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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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Saturday, January 9, 2021

Riots and kangaroos

 

I can't think why, but this week I have decided to talk about the word "mob", a disorderly or riotous crowd, a rabble.

Surprisingly, this is etymologically an abbreviation, its origin being classical Latin mōbile vulgus (the changeable common people, the fickle crowd). In the 1600s "mobile vulgus" came into English, but very quickly it was being abbreviated to "mobile" and thence to "mob". 

The essayist Joseph Addison was not a fan of such truncation:


1711   J. Addison Spectator No. 135. ⁋10   It is perhaps this Humour of speaking no more than we needs must which has so miserably curtailed some of our Words,..as in mob. rep. pos. incog. and the like.

Addison's usage objections had as much success as these things usually do, and by 1800 "mob" had pretty much supplanted its parents "mobile" and "mobile vulgus". 

Meanwhile, English migrated to Australia, where "mob" had a resounding success acquiring new meanings there and in New Zealand.

(definitions from the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian-specific meanings).

noun 1. b. Colloquial a group of people, as friends, not necessarily large: we'll invite the mob over for Saturday night.

an Australian friend of mine tells me that she thinks this is now an older-generation usage.

c.  a group of workers: a mob of shearers.

2.  a collection of animals 

In both Australia and New Zealand people refer to "mobs of sheep" as well as "flocks" and "mobs of cattle" as well as "herds".

My favourite of these usages, though, is that "mob" has become the standard collective noun for kangaroos. 

 There are birds aplenty to enjoy, plus animals including a mob of kangaroos bounding around a cemetery in Perth

There's a useful trivia question for  you!

5. 
a. Aboriginal English an Aboriginal tribe or language group,
extended family or community: all my mob; the Big River mob.

 
b.  a community, whether related by kinship, geography, special interest, etc.: the Newcastle mob; the Music Society mob.

Then there is the very cute

6.  a group or unit of Joey Scouts in the Scout Association.

I love "Joey Scouts"! It is parallel to our 5-7-year-old "Beavers" (also cute) in North America.  

If only a gang of kangaroos or cute mini boy scouts had been the ones to invade the US Congress this week!

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

*From the photographer: These two wild wallabies are actually testing each other’s strength, like an arm wrestle, but I like the photo because they look like they are dancing, perhaps a waltz. This species is known as the agile wallaby, and the photo is taken in North Queensland, Australia.

 

**If you receive these posts in your inbox, clicking on "Wordlady" at the top will take you to the blog where you can comment or view other posts. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

1921 Words

 

 

As always at the New Year, it is interesting to see some words that are celebrating their hundredth birthday, some older than you think and others younger. These are the first appearance in print that the OED has found.

arms race, n.

 1. Competition between nations, regimes, etc., in the accumulation, development, or testing of weapons, esp. nuclear weapons.

1921   San Francisco Business 14 Oct. 5   Crushing burden entailed through international arms race.

 

atom bomb, n.

  A bomb which derives its destructive power from the sudden release of a large amount of energy by fission of heavy atomic nuclei, causing damage through heat, blast, and radioactivity. Abbreviated A-bomb. Cf. atomic bomb n., hydrogen bomb n. at hydrogen n. Compounds 1a(b).With reference to quot. 1921, H. G. Wells's use is cited at quot. 1914 at atomic bomb n.

1921   Color Trade Jrnl. 9 2/2   There is no remedy excepting that of blowing up Paris by an atom bomb as forecasted by H. G. Wells some years ago.
 

blankie, n.

nursery and colloquial (chiefly North American).

  A blanket, esp. a child's security blanket.

1921   L. W. Kline & C. J. France in G. S. Hall Aspects Child Life & Educ. 257   Had a little blanket she would not go to sleep without. She always cried ‘My blankie, my blankie,’ till she got it.
 

booze cruise, n.

colloquial.

 1. Originally U.S. History. During the Prohibition era: a cruise on which passengers were taken just far enough from the shoreline to be outside U.S. jurisdiction, so that they could buy and consume alcohol legally; (also, more generally) a boat trip on which the passengers drink a considerable amount of alcohol, often as part of a dinner-dance or similar event.

