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.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!

Subscribe!

Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy Birthday to... these words




Some words turning (at least) 50 in 2019.  Some of these are older than you probably think, and some younger. 

Includes a Canadian invention!

 As with all words, they may well have existed a little earlier than the OED could find earliest evidence for them.


ageism, n.


  Prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person's age; age discrimination, esp. against the elderly.

1969   Washington Post 7 Mar. a6/1   Dr. Robert Butler..believes many of his Chevy Chase neighbors suffer from ‘age-ism’.
1969   R. N. Butler in Gerontologist Winter 243/1   We shall soon have to consider..a form of bigotry we now tend to overlook: age discrimination or age-ism, prejudice by one age group toward other age groups.

autosave, n.

  A software facility by which a user's work is automatically saved at regular intervals. Usually attributive.
1969   J. E. Sammet Programming Langs. ix. 689   An interesting safety feature is the autosave parameters option which is used with save to request that the state of the user's work be saved periodically (and automatically) for later retrieval if there is an unexpected system shutdown.

Big Mac, n.


Compare earlier, apparently unrelated, use as the name of a hamburger by a different company:
1955   Charleston Gaz. 10 Oct. 11/1 (Advt.)   Introducing ‘big mac’ Charleston's newest sandwich A big Double-Deck Hamburger with ‘All the trimmin's’ 45c Tip Top Drive-in.
orig. and chiefly U.S.

 1. A proprietary name for: the largest in a range of hamburgers sold by McDonald's fast-food outlets; (hence allusively) the biggest or best of a number of related things.

1969   Life 14 Mar. 76/1 (advt.)    McDonald’s introduces Big Mac. A meal disguised as a sandwich.

biofeedback, n.

  A technique in which a person is taught to alter normally involuntary physiological processes, typically by using equipment to monitor associated parameters such as blood pressure and heart rate. Also: feedback so obtained.

1970   Jrnl. Transpersonal Psychol. i. 3   Gardner Murphy must be given due credit for stimulating and promoting bio-feedback research..and for his effort..to establish the Bio-Feedback Research Society, which met for the first time in 1969.

bot, n.5

 1. orig. Science Fiction. A robot.

1969   R. C. Meredith in Amazing Stories Jan. 130/2   When they got my ship the only part of me that the 'bots were able to get into cold-sleep was my head, shoulders and a part of my spine.
1977   G. Benford in Cosmos Sci. Fiction & Fantasy Mag. May 25/1   ‘What's your name, little bot?’ The robot squats mutely. ‘Bot?’ Gerald asks. ‘Slang for robot. You ask him.’
1992   L. Niven & S. Barnes Calif. Voodoo Game 252   We have maintenance 'bots in there.
2001   Time 19 Nov. 87   This Pentium-powered bot uses sonar sensors to keep her from bumping into walls..as she rolls along.

 2. Computing. An automated program on a network (esp. the Internet), often having features that mimic human reasoning and decision-making; spec.  (a) a program designed to respond or behave like a human (in games, chat rooms, etc.);  (b) a software agent (see agent n.1 5).

1990   Bot-haters Unite! in alt.mud (Usenet newsgroup) 23 Jan.   The following consists of a general flame against bots.


bum, v.7

orig. U.S.
 

 1. intransitive. slang. To have an unpleasant or distressing (psychological) experience while intoxicated with a hallucinogenic drug. Also with out.Usually in the progressive, e.g. in bumming on acid.

1969   Corpus Christi (Texas) Times 16 Oct. 8/1   Mullen told them he was ‘bumming out’ and was on ‘a bad trip’.
1971   Wisconsin State Jrnl. 9 Oct. 15/1   I bummed on acid, a bad trip... When I bummed I saw vampires.
1986   U. Zero Out of Step & out of Detroit iii. 29   Dickie came over one afternoon panic-stricken, bumming on acid.
2009   J. Delingpole Welcome to Obamaland i. 14   Woodstock was a toilet.., you couldn't get anywhere near close enough to see or hear the acts, and anyway everyone was bumming out on bad acid.
 2. colloq. (chiefly N. Amer.).
 

 a. transitive. To make (a person) feel annoyed, upset, or disappointed; to depress, sadden; to irritate. Usually with out. Cf. bummer n.7 1, bummed adj.2 2.

1970   Chicago Daily Defender 3 Aug. 19/2   The unusual number of hostile types around and the constant racket of the circling helicopters was bumming us out.
1984   TriQuarterly Spring 311   It's the thing about being captain that bums him most.
2007   M. Carter Accidentally Engaged xi. 83   Today's horoscope is not fit to print. (Really. It would have seriously bummed you out.)

demo, v.


colloq. (orig. U.S.). 1. transitive.

 a. To display and explain the merits, operation, etc., of (a product) to prospective buyers; = demonstrate v. 5c.

