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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, October 11, 2013

Furlough Friday

The US government shutdown has put many workers on enforced leave, or, as Americans call it, furlough. It is a word little used outside the US, and strikes the rest of us, I think, as somewhat odd. Where does it come from?

We borrowed the Dutch word verlof (a leave of absence) in the 1600s. The Dutch seem to have based the word on the German Verlaub (permission). For the first century or so, we pronounced the final "f", like the Dutch, but by the end of the 1800s it had dropped off, and the word was respelled "furlow" or, in imitation of words like "though",  "furlough" (because English has never liked a simple spelling when we could have a difficult one instead). Originally, the word was used only in military contexts, but was soon extended to other fields of endeavour.

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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.