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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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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

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Patience on a monument

Titanic memorial in Belfast

Yesterday a nice young man knocked on my door and asked if he might look for a monument in my back yard. Since my garden is quite bereft of statuary, I thought, "Good luck with that!" but let him through.

And lo! After some digging and waving around of a metal detector (I was so hoping he would find some hidden treasure), he found the monument! But it was a very unprepossessing square iron peg buried under my fence.

I learned a meaning of "monument" that I didn't know before. The young man was a surveyor, and it has a specific meaning in surveying of "a marker of a property boundary".  It has had that meaning since the 1650s!

At least my surveyor didn't find in my garden a monument in the Scottish sense of  "A ridiculous or objectionable person or thing; a laughing-stock, a fool, a rogue."

"Monument", which came into English in the 1300s, is derived from classical Latin monumentum, monimentum commemorative statue or building, tomb, from monēre to remind, which is also the root of "admonish", "monitor" and even "summon".

Monday, July 27, 2020

Don't touch that... (whatever)! Fomite

Remember when the object pictured above didn't strike dread into our hearts and cause us to go rushing for the nearest Lysol wipe? Remember when the vocabulary of infectious diseases didn't come trippingly off our tongues?

You may think this is an ordinary doorknob, but you may also have come to learn that in the language of infectious diseases it is potentially a fomite (pronounced FOAM ite), a surface covered with infectious material transmissible from it to our hands and from there to our mucous membranes.

This word has an interesting history, as it is an example of back-formation. Back-formation,

a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix (e.g., laze from lazy and edit from editor)

is a perfectly legitimate and quite common method of word formation. For instance, "kidnapper" came first, and "kidnap" was a back formation from it.

So what's the story with fomite? Originally, when the word was first borrowed into English around the beginning of the 19th century, it was fomes (pronounced FOAM eez), the Latin word for "tinder", since it could "spark" an infection. The plural of fomes was fomites (pronounced FOAM itt eez). But by the end of the 19th century people had back-formed a new singular from this, fomite, and anglicized the pronunciation. I suspect that this was because the singular fomes was very rare indeed, and the word was encountered more in writing than in speech.

Many general and specialized medical dictionaries, still give the fomes/fomites listing, with fomites pronounced FOAM itt eez. Merriam-Webster, however, gives only fomite, with the FOAM ite pronunciation first and, for the plural, FOAM itt eez only as a variant pronunciation. Looking at current corpus evidence, it seems that singular fomite has completely eclipsed singular fomes.

For other examples of back-formation, see my posts about swashbuckling, windsurf, mentee and peddle.

Photo by elias on Unsplash

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Where does bunk come from? Wordlady explains

Where does bunk come from? It's been around for much longer than the internet, but it seems to be more omnipresent than ever in our social media feeds. If only we could stop it at the source.

Wordlady has the answer.

Bunk comes from North Carolina!

Really, it does.

I am of course talking about the word "bunk", meaning "nonsense", although I expect North Carolina, like most places, produces its fair share of the nonsense known by that name.

You may not be surprised to learn that "bunk" had its birth in politics, and more particularly in the US House of Representatives.

In 1820, the Representative for Buncombe County, North Carolina (in the Blue Ridge Mountains about 200 km west of Charlotte) rose to make a lengthy, boring speech that was entirely irrelevant to the subject under discussion. His colleagues implored him to shut up so that they could proceed to the vote, but he persisted, maintaining that his constituents expected it and that he was duty bound to make a speech for Buncombe.

As a result, "buncombe", soon spelled phonetically "bunkum", came to mean any meaningless political drivel uttered to please the electors. From there it was a short step to any kind of claptrap, and by 1900 the word was shortened to "bunk", in time for Henry Ford's famous declaration in 1916: "History is bunk".

Some brave souls devote huge amounts of time to "debunking" the various flourishing  conspiracy theories and misinformation. This word we owe to the American journalist Edward Woodward, who coined it in a book called Bunk  in 1923, in which we find this ominously prescient statement:
To keep the United States thoroughly de-bunked would require the continual services of..half a million persons.
As for the other bunk, the stacked beds? Its origin is uncertain.

Photo of North Carolina by Cameron Stewart on Unsplash

PS some of you have been having problems with the formatting of my posts. This seems to be because a new version of my platform Blogger is not somehow passing along my formatting to my mailer program Feedburner. The mailed version looks quite different from the version that is actually up on my blog but I have no way of checking that till it goes out.  If you have this problem, just click on "Wordlady" at the top of a post and it will take you to the actual blog.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Fightors and visiters

Why not a fightor?

Two Wordlady fans have coincidentally written with questions about -or and -er endings.

-er vs -or: why are visitors and fighters spelled with different endings. Is there a rule?
These two suffixes are called "agent suffixes", creating what are known as "agent nouns". It makes them sound like they work for the FBI: "Agent Noun, please meet Agent Suffix".  But they allow us to designate a person or thing that performs the action of the verb.

As usual with situations where we have two ways of doing things, the fault lies with the hybrid nature of English: partly Germanic from the Anglo-Saxons and partly Latin from the Norman French and from Latin itself.

The easy answer is this:

-er endings, which are Anglo-Saxon in origin, go with verbs that are originally Anglo-Saxon:
fight > fighter, in this example.

-or endings, which are Latin in origin, go with verbs that are originally Latin, some of which came into English by way of French:
visit > visitor, in this example.

