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, September 27, 2015

Only in Canada: Found in a Bawdy House

I recently received from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General a questionnaire aimed at determining my suitability for jury duty. 

One of the things that disqualifies potential jurors is having been convicted of a criminal offence. 

However, some criminal offences are apparently not as bad as others (and certainly not as bad as being a lawyer, which immediately disqualifies you). If you've been convicted of any of the following odd assortment of vices, you're still good to pass judgement on your fellow Ontarians:
Being nude in a public place [although presumably this is frowned upon if you're actually IN a jury]
Trespassing at night [perhaps daytime trespassers are more wicked???]
Trading in lumbering equipment without consent of owner [???]
Pretending to practice witchcraft
Failing to keep watch while towing person on water skis
You will no doubt be relieved to know that I am innocent as a newborn babe of any of these crimes.

But the "not-so-reprehensible-after-all" crimes that entertained me the most were the ever-so-Canadian
Being found in bawdy house
Transporting a person to a bawdy house
Yes, Canadian law still uses the delightfully antiquated term "bawdy house" for a brothel. How very Shakespearean-sounding. I believe other English-speaking jurisdictions have moved on linguistically (but if "bawdy house" is still in use where you live, please do let me know).

"Bawdy" has a fairly mysterious origin. It is derived from "bawd" ("One employed in pandering to sexual debauchery," the OED tells us primly), which may be a shortening of "bawdstrot", derived from French baudestroyt, literally a bold and shameless strutter.

Another offence on which the jury selection process looks with a lenient eye is "Being found in a gaming/betting house". Canadians must be "found in" gaming and bawdy houses, fairly frequently, because we have even created a noun, "a found-in" (not to be confused with "foundling"), to designate someone charged with one of these offences.

("Honestly, officer, I just stepped in to ask for directions")


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Monday, September 21, 2015

Of Garters and Gardens



















Sorry to disappoint the more salacious-minded of you, but this post will not be providing images of women's upper thighs bedecked with lacy undergarments.

We will in fact be dwelling on titillating images like this one:



and asking the question, "Why are they called garter snakes?" 

For they are indeed "garter snakes", not "garden snakes" as their name is often corrupted. This corruption (I use this word in its dispassionate linguistic sense of "change from the original") is a result of folk etymology -- because they do indeed turn up in gardens -- reinforced by the North American phonetic tendency which makes us pronounce "garter" as "garder". Be that as it may, "garter snake" is the correct term.

It is perhaps not surprising that people associate snakes more with gardens than with garters, because our mental concept of what a garter is has changed quite a bit since this family of non-venomous North American snakes acquired its name in the 1700s. Back then, garters did not look like this  (that would be a pretty bizarre snake):

but often more like the two garters (one 16th-century Italian, the other 18th-century American) at the top of this post.  They had evolved from the basic woven garters of the Middle Ages, which probably looked something like this:

http://www.revivalclothing.com/widetiegarters.aspx
You can immediately see why a European coming on a snake like this in his North American travels, and just possibly fantasizing about undergarments at the time, would be inspired to call it a "garter snake". The one below looks particularly as if someone had woven it a nice garter-like suit.



The word "garter" came into English, like many garment-related words (including "garment" itself) from French after the Norman Conquest. In Old French the garet (modern French jarret) was the back of the knee (something for which we don't have a word in English). This was where garters were usually fastened. The word ultimately derives from the word for "leg" in the Celtic language of the pre-Roman inhabitants of Gaul.


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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Nonplussed about nonplussed

Friends of mine recently had a facebook discussion about the meaning of "nonplussed" (also spelled "nonplused" by Americans). One thought it meant "confused" and the other "unperturbed".  There is indeed cause for confusion, because this word is used with both these sometimes contradictory meanings. 

Although "so surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react" is the original meaning of "nonplussed", the second, "unfazed", meaning arose in North America in the 1960s. It has become so pervasive that, in Canada at least, according to the surveys we did for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, it has become the dominant meaning of the word. Indeed, many Canadians we asked were not even aware that there WAS a "confused" meaning of "nonplussed". When matters reach this point, it is clear that the word has changed its meaning, and no admonitions that "this is not standard" (as found in many dictionaries) can stop it.

However, because of these very divergent senses, I would recommend that you avoid using this word in writing unless the context makes the meaning absolutely unambiguous.

It's an odd word, isn't it?  It comes from classical Latin nōn plūs (not more, no further). In the 1500s, when English speakers just adored making English more Latinate, we made this Latin phrase into an English noun, "non plus" (a state in which no more can be said or done; an inability to proceed in speech or action; a state of perplexity or puzzlement; a standstill). You could be at or in a nonplus, or reduced to a nonplus. As is usual with English, it didn't take long for this noun to be turned into a verb, so that by the 1600s, people who were paralyzed by perplexity were "nonplussed". 

What does "nonplussed" mean to you?



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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Friday, September 4, 2015

Sling, slang, slung

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how we form the simple past tense of verbs ending in -ing and -ink in English.

While most people say

ring, rang, rung

and 

sing, sang, sung

they also say

swing, swung, swung

and 

sling, slung, slung.

But on two occasions recently I have come across different conjugations of "swing" and "sling".  The first was during my Mad Men binge-watch (which also got me thinking about "massacree"), when one of the characters said, "I swang past the office." Your reaction might be "Sounds hillbilly!" but this character's language was not otherwise marked as being non-standard.
File:Swing.jpg
I swang a lot when I was a kid
Then in church, I was jolted out of my doze, I mean, caused to pay even more attention than usual, by this account of the David and Goliath story: "David put his hand in his bag, and took out a stone, and slang it."
contemplating conjugation

As with "sink" and "drink", the story is complicated.

Going back as far as Anglo-Saxon times, the pattern for the simple past of "swing" was the following:
I, thou, he, she, it "swang" 
We, you (pl.), they "swungon" 

After the Normans arrived, confusion reigned, with "swang" starting to be used for both singular and plural subjects, but with competition from the newfangled "swong" and even "swinged". "Swung" didn't even turn up as a past tense until the 1700s, but by the 1800s this interloper was pretty much established as the standard past, at least in Britain.

Wordsworth was still using "swang", and since there is no evidence of "swung" in his poems, "swang" was perhaps normal for him.
1835   Wordsworth Stanzas Power of Sound x, in Yarrow Revisited 318   While Fauns and Satyrs beat the ground In cadence,—and Silenus swang This way and that, with wild-flowers crowned.
Thirty years later, Tennyson also used it, but I suspect in his case it was for poetic effect.
1864   Tennyson Aylmer's Field in Enoch Arden, etc. 52   Sir Aylmer Aylmer.., Whose blazing wyvern weathercock'd the spire,..And swang besides on many a windy sign.

In the US, where, as we have seen before, older forms often survive, "swang" is still to be found, though quite rarely. Wordsworth notwithstanding, I wouldn't recommend using it in formal English (Blogger, for instance, is reproving me with its red squiggly line every time I type it).


"Swing" has meant "move back and forth" for less than half of its long life. It started out meaning "whip, flog, beat (a person); also, to strike with a weapon or the hand", and it is only because this action usually involved a back-and-forth motion that the verb came to have its now most common sense, starting in the 1500s.

"Sling", though not as old as "swing", followed essentially the same pattern: the past tense being "slang", "slong", or "slung" from the 1300s to the 1600s, with "slung" winning out decisively.  But not before the translators of the King James Bible had immortalized "slang" in the story of David. As for the common sense of "slang", we do not know where it came from.

I will be offering my very popular "Rollicking Story of the English Language" course this fall. For more info, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2015/08/rollicking-story-of-english-language.html


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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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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.