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.
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Sunday, August 31, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: as well

#Canadianism of the day: as well = furthermore, moreover: Only Canadians use "as well" in a sentence-initial position

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: go to the washroom

#Canadianism of the day: go to the washroom = esp. Cdn euphemism defecate or urinate.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: make strange

#Canadianism of the day: make strange = Cdn & Irish (of a baby or child) fuss or be shy in company.

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All well and good

Well! 

I was just rather flabbergasted to read this advice in a Forbes magazine piece about appropriate language for customer service: 
Subtly insulting: In an informal business, if a customer asks, ‘‘How are you?’’ the response ‘‘I’m well’’ may make you feel like you’re using proper-sounding grammar—but may not be the best choice. Hearing this Victorian-sounding response may make your customers momentarily self-conscious about whether their own grammar is less than perfect. It may be better to have your employees choose from more familiar alternatives like, ‘‘I’m doing great!’’ or "Super!’’
Victorian???  Hey, buddy, I learned to reply "well (thank you!)" to this question, and that was in the 1960s. A lot of people are still outraged by the new, and previously highly censured, custom of replying "good", which seems to have started its remarkable upward trajectory in the mid-1990s, though it has been around longer than that. 

"Well", meanwhile, has been used to mean "in good health" since the 1300s. Before that we were "isound" or "hale" or even "whole". I wonder if any customer service gurus in Shakespeare's time were warning businesses to have their staff avoid saying, "I'm hale, thank you!" as being "so Plantagenet!"


The "good" option has probably become the more common one, and I do use it myself, since there is no reason not to. "Good" is an adjective (as is "well" in this usage), and has multitudinous meanings, so there's no reason why "in acceptable health" shouldn't be one of them. But that doesn't mean that we should start condemning "well" as Victorian (not to mention "subtly insulting").

However, this comment is quite amazing as an indicator of the rapidity of language change: a usage which was drummed into children a mere 30 or so years ago as being the only correct one is now itself being criticized. 

How do you react to "well" and "good" as answers to the question "How are you?"? Do you think "well" is stuffy? If someone in a customer service position said, "I'm well, thanks, and you?", would it make you "momentarily self-conscious about whether [your] own grammar is less than perfect"?

Or do you feel that "good" is a solecism and "ungrammatical"? It isn't ungrammatical, by the way; it's perfectly grammatical. But it still may irritate you if it's not the convention you grew up with -- and this type of linguistic interaction is all about convention. 

What advice would YOU give to someone in the service industry? "I'm doing great!"?

Let me know in the comments!

 


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Thursday, August 28, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: stoop & scoop

#Canadianism of the day: stoop & scoop= (law requiring owners to) pick up after their pets in parks, sidewalks, etc.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: go (or drive someone) snaky

#Canadianism of the day: go (or drive someone) snaky = lose (or cause someone to lose) self-control.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Canadianism of the day: jeezly

 Canadianism of the day: jeezly used as an intensifier

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Monday, August 25, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: saw off

#Canadianism of the day: saw off = compromise by trading concessions:

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: rhyme off

#Canadianism of the day: rhyme off = recite rapidly and spontaneously (a list of items). 

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: rag the puck

#Canadianism of the day: rag the puck = waste time intentionally.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: kick at the can (or cat)

#Canadianism of the day: kick at the can (or cat) = an opportunity to achieve something.

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Easy as pie

http://www.gentileproduce.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/peachpie.jpg 

What better time than August, with its abundance of fresh fruit, to talk about the word "pie".

In Latin the word pica was the name for the bird we call a magpie. The French did their usual drop-a-consonant squishing job on this word and turned it into pie (still the French word for this bird). But after we borrowed it from French, we got creative.


First of all, we added the nickname “Mag”, short form for “Margaret”, to the word for the bird, so that now we call it a “magpie”.

Then, in the 1300s, we started to use "pie" for a pastry-enclosed dish of meat or fish and other ingredients. Although the etymology of our edible pies is uncertain, it could be related to the bird, in reference to either its spotted appearance or its tendency to collect different articles, pies being made of assorted ingredients. 

A couple of centuries later, we got the bright idea of putting fruit in pies, and by the 1800s pie was so popular that eating it had become the quintessence of something easy to do, hence "easy as pie", and one's reward in heaven was referred to as "pie in the sky".

To return to the Middle Ages, though, another development of the word "pie" will be of particular interest to indexers. 

A third type of "pie" was a book of directions for church services, listing how saints' feast days could be moved if they coincided with a big feast day such as Pentecost or Easter. Why was this book called a "pie"? Possibly because the pages had a very black-and-white blotchy appearance from unevenly spaced blocks of text. Other similar types of reference books also came to be known as pies or pie books, especially alphabetical indexes to records. There was even a verb in the 17th century, to “pie” meaning to make an alphabetical index.
 
(Incidentally, pica the typeface is possibly related to this, perhaps having been used in one of these liturgical indexes, called “pica” in Latin.)

There are more unsuspected links between indexing and magpies, however. 

A "gazetteer" is a geographical index, for a map or atlas. This word was first used in 1693. This comes from the word "gazette" from Italian gazzetta.  The gazzetta was a type of newspaper first published in Venice about the middle of the 16th century; similar news sheets appeared a bit later in England. They seem to have been the tabloids of the time; the OED says "the untrustworthy nature of their reports is often alluded to by writers of that period; thus Florio [an early-17th-century Italian-English lexicographer] explains gazzette as ‘running reports, daily newes, idle intelligences, or flim flam tales that are daily written from Italie, namely from Rome and Venice’."