Voila! A rule. Easy peasy. Well, that is, if you know off the top of your head whether the root verb is Anglo-Saxon or Latin. Otherwise, as with so much to do with English spelling, you just have to memorize, or check a dictionary. This must be particularly annoying for Francophones, for whom "-eur" covers both -or and -er territory for most words.

This "rule" works for many words, perhaps especially for the -or words.


A rule. Ahahahahaha. This is English after all. We must have many exceptions!

The unfortunate OED lexicographer who was gifted with the task of writing the entry for "-er" had this to say (probably while thinking, "I'm throwing in the towel; let's go to the pub!"):

In received spelling, the choice between the two forms [-er and -or] is often capricious, or determined by other than historical reasons.
Thus we have some Norman French agent nouns originally ending in -our which evolved into -er endings, among them:

interpreter came from interpretour < late Latin interpretātōr and was "interpretor" until the late 1500s when it became "interpreter".

barber (such a good word!) started off as Anglo-Norman barbour, from Old French barbeor < Latin barbātōr, and should have become "barbor", but evolved into "barber" by the end of the 1500s. The older form survives in the (especially Scottish) surname Barbour.

And then there were many nouns that had -er or -ier endings in Middle French, for instance

treasurer, gardener, customer, and many others.

And with many other words the -er ending just won out in English, despite the root verb being Latin.

The opposite also happened, though less frequently.

"Sailor" is derived from an Anglo-Saxon verb and was in fact originally "sailer", but "sailor" took over at the beginning of the 19th century. This was partly on the analogy of "tailor", which originally was Latin tāliātōr, and partly to make a distinction between professional sailors and amateur sailers. Nowadays, "sailer" only survives as a description of a kind of boat: A fast sailer such as Constitution could make as much as 14 knots under sail.

There are some nouns where we haven't made up our minds yet, or are changing our minds, for instance:

conjuror / conjurer
According to the "rule", this should be "conjuror" (< Latin conjūrātor). But in spite of "conjuror" being the first form given in Oxford dictionaries, "conjurer", which has been around since we borrowed the word in  the 1300s, is actually somewhat more common, especially in the US, where it is the form given first by Merriam-Webster.

impostor / imposter
This came from French imposteur < late Latin impostor < impōnĕre to impose. "Impostor" and "imposter" co-existed from the 1600s, when the word entered English, but dictionaries came to favour "impostor", as being the original Latin form. However, this has not defeated "imposter" at all, and the two are in a neck-and-neck race as to which is used more frequently. In the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we took the leap and listed "imposter" as the headword with "impostor" as the variant. I seem to remember getting at least one angry letter about that. But, to use the technical lexicographic term, "impostor" just looks weird to me. (Fear not, "looks weird" was not a criterion we used in establishing spellings).

adaptor / adapter
Both (on a Latin base) entered English in the mid-1700s, but "adapter" has been consistently more common, and is listed by most dictionaries first. An exception to this is the Australian and New Zealand Oxford Dictionaries, which list "adaptor" first.  This is a bit puzzling because Antipodean corpus evidence suggests "adapter" is more common. The lexicographers, however, almost certainly had their own data and their own reasons, and I'm sure "looks weird" wasn't one of them.

advisor / adviser
My other correspondent inquires:
When did “advisor” become “adviser”? It seemed to occur overnight and no one told me when the vote was.
"Advise" is a French word derived from Latin, so you might expect it to take the -or ending only. But in fact the noun has had an -er ending since it first appeared about 1536, earlier than the -or variant, which dates from about 50 years later. "Adviser" has been by far the more common spelling over the centuries, and it is only since about 1900 that "advisor" has crept up towards it, I suspect under the influence of "supervisor" or even "visor", but more likely "advisory". (Please don't ask me why some words are -ory and others are -ary!!)  All dictionaries give "adviser" as the more common form, so I'm intrigued to know where this correspondent learned that "advisor" was the original and "adviser" was an upstart.

In 2017 the CBC reported this bizarre information:

There's a difference between a financial adviser and a financial advisor: "Advisers" are regulated and have a legal responsibility to act in your best interest. "Advisors" are … not the same.

So, be careful: Banks may call them "advisors" so a salesperson sounds impressive, but you could be stuck without protection.

The Ontario Securities Commission confirms that "adviser" is a legal term under securities law that describes a person or company that is registered to give advice about securities, whereas "advisor" is not.
This seems to me ridiculous, because we are just talking about a spelling variant. It's like saying that a labour negotiator doesn't have the same standing if you call them a labor negotiator instead.

Which of these variants do you use? Does "impostor" look weird to you? Or will you defend it to your dying day?

We're not quite done with our agent suffixes. Just to be annoying, there are also liar and beggar, where the spelling -ar is a survival of the occasional Middle English variant -ar(e. "Beggar" was in fact spelled more frequently "begger" until the end of the 17th century, at which point, for reasons unknown, "beggar" took over.

My original correspondents may have thought this was an easy question. Ha! But you've borne with me (I hope) through this lengthy and complicated discussion. Suffixes! How exciting is that!!! It beggars* belief. Or beggers it. Whatever.
(*Yet another one of those noun-verb conversions that we don't bat an eye at.)
For more about agent nouns (because it's such an exciting topic!), see this post: https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2019/06/when-your-surname-is-your-destiny.html
Photo by Samuel Penn 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.