1921   Olympia (Washington) Daily Recorder 18 Apr. 1/7 (headline)    Would be Booze Cruise Ends with Drowning and Loss of Boat and Cargo
 

bugger-all, n. and adj. 

slang (chiefly British, Australian, and New Zealand).  

  Nothing at all, absolutely nothing.

1921   Notes & Queries 19 Nov. 418/2   The word ‘nothing’ was replaced in the Army by ‘b——r-all’—‘I did b——r-all’; ‘There was b——r-all to eat’.
 

comparison shopping, n.

Originally U.S.

  The action of comparing (the prices of) the same or similar products or services as offered by different retailers, manufacturers, etc. Also in extended use. Frequently attributive.

1921   M. H. Tolman Positions of Responsibility in Department Stores ii. §D. 84   Two comparison shopping executives had been secretaries to members of the management.
 

ee bah gum, int. and adj.

 A. int.

  English regional (Yorkshire and Lincolnshire). Expressing surprise, delight, wonder, etc.

1921   R. P. Weston & B. Lee in Catal. Copyright Entries: Pt. 3 (Libr. of Congr. Copyright Office) 16 305/2 (title of song)    Eeh! by gum, it were a real fine do!
 

fascism, n. 1.

 a. Usually with capital initial. A nationalist political movement that controlled the government of Italy from 1922 to 1943 under the leadership of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945); the principles or ideology of the fascisti (fascista n. 1a). See also fascist n. 1a, Fascismo n., and cf. sense 1b. Now historical.The movement grew out of the nationalist fasci which became prominent at the end of the First World War (1914–18), esp. with the formation of the militantly anti-communist and anti-socialist Fasci di Combattimento by Mussolini in 1919. After the formation of a coherently organized Fascist party in 1921, Mussolini became prime minister in 1922, leading to the eventual establishment of a totalitarian Fascist state.

1921   Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald 1 Feb. 2/3   No doubt fascism is a transitory phenomenon.
 

Hicksville, n.

Forms: 

α. 19– Hickville.

β. 19– Hicksville.Originally and chiefly U.S.

  (The type of) an unsophisticated, rural, small town.

1921   E. O'Neill Straw i. ii. 46   Making a note that a tug boat towed two barges loaded with coal up the river, that Mrs. Perkins spent a weekend with relatives in Hickville.
 
 

junk mail, n.

Originally North American.

 1. Unwanted or unsolicited mail or post, typically in the form of circulars, advertisements, etc., sent to a large number of addresses.

1921   Legislative, Executive, & Judicial Appropriation Bill: Hearing before U.S. Senate Comm. on Appropriations (66th Congr., 2nd Sess.) II. 2353   What we call the junk mail comes in just the same. There is no let-up at all in that, and all of that has to be handled.
 

oops, int. and n.

Etymology: Perhaps shortened < upsidaisy int. (compare whoops int. and quot. 1925 at that entry), or perhaps a natural exclamation which has become confused with upsidaisy int.
colloquialA. int.

  Expressing apology, dismay, or surprise, esp. after an obvious but usually minor mistake.

1921   Washington Post 1 Nov. 21/4   Oops, muh dear, it's in the last where the dirty work takes place.
 
 

ringtone, n.

Telecommunications.

 1. The sound produced in a caller's telephone to indicate that a connection with the number dialled has been made and the called phone is ringing; = ringing tone n. at ringing n.1 Compounds.

1921   Kansas City (Missouri) Star 1 Jan. 9   Listen for the busy signal or the reverting ring tone which tells you your party is being rung.
 

tear-jerker, n.

colloquial (originally U.S.).

  Something calculated to evoke sadness or sympathy, usually a sentimental film, play, song, story, etc. Also applied to a person and, rarely, to an event.

1921   Double Dealer II. 143/2   But no one today, I believe, mistakes his [sc. James Whitcomb Riley's] productions for anything but somewhat shallow, fairly easy tear-jerkers.
 

to-do, adj.

Originally U.S.

