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!

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Saturday, August 31, 2019

Rollicking Story of English course October- December 2019




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!

Tuesdays, 1:30-3:30 pm, October 15 - December 10,  
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


 





Thursday, August 29, 2019

Rollicking Story of English course October- December 2019




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!

Tuesdays, 1:30-3:30 pm, October 15 - December 10,  
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


 





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.

Salicious??

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
sangestre
a woman who sewed was a
séamestre
I particularly love, and feel we should revive, the word for a female dancer: a
hoppestre 
Anglo-Saxon apparently also felt the need for a word meaning "female poisoner or witch":
lybbestre
 
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 
youngster 
and the more recent  
oldster

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:
https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2016/06/gardening-related-wordlady-posts.html

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


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.