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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, August 6, 2019

Where there is hatred let me sow love(red)

The other day, a friend of mine asked rhetorically:

"When did the word "hatred" disappear from the English language?"

She felt that "hatred" is a much better word than its synonym "hate". 

Of course, "hatred" has not disappeared from English (neither the word, nor, alas, the thing). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "hatred" occurs between 10 and 100 times per million words in typical modern English usage, in the same category as words like dog, horse, ship, machine, mile, assessment, army, career, stress, gas, explosion, desert, parish, envelope, and headache. 

But my friend is on to something. "Hatred" does seem to be waning.  

If you look at Google Books (admittedly a rather rough tool), the word has been experiencing a downward trend since 1800 (here's the link if you can't see the graph 
https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=hatred&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chatred%3B%2Cc0 ):

This trend is confirmed by other corpora.

It is not really surprising if "hatred" is on the wane, if not exactly in its death throes yet, since it has to contend with its exact synonym "hate" (the noun). 

Is "hate" some newfangled verb-noun conversion that is muscling out its venerable forebear "hatred"?

Far from it. The noun "hate" and its Anglo-Saxon ancestor hete are in fact older than "hatred", the earliest evidence for which dates from 1225.

Another phenomenon that is not in favour of "hatred" is that it is one of only two words current in English that maintain the Old English suffix -red (meaning "condition, state"), the other being "kindred". We don't have "love" and "lovered", though we used to have the latter, along with "brothered", "friendred", "gossipred", "neighboured", and a few others. So without a major semantic distinction between "hatred" and "hate", a distinction that I don't detect, the form with the old-fashioned suffix may well eventually die.

There are syntactic differences though. "Hate", rather than "hatred", is almost always used to form compounds, e.g. "hate crime", "hate speech", "hate campaign", "hate mail", "hate-filled". We don't say "hatred crime". 

On the other hand, "hatred" is much more likely than "hate" to be used when followed by a preposition: although it's possible to say "his hate of the enemy", it's much more common to say "his hatred of the enemy". "His hate of the enemy" even sounds a bit odd to me; how about you?

What do you think about "hate" and "hatred"? Is "hatred" a better word, and if so, why? Do you feel there is a semantic distinction between the two?

While we're on the topic, who's in favour of changing the spelling to a more logical "hatered"?? Ah, English spelling, how we love to hate you.

If only we could get rid of hatred by banning the word!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Wordlady gets salacious

Have a good look at the poster above.

I was quite surprised to see this ad for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on the subway a couple of weeks ago.


I did not attack it with a felt marker to change it to the correct "salacious". 

When you see what seem to be flagrant mistakes like this from sources that should know better, there are a number of possible reasons.
  1. Young People Today have created a new word by blending "salacious" and "delicious".  There seems to be little evidence of such a  phenomenon, however. (And judging by my frequent visits to TSO concerts, Young People Today are not their major market, to put it mildly). If it does indeed exist and you are more hip than I, please let me know.
  2. The mistake may be intentional to grab the viewers' attention. Indeed, some cunning person at the TSO publicity office was perhaps thinking, "If we misspell "salacious" (or invent a blend of "salacious" and "delicious"), some pedant will take a picture of it and post it on their Facebook feed or write a blog post about it and therefore give us more publicity for our concert than if we spelled it properly!" When advertisers intentionally misspell words, though, they usually pick on more common ones than "salacious", so that people will know the mistake is intentional.
  3. They really didn't know any better, had only ever heard "salacious" spoken, never seen it written, had NEVER HEARD OF A DICTIONARY, and spelled it the way it sounded to them. I assume the TSO's ads have to be approved by several people, so I find it amazing that no one noticed this.
Which do you think is the correct explanation?

"Salacious" is now used mostly of written or spoken accounts that are titillating and risqué, focusing on the sexual. Originally, when borrowed into English  in the 1600s, it described lecherous people (as well as the apparently notoriously lecherous pigeons, poultry, and sparrows, who knew). 

The word is derived from Latin salax (lascivious, lecherous) from salire (to jump, leap). According to the Trésor de la langue francaise, this was because one of the meanings of salire was "(of an animal) to mount another animal in mating". 

But I wouldn't put it past those ancient Romans to have also spoken of "jumping someone's bones"!

Friday, June 14, 2019

When your surname is your destiny

I caught sight of this baker's delivery van as I was on my way to the subway the other day and thought, "Wow, how appropriate is that?" "Baxter" is an occupational name derived from the Anglo-Saxon word bæcestre meaning "a female baker".

