcar isn't just a "tram", but a "tramvai". I don't know how it was acquired, I don't know if the German population there played a role.


  2. I expect it came from French, where "le tramway" is the word for this. German is Strassenbahn, so unlikely to have played a part.

  3. Katherine, I wonder if you would comment on the following quote from the Globe and Mail, March 3: "Bibliotherapy is a basic tenant of children's narrative," said Judith Saltman. I know Judith ---very literate ---and am sure she was misquoted! But "tenant" and "tenet" both come from the same source, no? Which is why they may often be confused.

  4. Excellent suggestion, Michele. Tenant and tenet are often confused. I will address this in this week's usage post.

  5. looking forward to that (Tenent and tenet)


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.