  Chiefly in to-do list: designating a (notional) list of tasks requiring attention or completion, sometimes ordered by priority. Also: designating an item in such a list.

1921   Fort Wayne (Indiana) Jrnl. 6 Nov. iii. 2/8   Again she consulted her ‘To Do’ list.
 
 

zaftig, adj.


Etymology: < Yiddish zaftik, literally ‘juicy’ < German saftig juicy (already in Middle High German as saffec , saffic ) < Saft juice (see sap n.1) + -ig -y suffix1.
North American. colloquial.

  Of a woman: having a full, rounded figure; plump.

1921   Broadway Brevities Dec. 20   Isn't Diana Allen getting very zoftig?
 
Photo by Natalie Dmay on Unsplash
 
 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Shots and jabs

 

The news is all about the new COVID-19 vaccines. Thank God (and armies of scientists) for them.

But have you noticed that while we in North America will be lining up for our "shots", people in Britain go for "jabs"?

I have to say that "jab" has always had rather violent connotations for me, as if the medical professional were to come hurtling at me and aggressively poke my arm with the hypodermic (possibly even with a blood-curdling yell). I expect for the British these violent connotations have faded away, just as they have for us with "shot".  I doubt that any North American heading into the flu shot clinic has visions of their pharmacist whipping out a gun and unloading vaccine-laden bullets into their arm.

Both of these words seem to have started their injection-related careers in American drug users' slang in the early 20th century. By the 1930s "shot" had started on its path to respectability, and by the 60s was a quite standard term for injections.

By the 1980s "jab" had become the standard term in Britain. I have no idea why British English opted for this while other varieties preferred "shot," but such are the ways of language.

"Shot" is a very old word, dating from Anglo-Saxon times. "Jab" is a much more recent word, dating from the 1820s, but it is derived from an older Scottish word "job", used of a bird poking with its beak, possibly in imitation of the sound made by the bird.

For the story behind "vaccine", please click here:

https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2011/12/dont-have-cow.html

 **Please feel free to leave a comment on Wordlady posts below in the "Post a Comment" box. It will not be published immediately as I have to moderate comments to eliminate spam etc. ** 

Photo by Kristine Wook on Unsplash

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sanitizer and sanity

 

We are all adjured to use sanitizer at every opportunity. 

But, if "sane" means "of sound mind", why does its derivative "sanitize" not mean "make someone sane"? After all, they are derived from the same Latin root, sānus (healthy). How convenient would that be, to have some kind of "sanitizing" shampoo which eliminated all kinds of craziness!

But there has been a semantic divergence: "sanitize" and its related word "sanitary"  are for physical health, whereas the root word "sane" and its derivative "sanity" are only for mental health.

 "Sane", like so many Latin words, was borrowed into English in the 16th century, a little later than "sanity", at which time both words did refer to physical health (as, of course, sain does in French).  This meaning, however, was subsequently overtaken by the "mental health" sense so that by the 19th century the "physical health" sense was lost. This was probably due to the fact that its opposite, "insane", has only ever meant "of unsound mind", dating from when it too was borrowed in the 16th century. This was true also of its Latin source insānus.

"Sanitize" dates from 1836 and "sanitizer" from the mid 20th century, so they were not in fact derived from what "sane" meant in English at the time but from the original Latin meaning.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Anxious Days and Tearful Nights

 Dear readers.

I've taken a bit of a break from Wordlady but hope to return to posting soon.

In the meantime, appropriately enough for Remembrance Day, I would like to acquaint you with my sister's newly published book. It focuses on the impact of the First World War on women at home. It wasn't just the men in the trenches that suffered.
It is available through amazon and in public libraries.

What was it like to be a soldier's wife in Canada during the First World War? More than 80,000 Canadian women were married to men who left home to fight in the war, and its effects on their lives were transformative and often traumatic. 
 
Yet the everyday struggles of Canadian war wives, lived far from the battlefields of France, have remained in the shadows of historical memory. Anxious Days and Tearful Nights highlights how Canadian women's experiences of wartime marital separation resembled and differed from those of their European counterparts. 
 