In Anglo-Saxon, most masculine agent nouns (nouns denoting someone or something that performs the action of a verb) had an -ere ending, which has evolved into our -er suffix. Feminine agent nouns, on the other hand, had an -estre ending. Thus, 
a woman who sang was a
a woman who sewed was a
I particularly love, and feel we should revive, the word for a female dancer: a
Anglo-Saxon apparently also felt the need for a word meaning "female poisoner or witch":
Most of these have died out, but some have survived as surnames, because they were common occupations, and ones typically filled by women in Anglo-Saxon times. 
Thus we have
Webster (a weaver)
Brewster (a brewer)
Dexter (a dyer)
and the above-mentioned
Baxter (a baker)

In the north of England, though, men started taking over trades like weaving, baking, and tailoring, and the -ster ending started to be used in a gender-neutral way. Thus we see a "person who judges", based on the Anglo-Saxon word "deem"  (overtaken by the French word "judge"), is a
Dempster (a judge)
One -ster word that has, just barely, survived, is 
spinster (originally "a woman who spins") 
but not as a family name for obvious reasons, once it came to mean "an unmarried woman". We won't be sad to see that one go.

Once -ster had become a gender-neutral ending, though, the language still felt the need for a specifically feminine ending, and fortunately the French had brought one with them: -ess, derived from Latin -issa. In our lovely "let's have a language mishmash" way, we just tacked that on and ended up transforming

sangestre into "songstress" and

séamestre into "seamstress" (with its now obsolete variant "sempstress")

By the 16th century all associations of -ster with feminine gender had been lost, paving the way for

gamester, jokester, punster, trickster  
and even words formed from adjectives, as in 
and the more recent  

Although I might qualify as both a spinster and an oldster, I would warn you not to use those words of me in my presence! 

Monday, May 20, 2019

At your service

Spring has finally arrived here in southern Ontario, and among the many trees bursting into bloom is the serviceberry. I snapped the one above outside my local library a few days ago.

It got me wondering, why is it called a serviceberry? Of service to whom?

Turns out that it has nothing at all to do with the common word "service", which is derived from the Latin servus (slave).

The tree in question, Amelanchier to give it its botanical name, is very common in North America, and when English-speaking settlers arrived, they noticed a similarity between its fruit and the fruit of a tree they knew back home, a relative of the pear.

Way back in Anglo-Saxon times, that tree, Pyrus domestica, and its fruit, had been called a syrfe. By the 1400s, syrfe had morphed into serve and the plural had become servys. But after another century, people, possibly confused by the arrival of the other "service" from French, forgot that servys was already a plural and started to talk about eating "services" and to call the tree a "service tree". A similar evolution happened with the word "quince".

This was just in time for English speakers to migrate to North America and discover the Amelanchier, whose fruit looked like the berries of the service tree. As was the case with much flora and fauna (e.g. "robin", which is a red-breasted wren in England and a much larger red-breasted thrush in North America), it was just easier to apply a name for a similar European species than to think up a new name. So the North American shrub was baptized "serviceberry".

But in Western Canada, Amelanchier goes by a different name altogether: saskatoon.

This name is derived from Cree misâskwatômina. I am grateful to Cree scholar Arok Wolvengrey for the following explanations:

One interpretation of this could be "the tree with many branches", constituted from /mis-/ "big, much, plenty" + /-âskwatw/ "branch". (If you look at my picture of my local serviceberry, this is a very apt description of the tree's growth habit.) 

Another interpretation is that the compound word should be analysed as coming from /mis-/ "big, much, plenty" + /-âskw-/ "wood" + /atw-/ "arrow". The branches of the saskatoon bush were much prized for their suitability for making arrows. It is, therefore, the "shrub/bush that produces a lot of arrow wood".

It's very common in the Prairies to find pies, jams, syrups, and so on made from saskatoons, which look like blueberries and have a somewhat similar taste. I haven't seen any serviceberry products in Ontario, though. Perhaps I should go berry picking later this summer on a visit to my library.

For the stories behind names of other plants you might find in your garden, please click here:

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Of sarcasm and sarcophagi

A usually mild-mannered friend of mine has been posting ever more sarcastic comments on Facebook about our new Ontario government. Admittedly, it's hard not to be withering about a premier who cuts funding to autistic kids in favour of giving more money to racetracks.

But this got me wondering about the origins of the word "sarcasm".

The ancient Greek word for "flesh" was sarx, sark-. From this derived a verb, sarkazein ‘tear flesh, bare the teeth’, which in late Greek took on the meaning ‘gnash the teeth’ and the metaphorical ‘speak bitterly’. This migrated over to Latin as sarcasmus, a term of rhetoric for a "biting" remark.

Like so many Latin words from learned fields, this was borrowed into English in the 16th century.  Interestingly for us, it was more likely to be used as a countable noun ("a sarcasm", "sarcasms") for the first three centuries of its English life. Since the mid-1800s, however, it is used almost exclusively as a non-countable noun, for example "sarcasm isn't the nicest way to make a point, but you have to admit it's effective." Saying something like "My friend expressed yet another sarcasm on Facebook" would sound just wrong now. Thus does the language change.

