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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, February 27, 2015

10 common usages once criticized as wrong

Quick now, what's wrong with saying "the prestigious Nobel Prize"? Nothing, you say? A mere 30 or so years ago, someone would have found fault with you for saying it. 

Wordlady readers know I get a kick out of looking at bygone prescriptive comments about the language which now seem ludicrous. Here's another bundle, gleaned from the Oxford English Dictionary.

1) agenda
O.E.D. Supplement (1972) : ‘[Treating agenda as a singular rather than a plural noun is] A use now increasingly found but avoided by careful writers.’


2) contrast
Introduced c1600 in the sense "contention, opposition", it was adversely criticized in 1644 as a new-fangled term. The word soon became obsolete in the literal sense but was reintroduced with the verb as a term of art c1700.


3) forth, adv., prep., and n.

Criticized as obsolete in 1771.

4) iron
The current standard pronunciation ("I earn" rather than "I ruhn")  was still criticized by some commentators in the 18th century.

5) microbe
This word was coined by the French military doctor Charles Sédillot in March 1878 from micro- (small) + ancient Greek βίος (life). It was coined expressly to provide a suitable alternative to a group of words (such as microzoaire, microphyte, animalcule) which had been used with greater or lesser precision to denote various types of microorganism. This formation has frequently been criticized on the grounds that, had an adjective *μικρόβιος existed in ancient Greek, it would have had the meaning ‘short-lived’.


6) narrate
1813   Quarterly Review  The style [of McCrie's Knox] is..free from all modern affectation, excepting the abominable verb ‘narrate’.


7) perfunctory
The first recorded use of the word, derived from Latin perfunctorius (done in a careless or superficial manner, slight, careless, negligent) in a book by Gabriel Harvey in 1592, was almost instantly criticized as an "inkhorn term" by Thomas Nashe. Borrowing from Latin and Greek was very popular in the Renaissance, resulting in many  polysyllabic words entering English. Since they soaked up a lot of ink, they were derided as "inkhorn (ie inkpot) terms". Some of these didn't survive, but many did to become part of our standard vocabulary.  Here's another one:  

8) neophyte
1583   W. Fulke A defense of the sincere and true translations of the holie scriptures into the English tong. Except you would coin such ridiculous inkhorn terms, as you do in the New Testament, azymes, prepuce, neophyte..and such like.


9) prestigious
On the grounds that the Latin (and original English) meaning of the word was "Of the nature of or characterized by sleight of hand, juggling, conjuring or trickery; deceptive, illusory; (of a person) that cheats or deceives, deluding.", use in the sense "Having, showing, or conferring prestige or high status; inspiring respect and admiration" was frequently criticized in the 20th century, and the  O.E.D. Supplement (1982) at that entry comments ‘in this sense many prefer to use prestigeful a. or some other adjective’.

10) raise, n.
Use in the sense "pay increase" was sometimes criticized by U.S. usage guides until as late as the 1980s, "rise" being preferred. Although "rise" is the standard UK term, "raise" is standard in North America.




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Friday, February 20, 2015

How do you pronounce "schedule"?

SKED or SHED? The pronunciation of the word "schedule" is something that provokes quite virulent debate, with some members of each camp feeling that only theirs is "correct". Why people get so dogmatic about these things, I don't know.

So what's the scoop (or is it the shoop)?

The word came into English legal and official language from French in the 1300s, at which time it was written "sedule" or "cedule" (plus other variants) and meant "a slip of paper containing writing". The first syllable was pronounced the only way it could be pronounced: "SED". In modern French cédule is still pronounced this way, and most European languages other than English followed suit:
Provençal cedula, cedola
Spanish cédula
Portuguese cedula
Italian cedola
German Zettel 
Dutch cedel 
Swedish sedel
Danish seddel

Why did we English speakers mess things up? French had acquired this word, like most of its vocabulary, from Latin, and this was the root of the problem. In Latin, the word was  scedula (in medieval and modern Latin also written schedula), a diminutive of Latin sceda (medieval Latin also scheda), a page or a strip of papyrus. This was probably a back-formation from schedium (an impromptu speech) in turn derived from Greek  schedios (casual);. In Latin, the first syllable was pronounced SKAYD. But in the passage from Latin to French, the "K" sound had fallen out of the word.

As regular Wordlady readers know, Latin messed up our spelling big time the 16th century. Scholars of the time looked at the original Latin and Greek words from which many English words were ultimately derived and said "Hey! We should spell our English words like that too [so that people will know I'm really smart and know Latin]!". So, sensible old "sedule" had to be changed to "scedule" or the even more popular "schedule". People still pronounced it "sedule", though (much as we still pronounce  "debt" as "det" despite that interloping Latin "b"), until well into the 19th century.

This is the point at which the SHED/SKED schism (SHIZZM? SIZZM? SKIZZM?) took place. Noah Webster convinced his American compatriots that the pronunciation should reflect the Greek origin of the word, and follow the example of similarly Greek-derived "school" and "scheme". In Britain, however, the SED pronunciation morphed into a SHED. 


We Canadians? Of COURSE we have to have both pronunciations. When we surveyed people for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary on this question, we found that more Canadians said "SKED" than "SHED", but that both pronunciations exist. The "SHED" crew tend to think that the "SKED" lot are traitors to Canadian nationality, having adopted an American pronunciation. This is quite a ridiculous attitude to take, as we don't feel the same way about the vast majority of Canadians who say "toMAYto" like Americans rather than "toMAHto" like the British. I say "SHED", by the way, but am unperturbed by those who say "SKED".


The now most common meaning of "schedule", a timetable, is a fairly recent development, dating only from the mid-19th century in the US. From being an official piece of paper in the Middle Ages, "schedule" came to apply to tabular listings of figures (which is why we have "schedules" to attach to our income tax returns). With the coming of the railways, it was a handy word to use for tabular timetables. 

Another thing that happened to "schedule" in the 19th century as a result of the railways was that it started to be used (here comes my hobbyhorse) as ... gasp... a verb. Noun-verb conversions, what would we do without them? Indeed, having now finished writing this, I am moving my cursor over to ... schedule it for publication.




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:



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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.