Drawing on the letters of married couples separated by wartime service and the military service records of hundreds of Canadian soldiers, Martha Hanna reveals how couples used correspondence to maintain the routine and the affection of domestic life. She explores how women managed households and budgets, how those with children coped with the challenges of what we today would call single parenthood, and when and why some war wives chose to relocate to Britain to be nearer to their husbands. 
 
More than anything else, the life of a war wife - especially a war wife separated from her husband for years on end - was marked and marred by unrelieved psychological stress. Through this close personal lens Hanna reveals a broader picture of how war's effects persist across time and space. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In honour of my great-grandfather who died at the battle of the Somme, October 2, 1916.
 

Monday, August 24, 2020

An issue with "issue"

 A Wordlady reader has written to complain about the word "issue", to wit

 What about "issues" which in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic has replaced all possible synonyms and more to the further impoverishment of our language. What is its origin and has it always been abused as it is these days?

Whew.  Abuse, impoverishment (nay, FURTHER impoverishment), replacing all possible synonyms, that's a lot to pack into two sentences. Hyperbole is not uncommon when people take against new usages. 

"Issue" has been around since 1325 and has 19 meanings, plus more sub-meanings, in the OED, so it's definitely a polysemous word. When it entered English from French (ultimately from Latin exīre to go out, < ex out + īre to go) it had the meanings "a flowing out" and "offspring". If you object to all other usages than those being "abuse", well... good luck with that.

It certainly has not replaced all its possible synonyms. Let's look at some of them, from the Oxford Paperback Thesaurus:

  • 1. the committee discussed the issue: matter (in question), question, point (at issue), affair, case, subject, topic; problem, bone of contention.
  • 2. the issue of a special stamp: issuing, publication, publishing; circulation, distribution, supplying, appearance.
  • 3. the latest issue of our magazine: edition, number, instalment, copy.
  • 4. (Law) she died without issue: offspring, descendants, heirs, successors, children, progeny, family; informal kids;
  • 5. an issue of blood: discharge, emission, release, outflow, outflowing, outflux; secretion, emanation, exudation, effluence; technical efflux.
  • 6. (dated) a favourable issue: (end) result, outcome, consequence, upshot, conclusion, end. 

Last time I checked, all these words are alive and well. 

I think what this reader is objecting to is the use of "issue" to mean "problem". This usage has been around since the 70s and has certainly taken off since the 80s. Its origins were in psychology in the US, most likely, I suspect, to avoid the negative judgemental connotation of "problem". Personally I don't see anything wrong with avoiding negative judgemental connotations. I like to give the example of a ballet teacher of mine who would give us an exercise and when we were done making a hash of it would say,  "Three issues:..." This made me feel much better than if he had said "Three problems".  And in the great scheme of things, was I going to turn out as a better ballet dancer if he'd crushed me with a word with demeaning connotations?

This is a perfectly normal outgrowth of the sense of "issue" meaning "point of contention, difficulty to be resolved" which has been around since, oh, 1400.

I really do not understand why people claim that some change in the language is an "impoverishment". English has a history dating back to the arrival of the Normans of loving synonyms. When a word acquires another meaning, surely that is an enrichment. "Problem" is not going anywhere, but now we can reserve it for really negative difficulties, while we also have "issue" for the kind of difficulty that is discussed on the psychiatrist's couch (or is susceptible to correction by a patient ballet teacher). I have to admit to having a chuckle on hearing a 6-year-old whose backpack strap had got caught between the seats on the subway saying, "Mum, I have an issue with my backpack"!

I have to wonder if, in the late 1500s, people objected to the newfangled meaning  of  "problem" usurping, or adding to previous words.  "What is wrong with ye "hardnesse" or ye "dyffycultie"? This word "problem" is being abused! It should only mean "riddle"," they might have said.

Another issue with "issue" is its pronunciation. Judging by the medieval spellings, it has been pronounced ISHoo since it first came into English. Probably under the influence of the spelling, British English dictionaries started recommending ISSyoo in the early 20th century, but ISHoo is making a comeback. In North America ISHoo has always been the preferred pronunciation.  I can't help it, but ISSyoo sounds precious to me. 

