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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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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

One pizza, two...?

There's been quite a lot of response to my recent post about the plural of "antenna", some of it of the "shock, horror" variety. The prestige of Latin and Greek plurals has a strong hold on our psyches. Quick, now, what's the plural of "psyche" in ancient Greek? Can you imagine how complicated life would be if we had to know the plural in the original language of every word in English. WAY too complicated, especially when there's that handy English regular -(e)s ending just begging to be used. So we don't phone up the pizza place and order "two large pizze" or stop in our local coffee shop to ask for "two cappuccini". Other languages apply their own pluralization rules when they borrow foreign words, too; the plural of the French word "cameraman" is "cameramans".
Someone asked about "index". Was I in favour of "indexes" rather than "indices"? Well, yes, I am. Not that my being "in favour" of one thing or another has any importance; it's general usage that decides these things.
Here's the Canadian Oxford Dictionary:


noun  ( pl. indexes or esp. in technical use indices   'IndIsi:z )

If you consult the OED, you will discover that "indexes" (or even, gasp, in the 1500s,"index's") has been around for centuries, and the OED too gives "indexes" as the first plural of the word, stating quite baldly that it is the usual plural for the alphabetical listing.  Now, usage has it that we prefer "indices" for the "sign or indication of something" sense, and when you think of it, that sense hardly exists in the singular anymore. Mathematical and scientific usage favours "indices", but that is just part of the phenomenon of Latin and Greek plurals being more resilient in those fields than in general usage.  I wonder how many mathematicians and scientists nowadays have ever studied Greek or Latin; I doubt that this trend will continue.
In the face of the overwhelming weight of regular English plurals, trying to maintain a foreign plural in English is an uphill battle with few if any benefits.
For more on the history of the word "index", see this post.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Any summer weekend in Canada is likely to be accompanied by copious consumption of beer. Hard though it may be to believe, “beer” was a word used rarely outside of poetry till the 1500s, the common term for the drink being “ale”. “Beer” had been around since the Anglo-Saxons, though, derived in their Germanic language from a monastic Latin word biber (drink)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

History of the English language courses

For the fall schedule, click here.


We had quite a spectacular thunderstorm in Toronto the other day, with lashing rain and lots of those flashes of light that come with a big boom. Yes, LIGHTNING. Notice the spelling. The noun is not "lightening". Lightening is something you do to your hair. They were originally the same word, but the noun for the electrical storm sense has had this special spelling since it first showed up in the language in the 14th century, just in case someone reading "a huge bolt of lightening" might get confused and think it meant a large amount of peroxide. Apparently the earlier, Old English word for the phenomenon had been "leye-rash" (literally, light move fast).
Just to be somewhat confusing, not to mention annoying (otherwise we would be talking about some logical language rather than English) there is a verb "to lighten" meaning "(of lightning) flash", as in "It rained, thundered, and lightened all night". If you put this in the progressive tense it would be "It was raining, thundering, and lightening".
Summary: LIGHTNING is the noun, LIGHTENING is the verb.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Typhoons (and super-typhoons) have been wreaking havoc recently in Japan, Korea, and The Philippines. A typhoon and a hurricane are technically the same meteorological phenomenon, just occurring in different parts of the world. The word "typhoon" is exceedingly cross-cultural. When English-speakers first encountered these storms in India in the 1500s, they naturally borrowed the Urdu word for the phenomonon, tufan. For about 300 years, the British in India called them "touffans". Meanwhile, however, there was also a Chinese word for the same thing, tai fung (big wind). People who had more contact with China than with India tended to use this word or something like it instead of the Urdu word. As luck would have it, the ancient Greek word for "whirlwind" was tuphon. For several centuries from the Renaissance onward, there was a tendency to believe that all words came from Latin or Greek (even if designating a Pacific Ocean phenomenon!), so people messed around with these Urdu and Chinese words  to make them look more like the Greek word, until we finally ended up with "typhoon" in the mid-19th century.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Or we could just say "famous"...

As you might guess, since I spent a large chunk of my life writing dictionaries, I'm a pretty good speller. But there's one fairly common word that I always have to think twice about and double-check in a dictionary before I write it: renown. Clearly I am not alone in this, as a Google search revealed the following hits:

renown: 2.4 million
reknown: 9 million
renoun: 406,000 (this spelling is my particular downfall)

renowned: 133 million (40 million of them in "world-renowned")
reknowned: 9 million (about 3.5 million of them in "world-reknowned")
renouned: 11 million (about 4.5 million of them in "world-renouned")

Probably lots of the "reknown" hits were in sources saying "this is a misspelling", but still the number is staggering. If the numbers for "renowned" weren't so decisive, lexicographers would have to start thinking about whether they should change the spelling of "renown" to "reknown".

