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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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Friday, December 18, 2009

No doubt about it

A very common error is to write or say "undoubtably". The word is "undoubtedly". If you really want to impress people, you could also use "indubitably".

Oh for heaven's sake

I am getting more than a little annoyed by bend-over-backward attempts to avoid words that mean "Christmas". First it was the "Holiday Tree", and now I just saw in the grocery store a cake traditionally called a "Yule Log" rebaptized a "Festive Log". Considering that Yule was a pre-Christian festival (and the real yule logs part of that), who do we think we are offending by using the word?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Talk about giving your all for your art

Saw this on a plaque at Canada's National Ballet School tonight:
"Batik is an art form that involves outlining a picture with wax, dying, and then drying".
What they meant, of course, was "dyeing".

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

conditional sentences

I have few pet peeves, but one of them is incorrect verb tense sequence in conditional sentences, like this one I just read in the paper:
"If we didn't do this study, we would have missed a lot of women with a genetic mutation."
This should have been:
"If we hadn't done this study, we would have missed a lot of women with a genetic mutation."
People get even more confused when they're using the verb "may". People don't seem to realize that "might" is the conditional of "may", so they say things like, "If we hadn't done this study, we may have missed a lot of women with a genetic mutation," which should be "If we hadn't done this study, we might have missed a lot of women with a genetic mutation,"

Monday, December 7, 2009


Here's a newish word that seems to be catching on. A quick Google search unearthed the earliest usage I could find, from January 2005 in Richmond, Virginia. For the next three years, usage increased gradually, reaching about 700 hits in 2008, but in 2009 it exploded to 12,500 hits.


Just saw the following infelicitous headline in the Toronto Star:
Crackdown urged on head injuries


December 6 is the feast day of St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus. Is St. Nick the origin of “nickname”? No, but “nickname” has an interesting story. It was originally an “eke-name”, from the Anglo-Saxon word eke (also), which gradually died out of the language, so people no longer understood that an “eke-name” was an “also-name”. They began to think that “an eke-name” was “a neke-name”, and so we ended up with “nickname”.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Well I guess he would be, wouldn't he?

Just saw this headline on CP24:
Young man dead in fatal shooting.

"Booze ooze" = alcohol-based hand sanitizer

In a recent Maclean's article about children and teens ingesting hand sanitizer for a quick high:
The liquid, jokingly called “booze ooze” on parenting blogs...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Manure and Magatogas

See the first installment of my brief history of English of particular interest to teachers in the current issue of Professionally Speaking, the magazine of the Ontario College of Teachers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Toffee for my feast day

Today is a day close to my heart: the feast of St. Catherine. The patron saint of unmarried women, she was invoked thus:

Sweet St. Catherine,

A husband, St. Catherine,

Handsome, St. Catherine,

Rich, St. Catherine,

Soon, St. Catherine!

Francophone Canadians traditionally make and eat taffy on this day. The words "taffy" and "toffee" are related, the former being the earlier version, used in Scotland and surviving there and in North America. Although its exact origin is unknown, it is possible that it is linked to the word "tough," as taffy and toffee are notoriously chewy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Soldiering on

“Soldier” and “solid” both come from the Latin word solidus (whole, complete). A solidus nummus was a “complete coin”, that is, a solid gold coin. Shortened to solidus and then to “sold” (which is related to "solder", but not the past tense of "sell", which is another word entirely), it was borrowed into English in the 1300s to designate money paid to people in the army, who therefore became “soldiers”.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What a guy!

Despite being very common, the word “guy” has been at our disposal to mean “person” for only the past 150 years. The original “guy” was Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up the British Houses of Parliament on November 5th, 1605 as an act of protest against mistreatment of Catholics. Since then, bizarrely clad effigies, or “guys” have been burnt on this anniversary, called “Bonfire Night”, in Great Britain (and also in Newfoundland). Odd-looking men started to be called “guys” in the early 1800s, and then gradually, in North America at least, the term was applied to people in general.

Monday, November 2, 2009

English language newsletters

I'm launching two free weekly e-newsletters about the English language:
Word of the Week (WOW): a short snappy interesting word history
"Better English Simplified" Tips (BEST): tips on usage, grammar, spelling, how to correct the most common English language errors, and even advice on what you might think are errors but aren't.
If you would like to sign up for either or both, please email wordlady.barber@gmail.com with the word Wow or Best (or both) in your subject line to indicate which newsletter you're interested in.

