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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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Of Blizzards and Snowzillas

 http://www.weather.gov/images/dmx/SigEvents/2012-12-19_Blizzard/Blizzard2.jpg

A furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow, in which man and beast frequently perish

Such is the rather poetic definition for "blizzard" (written in 1887, when #Blizzard2016 or any other hashtag was undreamt of) in the Oxford English Dictionary.
 
The origin of the word "blizzard" is a mystery. Before it started to be used of violent snowstorms in the 1850s, it was being used in North America to mean a violent blow. 
1856   Sacramento City (Calif.) Item   When some true archer, from the upper tier, Gave him a ‘blizzard’ on the nearest ear.
The OED speculates an onomatopoeic origin, mentioning such words as blow, blast, blister, and bluster. By the 1870s the word was being applied to snowstorms in the western US and Canada.  Not surprisingly for those of us who grew up in its tender climes, the first reference to a blizzard in Canadian sources is describing the weather in Manitoba in February 1875:
The glass measured -38 last night... The boss blizzard of the season howled over Manitoba on Sunday, and kept people from going to church and pleasure driving.
Technically, though, a blizzard is not just any big snowstorm.

For the US National Weather Service, a blizzard requires snow and/or blowing snow reducing visibility to 1 / 4 mile or less for 3 hours or longer and sustained winds of 35 mph or greater or frequent gusts to 35 mph or greater.

"Only THREE hours? Pfft!" says Environment Canada, which issues a blizzard warning when winds of 40 km/hr or greater are expected to cause widespread reductions in visibility to 400 metres or less, due to blowing snow, or blowing snow in combination with falling snow, for at least 4 hours. Anything less than that, and Canadians, it is well known, will be out barbecuing.

It is unlikely that the meteorological authorities in either Canada or the US will ever provide a technical definition of "snowzilla", a word which has been with us since early 2000. For more on the -zilla suffix, see this post :  http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/-Zilla

And we must not forget "snowmageddon", which came along in 2005 and is still going strong. 

Happy shovelling!


P.S. If you liked this post, 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.
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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tea & Wordlady: Thurs. Feb. 18, "Wacky English"

Word lovers! What could possibly be better than talking about words?

Talking about words... while eating scones! 

"Tea and Wordlady"
Why the English Language is so Wacky

A fun look at how our language has evolved

Full afternoon tea (sandwiches, mini-quiche, scones, cream, and jam, fruit and petits fours, pot of tea) including tax and tip,
and a fun-filled one-hour talk and Q&A with
Katherine Barber

$50
Thursday February 18
230 pm
T-Buds Tea Lounge
2nd floor (17 steps)
3343 Yonge St, Toronto
At the corner of Yonge and Snowdon/Fairlawn
3 blocks north (about 5 minutes walk) 
of the north (Ranleigh) exit of 
Lawrence subway station

Space is limited to only 22


A great gift for your Valentine!

To register, please
1) send me an email (wordlady.barber@gmail.com) 
to say that you are coming
2) send a cheque for $50 per person (includes tax) made out to Katherine Barber at 
201 Hanson St, Toronto M4C 1A7.
If you use online banking, you can also do an Interac e-transfer.
3) On receipt of your payment I will email you your ticket(s) 

PS: If you want to know how to pronounce "scone", see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2011/06/con-or-cone.html)


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Tea and Talk

Word lovers! What could possibly be better than talking about words?

Talking about words... while eating scones! 

Therefore, I am proposing an entertaining
"Tea and Wordlady"
event to be held on a weekday afternoon in Toronto sometime in February.
Here are the details:
 
Full afternoon tea (sandwiches, mini-quiche, scones, cream, and jam, fruit and petits fours, pot of tea) including tax and tip,
and a fun-filled one-hour talk by  

Katherine Barber

$50
T-Buds Tea Lounge
2nd floor (17 steps)
3343 Yonge St, Toronto
At the corner of Yonge and Snowdon/Fairlawn
3 blocks north (about 5 minutes walk) of the north (Ranleigh) exit of Lawrence subway station

Space is limited to only 22

If you think this sounds like fun, please let me know, to help me schedule it, by emailing me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com:

1) which weekday(s) suits you

2) which of the following talks interest you (you can choose more than one!)

Why the English Language is so Wacky
A fun look at how our language has evolved

Bachelor for Rent:
Things You Never Suspected About  Canadian English
A hilarious look at what is distinctive about

Canadians and their language
 
Hebrew and Yiddish:
Alive and Well and Living in English
An entertaining look at how Hebrew and Yiddish words have enriched the English language over the course of its history
A great gift for your Valentine!
PS: If you want to know how to pronounce "scone", see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2011/06/con-or-cone.html)


Friday, January 8, 2016

Shakespeare's contributions to English



It's the beginning of a year-long party to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, so get ready for ... a lot of hooey about Shakespeare's contribution to the English language. All those words he invented!! I've written about this before, but there will no doubt be a veritable onslaught of claptrap in the next twelve months. 

Already The Globe and Mail  has published this nonsense from British PM David Cameron (which I suspect has been picked up by many newspapers):
"Shakespeare played a critical role in shaping modern English and helping to make it the world’s language"
I'm really not sure how Shakespeare helped to make English the world's language. Geopolitics did that. 
The first major dictionary compiled by Samuel Johnson drew on Shakespeare more than any other writer; 3,000 new words and phrases all first appeared in Shakespeare’s plays."
Well, at latest count the OED lists 1620 words whose first attestation is from Shakespeare, but hey, there's not that much difference between 3,000 and ... about half that many.  Many of those words are obscure or archaic, or in entries that are yet to be revised, and lexicographers will no doubt find earlier attestations than Shakespeare for most of them.
"Words such as dishearten, divest, addiction, motionless, leapfrog – and phrases such as “once more unto the breach,” “band of brothers,” “heart of gold” – have all passed into our language with no need to reference their original context."
Too bad that of these examples, the following all appeared before Shakespeare:
  • dishearten
  • divest
  • addiction
  • motionless
  • heart of gold 
and it's unlikely he invented leapfrog.
"He also pioneered innovative use of grammatical form and structure – including verse without rhymes, superlatives and the connecting of existing words to make new words, such as bloodstained – while the pre-eminence of his plays did much to standardize spelling and grammar."
We'll just hop over the fact that verse without rhymes is not "grammatical form and structure", and skip straight to...

Superlatives? Shakespeare pioneered superlatives? That would be news to English speakers who have been using "-est" since Anglo-Saxon times and "most x" since Middle English times, not to mention the occasional "most -est" double superlative. And English speakers have merrily been  "connecting existing words to make new words", a process otherwise called compounding, since Anglo-Saxon times.  

I don't want to be the party pooper at Shakespeare's celebrations. Many catchphrases indeed have their origin in his plays. But actual current, frequently used words? Not so much, that we can be sure of. And the ones that you often see attributed to him turn out,  when one does a very little research, not to be his coinages.

Shakespeare was a great writer, and there are many other aspects of his work that are worth celebrating. We do him a disservice by instead repeating these clich├ęd falsehoods.


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.