The Venetian gazzetta could be had for the price of a coin also called a gazzetta. But there is a possible  connection to gazza (magpie), as the publication was a gallimaufry [there, I've always wanted to use that word!] of trivial items like those gathered by the notoriously thieving bird.

When I revealed these hitherto undisclosed links between their profession and magpies to the Indexing Society of Canada and pointed out that a magpie was in fact a good symbol of what indexers do, flitting over a book and removing attention-grabbing items to their "nest" at the back of the book, the indexers were so tickled by it that they have adopted the magpie as their mascot and created this very handsome pin:

Magpie Pins for Sale (continued)




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Thursday, August 21, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: hang up one's skates

#Canadianism of the day: hang up one's skates = retire from professional life.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#Canadianism of the day: no guff

#Canadianism of the day: no guff = 1. a declaration of truthfulness. 2. an expression of mock surprise at a statement.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Rollicking Story of English: Kitchener-Waterloo

SOLD OUT!
FALL SERIES THURSDAY AFTERNOONS - 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.
FORBES FAMILY HALL
RIM Park
Manulife Financial Sportsplex
2001 University Avenue Waterloo

The Rollicking History of the English Language

Why is English spelling so chaotic? Why do we have so many synonyms? What might your name tell you about the history of the language? What is the history behind your favourite language pet peeve? This course is a highly informative and entertaining survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years. We will tie linguistic developments with the social and political events with which they coincided. Forget your dull high school English classes as Katherine Barber takes you on a surprisingly hilarious trip through a crazy language.

Katherine Barber is known as “Canada's Word Lady” for her frequent and popular media appearances discussing matters of language in general and Canadian English in particular. She supervised the publication of two editions of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and many other smaller dictionaries. One of the foremost authorities on Canadian English, she vivaciously and humorously communicates her knowledge and love of the history of the English language.
October 16 - Celts and Anglo-Saxons
Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use the apostrophe for the possessive. German origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar.
October 23 - Vikings
Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous. Blame the Vikings.
October 30 - The Norman Invasion
Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The Norman Conquest, Medieval England and the origins of chaotic English spelling.
November 6 - Renaissance English
Spelling and pronunciation don't jibe. Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"?

November 13 - The 18th Century
Re-examining our pet peeves. British spelling and American spelling are different. Why?

November 20 - The 19th Century to the Present
Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags".

November 27 - Canadian and American English
Have they corrupted the language? How we can be very confusing to other English speakers.

December 4 - Writing Dictionaries
Not as dull as you might think: How do new words enter the language? What do lexicographers do?

http://www.tal-kw.ca/

Sunday, August 17, 2014

History of the English Language course, U of Toronto School of Continuing Studies

  Section Schedule(s):   
Mon 1:00PM - 3:00PM , 29 Sep 2014 to 24 Nov 2014 

COURSE DESCRIPTION:  
Did you know that the word "travel" is derived from an instrument of torture? That "tragedy" originally had something to do with goats? That hotels and hospitals have something in common? The fascinating history of the English language is full of such surprises. This course is a survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years, covering the Anglo-Saxon and Viking origins, the influx of Norman French and Central French, later Latin and Greek borrowings, standardization and French borrowing in the 18th century, and international borrowing since the 18th century. We will tie linguistic developments in with the social and political events with which they coincided. Topics will include why English spelling is so difficult, why we have such a large wordstock, and how dictionaries are written



PREREQUISITE(S) : none



COURSE OBJECTIVES:  
By the end of this course, you will have greater knowledge of and familiarity with: 
1. The various stages in the development of Modern English
2. The historical reasons for the oddities in spelling, pronunciation and grammar of English
3. The role of dictionaries and how they are researched
4. The etymology of many common words

Sept 29 Celts and Anglo-Saxons:
Celtic and Latin relics from pre-5th century Britain. The Germanic origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar. Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use apostrophe s for the possessive.  Relics of Anglo-Saxon dialects in Modern English. 

Oct 6 The Vikings:
Old Norse borrowings into English. Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous.

Oct 13 The Norman Invasion:
A brief history of French. Middle English. Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The origins of chaotic English spelling. 

Oct 20 The Renaissance: Early Modern English 
Spelling and pronunciation don't jibe. The Great Vowel Shift. Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"? The effect of Shakespeare and the King James Bible on the vocabulary 

Oct 27 The 18th Century:
The prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century at the origin of our present grammar “rules”. The original dictionaries and Samuel Johnson. Re-examining our pet peeves.  Why are British and American spelling different? 

Nov 3 The 19th Century to the Present :
The influence of Sir Walter Scott, the industrial revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire. Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags".

Nov 10 American & Canadian English:
Have Americans corrupted the language? Noah Webster and his dictionary.The history of Canadian English. Are we more British or more American? How we can be very confusing to other English speakers. 

Nov 17 Writing Dictionaries :
How do new words enter the language? What do lexicographers do?


To register:
https://2learn.utoronto.ca/uoft/coursebasket/publicCourseBasket.do?method=addToCart


P.S. If you are fascinated by the English language, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! Sign up here.

