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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Thursday, December 23, 2010

More reasons not to trust your spellchecker

Frequent readers of Wordlady know that I love to dance, and yesterday I saw something in the paper that suggested a new Terpsichorean possibility for me: "They went to Spain for flamingo lessons". I can see myself in a hot pink tutu standing on one leg with the other bent backwards at the knee. Presumably the people in question were really taking flamenco lessons. Two words I wouldn't have thought anyone would confuse, but yet another reason not to trust your spellchecker.

Flamingo was borrowed into English from the Portuguese word flamengo when the Portuguese started exploring the New World and discovering flocks of this exotic fauna in the Caribbean and South America. Flamengo came from the Latin word flamma (flame), because of the bird's bright pink and red colouring (flamingo trivia: this is due to carotene in its diet, sometimes supplemented in zoos by food colouring!).

Interestingly, though, in Spanish, the word flamenco is used for both the pink birds and the stirring music and dance style originated by gypsies. Although the origin of flamenco is uncertain, it is also the word for "Flemish" in Spanish, and it is thought may have been used indiscriminately by Spaniards for anyone they deemed "foreign".

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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Who loves ya, baby?

Happy New Year to all Wordlady readers! The New Year is traditionally symbolized by a baby. Before 1377 this couldn't have happened... because we didn't have the word “baby”! It and the related “babe” cropped up in the 1300s, possibly as a short form of an earlier word baban, which in turn probably arose in imitation of a baby babbling. Of course, they did have a word for newborns before then: child. But as it gradually came to apply to older children, something was needed to fill the gap, and “baby” did it. Incidentally, the use of "babe" to mean a woman, particularly a good-looking one, dates from the beginning of the 20th century.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hoarfrost in a downward spiral

Further to my previous post about "hoarfrost", I just used google's nifty new word frequency tool, http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=hoarfrost&year_start=1800&year_end=2010&corpus=0&smoothing=3, to track usage of the word since 1800. There is definitely a quite rapid downward trend since 1946, a trend that is common to both American and British English. I know, let's blame global warming! Or possibly people are avoiding this word because of the phonetic similarity with "whore". Intriguing!

Why not to trust your spellchecker

Just saw this on a menu:
"Sandwiches may be mad on any beard of your choice."

Word of the week: mall

Heading to the mall these days may seem like an endurance sport, and “mall” does have its origin in sports. A trendy game of the 1600s was “pall mall”, involving balls – Italian palla – being whacked by mallets – Italian maglio, from the Latin malleus (hammer). The very long alley in which this was played came to be known as the “mall”. After the game fell out of favour, malls – often roofed over to protect from the English climate – became a fashionable place to promenade. In the 1950s, the word seemed appropriate for the long covered walkway down the middle of the new enclosed shopping centres, and thus for the whole complex.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chomping at the bit: bridle vs bridal

Just when I think there are certain homophone confusions no one will ever make, I come across ... "bridle party" instead of "bridal party". 

Admittedly, it's not that common a mistake (most of the examples on the web are journalists making puns in headlines about the horsey set), but some people do make it. And it's one you really don't want to make, as apparently the term is also used for a sexual practice that Wordlady doesn't want to get into. That is, she doesn't want to get into explaining it! Well, actually, neither does she want to... oh, never mind.

Back to my staid etymological persona!

Bridle goes all the way back to Old English, derived from a Germanic root bregdan (pull or twitch), which is also the origin of the word "braid". The -le ending is what is called an "instrumental suffix", meaning "something with which the root verb can be done"; for example a handle is something which you can take in your hand; a girdle is something which girds you. So a bridle, the headgear of a horse including the bit and the reins by which it is controlled, is literally a tool used for pulling.

Bridal, which also goes back to Old English, has a very interesting history. It was originally a noun, literally meaning "bride ale". It used to mean the banquet and other festivities associated with the wedding, when, of course, the Anglo-Saxons would quaff a lot of ale. I guess wedding receptions haven't changed much in 1500 years. But by about 1600, people started to think that "bridal" was an adjective meaning "of a bride". They were influenced by that -al ending, more typically used in adjectives (nuptial, mortal, fatal...) than in nouns.

Remember, using the wrong homophone is something that your spellchecker cannot identify or correct!

PS: some readers have commented that they think the correct expression is "champing at the bit". Please check out my other post about this, Breakfast of... chompions?

