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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, May 30, 2011

If I'm your mentor, are you my mentee?


An alert friend of mine just pointed out that she had come across the word "mentee" in a University of Toronto publication. That would be a person who is being mentored. 

I find this word fascinating, on several fronts. First of all, it's older than you would think: the OED's first quotation is from 1965:
1965 Amer. Econ. Rev. 55 862 What is the typical economics class but a contact between the conservative teacher and his mentees?
Although that one may have been jocular (are economists ever jocular, one wonders), by 1978 it seems less so:
1978 Amer. Polit. Sci. Rev. 72 423 The effects of the mentor on the mentee can be profound.
But what is really interesting is the process of word formation. Interpreting the -or ending of "mentor" as what is called an agent suffix (as in "actor", "mortgagor", etc.), someone has created by back-formation a notional verb "to ment" and then added an "-ee" suffix. 

There is nothing wrong with back-formation; in fact it's the source of such common words as "kidnap" and "manipulate". However, this is an odd case, because the origin of "mentor" is a personal name. 

The original Mentor was a character in Homer's Odyssey (actually Athena the goddess of wisdom in disguise), who acted as a guide and advisor to Telemachus. In 1699 the French author Fénelon published a book called Les Aventures de Télémaque including the character (or should one say "authee"?) Mentor in a starring role as a counsellor. The book was such a hot seller both in French and in translation that by 1750 "mentor" had come to mean "advisor" in many European languages. 

As is so often the case with nouns in English, someone started using "mentor" (but not "ment") as a verb, apparently in sporting circles, about the time of the First World War (that one is probably older than you thought, too). The practice of mentoring employees became popular in the 80s, probably creating a need for a word to designate the beneficiary of the mentoring, and "mentee" was just waiting to fill that need. Although not hugely frequent yet, it looks as though the word has staying power. 

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Saturday, May 28, 2011


How's your flowery mead? If you were a medieval gardener, that's what you would be out mowing every weekend, because although the English had what we call lawns back then, the word “lawn”, derived from the Old French word for a heath, launde (related to “land”), meant a woodland glade. By the late 1600s,”lawns” were stretches of land left untilled and therefore likely to be covered with grass. In the early 1700s, garden design for the stately mansions in England changed to a more natural, less formal style, which incorporated large expanses of grass kept short (usually by sheep!). The word “lawn” was waiting for a job opportunity, and there it was, thanks to the the 18th-century garden designers who developed the classic English garden. So, alas, no flowery mead mowers for us. And no “lawn sheep” either.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Word of the week: Cottage

Here in Canada, it's the beginning of a long weekend, with Monday being "Victoria Day", in honour of Queen Victoria's birthday on May 24th. Yes, we know she's not the queen anymore, but why would we give up an opportunity to celebrate spring and drink (an activity which accounts for the holiday's nickname in Ontario, May Two-Four, "two-four" being Canadian slang for a case of 24 beer)?

For many it's time to barrel (or more likely crawl) down the highway to “cottage country” (also a Canadian term) and open up their lakeside residence for the summer. The Old English cot or cote (as in “dovecote”) was a humble dwelling. Just as we have “bag” and “baggage”, a “cottage” was a cot along with its various appurtenances, such as a yard for the chickens. For centuries, cottages were definitely down-market. 

Then, in the 1700s, a back-to-nature movement, exemplified by Marie-Antoinette playing shepherdess at her bucolic “hamlet” at Versailles, took Europe by storm. It became trendy for the well-to-do English to retreat from their London mansions to smaller and simpler country houses, which, with a kind of inverse snobbery, they called “cottages”. The name came to be applied to summer lakeside residences in late-19th-century North America.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Do or die

I've recently seen a couple of instances where people have confused the simple word "do" for something fancier: "without further adieu" and the related "much adieu about nothing". The confusion is somewhat understandable with "ado", as this word no longer has an independent life in English outside the phrases "without further ado" and "much ado about nothing". In Old Norse, the languages which the Vikings living in the North of England spoke, the preposition marking the infinitive form of the verb was "at" rather than "to" (as it was in Anglo-Saxon and is in Modern English). In northern dialect, "at do" got somewhat squished into "ado", and this has survived only in the phrases mentioned above (and would probably not still survive in "much ado" were it not for Shakespeare's play).
Another surprising confusion is "make due" instead of "make do". "Make do" is admittedly a rather odd construction, since "make" is more likely to be followed directly by an adjective like "due" than by another verb. It is also, surprisingly, fairly recent, the OED's first quotation being from 1927. But by the forties it was part of the famous "Make do and Mend" of the British war effort on the home front. This "Reduce, Re-use, recycle" slogan before its time was first publicized in a pamphlet produced by the Ministry of Information in 1943.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Count me in

This week many of us in Canada and around the world have been filling in our census forms. “Census” is a Latin word, derived from censere (assess, estimate). The ancient Roman census was a registering of Roman citizens and their property for purposes of taxation. A particularly famous one caused the visit of a certain carpenter from Nazareth and his heavily pregnant wife to the town of Bethlehem. Just think if they had been able to do it online, as we now can. The word was revived for modern enumerations of the population when the newly formed United States conducted its first census in 1790.
Interestingly, the words “censor” and “censure” have the same origin. The Roman officials in charge of the census were “censors”, and their powers extended beyond counting and taxing to supervising public morals as well. A “censure” was one of their judgements. It came to mean any kind of judgement, and subsequently a particularly negative one.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Do your utmost to avoid this error

I've recently seen a few examples of people being unsure about the word "utmost", writing instead "upmost" or "outmost". In a way, this is not surprising, because we have no word "ut" in English anymore. Back in Anglo-Saxon times, "ut" was the spelling for the word that eventually became "out" in Modern English. So the "utmost" thing was something that was the furthest out from the centre, the "out-most" thing. But as the language evolved, "out" took over, and "ut" remained only in the words "utmost", which by the 16th century was being used only figuratively, and both the adjective and the verb "utter" (the latter originally meaning "put something out there").

I'll see if I have a vase big enough...

How about giving your mother a grove of trees for Mother's Day? That is what “bouquet” originally meant in French. It came from a Germanic word, bosk, also the ultimate origin of the word “bush”. Although a bouquet was by definition a clump of trees, the French started to say, redundantly, “un bouquet d'arbres” (literally a clump of trees of trees). The English “grove of trees” is similarly redundant, because you can't have a grove of anything else. As a result, the French began to think that bouquet meant a “clump” or “bunch” of any plants, and started to talk about a “bouquet de fleurs” – a bunch of flowers. It came into English in the 1700s, when it was terribly trendy to borrow French words.

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.