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!

Subscribe!

Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Friday, September 30, 2011

Crisscross

In my post on the etymology of the word "index", I mentioned that the alphabet had been called a "Christ cross row" because in schoolbooks it was often preceded by a mark in the shape of a cross, called a "Christ's cross". "Christ's cross" is, somewhat amazingly, also the origin of our word "crisscross". Just as "Christ's mass" became reduced to "Christmas" with its first syllable pronounced CRISS, the same thing happened to "Christ's cross". But, unlike "Christmas", the spelling started to reflect the new pronunciation, as early as the 1600s, first losing the "t", then losing the "h". By the 1800s, "criss-cross" was being used to mean a pattern of intersecting lines. with all sense of the ultimate allusion completely lost.
For another word that surprisingly has its origins in the symbol of the crucifixion, see this post.

Monday, September 26, 2011

When luxury and indolence were Bad Things...

Do not use "enervate" when what you mean is "energize". You could unwittingly insult someone if you get this wrong, for instance if you told them a talk they just gave or a class they just taught "enervated" you, for "enervate" means "sap of energy or strength", or, as the OED puts it (with a rather Victorian tone of disapproval of self-indulgence):

"To weaken physically (a person or animal); now only of agencies that impair nervous ‘tone’, as luxury, indolence, hot or malarious climates."

The word comes from the Latin ēnervāre (to extract the sinews of, weaken), from ē out + nervus sinew, and was originally used to mean "cut the hamstrings of a horse". Now, my hamstrings take a beating in my ballet classes, but for all that, I find my classes energizing rather than enervating (probably because of the lack of that character-sapping indolence!).

Friday, September 23, 2011

On the index

 

As I promised in my post about the plural of "index", here is the story of the word "index".

There were a lot of words competing for the honour of designating alphabetical lists in the Renaissance. I suspect that this is because indexes as a concept only really came into being at the Renaissance (before then “table” was used for such lists). In fact, apparently you couldn't index before the Renaissance, because before then we had no alphabet! 

Well, really we did, but the alphabet wasn't called that till the early 1500s (1513 being the OED's first quotation). The alphabet had been called a "cross row" or "Christ cross row" (more on this in another post) for a while, because a cross sign began it in schoolbooks. 

One famous lexicographer, Cotgrave, even sniffily dismissed the word "alphabet" as vulgar in 1611: "Touching the French abece, for alphabet I will not call it, according to the vulgar error, that word being peculiar only to the Greek tongue." (Yet more proof that lexicographers have less power than you might think, and that usage objections have a way of fading away with time.) 


But back to indexes. Some down-to -earth person wanted to call them “finders” but he was doomed to failure, because the Renaissance was a time of borrowing from Greek and Latin, especially for highbrow intellectual pursuits.The Greek-derived word in the race was "elench" from elenchos (cross-examination). There were three candidates from Latin:

  1. concordance, from con (together) and corde (heart)
  2. repertory, from reperire (to find)
  3. index,  from index (the forefinger, or “pointer” , from indicare to point out). 
In the Middle Ages the index finger had beeen called the “teacher”, because "teach" originally meant "point out", but once again the word of Anglo-Saxon origin had to lose out to a Latinate one. It could have been instead the delightful, and equally Latin, “insignitor”, another word that was popular for the index finger in the 1500s. But for fingers and finders, "index" was the ultimate winner.

For what magpies have to do with indexing, see this post

COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. REGISTRATION NOW OPEN AND SPACE IS LIMITED. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/p/history-of-english-language-courses.html


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! SUBSCRIPTION IS FREE! 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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Update on enrol vs enroll

Further to my post on the spelling of enrol(l), the results of my highly scientific facebook poll are now in, and "enroll" has taken a commanding lead amongst Canadians of 33-14 over enrol. Many of those who answered "enrol" only did so after checking a dictionary, which suggests to me that if left to their own devices they might have said "enroll". Which reminds me, when I conduct a survey like this, please tell me what you would do spontaneously, not what your dictionary says you should do.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Get, got, ....?