1969   Salt Lake Tribune 19 Apr. (advt.)    See the new 130 and 165 hp. Chrysler I-O. Demoed at Utah Lake last Sunday.


doula, n.

Etymology: < modern Greek δούλα (ancient Greek δούλη bondswoman, feminine form corresponding to δοῦλος born bondsman, slave.).

  A person, originally and typically a woman, who gives assistance to a new or expectant mother, either informally or professionally; esp. a person (usually without formal obstetric training) employed to provide guidance and continuous support during labour or postnatally.

1969   D. Raphael in Perspectives in Biol. & Med. 12 295/2   In working with human groups we note that the motivation for doula behavior is extremely complex. The doula may be assisting the new mother because she expects to be helped in like manner when her turn comes.

homophobia, n.2

 2. Hostility towards, prejudice against, or (less commonly) fear of homosexual people or homosexuality.

1969   Time 31 Oct. 61/3   Such homophobia..involves innumerable misconceptions and oversimplifications.

Imax, n.


Etymology: < I- (in image n.) + max- (in maximum n.).
Cinematography.

  A proprietary name for a technique of wide-screen cinematography in which 70mm film is shot and projected in such a way as to produce an image approximately ten times larger than that normally obtained from standard 35mm film. Frequently attributive.

1969   Spectator (Hamilton, Ont.) 7 Nov. 24/3   The world's largest movie projector was unveiled at McMaster University yesterday. Known as IMAX, it's big in every way.

immunodeficiency, n.

  Deficiency of immunity (humoral, cell-mediated, or both); impairment of the function of (a part of) the immune system; an instance of this. Frequently attributive, esp. in immunodeficiency disease, immunodeficiency syndrome, immunodeficiency virus.

1969   Lancet 5 Apr. 720/2   It is relevant here to consider the role of the humoral and cellular immunodeficiency which is believed to exist in burned patients.

microchip, n.

 1. An integrated circuit; a microprocessor; (also) a tiny wafer of semiconducting material on which an integrated circuit has been or can be made.

1969   Science 11 July 104/1 (advt.)    If a 6 foot microchip sounds crazy to you, don't tell us.

microprocessor, n.

  A very small processor; spec. one based on one or more chips to serve as the central processing unit of a calculator or microcomputer.

1969   Mechanised Accounting Nov. 54/2   Central to the entire System 21 structure is the microprocessor and its various hard-wired microprograms.

plate tectonics, n.

 A theory in which the interactions of moving lithospheric plates  and the spreading of the sea floor are used to explain certain of the Earth's features and processes (as mid-ocean ridges, deep-sea trenches, mountain formation, seismic activity, etc.), and which provides a mechanism for the theory of continental drift.

[1966   Bull. Geol. Soc. Amer. 77 707   The folds and faults mapped at the surface [near the San Andreas fault] are attributed to raft tectonics whereby a passive surficial plate is deformed as it rides coupled to a moving undermass.]
1969   Science 4 Apr. 64/3   If one..considers continental drift in the light of plate tectonics, displacement of the Ellsworth Mountains can readily be explained.

Popemobile, n.



  A specially designed vehicle with a raised viewing platform surrounded by bulletproof glass, used by the Pope in processions or parades, esp. on official visits to a foreign country. Hence: a similar vehicle used by politicians, celebrities, etc.This type of vehicle was introduced for Pope Paul VI. Originally called the papal limousine.

1969   Des Moines (Iowa) Sunday Reg. 26 Oct. 10 f/3 (heading)    Popemobile. Famous parade limousine built especially for Pope Paul VI for his visit to the United States.

pro-choice, adj. (and n.)

  In favour of upholding a woman's legal right to choose whether to have an induced abortion. Also as n.: a pro-choice policy.

1969   Oxnard (Calif.) Press Courier 10 Dec. 7/1   Pro-choice and anti-abortion activists..headed to the Women's Clinic.

windsurf, v.


Etymology: Back-formation < Windsurfer n.
orig. U.S.

  intransitive. To ride a sailboard; to sailboard.

1969   Christian Sci. Monitor 17 Nov. 17/1   Depending on the wind and water conditions, older as well as young people can windsurf.

women's lib, n.