Monday, September 21, 2009


In this week of the Jewish High Holidays, let us look at a word English acquired from Hebrew, one of my favourites: shibboleth, something that identifies you as belonging to a specific group. At one point, two of the tribes of Israel were at war. The Gileadites used the word “shibboleth” as a password. The Ephraimites couldn't say it; they said “sibboleth” instead. No doubt the consequences were dire, which is a lesson to all of us striving to improve our pronunciation of foreign words!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In one's stalking feet?

Yesterday I quite coincidentally saw two confusions of "stock" and "stalk". One referred to "short, stalky ballerinas" (no, stocky ballerinas don't really exist) and the other to "broccoli stocks". It's not surprising that these two homophones get confused, especially as there are over 60 meanings of "stock" alone listed in the OED. What lexicographers call a highly polysemous word. That's your bit of lexo-jargon for the day. In another post, I'll explain when to use "stock" and when to use "stalk".

Friday, September 18, 2009

Another unfortunate brand name

Today in Toronto's Little India I walked past a restaurant with the unfortunate name "Chowpatty". This is a possible variant of what is more commonly spelled "chapatti", but presumably the owner doesn't realize how unappetizingly reminiscent it is of "cow patties"!

Tea with an added punch!

Someone just gave me some cinnamon and clove tea from Peru. The tea company goes by a name that I don't think would be chosen for a brand in English-speaking countries: Horniman. I'll be sure to report on any developments if I serve it to male friends....

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dear oh dear

I was reading a magazine at the doctor's office this morning. Apparently a previous issue had had an article criticizing the tendency of people to address older women as "dear". This prompted a letter to the editor from someone who complained bitterly about this tendency, and proudly said that whenever someone called her "dear", she called them "moose" in response. She then said that a grocery store clerk had committed the outrage of calling her "sweetheart", and in retaliation she had left all her groceries sitting there and gone to buy them somewhere else. My question is, who is being rude, the person who addresses you with a term of endearment or a termagant who responds with "moose"? I spent four days in Manchester in June, and revelled in being called "love", "my love", "darling", and "sweetie" by all and sundry: taxi drivers, waitresses, hotel clerks, you name it. People should get a grip; there are many things to get angry about in this world, but being addressed by a term of endearment is not one of them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poring or pouring?

If you read a book intently, you don't pour over it, but pore over it (unless you at the same time douse it bizarrely with a liquid). Perhaps this mistake is so common because we don't know either verb's origin. “Pour” (which used to rhyme with “hour”), might be related to the word “purée”. But the verb “pore” is a mystery. The pores in the skin, from a Greek word meaning a channel in the body, are unrelated. Nonetheless, thinking of how closely you have to peer at pores to see them may help you to remember how to spell the verb meaning “scrutinize intently”.

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Saw a new word in an article by Judith Timson of The Globe and Mail today: entitlementia. A Google search unearthed a usage (claiming to be a coinage) from as far back as 2004, but as there are only 27 examples on Google, it's hard to say whether this will catch on.
Our society is clearly in the grip of a new social disease: entitlementia.
That's my diagnosis after three high-profile examples of extreme public rudeness in less than a week. Entitlementia means many of us obviously feel damn entitled to express our point of view whenever and however we feel like it, no matter if it's the right time or place.
I have named a new disease -- entitlementia: the skewed view that we, as Americans, are entitled to broadband internet access, photo capable cell phones, and 186 channels of TV, and that life cannot proceed until these basic needs are met.
2/23/2004 9:53:00 AM
she thinks her $1.1 million house in the "cheap" part of Newport Beach is really "worth" what Zillow tells her. entitlementia is a serious illness.
2008-03-26 23:30:32

Tonight, our party finally got the official diagnoses: creeping bi-partisanism has fully engorged our left nodes and a major dose of entitlementia has curved our once strong, and load-worthy spines.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Japanese English

I'm visiting Tokyo and as always being entertained by the "English" that the Japanese use to add prestige to just about everything. Yesterday I was visiting the Kappabashi area, one long street of nothing but restaurant supply stores. There are chair stores, and menu stores, and knife stores, everything you can imagine, even specialized "Plastic food models" stores! My favourites are the confectionery packaging supply stores, where I bought a couple of packages of labels with the following intriguing messages:
Pound Cake
Have a nice cake! made with full of soul
You have to agree that "full of soul" is a better sounding ingredient than carboxymethyl cellulose. But would it be accepted by Canadian food labelling laws? In any case, my friends will all be getting soulful pound cakes and "confectionery be made of selected materials" in their Christmas gift baskets.
Another store was selling various ingredients (or should that be "materials"?) restaurants would need, including industrial-quantity coffee creamer powder, which of course has to go by a name derived from
"creamy powder". What else could one want but some nice "creap" in one's coffee?

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.