Just to make people's lives miserable, I suspect, usage pundits like to seize hold of common everyday words and make up "rules" about them which are the exact opposite of what Joe Language User would do if left to his or her own devices. After all, how would one get a power trip if one made rules only about words people rarely if ever use, or if one said, "Go ahead, what you say intuitively is ok"?

The past participle of "get" is such a case: there is a tradition among usage books maintaining that "gotten" is wrong or obsolete. It is indeed obsolete for the British, but it is alive and kicking in North America, so the question is: is it wrong?

Considering that it is one of the most frequent words in English, you might expect "get" to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, but in fact we owe it to the Vikings. For them, the infinitive was geta, the simple past gat, and the past participle getenn. But English verbs with an e vowel commonly changed that vowel to an o in the past participle, as in "steal" becoming "stolen". So when this Old Norse word was borrowed into English in the 1200s, people used the familiar conjugation pattern, and getenn became goten. The vowel in goten even migrated over to the simple past, so that "gat" became "got" by the 16th century (although you will still hear "gat" occasionally in quotations from the King James Bible, dating from 1611). As time went on, the English abandoned gotten in favour of got for both the simple past and the past participle (though they maintained the distinction with "forgot" and "forgotten").  But, like many older forms abandoned by the English, gotten has survived in North American English. So, if anyone tells you it's obsolete, ignore them!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why not hopwelsh?

Children are back in the schoolyards. Do they still play hopscotch, or has some Wii version taken over? You might think that there's some cute story about Scotch whisky involved with hopscotch, but in fact, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Scots. Back in the 1400s, the word "skoch" turned up in English meaning "cut a line in" or "make a gash in". Recipes recommended that fish to be grilled should be "skoched" first (today we would say "scored"). If you think of what a piece of steak that has been scored with a knife looks like, you can see the resemblance to a hopscotch drawing on a sidewalk. "Hopscotch" means "hop over the lines", more or less. The earliest references to the game, from 1688 (when they definitely didn't have a Wii version) called it "hop scotches", in fact.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Enrol(l)

It's the time of year when people are enrolling in all sorts of activities (I recommend taking up ballet classes if you haven't done so yet). A faithful Wordlady reader has written to inquire whether "enrol" or "enroll" is the correct spelling in Canada. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary gives "enrol" as the headword with "enroll" as the variant, so, as with many things, both are correct. Personally, I use "enroll" because I see no good reason to spell it differently from "roll"; English spelling is way too complicated already without adding even more complication!  Frankly, I think I was surprised to discover when we edited the dictionary that "enrol" won out over "enroll" (though the margin was probably slim). Both spellings have existed since the word was borrowed into English from French in the 1300s,  but "enrol" is now preferred by the British and "enroll" by Americans. Often these differences date back to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary on the one hand and Noah Webster's on the other, but in this case Johnson included only "enroll". It seems that the single-l spelling won out in Britain in the course of the 19th century. I've just started a facebook poll to see how usage is going currently, and I will keep you posted.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Cantaloupe

Image result for cantaloupe

Here in Ontario, the peaches are still in season, but now the equally luscious and slurpworthy Ontario cantaloupes are ready to be eaten. Some of you may be surprised to learn that it is warm enough to grow melons in Canada, but I assure you it is! 

The name "cantaloupe" comes from the Italian Cantalupo, the name of a former country seat of the Pope near Rome, where the fruit is said  to have been first cultivated when introduced from Armenia. Apparently what we call a cantaloupe in North America should actually be called a muskmelon, since a true cantaloupe is a different variety of melon, but I doubt that decades of usage will change on this. 

The Diner's Dictionary has this to say about the term "muskmelon":
by Elizabethan times native melons were being grown, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they became one of the most important products of the gentry's hothouses. They were usually known generically as musk melons (as distinct from water melons)—a not particularly appropriate term, probably adopted from an oriental variety of melon (in Dutch, the muscus-meloen) which really did have a scent reminiscent of musk.
According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the spelling "cantaloupe" is more common than "cantaloup" in Canada.

Continuing with the tradition of "Recipes from the Word Lady" that I started with my scone posting , here's a recipe for Cantaloupe Cake that I just tried for the first time this weekend when confronted with a very ripe 2.5kg melon. It was very yummy!

