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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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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Safe as hice

Some nice hice in San Francisco
Plurals seem to be the flavour of the month, with readers asking why many moose aren't meese, and this leads inevitably to the question, "If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn't the plural of house ... hice?"

"Mouse" was mus in Anglo-Saxon. Way back, when the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in England, its plural was musiz (pronounced moo-seez). Just as with "goose", the sound in the second syllable affected the first syllable (the phenomenon called "i-mutation"). Whereas gosiz became ges, musiz became mys (pronounced "meese"). With the Great Vowel Shift, this became the "mice" that we know today.

The Anglo-Saxon ancestor of "house" (hus), however, belonged to a category of noun, like the ancestor of "deer", where the form was the same in the singular and the plural. One hus, two hus. So there were no husiz to precipitate the i-mutation that would have led eventually to a plural "hice". 

Two house, two housen, two houses?
The unchanged plural "house" (one house, two house) actually survived into the 14th century, but it was ultimately defeated by two other possibilities. One was an irregular plural "housen", which still survives in some dialects.  Inevitably, though, the strength of the regular "add (e)s to make the plural" pattern in English gathered "house" to its ample bosom and "houses" was the ultimate winner.

But, just to make life difficult for ESL learners, we added a subtle pronunciation change to the plural. Whereas the "s" in "house" is pronounced with a hissing "SS" sound, without the vocal cords vibrating, that same "s" in "houses" is pronounced like a "z", with the vocal cords vibrating. (If you put your hand on your throat and hiss a "ss" followed by a "zz" you can feel the difference).

This phenomenon is caused by the fact that the consonant is between two vowels, and to utter a vowel, you HAVE to vibrate your vocal cords, so it's easier to keep vibrating them for the consonant in the middle as well.  This voicing of consonants between vowels (intervocalic consonants) has existed in English since the earliest times.

T becomes D, F becomes V, S becomes ...
We North Americans voice our intervocalic t's (e.g. "tutor" sounds like "Tudor"), and English has many words where an unvoiced "f" becomes a voiced "v" in the plural where the "e" following the "f" used to be pronounced: wife/wives, half/halves, leaf/leaves, life/lives, loaf/loaves, and so on.  With those, at least we indicate the change in sound by the spelling. But  "houses" is the only example in standard English of a plural where a voiceless intervocalic s becomes voiced. Think of words like "buses", "asses", "cases", "bases", "cabooses" (no, the plural is not "cabeese"!) and so on.
 
HOUZes or HOUSSes?
Being the sole example of a pronunciation phenomenon in the language is not good for phonetic job security. Inevitably the predominant regular pattern will start influencing the irregular one. And indeed, a reader from Michigan informs me that her children (in their fifties) pronounce "houses" with a voiceless ss sound, that is, "HOUSSez", although she herself says "HOUZes". I conducted a poll of my facebook friends, and of 73 who responded, only one, from Ohio, said "HOUSSez". Nonetheless, Merriam-Webster dictionaries include both pronunciations for the plural, and there is chatter on the Internet about the voiceless version (complaining about it, naturally). I cannot for the life of me understand why people get so upset about slight pronunciation differences. 

How do YOU pronounce "houses"?

For more information about mouse-related words (not to mention some titillating pictures), see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2012/08/of-mice-and-men.html

For some more examples of voiced intervocalic consonants, see these posts:

Congratulations, Women's Hockey Team! (Now, how do I say that?)

Off with their heads!

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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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why is the plural of moose not meese?

Image result for moose
Moose - North American meaning


I've had quite a lot of traffic to my "Six Geese a-laying" post about why the plural of "goose" is "geese" rather than "gooses".

To save you going to that post (although there is also interesting information about "lie" and "lay" there), here's the explanation:  

In Old English, the word was gós, and back in the mists of time its plural would have been gósiz. By the phenomenon called "i-mutation", the vowel in the second syllable affected the vowel in the first syllable, so by late Anglo-Saxon times, the plural had ceased to be gósiz and had become gés - our modern "geese". I-mutation is perhaps the most common cause of our irregular plurals.

Inevitably, people want to know why, then, the plural of "moose" is not "meese". 

First, as with most or perhaps all members of the deer family, we use the same form of the word for the singular and the plural. (This is because the word that gave us "deer" belonged to a noun group in Old English which didn't add an -s for the plural).

But even if the moose belonged to, say, the cat family, and thus typically had a plural different from its singular, we wouldn't use the plural "meese". This is because, unlike "goose", the word "moose"  did not exist in early Anglo-Saxon times, so it couldn't undergo i-mutation. "Moose" was borrowed from Eastern Abenaki in the 1600s. The Abenaki are a native people of Quebec, the Maritimes, and New England, for whom this majestic animal is a mos.

Over the years, there have been occasional instances of people using "mooses" for the plural, but this is so much a minority usage that it has to be considered incorrect.

Just to add more complications to the story of "moose", the animal which it designates, called by zoologists Alces alces, is known as an "elk" in Europe. In North America, "elk" is used instead for the wapiti (a Cree word), Cervus elaphus canadensis.
Elk (North American meaning)
Are you confused now? I tell you, lexicographers hate these cervids!

Here in Canada we have a lot of moose. I was quite entertained on my first trip to Newfoundland, where there are an estimated 150,000 of them (one for every four Newfoundlanders), to find "Moose bourguignon" on a restaurant menu (yes, of course I ordered it). Mooseburgers are another option.

