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!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Friday, January 28, 2011

A good turn

Billy Elliot The Musical opens in Toronto next week, and in honour of all those children, and especially the boys, who choose to become ballet dancers, our word of the week is “pirouette”. In medieval France, a pirouette was a child's spinning top or whirligig. The French word was derived from the Italian piro (peg or pin), and was possibly influenced by two other French words: rouet (spinning wheel) and girouette (windvane). When the word first came into English, it described a circular move performed not by a dancer, but by a horse on its hind legs!
PS: If you're a ballet fan, head on over to my ballet blog, toursenlair.blogspot.com

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Past tense of that newfangled verb "text"

A friend of mine asked me if the past tense of the verb "text" is really "texted", because it sounded odd when she said it out loud. "Texted" it is (Blogger's spellchecker doesn't like it either, judging from the red squiggly line it is warning me with). 

The reason it sounds odd is that we don't have many verbs ending in -xt. But we do have verbs ending in -x (like "fix") which in their past tense sound like -xt. In fact the past of "fix" was spelled "fixt" for a while. Therefore, when you say "texted", your brain thinks you're being redundant with the ending. Something similar happened with the word "skate" which was originally "skates" in the singular, but people thought "skateses" sounded wrong in the plural so eventually they dropped the final -s in the singular.

As frequent visitors to Wordlady, you will know that you can't object to the verb "text" on the grounds that the word is really a noun, not a verb (see my "Verbs: it's ok to do this. Really!" post). But you may think nonetheless that this is a darned newfangled word. Get ready for a surprise: the first evidence we have for "text" as a verb is from... 1599! 

Back then it meant either "write in large or capital letters" (an example in Much Ado About Nothing is: "Yea and text vnder-neath, here dwells Benedick the married man") or "cite a text to" (a bizarrely current-sounding example from 1615 is "When his wench told him that he kissed like a Clowter, he could text her"). Although these meanings died out after about a century, a Victorian job-seeker could still make his job pitch in 1884 as follows: 
"Wanted, a re-engagement as Engrossing and General Clerk‥excellent writer and texter". 
Not something one is likely to see on a CV these days, no matter how true it may be. However, with more employers looking for social-media savvy types, who knows?

Even the current meaning of "text" has been around longer than you probably think: the Oxford English Dictionary's current first evidence for it is from 1998.
The word "text" has a fascinating etymology. Look for it in an upcoming Wordlady "Word of the Week."

Upcoming Tea and Wordlady events: 
  1. Canadian English 
  2. Hebrew and Yiddish in English 
Click here for more info.

COMING THIS FALL! My ever-popular Rollicking Story of the English Language course. REGISTRATION NOW OPEN AND SPACE IS LIMITED. More info here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/p/history-of-english-language-courses.html

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! 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

Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady

Monday, January 24, 2011

Canadian spelling

I was surprised just now to see this in an Ontario government job posting:
"•You have demonstrated knowledge of and the ability to interpret the Ontario Human Rights Code and the effect of discriminatory attitudes, behaviors and practices."
"Behaviour" without a "u"? Is this a sign that Canadians' long-held preference for British spellings on -o(u)r words is waning? Or simply that someone just let an American spellchecker make the decisions? Fascinating.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Famous, and not in a good way...

A friend of mine sings in the Elora Festival Singers, a renowned chamber choir in the small town of Elora in Southwestern Ontario. They have just been nominated for a Grammy (congratulations!), said nomination garnering them, according to the local CTV news, "international notoriety".

Notoriety? The words "notorious" and "notoriety" usually imply fame for doing something reprehensible. Are these classically trained (not to say staid!) sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses singing profanity-laden rap songs? (Actually, no, it's choral masterworks by Eric Whitacre with such scurrilous titles as: "Her Sacred Spirit Soars", "Lux aurumque (Light of Gold)", and "I thank you God for this most amazing day".) Did their nomination inspire them to engage in narcotics-fuelled hotel-room trashing, then? Apparently not (or not yet, anyway).

So, before you inadvertently slander by implication some innocent but newly famous person, beware of using "notorious" and "notoriety" as simple synonyms of "famous" and "fame". The Grammy nomination has won for the Elora Festival Singers international acclaim or fame, which they truly deserve. To my knowledge, they don't deserve notoriety.

Going slimy

Cold and flu viruses are, as usual at this time of year, wreaking havoc. In Latin, a virus was a slimy liquid or poison. We borrowed the word around 1600 to designate snake venom. A century later, it was thought that disease caused the body to produce poisonous substances, for which this word meaning “venom” was appropriate. But then in the 19th century Louis Pasteur realized that nasty submicroscopic organisms are not the result of disease, but its cause, and used the word “virus” in the way we have understood it ever since. Computers have been suffering from viruses since 1972.
"Viral marketing" has been with us since 1989, and postings on the Internet have been "going viral" since 2004. Somehow, I don't think this phrase would have caught on with such positive connotations if it were instead "go slimy" or "go venomous"! But speaking of which, it would be great if Wordlady went viral, so do click on those "share this on Facebook/Twitter" buttons!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

May I hang up your plane?