1969   Time 21 Nov. 15   ‘My twelve-year-old son has been hearing a lot about Women's Lib lately,’ says Ruth.

For words that turned 50 in 2018, see this post:
https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2018/01/happy-50th-birthday-to-these-words.html

Photo by Brian Taylor on Unsplash

Friday, December 7, 2018

End Times for Whom


"Mama, I'm confused. Should I be saying "whom" instead?"

I have been saying for quite some time that "whom" is in its death throes. English is so constructed now that the syntax rather than the pronoun form tells us whether we are talking about a subject or an object. We don't have different endings on nouns for different grammatical cases like we had in Anglo-Saxon. 

That's why we can also function quite well with only "you" as a subject and object pronoun though, up until the 17th century we distinguished between "thou" / "ye" (subject) and "thee"/ "you" (object). 

Back in the 16th and 17th century people must have been feeling that it was the End Times for "thou" and "ye", and I feel that there are definitely Signs and Portents that it is the End Times for "whom". I belong to an editors' group on facebook where often professional editors post questions revealing that they are quite incapable of figuring out whether "who" or "whom" is correct. I say this not as a criticism, but as evidence of the End Times. (The End Times are not a bad thing, by the way.)

Highly respected Baltimore Sun editor has noticed this too, and was moved to write this excellent blog post, before I could get around to it.

Read on!

https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/bal-just-use-who-20181207-story.html

Friday, November 16, 2018

Enter for a chance to win book about English idioms


Courtesy of Simon and Schuster Canada, Wordlady has two copies of Mark Abley's new book about English idioms, Watch Your Tongue to give away.


This book is available worldwide. Makes a great gift for the word lover on your list.
Currently available in bookstores, list price $29.99 Canadian. 
amazon.ca
**CONTEST OPEN ONLY TO CANADIAN RESIDENTS**

To enter:
1) Subscribe to updates from 
www.katherinebarber.blogspot.ca
(if you are not already subscribed)
For instructions on how to subscribe, click here
https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/p/subscribe-by-email.html

2) Make sure you validate your subscription

3) send an email to wordlady.barber@gmail.com with the subject line ABLEY

If you are already a subscriber, go straight to step 3!

CONTEST CLOSES MIDNIGHT NOVEMBER 30

Phrases, idioms, and clichés—why do we say the things we say? Watch Your Tongue explores weird and wonderful everyday sayings and what they reveal about us.

Do you ever wonder why you shouldn’t have a cow but you should seize a bull by its horns? Who has the better reputation in language—cats or dogs? Do you sometimes feel that our speech is all smoke and mirrors or that our expressions simply make no sense?

In Watch Your Tongue, award-winning author Mark Abley explores the phrases, idioms, and clichés of our everyday language. With wit and subtle wisdom, he unravels the mysteries of these expressions, illuminating the history, tradition and stories behind everything we say. Pulling examples from Shakespeare’s plays to sports team names, ancient Rome to Twitter, Abley shares samples and anecdotes of the eccentric ways that we play with, parse, and pattern language.

Why do so many companies use fruit for their brand names? What do politicians mean when they say they’re going to “drain the swamp”? Why does English use chickens to signify cowardice? Abley dives into the history and psychology behind these examples and countless others, unpacking their significance (and sheer absurdity) to show how our language developed, where it is headed, and what we can learn about ourselves from it.

Whimsically illustrated, easily browsable, and full of catchy sidebars, Watch Your Tongue celebrates how we amuse ourselves with words and what our sayings reveal about the way we see the world.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Miniature

https://youtu.be/zHYlNNV-etQ


I've been enjoying watching The Miniaturist on PBS. 

You might well think that "miniature" has something to do with "minimum" or "minute" (i.e. the "tiny" sense of "minute"). But you would be wrong.

The real story is much more surprising. The word comes from the Latin minium meaning "red lead", a bright red oxide of lead formerly used in artists' paints. In the Middle Ages, the scribes used  this pigment in their illuminated manuscripts,  especially for titles, headings, and initials. 

In Italian, a verb, miniare, was derived from minium,meaning "illustrate a manuscript". A miniatura was an illumination in a manuscript, not just in red, but in any colour. Since these illuminations were of necessity very small, this Italian word, and its English derivative "miniature", came to mean any small picture. Subsequently it came to apply to other small-sized versions of larger things: dogs, marshmallows, chocolates, golf, what have you.

And then it generated the shortened form "mini-".

The title of this TV series is a bit of an anachronism for 17th-century Amsterdam, since "miniaturist" did not enter English till the 19th century, and was not used of dollhouse makers till the 1940s.

Now, what about the pronunciation of those first five letters? 

MINN a?
MINNY a? 
MINN ya?