There you go, I can be negative and judgemental by moments too.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Normalcy or normality?

This picture is relevant. Keep reading to find out how.

A Canadian Wordlady reader has inquired about the word normalcy, which she feels is taking over from normality.

The fact of the matter is that these words are pretty much of the same vintage: normality dates from 1839, normalcy from 1857, along with another but much less successful contender, normalness from 1854.  

Normalcy has in fact been the more frequent form in North America and, interestingly, in South Asian English. It is not overwhelmingly more common, however: the proportion is about two-thirds in favour of normalcy vs. one-third in favour of normality.

In Britain, however, the numbers are very much more skewed, and in the other direction: over 90% in favour of normality. Normalcy is seen with some hatred and much opprobrium as an evil Americanism. Indeed, British usage pundits have been withering about normalcy: H.W. Fowler in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage said it "seems to have nothing to recommend it" and Robert Burchfield in his update said, "In BrE normality is the customary term, and normalcy is widely scorned." The 1969 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary labelled normalcy "irregular".

In Canada, a dramatic shift happened between the 80s and the 90s. I certainly remember being taught in the 70s that normalcy was WRONG and normality was RIGHT. In the 1980s, possibly under British (or more likely WE'RE NOT AMERICAN) influence, Canadian writers were 94% in favour of normality, but by the 90s had shifted to only 37% in favour of normality, and since then to only about 25%.

Normalcy was given a boost in the US by the 1920 election campaign of President Warren J Harding, who promised a return to normalcy after the First World War. Harding's political opponents seized on this as an example of Harding's shaky grip on the language, saying that normalcy was not a real word. They were successful in besmirching his vocabulary, if not in defeating his presidential ambitions, to the extent that decades later people were claiming that normalcy was a malapropism invented by Harding, though it wasn't. But certainly his use of it popularized the word so that it started on its upward trajectory against normality. It must be remembered that normality wasn't a terribly common word at the time either, hard though that may be to imagine.

This was because the adjective normal itself didn't start to become common until the 1840s. Surprising, eh?

It is derived from classical Latin normālis (right-angled), also in the 4th–5th centuries "conforming to or governed by a rule", ultimately from norma (a carpenter's square). It was borrowed into English in the 1500s but remained quite rare until the 1800s. Even then, such little use as it had was restricted to scientific usage.

It may have been given a boost by the French, starting in 1794. Wishing to centralize teaching, establish "norms" (a word which also did not exist in English until the early 1800s) and wrest the education of children from the clergy, who were in any case in disarray after the revolution, the French government established the "Ecole Normale" for teacher training, based on Austrian and German 18th-century model "Normalschulen" which aimed to instil pedagogical norms or standards into teachers. 

By 1839, teacher training colleges in North America were also being called normal schools. Not familiar with this usage, I remember hearing as a child that my grandmother and great aunt had been to "normal school" and wondered why anyone needed to make a point they hadn't gone to "abnormal school"! In English, the term "normal school" is now mostly historical.

If you are wondering about the name Norma, it was apparently invented by Felice Romani in his libretto for Bellini's opera of that name (first performed in 1832) and seems to have nothing to do with the Latin word norma. It would indeed be odd to name a baby after a carpenter's square. The name soared to popularity in the 1930s, reaching the rank of 25th most popular baby name in the US, before precipitously declining after 1950, until there were no baby Normas in British Columbia, for instance, in 1975 or any year since. By clicking here you can see the name's "witch's hat" curve typical of names that experience a surge in popularity and then become unfashionable. While you're there you can check out some other names. It's fun!

Would you call a baby "Norma" or do you know any young Normas? (Not that there's anything wrong with the name Norma!)

What do you say? Normality or normalcy?  Either is fine in North America. Whatever we call it, we all fervently wish for a return to it as soon as possible.

For more about baby names, see this post. https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2015/03/thats-lady-grantham-to-you-downton.html

Have you missed out on previous Wordlady posts? You can click here and just keep scrolling to your heart's content. 

 

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

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.