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady


 

Starting today! Canadianism of the day on twitter

Follow me on twitter for your "Canadianism of the Day"! Many will surprise you.

@thewordlady

Saturday, August 16, 2014

'Qajaq' Floats Into Scrabble Dictionary

In this article, Ben Zimmer of the Wall Street Journal talks to me about how "qajaq", made it into the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as a variant of "kayak", and how it made its way into the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary:

"The latest edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary was released earlier this week, and the big news for Scrabble addicts is the addition of 5,000 new words that will now be officially playable in North America.
The additions that will have the largest impact on players will be..."

http://online.wsj.com/articles/scrabble-dictionary-allows-thousands-of-new-words-1408124528


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Friday, August 15, 2014

Earth has not anything to show more fair

August brings us many opportunities to go visit some country fairs (and in the US bigger state fairs, what we call in Canada an "exhibition" or more commonly, "the ex", like the Canadian National Exhibition which opens today in Toronto). I don't think Wordsworth in the line quoted above was thinking about tucking into funnel cakes and candyfloss or opportunities to play Whack-a-Mole; is there in fact any connection between the noun "fair" and the adjective "fair"?

This is another case in English where we have one word from Anglo-Saxon and another unrelated one from French that just happen to end up being spelled the same way. The gathering for buying and selling goods goes by an Anglo-Norman name (as did so many commercial things after the Norman Conquest), feyre (modern French foire), derived from the Latin word for "holiday", feria (a word which is still used in ecclesiastical English to designate an ordinary day as distinct from a feast day).

The adjective "fair" is much older in English, going back to an Anglo-Saxon word fagar  (beautiful). The "g" sound between vowels almost always disappeared, so that by the Middle English period this word was also being spelled "fair". Because beauty is generally considered A Good Thing, the word took on many other meanings:
  • 1. just, unbiased, equitable; in accordance with the rules.
  • 2. blond; light or pale in colour or complexion.
  • 3. of (only) moderate quality or amount; average.
    • considerable, satisfactory: a fair chance of success.
  • 4. (of weather) fine and dry.
    • (of the wind) favourable.
    • (of the sky) clear; cloudless.
  • 5. clean, clear, unblemished: fair copy.
  • 6. (Baseball) (of a batted ball) that lands or is caught within the legal area of play.

Here's my choir (I am not in this video) singing William Harris's fabulous "Faire is the Heaven" (set to words by Edmund Spenser, who was not thinking about baseball).
http://youtu.be/tFFE92H9sMI 
 




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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

New words added to OxfordDictionaries.com include binge-watch, cray, and vape


Today Oxford Dictionaries announces the latest update to its free online dictionary of English at OxfordDictionaries.com. Reflecting research into current language usage trends, new entries include adorbs, binge-watch, cray, humblebrag, listicle, neckbeard, SMH, side boob, vape, and YOLO.

Use of the word binge-watch has shown a steady increase over the past two years, with notable spikes in usage recorded around the Netflix releases of House of Cards, Season Two in February 2014 and Orange is The New Black, Season Two in June 2014. According to Oxford’s language monitoring programme, the use of binge-watch increased fourfold in February 2014 and tripled in June 2014, based on its average use over the last two years. 

Changes in our media consumption habits also see hate-watch, listicle, live-tweet, second screen, sentiment analysis, cord cutting, and hyperconnected added to OxfordDictionaries.com in this update. Technology more broadly continues to have a strong influence on the English language, and is reflected in new entries including acquihire, clickbait, Deep Web, dox, fast follower, geocache, in silico, octocopter, responsive, smartwatch, and tech-savvy.

Oxford Dictionaries editor Katherine Connor Martin comments: “One of the advantages of our unique language monitoring programme is that it enables us to explore how English language evolves differently across the world. Naturally, many words are used in similar frequencies in the UK and US, for instance the informal additions amazeballs and neckbeard. However, some new slang and informal words catch on much more quickly in a particular variety of English—for instance, in our monitoring sample, side boob is more than 10 times more common in the UK than in the US (although this is due in part to its frequent use in the British media), whereas adorbs is used about 4 times more often in the US as in the UK.”

The Oxford Corpus reveals an approximate tenfold increase in usage of the terms vape and e-cig in the last two years, as electronic devices which enable people to inhale smokeless nicotine vapour have become increasingly widespread. E-cigarette, added to OxfordDictionaries.com in August 2012, has seen an even sharper rise in usage. However, despite the fact that e-cigarettes were not commercially available until the 21st century, the word vaping dates to 1983, when it was used to describe a hypothetical smoking device being considered at the time. 

Other additions related to current health affairs include vax, anti-vax, and anti-vaxxer, pharmacovigilance, 5:2 diet, Paleo diet, and hippotherapy.
Other informal or slang terms added to OxfordDictionaries.com today include Bank of Mum and Dad, bro hug, cray, hench, hot mess, humblebrag, mansplain, side-eye, and spit take. The abbreviation cray (‘crazy’), seems to have arisen initially in the reduplicated form cray cray in the early 2000s, but it was popularized in its single-syllable form when used by Kanye West in the hook to a track from his collaboration album with Jay Z.

