Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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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

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.).

  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:

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!


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. 

To enter:
1) Subscribe to updates from 
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For instructions on how to subscribe, click here

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!


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



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 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?

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.