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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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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.

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.