What a quick Google search cannot reveal is how frequent another problem is: using "world-renown" as an adjective, as in "world-renown scientist", when it should be "world-renowned".

Bob Hanna, world-renowned philosopher
Just this morning I saw an article in The Australian referring, with wild disregard of spelling,  to a "world-reknown philosopher" (yes, there are such things, apparently).

Clearly I haven't come up with a good mnemonic for this one, as it's still a stumbling block for me. Somehow, "celebrity philosopher" doesn't seem like an option. I remind myself there is no "k" (which seems to be the biggest problem) by remembering that the word in French is renommée, but that will only help you if you speak French.  But I still want to spell it with a "u" rather than a "w". Thank goodness for dictionaries! Don't rely on your spellchecker, as, interestingly, the reproving red spellchecker squiggly did not show up in either my word-processing program or my email program for the misspelled words above.

I guess we can at least be thankful  that we are not lumbered with the spelling proposed by16th century pedants who loved sticking extra silent letters into English words to reflect their Latin origins (God knows where they got the "p", though): "renoumpn"!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Niagarum malum

In August, we in southern Ontario are spoiled by the plethora of peaches coming into season. There is nothing quite like biting into a peach from the Niagara peninsula, so juicy that one is advised to eat them over a sink!

Peaches were originally cultivated in China about 2000 BC. They migrated westward until they reached Greece in about 300 BC from Persia. Because of its perceived Persian origin, the Romans called the peach a “Persian apple” (persicum malum). In time this was shortened to persica, which the French subsequently squished down into persca, then pesca, and finally pêche, which is the word the English borrowed about Chaucer's time, before which there don't seem to have been peaches in England.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of etymology and entomology

At last, a post which really is about both etymology and entomology!
I recently saw an article in the Toronto Star stating that 8% of Canadians receive their TV signal by "antennae". Now, the Star is not one for pretentious Latin plurals (or any Latin plurals for that matter) so it rather surprised me that they hadn't used "antennas", which, as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary entry shows, is the standard plural for the broadcasting sense of "antenna", whereas "antennae" is used for insects, lobsters, etc.:

1. ( pl. antennas ) a metal rod, wire, or other structure by which signals are transmitted or received as part of a radio or television transmitting or receiving system.
2. ( pl. antennae) (Zool.) one of a pair of mobile appendages on the heads of insects, crustaceans, etc., sensitive to touch and taste; a feeler.
3. (antennae) the faculty of instinctively detecting and interpreting subtle signs (the dulling effect of the suburbs on a person's hipness antennae).
- DERIVATIVES antennal adjective  (in sense 2).
- ORIGIN Latin, = sail yard

What is a sail yard, you are no doubt wondering, and what can it possibly have to do with an insect's feelers? It's not the same word as the one you use for your garden. A yard is a horizontal (or diagonal) bar attached to the mast of a sailing ship, from which the sail is suspended.
You can see from the picture above the resemblance of  the bit of the yard jutting out beyond the end of the sail to the feelers on the head of an insect.  A fifteenth-century translator into Latin of a work about insects decided to use the word antennae instead of the word cornuae (horns). This caught on amongst the entomology set, and since it was snobbier to use Latin words for scientific subjects than  boring English words like "horn" or "feeler" which had served perfectly well until then, finally took over as the standard word in English. In 1894 Marconi, experimenting with radio transmission, patented an elevated antenna, and the word took on a new life. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Englishman on a bun

The first example of the word "barbecue" in English is someone saying “We lay all night on our barbecues”! That will give you something to think about as you fire up your propane beast. But the hapless English were not being slow-roasted with hickory sauce. The Arawak, a native people of the Caribbean, slept on raised wooden platforms of sticks, their name for which the invading Spanish adopted as barbacoa in the 1600s. A similar framework was also used for smoking and drying meat, which is clearly the origin of the current meaning of the word. There is no truth to the explanation that the word comes from the French “barbe à queue”, suggesting that an animal was roasted whole “from beard to tail”.

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.