Several initialisms and abbreviations also make their Oxford Dictionaries debut, including SMH (‘shake my head’), WDYT (‘what do you think?’), FML (‘f­— my life’), YOLO (‘you only live once’), ICYMI (‘in case you missed it’).

New words, senses, and phrases are added to OxfordDictionaries.com once editors have gathered enough independent evidence from a range of sources to be confident that they have widespread currency in English. Each month, Oxford Dictionaries collects examples of around 150 million words in use from sources around the world, and adds these to the Oxford Corpus. The editors use this database to track and verify new and emerging word trends. Each year, more than 1,000 additions are made to OxfordDictionaries.com in updates which are published quarterly.


What’s the difference between OxfordDictionaries.com and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)?
The new entries mentioned above have been added to OxfordDictionaries.com, not the OED.

The English language dictionary content on OxfordDictionaries.com focuses on current English and includes modern meanings of words and associated usage examples.
The OED, on the other hand, is a historical dictionary and forms a record of all the core words and meanings in English over more than 1,000 years, from Old English to the present day, including many obsolete and historical terms.
About OxfordDictionaries.com: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/about-odo

Full dictionary entries for each of the words mentioned above can be found on OxfordDictionaries.com. Brief definitions for some of the new entries can be found below:
  • acquihire, n.: buying out a company primarily for the skills and expertise of its staff…
  • adorbs, adj.: (informal) arousing great delight; cute or adorable
  • air punch, n.: thrusting one’s clenched fist up into the air, typically as a gesture of triumph…
  • amazeballs, adj.: (informal) very impressive, enjoyable, or attractive
  • anti-vax, adj.: (US informal) opposed to vaccination
  • Bank of Mum and Dad, phr.: (Brit. informal) a person’s parents regarded as source of financial assistance
  • bare, adv.: (Brit. informal) very; really (used as an intensifier)
  • bedroom tax, n.: (in  the UK) informal name for a measure introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012…
  • binge-watch, v.: (informal) watch multiple episodes of (a television programme) in rapid succession…
  • bro hug, n.: (US informal) friendly embrace between two men
  • clickbait, n.: (informal) (on the Internet) content…whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page
  • cord cutting, n.: (informal) practice of cancelling a pay television subscription or landline phone connection in favour of an alternative Internet-based or wireless service
  • cotch, v.: (Brit. informal) spend time relaxing; stay or sleep somewhere on a temporary basis
  • cray, adj. (also cray cray): (US informal) crazy
  • Deep Web, n.: the part of the World Wide Web that is not discoverable by means of standard search engines…
  • doncha, contraction: (informal) don’t you
  • douchebaggery, n.: (N. Amer. informal) obnoxious or contemptible behaviour
  • dox, v.: (informal) search for and publish private data about (an individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent
  • e-cig, n.: (informal) another term for electronic cigarette
  • false widow, n.: a spider resembling the black widow, some species of which are moderately poisonous to humans
  • fandom, n.: the fans of a particular person, team, series, etc. regarded collectively as a community or subculture
  • fast follower, n.: a company that quickly imitates the innovations of its competitors
  • 5:2 diet, n.: a diet that involves eating normally for five days out of a seven-day period and greatly restricting the amount of food eaten on the other two days
  • FML, abbrev.: (vulgar slang) f— my life! (used to express dismay at a frustrating personal situation)
  • geocache, n.: an item…that has been hidden at a location whose coordinates have been posted on the Internet…
  • hate-watch, v.: (informal) watch (a television programme) for the sake of the enjoyment derived from mocking or criticizing it
  • hench, adj.: (Brit. informal) (of a man) strong, fit, and having well-developed muscles
  • hippotherapy, n.: horse riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment…
  • hot mess, n.: (US informal) a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered
  • hot mic, n.: (informal) a microphone that is turned on, in particular one that broadcasts a spoken remark that was intended to be private
  • humblebrag, n. & v.: (informal) (make) an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to somethingof which one is proud
  • hyperconnected, adj.: characterized by the widespread or habitual use of devices that have Internet connectivity
  • ICYMI, abbrev.: (informal) in case you missed it
  • in silico, adj. & adv.: (of scientific experiments) conducted or produced by means of computer modelling or simulation
  • listicle, n.: an Internet article presented in the form of a numbered or bullet-pointed list
  • live-tweet, v.: post comments about (an event) on Twitter while the event is taking place
  • mansplain, v.: (informal) (of a man) explain something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing
  • mud run, n.: an event in which participants negotiate a course consisting of obstacles filled or covered with mud
  • neckbeard, n.: (informal) growth of hair on a man’s neck, especially when regarded as indicative of poor grooming…
  • octocopter, n.: an unmanned helicopter having eight rotors
  • olinguito, n.: a small nocturnal tree-dwelling mammal living in cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador…
  • Paleo diet, n: a diet based on the type of foods presumed to have been eaten by early humans…
  • pharmacovigilance, n.: the practice of monitoring effects of medical drugs after they have been licensed for use
  • responsive, adj.:  denoting a website whose page design changes automatically according to the size of screen on which it is viewed
  • second screen, n.: a mobile device used while watching television, especially to access supplementary content or applications
  • sentiment analysis, n.: the process of computationally identifying and categorizing opinions expressed in a piece of text
  • side boob, n.: (informal) the side part of a woman’s breast, as exposed by a revealing item of clothing
  • side-eye, n.: (informal , chiefly US): a sidelong glance expressing disapproval or contempt
  • smartwatch, n.: a mobile device with a touchscreen display, worn on the wrist
  • SMH, abbrev.: (informal) shaking (or shake) my head (used to express disapproval, exasperation, etc.)…
  • spit take, n.: (informal) (especially as a comic technique) an act of suddenly spitting out liquid one is drinking in response to something funny or surprising
  • subtweet, n.: (informal) (on Twitter) a post that refers to a particular user without directly mentioning them, typically as a form of furtive mockery or criticism
  • tech-savvy, n.: (informal) well informed about or proficient in the use of modern technology
  • time-poor, adj.: spending much of one’s time working or occupied…
  • throw shade, phr.: (US informal) publicly criticize or express contempt for someone
  • vape, v.: inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device
  • WDYT, abbrev.: (informal) what do you think?
  • YOLO, abbrev.: (informal) you only live once (expressing the view that one should make the most of the present moment)…
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Friday, August 8, 2014

