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, May 25, 2012

Ah-choo

The flowers that bloom in the spring lighten the hearts of many, but only clog up the nasal passages of others. The word “allergy” was coined in 1906 from the Greek word, allos (different) and the end of the word “energy”. But surely people had allergies before then? Indeed they did. An Italian doctor of the mid-1500s, observing the sneezing and itching suffered by a patient exposed to roses, dubbed the affliction “rose fever”. But in the 1820s we begin to see references to “hay asthma” or “hay fever”, the latter term becoming established when a physician in the mid-1800s fingered grass and other pollens as the culprit. He advised his patients to avoid it by spending the summer on a yacht. Try getting your health plan to cover that!
For the fascinating history of the word "sneeze", click here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Rhubarb

In May, many of us have the very civilized pleasure of feasting on rhubarb harvested from our gardens. Since it first came into Europe by way of Russia, the Greeks called it rha, which may have been an old name for the Volga River. The Romans insisted even more on its foreignness by tacking on the adjective barbarum (foreign), derived from an imitative Greek word, barbaros (babbling). The ancient Greeks dismissed foreign languages as babbling, and thought anyone who didn't have the good fortune to be Greek was automatically uncivilized; this is why barbaros has also given us the word “barbarian”.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Flower and flour

For Mother's Day, get your mum some flowers. Or if she really likes baking, you could get her some flours. The two words were in fact once the same. The Latin word for the prettiest part of a plant, floris, became flour in Old French (subsequently fleur). Very quickly it acquired another meaning: “the choicest part of a plant”. Applied to wheat, this was the part used for baking. For centuries, “flour” had both meanings in English, then we changed the spelling to “flower”. In the 18th century someone had the bright idea to use one spelling for the wheat meal and the other for blooms.

Friday, May 4, 2012

I could have danced all night

I'm just back from a wonderful week in Germany escorting a group of ballet lovers to see 21 ballets in 10 days. What better time to look at the word "dance".  Surprisingly, its origins are somewhat obscure. It didn't show up in English until the 1200s, borrowed from the French, who seem (along with other Romance languages) to have borrowed it from an Old High German word dansôn (to stretch out). The sense ‘to form a file or chain in dancing’ is thought to have arisen from this. 

But people had danced in Anglo-Saxon England before the French arrived, despite severe moral disapproval from the church and even attempts to ban dancing. For one thing, dancing had been used in pre-Christian fertility rites. What's more, dancing was associated in the Bible with Salome: clearly dancers had a propensity for demanding people's heads on a platter.

 Never trust a dancer

Clerics notwithstanding, the Anglo-Saxons carried on dancing, their word for it being tumbian. Like the Latin word for dance, saltare, it also meant "leap". Tumbian later acquired an -le ending (what linguists call a frequentative ending, which indicates frequent repetition or intensity) and became "tumble". Is it not interesting that a word that started out meaning "dance" ended up meaning "fall over"? We saw this with the word "trip" as well (click here). What does this say about the innate English ability to dance? Perhaps my tendency to fall over my feet in my ballet classes can be ascribed, not to any individual failing, but to an unavoidable genetic inheritance!

For the origin of some dance terms:
For  "adage", click here.
For  "entrechat", click here.  

For "ballotté", click here.
For "fouetté", click here
For "bourrée", click here
For "pirouette", click here

 
If you're interested in travelling to see great dancing in beautiful places (no tripping, tumbling, or heads on platters, I promise), please check out my website at toursenlair.blogspot.com

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.