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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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Sunday, November 17, 2013

A "mountainously incontinent" (?) mayor

The National Post's Andrew Coyne recently weighed in on the Rob Ford scandal, the opening words of his article being the following:

"No one seems to know how to get Toronto out of its mayoral mess. It is the product of a flawed civic architecture that, in all fairness, never contemplated the existence of a mayor so mountainously incontinent, yet so impervious to shame."

This use of "incontinent" was dismissed by many as an unintentionally hilarious typo or malapropism that would surely be corrected to "incompetent" in short order, but in fact Coyne, who has a better-than-average grasp of English vocabulary, was using the word in its original sense, dating from the 1300s, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary:

 "1. Not continent; wanting in self-restraint: chiefly with reference to sexual appetite."


Now, I wouldn't put it past Coyne to indulge in some double entendre, but nonetheless, "incontinent" is a very good word to describe Rob Ford's shenanigans.


The currently more common meaning of "incontinent" is much more recent, attested since the early 1800s.  It is likely to bump the "lacking in self-restraint" sense out of the language, but has not done so yet, as we can still find examples like Coyne's and this one, quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of English: "the incontinent hysteria of the massed pop fans."

 "Incontinent" is, obviously, the opposite of "continent". How did the same English word come to mean "large land mass" on the one hand and both "controlled, restrained" and "able to control urination and defecation" on the other?


"Continent" comes from the Latin continēnt-em,the present participle of continēre (literally "contain, hold together"). Since large land masses are "held together", continēnt-em came to mean "contiguous, connected, continuous" while at the same time also  meaning ‘holding oneself in, self-restraining, restraining one's passions’. The latter was the sense in which the word was first adopted into modern languages.  So in 1382 an English translation of the Bible had the following: " It bihoueth a bischop forto be..iust, hooly, contynent", whereas the "large landmass" sense did not start being used till the 1600s.

Those who do not let their ignorance of the history of the English language get in the way of being rude to Andrew Coyne on twitter might well consider subscribing to Wordlady to broaden their lexical horizons.

 For my related discussion of how to spell "drunken stupor", please see this post.


  1. Fascinating use of "incontinent." Thanks, Katherine. I love learning this stuff.

  2. Thanks for this. It takes guts (on Coyne's part) to use a word like that, knowing what it means, but also knowing that most people don't know what it means. Thanks for letting us know.


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.