It was almost certainly "MINNY a" to start with, but in Britain this has been gradually reduced to "MINNa".

In North America, "MINNY a" still exists, alongside "MINNa".

It would seem that in Canada, "MINNY a" and "MINN a" are almost neck and neck, with slightly more people saying "MINNY a". Some respondents reported that they switch between the two, sometimes randomly, sometimes depending on what the miniature thing is.  Others felt they were influenced by knowing how it's pronounced in French. When we researched and edited the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we put "MINN a" first and "MINNY a" second, but I rather suspect the situation was a similar close-run race to my most recent survey.

In the US, the situation is similar, but with slightly more people opting for "MINN a". This surprises me somewhat as Merriam-Webster lists "MINNY a" first (and the PBS voiceover person calls the show "The MINNY a turist").


I say "MINNAchur". I remember in my youth making fun of the Kraft ads on TV touting their latest vile jellied salad recipe which invariably included "MINNY a chur" marshmallows and what sounded like "Kraft horrible dressings" (it was in fact "pourable dressings"). Fear not, I have outgrown making fun of other people's pronunciations, and I certainly did not make fun of our invaluable pronunciation informants. Still not a fan of jellied salad though.

What do you say?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Rollicking Story of English course September - November 2018




I am once again offering this fun and informative survey of the English language, described by one of my students as "the best course I've ever taken".

What another student has to say:
Katherine is brilliant, and this is a FANTASTIC class packed with information both historical and practical. Katherine will provide you with the tools to legitimately assess all kinds of word questions you invariably run into. The Barber name has become a verb in our home when it comes to delving into word origin and usage, as in "I've got to Katherine Barber that when I get home." Take this class if you can!

Monday, 1:30-3:30 pm, September 17 - November 19,  
(no class on Thanksgiving)
Goethe Institute
100 University Ave., North Tower,
Suite 201
on the west side of University a few steps south of King
1 minute walk from St Andrew subway station

10 minutes or less walk from Union Station GO, fully covered via the PATH.
This venue is fully accessible.
For nearby parking see here:

https://en.parkopedia.ca/parking/underground/lot_372/m5j/toronto/?arriving=201712081100&leaving=201712081300 

Price: 9 2-hour classes for $275 including HST
Enrollment limited to 20 people.

Subject to space, you may attend one or more individual lectures at $35 each, but you must let me know which ones you will be attending at least a week in advance.


Please register in advance by 

emailing me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com or phoning me at 416-693-4496
and either
1) arranging an Interac e-transfer
or
2) sending a cheque made out to
Katherine Barber
201 Hanson Street
Toronto ON
M4C 1A7
Please write "English course" on the cheque


Why is English spelling so chaotic? Why do we have so many synonyms? What might your name tell you about the history of the language? What is the history behind your favourite language pet peeve? This course is a highly informative and entertaining survey of the influences that have shaped English vocabulary over the years. We will tie linguistic developments with the social and political events with which they coincided. Forget your dull high school English classes as Katherine Barber takes you on a surprisingly hilarious trip through a crazy language.

  1. Week 1 Celts and Anglo-Saxons:

Celtic and Latin relics from pre-5th century Britain. The Germanic origins of our essential vocabulary and grammar. Why we have "feet" instead of "foots" and why we use apostrophe s for the possessive.  Relics of Anglo-Saxon dialects in Modern English.



  1. Week 2  Using the Oxford English Dictionary.

A primer in using this essential online and print tool to research the history of English words.



  1. Week 3 The Vikings:

Old Norse borrowings into English. Why we wear skirts and shirts. Why the verb "to be" is so ridiculous.



  1. Week 4 The Norman Invasion:

A brief history of French. Middle English. Why we have "pigs" in the open and "pork" on the plate. The origins of chaotic English spelling.





  1. Week 5 The Renaissance: Early Modern English

Spelling and pronunciation don't jibe. The Great Vowel Shift. Why is there a "b" in "debt" and an "h" in "ghost"? Why do some folks say "y'all"? The effect of Shakespeare and the King James Bible on the vocabulary



  1. Week 6 The 18th Century:

The prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century at the origin of our present grammar “rules”. Samuel Johnson. Re-examining our pet peeves. 

  1. Week 7 The 19th Century to the Present :

The influence of Sir Walter Scott, the industrial revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire. Why some people pronounce "herb" with an "h" and others without. Why Lufthansa supplies its first class passengers with "body bags". 


Week 8 American and Canadian English:

Have they corrupted the language? Noah Webster and his dictionary. Why are British and American spelling different? The history of Canadian English. Are we more British or more American? How we can be very confusing to other English speakers. 