But we also have some more fanciful "moose" derivatives:
moose pasture 
noun Cdn slang
  • 1. a piece of land promoted as having mining potential but in fact unproductive.
  • 2. worthless land, useful only for grazing moose.
moose milk 
noun Cdn
  • 1. a drink including alcoholic liquor (usu. rum), milk, and often other ingredients, esp. eggs.
  • 2. home-distilled liquor.
  • 3. any alcoholic drink. 

Well now, all that remains is for me to wish you all a very merry Christmoose:




For why the plural of "house" is not "hice", see this post:

Safe as hice


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:


use the subscribe window at the top of this page

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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, December 18, 2015

What molasses teach us about language change



It's the time of year when you may be dusting off your gingerbread recipe, and therefore rummaging in your cupboard to see if you have any molasses (possibly left over from last year).

This crucial ingredient in gingerbread has an interesting history. The Portuguese word for it is melaço, derived from the Latin mellaceus (honey-like). The English borrowed the Portuguese word in the 16th century, but they borrowed the plural form melaços, since molasses is actually the "dregs" or "leftovers" of raw sugar. In 1870, it was correct to say, "The Americans are all fond of molasses, using them regularly at breakfast and supper to their buckwheat cakes and waffles". But now "molasses" is treated as a singular, except perhaps in parts of the southern and central US.

Is molasses singular or plural for you?

It's not that unusual for words that entered the language as a plural to become singular (or vice versa). "Data" and "media" are good examples which some people complain about. Yet no one complains about "molasses" or "stamina" (originally the plural of the word "stamen".)

In British English, what we North Americans call "molasses" is more commonly called "treacle", a word which, fascinatingly, is derived from a Greek word meaning "poisonous reptile". But more about that next week.

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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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Let's get this strai(gh)t



I was reading something this week that referred to someone's "straightened financial circumstances". 

What they meant was "straitened". "Strait(en)" and "straight(en)" are two altogether different words that just ended up being pronounced the same way.

"Straight" (i.e. not crooked) started out as a past participle of "stretch" (strecchen in Old English). If something was strecht or streght (with a throat-clearing "ch" sound) to its full extent, it obviously had no kinks in it, so "straight" evolved on its own, independently from "stretch", to mean "with no bends". Over time we lost the phlegmy "ch/gh" in the pronunciation (but of course not in the spelling, we are English after all) and ended up with a pronunciation identical to that of the completely different word, "strait"

"Strait" came into English after "strecht/streght/straight", from the Old French word estreit (tight, close, narrow), which became in modern French étroit. This word derived from the Latin strictus, the past participle of stringĕre (to tighten, bind tightly). So the meaning of (e)streit was the complete opposite of streght: instead of describing something stretched to its maximum, it described something restricted to its minimum, usually causing hardship. 

Close-fitting garments were "strait"; houses and rooms and cages were "strait"; paths and mountain passes and narrow bodies of water were "strait".

Just as your accommodation could be "strait", so could your financial circumstances. We can all identify with a character from the Canterbury Tales  who complains, "My wages been ful streite and ful smale."

(E)streit/strait was also a noun designating a narrow or tight place, a narrow body of water, and a distressing circumstance.

Surprisingly for a word that has had many useful meanings since it first landed in English in the 14th century, "strait" is now only alive for the narrow body of water, and in a few expressions. Even in those, it is losing the battle against the much better known "straight". 


straitlaced: originally this meant "wearing a bodice or corset that was tightly laced", but very quickly came to apply to people with strict or rigid moral attitudes. It and "straitjacket" are now also spelled "straightlaced" and "straightjacket" frequently enough that dictionaries list these as variants; indeed "straightlaced" is the more common spelling in the Oxford English Corpus.


"Dire (or desperate) straits" is such a fixed expression in English that you might think it has been with us forever, but in fact it is relatively recent. The earliest example I could find of "dire straits" referred to literal straits (the body of water) in 1780:
The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius: In Four Books
"When now the heroes through the vast profound
Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass'd round"

The earliest metaphorical use I could find was in an 1809 translation of plays by Euripides
MENELAUS. Shall I submit My hands in silence to the galling chain ?

HELEN. You know not how to act in these dire straits To which we are reduc'd

For "desperate straits", the earliest I could find was from a book called The Way Made Plain by James Hall Brookes, dating from 1816:

The Russian mother, who threw one and another, and then another, of her children to the howling wolves pursuing her sleigh, showed the desperate straits to which she was driven to save her life ;
Straitened circumstances have been with us since the 1600s, and this particular expression is going strong, along with "straitened times". Although the urge to spell it "straightened" is no doubt strong, editors have managed, judging by corpus evidence, to keep this at bay.

Who knows, though, if "straightjacket" and "straightlaced" are any indicator, perhaps "straitened" will eventually become "straightened".  

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:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at 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
 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Twelve Days of Wordlady

In case you missed my "Twelve Days of Wordlady" last year, why not check it out, starting with what partridges have to do with farting. by clicking here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.html

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

That word is older than you think! Try this quiz

This is fun! I'm always telling people "That usage is older than you think", and here's a quiz from Oxford Dictionaries to test your intuitions. I got 4/5, but that was because I guessed "rose-tinted" was about a century older than it actually is. 

http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/11/timeline-challenge/

 

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.