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! 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, February 8, 2013

My favourite word

You may recall in my post about frankincense that I mentioned the word Septuagesima, which is the third Sunday before the beginning of Lent (originally the period of 70 days from then until the Saturday in Easter week), derived from the Latin septuāgēsimus (seventieth). 

But this coming Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, has an even cooler-sounding name, which happens to be my favourite word (well, actually, it's in a tie with "mellifluous").


Don't you just love the sound of it? kwinkwa JESSA muh.

Its etymology follows the same pattern as Septuagesima's (and the intervening... you guessed it... Sexagesima): post-classical Latin quinquagesima fiftieth day (counting inclusively) before Easter, short for Quinquagesima dies (fiftieth day), the feminine of classical Latin quīnquāgēsimus (fiftieth).

Another related word I love the sound of is "quinquereme" (from rēmus oar). The OED has this to say about quinqueremes:

An ancient Greek or Roman galley rowed by oarsmen arranged in groups of five, perhaps with three banks of oars, one above the other, the top two each pulled by a pair of men, the bottom by one. There is continuing debate as to the precise significance of the numerical prefix. Some authorities believe that it refers to a ship having five banks of oars, but in view of the instability of such a design this is unlikely.

I cannot think of quinqueremes (admittedly not something I do often!) without remembering this evocative poem I learned and loved as a child. How many of you also know this poem from your schooldays?

John Masefield

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.


  1. I do remember this poem from childhood but reading it again made me realize that one of my son's favourite books as a child (17 Kings and 42 Elephants)exactly echoes the meter. Does the Word Lady know what the structure of this poem is called?

    1. Unfortunately Word Lady is not that knowledgeable about verse forms!

  2. Just think how many points one could earn in Scrabble with one of these words!

    1. Only if you cheat. You normally don't have enough letters in your hand to make any of these words


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.