A Wordlady reader has asked about the origins of the word hangar. That's the place for storing planes, not to be confused with the hanger on which you hang your clothes. Surprisingly, hangar comes from French (it certainly doesn't look like a French word). The word ultimately derives from two Frankish words, haim and gard. Haim meant "village", and the Anglo-Saxon relative of this word, ham, turns up in "hamlet" (the small town, not the moody prince) and also in many English place names, "Birmingham", for instance. Gard meant "enclosure" and is also the source for our word "garden". So a haimgard was an enclosure attached to a house, and then a shed for storing farm equipment and other large items. When planes were invented, the word was adapted for a new need. In the early days of flying, English borrowed quite a few French aviation words (aileron, fuselage, and even aeroplane are other examples)and thus hangar was adopted for the "aircraft garage".

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New words

Reading the paper this morning, I saw the following headline: "Groban gets intimate. Baritone popera star finds spontaneity in small concert gigs". "Popera", designating a blend of pop and opera typified by singers like Andrea Boccelli, Il Divo, and so on, was a new word to me, but as with so many new words, it's older than you might think, dating back 23 years, and also has a Canadian connection:


Article from:
The Boston Globe (Boston, MA)
Article date:
September 27, 1989

NEW YORK - Some call it corrupting the classics. But conductor Daniel Lipton calls it Popera.

Popera is a program he started at Opera Hamilton, a suburb of Toronto, which plays well-known operatic pieces for people who don't normally attend opera.

Lipton introduced the successful 'Popera' concerts in 1987 to showcase leading operatic soloists, including many Canadians, in concert performances of popular operatic excerpts.

Another new-to-me word in the news was "pocket dial" or "butt dial", designating the act of accidentally calling someone when you sit on the cellphone in your back pocket and set off the autodial function. Apparently, in Toronto, the emergency services get 300 of these a day.

Monday, January 10, 2011

I guess that would be pretty full...

I just read a press release which announced that a ballet would be performed "in its full entirety"!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Don't people proofread anymore?

Just got a letter from Direct Energy Home Services (who provide furnace services) with in big bold letters at the top of the page:
Add Annual Maintenace [sic] to your plan

Flus, gnus, emus, and tutus

Flu season is upon us. The word flu is typically a mass noun, meaning it isn't often used in the plural. But, like all mass nouns, it can be, because there are many different kinds of flu. This raises the question: how do you spell the plural of flu?

If you found the word flus by itself written on a piece of paper, it would look very odd: "What the heck's a FLUSS??" you might wonder. Thus, you might be tempted to do something else with the plural, such as adding an e before the s. However, this would give you flues, which is the plural of a different word designating part of a chimney. Or you might think about sticking in an apostrophe, "flu's", but this is not recommended.

Bear in mind that words are almost never devoid of context that [fancy lexicographer word alert] disambiguates them. You probably did stumble over the title of this post, because of the lack of semantic context to help you. But if you are talking about flu in the plural, it is likely to be in a phrase like "colds and flus" or "there are a lot of different flus going around this year", so your readers shouldn't stumble, or at least not for long. There aren't many words in English ending in -u, but those that do exist (e.g. gnu, emu, tutu) all form their plural by simply adding an s. By the way, if you want to see some really funky tutus, visit this post.

You can, of course, also avoid the problem by sticking to using flu as a mass noun: "Colds and flu are taking a toll this year."

The word flu was a 19th-century shortening of “influenza”, which the English had borrowed from Italian in 1743. Influenza, like the English word “influence”, comes from the Latin influere (to flow in).In the Middle Ages, astrologers believed that an ethereal fluid flowing from the stars or heavens affected people's characters and events generally, so influenza in Italian and “influence” in English referred to the impact of the stars on human life. Since this kind of influence was thought also to cause illness, Italians used influenza to mean a “visitation” of an epidemic disease, an influenza of chicken pox, catarrh, and so on. When a particularly nasty flu outbreak hit Italy in 1743, people just used the word la influenza by itself. As flu does, it spread, and the English adopted the Italian name.

As for the part of a chimney, the flue, its origin is unknown.

Need help with academic writing?

Here's a new blog about academic writing by someone who knows her stuff:

Iconic images

Today is Christmas for those in Eastern Rite churches, which are renowned for their beautiful icons – and I'm not talking about those little pictures on your computer screen! These paintings or mosaics of holy personages (sometimes spelled “ikon”) are objects of veneration. The word comes from the Greek eikon (portrait, resemblance), derived from a verb meaning “be similar”. In addition to the computer sense (dating from the 1980s), we now also use it for someone or something considered representative of a culture, as in “pop culture icon Madonna”. Definitely not the kind of madonna you will see in Greek and Slavic churches!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Breakfast of ... chompions?

A Wordlady reader left a comment upbraiding me for saying "chomping at the bit" , which he felt was incorrect and should be "champing at the bit". Chomp and champ are simply variants of the same word, the former North American and the latter British. "Chomp" is no more "incorrect" than calling the strip of concrete on which you walk a "sidewalk" rather than a "pavement".

Champ first cropped up in English in the 1500s, along with a variant spelling chaump , which suggests that both pronunciations existed even then. The "chomp" pronunciation was the one that migrated to North America. The etymology is obscure, but this word is not related to the "champ" that is short for "champion", which comes from the French word for "field". It has been suggested that the word is onomatopoeic, reflecting the sound of jaws crushing and chewing noisily. This explanation is plausible, and makes it even harder to defend the theory that "champ" is correct and "chomp" incorrect, since it is impossible to say exactly what vowel sound is being used when your jaws are crushing something.

A similar evolution happened with the verb "stamp", which from its beginnings had a variant "staumpe". This survived in British dialect and migrated over to the US where it evolved into "stomp".

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.