Cantaloupe Cake
Beat together
3 eggs
1/2 c. oil
1 1/2 c. sugar
Add
1 tbsp. vanilla
Mix together:
3 c (400 g) white or whole-wheat flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
Add dry ingredients alternately to egg mixture with
2 c. pureed ripe cantaloupe.
Pour into a large greased and floured tube pan or Bundt pan and bake at 325 degrees for about 50 minutes. Let cool till lukewarm. Turn out and dust with icing sugar.
* Since cantaloupes vary in juiciness you may want to start with 2 1/2 cups flour and add more if the batter looks too runny.

COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. REGISTRATION NOW OPEN AND SPACE IS LIMITED. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/p/history-of-english-language-courses.html


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! SUBSCRIPTION IS FREE! 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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Status quo

Well, I'm not done with plurals of Latin words yet, but I promise I'll talk about a different usage issue next week. 

Back in my dictionary-writing days, one of our eager correspondents inquired why no plural form is given for the word "status" in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, he went on, gives the plural as "statuses" which, he said, "sounds ridiculous and would make it the only Latin derivative with an "es" ending. As far as I am concerned I consider the plural to be "stati" and I would like to know why this is not in the dictionary."

The word "status" is not given a plural because it is a regular noun (forming the plural in -s or -es if ending in a sibilant). This is something that English native speakers can intuitively do.

"Status" has been in the English language since the late 17th century. It has been consistently printed in roman rather than italic type, indicating that it is fully naturalized, since the mid-19th century. Fully naturalized words in English usually form their plurals according to English rules rather than according to the rules of the language from which they were borrowed (otherwise we would talk about the "stamina" of a flower rather than its stamens). The OED entry for the word, which would have been edited in about 1910-15, gave the plural "(rare) status", pronounced "stay tee us", since the plural in Latin is, surprisingly, status (with a long u) rather than the regular masculine plural in -i. I am not sure on what the OED editors based this pronouncement because there is in fact no  evidence of the word being used in the plural in the original OED text. The revision to the Supplement to the OED, edited between 1972 and 1986, states "now usu. statuses" for the plural. I think they could have said "now always statuses". Nowhere in the whole text of the OED or the huge databases of quotations that we consulted for the dictionary was there any evidence for the plural "stati" (which, as we have seen, was not the Latin plural anyway) being used in the English language. It must be said also that "status" is simply not used much in the plural.

Despite my correspondent's categorical assertion, there are a number of other Latin borrowings in English ending in -us that form their plural with -es. For example:

sinus
chorus
apparatus
solar plexus
rebus
abacus
bonus
arbutus
lotus
impetus
fetus
hiatus
census
consensus
virus
campus
crocus
circus
hibiscus
discus
exodus
genius
callus
isthmus
ignoramus
anus
and all the dinosaurs

When you get right down to it, even "bus" and "plus" are Latin words ending in -us, and yet no one says "Three bi drove past" (or writes to dictionary editors complaining that we should)!

There are many more such words where English speakers can choose between -es and -i but where -es is more common, such as thesaurus, focus, etc. (If you feel you "ought" to say "thesauri", get over it.)

English is English; Latin is Latin. Surprisingly, they are not the same language!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to ... leisure?

Unlikely as it may seem to those returning to classes next week, the word “school” originally meant “leisure”. The highly cultured ancient Greeks loved spending their leisure time (skhole) hanging out with Socrates and Plato discussing philosophy, so their word meaning “leisure” gradually came to apply to such discussions and then to the place where they happened. By the time the word got to English via Latin, it was written scol. The letter h was reintroduced in the Renaissance only because people wanted to show off that they knew the original Latin and Greek spelling.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! Sign up here.
Follow me 
on twitter: @thewordlady
on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/katherine.barber.37
If you find the English language fascinating, you should check out my entertaining history of the English language courses. More info here

The death of dictionaries

how ironic is it that this article bemoaning the demise of print dictionaries is illustrated by a photo of the author holding an edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary that is at least 30 years out of date?? If he wants publishers to keep producing dictionaries, maybe he should buy them!!

About Me

My photo
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.