Mythbusting: Sorry, no, Shakespeare did NOT "invent" this word

As a word lover, you no doubt come across this claim often: "Shakespeare invented this word/phrase".

"Cool," you probably think, "that Shakespeare was one smart dude with the words thing".

Me? *head explodes, jumps up and down* (as they say on twitter): "No he DIDN'T!!"

This persistent myth drives me CRAZY.

These claims are all over the place. Here's the latest one I've come across, and, lo, it has the imprimatur (the internetatur?) of the mighty TED, so it must be true:

A short list of verbs invented by the Bard:

arouse
besmirch
bet
drug
dwindle
hoodwink
hurry
puke
rant
swagger

Shakespeare also minted new metaphors, many now cliches, but fresh in his time:

it’s Greek to me
played fast and loose
slept not one wink
seen better days
knit your brows
have your teeth set on edge

Here's another paragraph claiming that every boldfaced word was coined by the Bard:

You cannot ignore him. He’s got you surrounded. You may think this claim baseless, perhaps even laughable, but he’s there at your elbow. Daily, he jumps trippingly off your tongue. He’s present when you wake at dawn and when the moonbeam slips through your window at night. You may chance upon him in the bedroom. You bump into him at the cinema. He’s there when you’re lonely; he’s there when you’re gloomy. That love letter? His idea. When your account dwindles and you go on a rant, think of him. The soft-hearted know him, and so does your hardhearted employer. Embrace this idea. It’s not just skim milk.

Great. If only it were true.

Shakespeare did not in fact coin most of those words.

The source of this myth seems to be a Merriam-Webster 1998 publication Coined by Shakespeare: Words & Meanings First Penned by the Bard, by Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, from which the writer of the above paragraph drew his inspiration.

Here's the problem. The authors of this book seem to have looked at every entry in the  Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition for which Shakespeare provided the first quotation and come to the rather naive conclusion that this meant Shakespeare invented those words (or gave them a new meaning).

Of course this is not the case. There are two problems with concluding that Shakespeare was so prolific a wordsmith, based on his presence in the OED

1) Back in the 1880s, when the OED started publishing, Shakespeare was the most easily accessible source of a lot of evidence of 16th-century English.  Since then, much more research has been done on Early Modern English, and many more texts have become available, so that as the OED editors proceed at their majestic pace to revise the dictionary, many of the words whose earliest attestation was previously from Shakespeare have now been antedated, sometimes by more than a century.

But, and this is very important, most of the OED has not been revised. In the 3rd edition online, some of the entries, like “moonbeam,” have been updated with an antedating since the Merriam-Webster book came out. This will more than likely happen to many, perhaps most, of the words currently having a first quotation from Shakespeare, as revision proceeds on the dictionary.

It's essential, when you're looking at an OED online entry, to pay attention to the note to the right of the headword, which tells you how up to date (or not) the entry is. For instance, at "arouse", the note says "This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1885)."

At present, M-R and A-Alz, roughly, have been revised. Am-L and S-Z, roughly, have not been revised. Some words scattered around the alphabet within the unrevised letters have been revised; for instance, the verb "drug" was revised in 2009, and Shakespeare is indeed still the first attestation.But it is very risky indeed to make claims about Shakespeare “coining” the words for which he is the first evidence if they are in the unrevised stretches of the alphabet.

2) Even those words for which Shakespeare is the first written attestation as far as our most up-to-date scholarship reveals may not have been coined by him. Many  were probably kicking around Elizabethan English before he set them on paper.

That others should be on these lists or in the Merriam-Webster book at all mystifies me, since even in the unrevised edition of the OED, they were not the first attestation of the word or meaning. “Elbow” has been in the English language since Anglo-Saxon times, and even “at your elbow” to mean “nearby” is first attested in 1548, before Shakespeare was born. An expression for which the OED does have a first attestation from Shakespeare is “up to one’s elbows,” but since this is in an unrevised part of the dictionary, it may well yet be antedated.

For the record, I have listed below the words or meanings of words that are first exemplified by Shakespeare in the revised parts of the OED. Note how many of them are not part of common parlance, paying attention to the specific sense in which the word is illustrated by Shakespeare. They really don't have the makings of a "Gosh gee whillikers did you know that Shakespeare invented the words pullet sperm and nook-shotten?" piece for endless retweeting.  If anything, it's striking how few of these words and usages are part of everyday English.

