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, January 3, 2014


Last year, in the days before Epiphany (January 6) we looked at great length at the word frankincense, so now it's time to look at one of the other gifts of the Magi: myrrh.

Myrrh is a bitter, aromatic gum resin exuded by various Arabian and African trees of the genus Commiphora and used traditionally in perfumes and medicines. The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, and thus as one of the gifts of the Magi it is believed to foreshadow the death of Christ.

It is one of a very few words, almost all of them church-related, borrowed from Latin into English during the Old English (pre-1066) period. It had come into Latin from Greek, and ultimately comes from a Semitic root meaning "bitter", making it  related to the Hebrew word maror (bitter herb), used of herbs (usually horseradish) eaten at the Passover Seder service as a reminder of the bitterness of the Israelites' captivity in Egypt.

Myrrh's very odd spelling (all those extra consonants for a word pronounced in British English like "muh") is due to people imitating one of the Latin spellings -- the most complicated one, naturally -- at the Renaissance. For a while in the Middle Ages we flirted with nice, simple "mir", but that would never do. 

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! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE to 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.
Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady

No comments:

Post a Comment

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.