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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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Wordlady of the Camellias




One of my all-time favourite ballets is John Neumeier's The Lady of the Camellias.

Quick now, how did you pronounce "camellia"? Was the middle syllable like "mell" or like "meal"? If you, like me, said "meal", you would probably be as surprised as I was to find this note in the Oxford English Dictionary
(Often mispronounced as caˈmēlia.)
Mispronounced? What are they talking about? I don't know anyone who says anything but "meal". (Maybe you do, and if so please let me know).

It turns out this is a holdover from the original entry, published in 1888, and not yet fully revised (you always have to be wary about this when consulting the OED), which gives the pronunciation as "ca mell eea". The rationale is that the flower was named (by Linnæus) after Kamel (latinized Camellus), a Moravian Jesuit who described the botany of the island of Luzon in the Philippines.


Once again, a usage condemned as "wrong" has become the standard usage. 

Of course, we English speakers also had to imitate the Latin spelling of Kamel's name, with its double l, unlike the French, who are quite happy with camélia, and the Germans, who like Kamelie.

Here for your viewing pleasure is one of the fabulous pas de deux from Neumeier's ballet. Sometimes it's just better not to have any damn words, and their associated spelling and pronunciation issues, getting in the way. 

(I know, did I just SAY that?? Who is writing this post, and what has she done with Wordlady?)

https://youtu.be/bN5Vm0lXisM

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Swooning over transitive usages

Image result for swooning
Bring me my smelling salts! Don't they know it's supposed to be INTRANSITIVE??!!


I was quite surprised to see this on the Australian Ballet's facebook feed: 
It was a Brisbane builder who swooned Telstra Ballet Dancer Award nominee Nicola Curry from America to Australia.
"Swoon" used transitively (i.e. with a direct object, "to swoon someone")? How very biza... I mean interesting.

Is this just an Australian thing, I wondered.

Sure enough, I found more Australian evidence: .

Country/genre
Australia: General
Title
The Idea of North: Ballads by Candle Light - Brisbane Powerhouse
Source

Sat 29 Oct 2011 # Come and be swooned by the intoxicating harmonies of The Idea of North. This ARIA award winning group will sing a smooth blend of ballads including songs by The Beatles, Sting, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder all on a candlelit stage.


Country/genre
Australia: Blog
Title
How to talk to the opposite sex - The Age Blogs: Ask Sam
Source


2007 2:41 PM . # Afterall I bet a lot of women are feeling ripped off after being swooned by these guys who have done the course on becoming a pick up artist and find after a short time they have nothing to talk about. # Unless all you both want is a quick roll in the hay, you will want to be able to talk for a long time into the future.

Occasional, but very little, US evidence:


Country/genre United States: General
Title How It Works: Clinton's “Reality Distortion Field” Charisma
Source http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/11/21/bill-clinton-reality-distortion-field/


. # I have to say that I too have heard a story exactly like the one described above from my professor. Women doesn't like Clinton beforehand but when he meets her, she becomes swooned by him.
I surveyed my helpful international editors' group, and only three Canadians, two Australians, and two Americans were familiar with this usage (compared to hundreds who were not). One Australian opined that it must be the effect of a popular morning radio show called "Swoon".  She also mentioned "swoon-worthy", which, however, is not uniquely Australian. 

"Swoon"  in the literal "lose consciousness" sense comes from an Old English word. But we don't say to a doctor, “I haven't been feeling well, and I've been swooning a lot”. Why not? Because the Norman French arrived, and they fainted instead.  "Faint" is a fascinating word that originally meant “pretend to be sick” (it is related to "feign" and "feint"). 

But, as with many Anglo-Saxon words pushed aside by Norman French interlopers, we didn't get rid of swoon altogether. A very important thing about English over its history is that it LOVES synonyms. If you think of "Reduce Reuse Recycle", English has NEVER been into the "reduce" part, but, boy, does it love to reuse and recycle. We kept swoon because apparently at some point in our history we decided we needed a word that means specifically “faint in particularly romantic circumstances.” 

And now it seems to be taking on another meaning as well. We shall have to keep an eye on it. Let me know if you have ever encountered this usage!

 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! SUBSCRIPTION IS FREE! You can either:
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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sprucing up the place

Image result for christmas trees in house
Sprucing up the house

Writing to a friend who was painting his flat this week, I referred to him "sprucing up" the place.

And then I thought, "Why do we say that? Does it have anything to do with conifers? Surely not! It must be just a coincidence, like pining for the fjords (click here for more on "pining")."

Well, I was WRONG. AGAIN! Sheesh!

Admittedly, though, the connection is very tenuous, but it led me to some interesting discoveries about the word "spruce" in all its usages.

Back in the 1300s and 1400s, the part of Europe bordering the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea, inhabited by an ancient Baltic people called "Prussi" by the Romans, went by the name "Pruce" in English. After the Renaissance, when we preferred Latin names, we came to call it "Prussia". 

But before that happened, "Pruce" had a variant name: "Spruce". Goods imported from or flora and fauna native to "Spruce" were naturally called "Spruce fish", "Spruce duck",  and so on.  A particularly valued commodity was the wood of a tall, straight coniferous tree that grew in the region and hence was called a "Spruce tree" or "Spruce fir". After a couple of centuries, we called it simply a "spruce".

But what does this have to do with sprucing oneself up

Another valued commodity from "Spruce" was leather. In the 1400s and 1500s a "spruce leather jerkin" seems to have been a hot fashion item. If you wore one, you were considered pretty natty. And so "spruce" came to be treated as an adjective meaning "well dressed, dapper" or "well maintained; having a tidy appearance".  At the same time, "spruce (up)" started to be used as a verb. (Find out whether it's ok to use an adjective as a verb here: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/whats-wrong-with-this-verb/)

Here in Canada we have, by a scientific estimate, bajillions of spruces. More spruces than any other kind of tree. I like to think that if history had been different, they would be called "canadians", and the expression meaning "improve one's appearance" would be "to canadian oneself up". Maybe it's not too late... 

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Attention ballet lovers! I'm offering a new mini ballet appreciation course in November: More than the Hora: Jewish Contributions to Ballet. Of interest to all ballet lovers and all who are interested in Jewish culture and history. More info here: 
http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/2016/10/new-ballet-course-jewish-contributions.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! SUBSCRIPTION IS FREE! 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

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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.