One thing that is clear is that Shakespeare was a fan of verbs created from nouns and adjectives (yes I know I harp on this, oh wait, "harp" is another one...):
portcullis, muddy, palate, pander, porter, prerogative, prologue

Please do not repeat this "coined by Shakespeare" cliché, and if you're an editor, beware of anyone who does.

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List of words with first attestations from Shakespeare in newly revised OED. Words first, followed by senses of words.


acture The process of acting; action. Louers Complaint 1609
affecting Using affectation or pretentious style; = affected adj. 3. Romeo & Juliet 1597
affectioned Affected in style or behaviour; full of affectation. Twelfth Night 1615
allicholly = melancholy n. Cf. allicholly adj. Merry Wives of Windsor 1615
malefaction Evildoing; an instance of evildoing, a criminal act. Hamlet 1604
mangling That mangles, in the senses of mangle v. Venus & Adonis 1593
meditance Meditation. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
militarist A soldier or warrior; a person who studies military phenomena or history. Also: person having militaristic attitudes and ideals. All's Well that ends Well 1615
minutely That occurs every minute, or minute by minute. Macbeth 1615
misadventured Unfortunate, hapless. In later use also: misguided. Romeo & Juliet 1599
misbecomingly Unbecomingly, unfittingly. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
mistership Compositorial misreading of mistress-ship n. Titus Andronicus 1615
mockable Worthy of, or exposed to, mockery or derision. As you like It 1615
morris A board game played between two players, each with a number (usually nine) of pebbles… Midsummer Night's Dream 1600
moy App.: a coin of an imaginary type. Henry V 1615
muddy To confuse or muddle (a person, the mind); to render (a thing) more complex, to make… Hamlet 1604
multipotent Having much power; very powerful. Now rare. Troilus & Cressida 1609
muset A gap in a hedge or fence through which hares, rabbits, or other animals may pass; (also)… Venus & Adonis 1594
nayword A password, watchword; a catchphrase. Obs. rare. Merry Wives 1615
near-legged Of a horse: moving with the legs close together (perh.: knock-kneed). Cf. near adv. 11. Taming of Shrew 1615
night-walking That walks or goes about at night. Richard III 1597
noncome A state of bewilderment or insanity. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
non-regardance Failure or refusal to regard something. Twelfth Night 1615
nook-shotten Having many corners, angles, or projections; having an irregular form. Henry V 1615
obduracy The state or quality of being obdurate; stubbornness, resistance to all entreaty; persistence in wrongdoing or evil. Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
obscenely In an obscene manner; offensively, repulsively, horribly; indecently, lewdly. Love's Labour's Lost 1598
off-cap intr. To take off or doff the cap, in reverence or respect to (a person). Othello 1615
omittance = omission n. As you like It 1615
opposeless Not to be opposed; unopposable; irresistible. King Lear 1608
out-breast intr. Prob.: to outdo another in singing high or loudly. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
outdare trans. To overcome by daring; to outbrave, defy. Now rare. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
outlustre trans. To surpass in lustre; to outshine. Cymbeline 1615
outpeer trans. To outrival; to surpass in excellence. Cymbeline 1615
outstay trans. To stay beyond the end or limit of (one's expected or permitted time, an event… As you like It 1615
outswear trans. To outdo in swearing; to swear more or more coarsely than; to overcome or get the better of by swearing. Love's Labour's Lost 1598
outsweeten trans. To surpass in sweetening or in sweetness. Cymbeline 1615
outswell trans. To surpass in or by swelling; to surpass in size, quantity, or degree; to swell out more than. Troilus & Cressida 1609
out-villain trans. To surpass in villainy. All's Well that ends Well 1615
overbeat trans. To beat (a person or thing) down; to overpower, overwhelm. Now rare. Coriolanus 1615
overdyed That is dyed with a second colour; dyed too deeply. Also fig. Winter's Tale 1615
overeaten That has been eaten away on all sides; nibbled all over. Chiefly fig. Troilus & Cressida 1609
overleaven trans. To leaven too much; to cause to rise or swell excessively. Chiefly fig. Hamlet 1604
overmounting That mounts or rises too high. Henry VI, Pt. 1 1615
over-picture trans. To surpass in depiction; to depict or describe with exaggeration. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