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! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady

Saturday, December 11, 2010

English spelling: a cross we have to bear

Misspelling across with two c's is surprisingly common. Remind yourself that it is in fact related to the word cross; originally, in the Middle Ages, across meant "in the shape of a cross", that is, with one (often shorter line) intersecting a longer line at right angles. So you could hold your arms "across" your body. Then it started to have the sense of "from one side to the other of something", when the longer side was being traversed. Nowadays, when we go "across", something, it doesn't matter if we're using the shorter axis or the longer; we're just getting from one side to the other. In fact, if I say "I cut across the park", I'm likely to be doing it diagonally, which is the longest axis of all. But if you remember the image of a cross, it will perhaps help you to avoid that incorrect double-c spelling.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A frosty Friday

This time of year, we sometimes see hoarfrost in the mornings. Hoar in Old English meant “old” – a sense which still survives in the phrase “a hoary old joke”. From meaning “old”, hoar came to mean “grey-haired from age” and then simply “greyish-white”. The frost that forms on trees looked to the Anglo-Saxons like white hair on the head, so they called it “hoarfrost”.
I was talking about this word to some friends and was quite surprised to learn that they thought it was a fairly obscure word that they themselves wouldn't use. Perhaps this is because hoarfrost is not a very frequent meteorological phenomenon in Toronto. I didn't ask them what word they would use when it does happen. But I'm curious: is "hoarfrost" part of your active vocabulary? If not, what would you call the white frosty stuff that forms on trees and grass? Let me know in the new, improved, easy-to-use (I hope) comment field.
See also the results of my inquiry into the declining popularity of this word in my post "Hoarfrost in a downward spiral".

Friday, December 3, 2010

Word of the week: plastic

As we give our credit and debit cards a workout in the next few weeks, it's hard to imagine using the noun “plastic” as when it first appeared in English in 1598, in an art treatise: “Carving is nothing else but a painful imitation of plastic,”. Back then it meant the art of modelling in clay or wax, a sense of which we still see a hint in “plastic surgery”. Derived from a Greek word meaning “moulding”, it was very handy when the highly mouldable substance we now know as plastic was invented in the early 20th century.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

New improved easy commenting!

Thank you to my faithful readers who alerted me to the fact that adding a comment to this blog seemed to be requiring special clearance from the CIA (or CSIS for us Canadians)! I have now clicked and unclicked a few things (that I wasn't even aware of before) so you should be able to comment easily (please make them nice comments!). You will still have to click a button that says "profile" but you can choose "anonymous" or just fill in your name (or a nom de plume... in this day and age possibly a nom de keyboard). My apologies for any frustration you may have encountered attempting to respond to my inquiry about how you spell "grey/gray".

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The long and the short of it

Length, width, breadth, depth, and .... height?

Which of these things is not like the other ones? Why don't we have a -th at the end of the noun derived from "high" as we do with other nouns describing dimensions? Do you feel superior when you hear someone say "heighth", convinced that you are right and they are wrong? Well, stop it.

The "heighth" pronunciation goes much further back in English than the upstart "height", a northern dialect form which took over, for unknown reasons, after about 1550. Indeed, the OED's "height" entry, which was written at the end of the 19th century, gave "highth" (a form which so eminent a person as the poet Milton preferred) as a second headword along with "height". 

As late as the 18th century this spelling was giving "height" a run for its money, but I doubt the OED lexicographers would include it now, as "height" has established itself as the only standard spelling. But in Old English and Middle English, the form with the -th ending was more common. I'll save the explanation of why we spell "height" with an "e" but "high" without one for another day.

Nowadays people who use the -th pronunciation tend to tack the sound on after a -t- sound (on the analogy of "width" and "breadth", almost certainly affected by that contending pronunciation ending in -t, and possibly influenced by the pronunciation of "eighth"). In the Middle Ages the -t- sound before the -th- would have been absent. It is not uncommon for older pronunciations to survive in North America after they have died out in Britain ('erb for "herb" is a very good example). So, in North America at least, the pronunciation "heighth" can be considered simply a variant rather than an "incorrect form".

While we're on the subject of dimensions, did you know that the word "width" was a literary invention of the 17th century, replacing the word "wideness", with which we had been quite happy for about 500 years, and standing alongside "breadth", which had cropped up a century earlier. (English has never been a language to make do with one word for a concept when two are available.) Samuel Johnson was of the opinion that "width" was "a low word". That just goes to show how little impact lexicographers' pronouncements have on usage! "Depth", was a similar latecomer, appearing in the 14th century to bump off "deepness", which had been the Old English word.

Of these dimension words ending in -th, the only one that dates back to Old English is "length", and you may be interested to know that, judging by the spelling, people have been pronouncing it "lenth", without the "g", since at least 1400. 

The word "lengthy" was an American invention of the 1600s, inevitably attacked as a dastardly and unnecessary Americanism by British usage commentators of the 1700s. Thus do usage pet peeves fade away with the passage of time!

I hope you haven't found this blog post to be lengthy, as "lengthy" usually has connotations of being overlong and tedious. But it certainly has been a long one, unlike my usual posts, which tend to be distinguished by their... shorth?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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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.