Week 9 How are Dictionaries Written?
Are lexicographers judging you? When does a new word make it into a dictionary? Different dictionaries for different folks.




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! Sign up here.



Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady


 





Sunday, August 12, 2018

How prepositions can make us sound like old fogeys


Are you enamoured / enamored of something?
Enamoured / enamored by something?
Enamoured / enamored with something?
How about enamoured / enamored on something?

What preposition is correct after "enamoured / enamored"?

I know, you thought, "Well, definitely NOT "on"!" You may be surprised to learn that for the first three centuries or so after we borrowed this word from French, we English speakers were enamoured on people. Then, starting in about 1600, we became enamoured of people, and also of things.  

A much less frequent possibility was "enamoured with", so infrequent that the OED editors in 1891 declared it obsolete, although it wasn't.  "Enamoured with" burbled along for a couple of centuries, but then starting in the 1970s, began to stage a come-from-behind win on "of". (Keep scrolling after the chart, there's more.)


In the NOW corpus (6 billion words of online newspaper and magazine text starting in 2010), "enamo(u)red with" (1973 instances when I did the search) has pulled clearly ahead of  "enamo(u)red of" (1065 instances). This is confirmed by the Canadian Newsstream database of Canadian newspapers (2425 with vs 1166 of since 2010). Indeed, the late nineties seem to have been decisive in the onward march of with as you can see from this chart of yearly usages of "enamo(u)red with" in Canadian Newsstream starting in 1991.



We're not done yet with this preposition competition. Lurking on the horizon is "enamo(u)red by": 1289 instances on NOW, notably more than "enamo(u)red of", and 509 on Canadian Newsstream.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary offers only "of" but if I were revising it today I would change that. Personally, I say "enamoured of" and there is certainly nothing wrong with that, but as time marches on I will probably start to sound like an old fogey. What am I saying, I probably already sound like an old fogey to Young People Today. At least I don't say "enamoured on"!

For another prepositional shift, and more evidence of the arbitrariness of prepositions, see This is exciting.


I will be offering my fun "Rollicking Story of English" course in downtown Toronto again this fall. Subscribe to Wordlady to make sure you can be first to sign up when I open registration in a couple of weeks.

To have fun facts about English delivered right to your inbox, click here to subscribe by email.  
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.
  

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

More about mauve



Last week's post about the pronunciation of "mauve" created quite a stir. I promised that I would tell you more about this word, and here we are.

We owe the popularity of "mauve" in English to a British chemist, William Henry Perkin (1838–1907). As a student at the ripe old age of 18, Perkin was given the task of chemically synthesizing quinine, which was much in demand as an anti-malaria medication and at the time had to be derived from the bark of the cinchona tree.

Tinkering around in his lab with coal-tar derivatives, Perkin created a substance which, as it turned out, was not quinine, and useless against malaria, but fantastic as a colourfast and fade-resistant rich purple colouring matter. He had stumbled upon the first synthetic dye. 

Being a chemist and not a poet, Perkin called it "aniline purple", but he knew he was on to something. Previously, purple dyes had had to be obtained from a Mediterranean shellfish and were so expensive that only royalty wore purple clothes. Still only 19, Perkin plunged his father's life savings into a  factory to produce his dye, which others started to call "Perkin's purple". But two years later, in 1859, the more chic-sounding "mauve", borrowed from French (always our go-to language for fashion), took over. I'm not sad about the demise of "Perkin's purple" because can you imagine having to say, "This year's fashion must-have is this lovely Perkin's purple purse." Mauve quickly became all the rage in the fashion industry and Perkin became a very wealthy man. 

The French had been using mauve to designate a delicate purple colour since the beginning of the 19th century.  It was in fact the name for this plant:

Malva sylvestris

Mauve derived from the Latin name of the plant, malva. English had also borrowed this Latin word, as far back as Anglo-Saxon times, but in English it evolved into "mallow". (The Latin name was also revived in the Renaissance -- of course -- and is now commonly used by gardeners.) 

One variety of mallow is the "marsh mallow"



The roots of this particular mallow yield a mucilaginous substance that has over the centuries been used in medicinal preparations. Starting in the 19th century, it was also used to give the distinctive texture to the pillowy confectionery item we like to put in our s'mores. Nowadays, gum arabic has replaced the actual marsh mallow, but the name has stuck. 

And what is the French word for marshmallow? Guimauve!

For a flower that was even more successful in having a colour named after it, see pink

For more plant- and gardening-related posts, click here.

S'mores photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

About Me

My photo
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.