overpost trans. To cover (ground) quickly and easily (fig. in quot. 1600). Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
overpower trans. To defeat or overcome with superior power or force; to reduce to submission. Richard II 1597
over-roasted That has been roasted too much or for too long. Taming of Shrew 1615
overteemed Excessively productive or fertile; put under strain by excessive breeding or production. Hamlet 1604
palate trans. To perceive or try with the palate, to taste; to gratify the palate with; to enjoy the taste of, relish. Also fig. Troilus & Cressida 1609
pander trans. To act as a pander to; to minister to the gratification of (another's desire or lust). Also fig. Obs. Hamlet 1615
parti- having a parti-coat. Love's Labour's Lost 1598
pauser A person who pauses; a person who stops something. Macbeth 1615
pausingly With a pause or pauses; haltingly, hesitantly. Henry VIII 1623
paying back The action of repaying something; an instance of this. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
pelting The action of pelt v.; beating with missiles; persistent striking or beating; an instance of this. King Lear 1608
pensived Saddened. Louers Complaint 1609
phantasim A fantastic being; a fantasizer, a fantast. Love's Labour's Lost 1598
piglike In a manner resembling or suggestive of that of a pig. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
pignut The sweetish edible tuber of Conopodium majus, a fine-leaved plant of the family Apiaceae… Tempest 1615
plantage Vegetation, herbage. Obs. Troilus & Cressida 1609
pleached Chiefly poet. Fenced, bordered, or overarched with pleached boughs. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
pleading That pleads; esp. entreating, beseeching, imploring. Venus & Adonis 1594
plighter A person who makes a pledge or promise (fig. in quot. 1616). Antony & Cleopatra 1615
plumpy Characterized by plumpness; plump. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
portcullis trans. To furnish with a portcullis; to close with a portcullis; (fig.) to close securely. Richard II 1597
porter trans. with it and intr. To act as a gatekeeper or porter. Macbeth 1615
preceptial Consisting of or conveying precepts; instructive. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
precipitance = precipitancy n. 2. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
preformed Formed or shaped beforehand; formed prior to some subsequent operation. Cf. preform v. Julius Caesar 1615
prerogative trans. (in pass.). To endow (a person) with a prerogative, right, or privilege. Othello 1615
priceless Beyond price; having an inestimable value; invaluable. Occas. also: having no market price; not obtainable for money. Lucrece 1594
primogenitive = primogeniture n. 3. Obs. rare. Troilus & Cressida 1615
primy That is in its prime; indicative of (a person's) prime. Hamlet 1604
printless Making or leaving no print or trace. Now rare. Tempest 1615
prizer A person who fights a prize (prize n.); a prizefighter. As you like It 1615
prologue trans. To introduce; to precede (something) as an introduction; to come before or in front of. All's Well that ends Well 1615
prompture Prompting, suggestion, instigation. Measure for Measure 1615
pudency Modesty, bashfulness, or reticence; embarrassment; an instance or expression of this. Cymbeline 1615
pugging Of uncertain meaning; perhaps: ‘that pulls or tugs, thieving’. Winter's Tale 1615
pulsidge Humorous blunder for pulse n. Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
pupil age In early use: the period during which one is a pupil, minority. In later use: the age or… Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
pupil-like In the manner of a pupil. Obs. Richard II 1597
purr An act of purring; the low vibrating sound made by a cat, usually when pleased or contented. Also: any sound resembling this. All's Well that ends Well 1615
reclusive Characterized by seclusion from society or human interaction, esp. as part of a religious discipline. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
recollected Gathered painstakingly; studied, artificial; practised, refined. Obs. Twelfth Night 1615
remediate = remedial adj. 1a. King Lear 1608
repine The action of repining, discontent; an instance of this, a complaint. Venus & Adonis 1593
revengive Vengeful, vindictive. King Lear 1608
reverb trans. = reverberate v. 4c. King Lear 1608
revolving Of the mind, thoughts, etc.: turning something over, considering, actively… Richard III 1597
rondure Roundness; (also) a circle or round object. Cf. roundure n. Sonnets 1609
rubious Ruby-coloured. Twelfth Night 1615
rumourer A person who spreads rumours. Coriolanus 1615