Going back to the original Greek root of "sarcasm", sarx, sark- is also the at the origin of the word "sarcophagus" (a stone coffin, especially one decorated with sculptures or bearing inscriptions). The Greek word sarkophagos ‘flesh-consuming’, (from sarx, sark- ‘flesh’ + -phagos ‘-eating’) designated a kind of stone believed by the Greeks to be able to consume the flesh of dead bodies deposited in it, and consequently used for coffins.

For an example of a word that is undergoing a switch from non-countable to countable, see Trainings, nothing more than trainings.

Photo by Paul M on Unsplash

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Pronounced differences

People are fascinated by pronunciation differences. These can be regional, individual, class-linked, or generational.

If one conducts a pronunciation survey about a given word, people love to give their two cents' worth about how they say the word.

But inevitably, if the word is borrowed from another language, someone will pipe up with 

"The PROPER way to pronounce this word is as in the original [Spanish/French/Greek/Arabic/Swahili/insert foreign language here]"

This attitude is...

...how can I put this...


Do these people really think we should be rummaging around in foreign language dictionaries to see how every word is pronounced in the original language? Most of the words in English are borrowed from another language. Once they get borrowed into English, their pronunciation gets adapted to our phonetic system, and often then carries on its merry way. It may be hard for those of us who speak French to accept "kruh SAWNT" and "bree OASH" and "FOY ur", but what about all the other languages from which English has borrowed which we don't know how to pronounce?

Here's some food for thought. Did you know that the word "balcony", borrowed from Italian balcone in the 1600s, was pronounced "bal COE nee" more or less (but not exactly) like its Italian etymon, until about 1825. But then "BAL kuh nee" ("which", said the 19th century poet and self-appointed language commentator Samuel Rogers, "makes me sick") took over. I defy you to try and reinstate "bal COE nee". And so much for Samuel Rogers' pronunciation pronouncements.

This phenomenon is entirely natural, and happens when English words are borrowed into other languages as well.

Recently a pronunciation survey about the word "coyote" (which was borrowed into English almost two centuries ago) prompted someone to say "The proper way to say this is as in the original Spanish and Nahuatl. It should be co - yo - tay". Nahuatl, by the way, is the language of the Aztecs, in which the cunning canine is a coyotl. Quick, now, how many of you have a pronouncing dictionary of Nahuatl to hand?

If anyone were to say "Roadrunner is the nemesis of Wile E. co yo tay", they would be laughed at. And deservedly so.

If we were to take this approach to pronunciation to its logical conclusion, we would have to say:

I was having a [COOP] of [TAY] with a [chocko LAH tay] [bee SKWEE] (or as some call it, a [COO kyuh]). The [dess AIR] was huge, ten [sahn tee MET ruhs] across, with no nuts because I have an [al airg EE].

This is NOT ENGLISH, and would be incomprehensible.

By the way, that was

I was having a cup of tea with a chocolate biscuit (or as some call it, a cookie). The dessert was huge, ten centimetres across, with no nuts because I have an allergy.

To achieve this feat of pretentious pointlessness, you would have to know the origins of all these words, and how the words are pronounced in their original languages (French, Chinese, Nahuatl via Spanish, French, Dutch, French, French, German).

But we are not speaking those languages. We are speaking ENGLISH.  Why is this concept so hard to understand? The pronunciation of a word is determined by how most people say the word in English. Not infrequently, there is more than one widespread pronunciation. Vive la différence!

For another example of this see "mauve": https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2018/07/how-do-you-pronounce-mauve.html

For more on the pronunciation of "coyote", see this post:

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Trainings, nothing more than trainings...



Wait, what? 

Your reaction to "trainings" may have been, "But that's not a countable noun; you can't make it a plural".

This subject came up recently in an online discussion among editors, and there was a lot of hostility toward "trainings". The usual sorts of comments about shuddering and teeth grinding and laments about how common it is, and should be replaced by "training sessions".

Someone felt that "teaching" was also not used in the plural, and expressed gratitude for this oasis of "sanity". This despite the fact that we have evidence of "teachings" from 500 years ago:
1542–3   Act 34 & 35 Hen. VIII c. 1   Suche bookes, writinges..teachinges and instructions, as be pestiferous, and noysome.
and no-one would bat an eye at a phrase like "the teachings of Buddha".

By the way, I hate it when people use "sanity" to describe their particular usage, with the implication that any new development in language (by someone else) is "insanity".

But the most intriguing comment implied that this irksome use of gerunds as countable nouns is something new. See the (partial) list above of very common plural gerunds.

Now, it's true that "trainings" is not as well-established as some of the gerunds I've listed above, but it has become quite common in certain fields since the 1980s, and there is no reason to object to it.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if 50 years from now some editors were to comment, "Training sessions? That's so redundant! Why say that when you can just say trainings?"

What's more, this is one of these "way older than you think" usages.
1598 I. D. tr. L. Le Roy Aristotles Politiques viii. iii. 384 It appeareth, that..it is needfull to learne certaine things, and to be instructed and trained in the same, and that these instructions and trainings be vndertaken for their sakes which learn.

Photo by rawpixel 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.