abhorring The condition or state of being abhorrent. Obs. rare. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
acorned Of a boar or hog: fed or filled with acorns. Obs. Cymbeline 1615
air Without qualification or following construction. Obs. Winter's Tale 1615
all hid The game of hide-and-seek. Also as int.: the call used in the game (see note). Love's Labour's Lost 1598
making The material out of which something may be made; the potentiality of becoming something.… Henry VIII 1623
malignancy Malign or baleful character; unpropitiousness; great injuriousness. Obs. Twelfth Night 1615
man-monster
Tempest 1615
mangling That mangles, in the senses of mangle v. Venus & Adonis 1593
manly Excellently. Cf. bravely adv. 3. Obs. rare. Macbeth 1615
manner Forms of behaviour exemplifying politeness or respect. Now only in to make (also do) one's manners… Taming of Shrew 1615
march intr. Mil. Used in the imperative as a word of command. Also march on. Also in extended… Richard II 1597
mask Theatre. An image of a face worn by an actor; (Classical Theatre) a hollow figure of a… Midsummer Night's Dream 1600
meeting That meets or comes together. Venus & Adonis 1593
mercury A person entrusted with messages between parties, esp. in a clandestine love affair; a go-between. Merry Wives of Windsor 1602
merit In clauses with as or than. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
mettle In an animal, esp. a horse: liveliness, eagerness, friskiness. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
mince trans. Usu. in negative contexts: to moderate or restrain (one's language) so as to keep… Henry V 1615
mincing The action or habit of speaking or acting in an affectedly refined or elegant manner. In… Henry VIII 1623
mingle fig. To put together so as to make one; to pool. Obs. rare. Cymbeline 1615
miracle trans. (refl.) To reveal by a miracle. Obs. nonce-use. Cymbeline 1615
misplaced That has been put in a wrong place; devoted to or bestowed on a wrong or… King John 1615
moral Import, meaning, significance. Obs. rare. Taming of Shrew 1615
mountain squire
Henry V 1615
mountainous Resembling a mountain or mountains in size or shape; huge, enormous. Also fig. Coriolanus 1615
muster trans. Perh.: to exemplify (a particular skill or quality). Obs. rare. All's Well that ends Well 1615
nave The navel. In recent use only with allusion to quot. 1616. Macbeth 1615
neither With negative implied contextually. Obs. Comedy of Errors 1615
new-fallen Of a right, property, etc.: that has newly fallen or passed to a person. Obs. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
night-swift
Midsummer Night's Dream 1615
night-brawler
Othello 1615
nighted Dark or black as night. Freq. fig. Hamlet 1604
night-fly A flying insect which is active at night. Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
obsequious Dutiful in performing obsequies or showing respect for the dead; appropriate to obsequies. Obs. Titus Andronicus 1594
obstruction The action or an act of preventing, impeding, or hindering the motion or passage of a… Twelfth Night 1615
off Naut. At a distance from the land; offshore. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
offering That offers (in various senses): see offer v. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
old Wearing old clothes, shabby. Obs. rare. Taming of Shrew 1615
old In ancient times, long ago. Pericles 1609
out-jest
King Lear 1608
out-breast intr. Prob.: to outdo another in singing high or loudly. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
outswell trans. To surpass in or by swelling; to surpass in size, quantity, or degree; to swell out more than. Troilus & Cressida 1609
over-bulk
Troilus & Cressida 1609
overteeming Excessively fertile or productive; too active or vigorous. Hamlet 1603
paddle trans. To finger idly or playfully; to fondle. Now arch. and rare. Winter's Tale 1615
pagan euphem. A prostitute. Obs. Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
at pause at (also in) pause: temporarily inactive or motionless; not proceeding; hesitating… Hamlet 1604
pawn = gage n. 2. Obs. Richard II 1597
pebbled Covered, strewn, or heaped with pebbles; pebbly. Sonnets 1609
persistency The quality, fact, or condition of being persistent; esp. firmness or obstinacy in adhering… Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
place In Falconry: the high position or pitch to which a falcon or other bird of prey… Macbeth 1615
to play off trans. colloq. To drain or finish (a drink, esp. an alcoholic one). Obs. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
pleading That pleads; esp. entreating, beseeching, imploring. Venus & Adonis 1594
plough To furrow (a surface) with a ploughing action; to tear, scratch up, as if by ploughing.… Titus Andronicus 1594
porch fig. Hamlet 1603
potent Of an argument, idea, theory, etc.: cogent, effective, convincing. Troilus & Cressida 1609
prenzie Prob. a compositorial misreading of precise adj. Measure for Measure 1615
presage A presentiment, a foreboding; a prophetic or anticipatory perception of the future. Now rare. Richard II 1597
prime Of a thought, aim, etc.: principal, chief, main; of primary importance; most valuable. Also in extended use. Tempest 1615
primy That is in its prime; indicative of (a person's) prime. Hamlet 1604
I prithee =. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
prodigal Having or providing a lavish amount of a resource or quality; generously or… Love's Labour's Lost 1598
prodigal A person who has lived a reckless or extravagant life away from home, but subsequently… Merchant of Venice 1600
promise intr. To appear likely to turn out in a specified way; to encourage expectation. Usually with adverb, as fair, well, etc. All's Well that ends Well 1615
proportion An allotted portion (of land, etc.). Now hist. and rare. Henry V 1615
pudency Modesty, bashfulness, or reticence; embarrassment; an instance or expression of this. Cymbeline 1615
pugging Of uncertain meaning; perhaps: ‘that pulls or tugs, thieving’. Winter's Tale 1615
pullet sperm (prob. chiefly after Shakespeare's use: see quot. 1616) eggs. Merry Wives of Windsor 1615
punch To pierce, cut, or perforate with or as with a punch (punch n. 3); to make a hole or holes in. Richard III 1597
puzzle To perplex, bewilder, confound (the brain, mind, will, etc.); (also) to apply (one's… Hamlet 1603
quail A courtesan. Also: a prostitute. Obs. Troilus & Cressida 1609
queen With it. Of a woman: to be a queen; to act or rule as queen; to behave in a queenly… Winter's Tale 1615
quick-answered
Cymbeline 1615
quietus A release or respite from life; an ending of life, death; something that causes death. Hamlet 1603
ranged Systematically arranged; ordered. Obs. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
rank Of a payment, financial gain, etc.: high or excessive. In later use only in… Hamlet 1604
rash Urgent, pressing. Obs. rare. Troilus & Cressida 1609
rash-levied
Richard III 1597
re trans. Used as a humorous threat to a musician: to give ‘re’ to. Cf. re n. Romeo & Juliet 1597
reel trans. To stagger drunkenly through or along (a street). Obs. rare. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
remain Of an impression, object of perception, etc.: to stay with a person; to stick in the mind. Timon of Athens 1615
reservation The action or fact of reserving (for oneself or another) a right, entitlement, privilege… King Lear 1608
return To travel back along. Obs. rare. Richard III 1597
right Of a person: judging, thinking, or acting in accordance with truth or the facts of… Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
rival With present participles forming adjectives, as rival-hating, etc. Richard II 1597
rivet With to or into. Merchant of Venice 1600
rub trans. To impede, hinder. Cf. rub n. 3. Obs. rare. King Lear 1608
ruffle Ostentatious bustle or display. rare. Louers Complaint 1609
ruin Any ruined thing, situation, or (esp.) person. King John 1615


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.